Too Busy Being Fabulous

Feb 19, 2014 - 1:15 AM
George Morris has proved himself to be a fabulous coach via his results and his high standards, not by drawing attention to himself. Photo by Lindsay Berreth.

“Coaching is not a popularity contest,” barked the senior coach, justifying both his style of teaching and somewhat unsavory private life. But is this true? Can you be a top coach and be unpopular?

Success is the No. 1 thing that makes a coach popular, and therefore, in theory, a coach might be popular despite the fact that he or she is bad mannered, bad tempered and has a different lover in every town! But in practice, this type of personality will not get the best from students and will not be popular.

Students won’t stay with a coach that they no longer respect, and that is the key benchmark. George Morris is famous for his regular use of an assortment of put downs, insults and strong words, but fundamentally he is popular because he is respected and is very demanding rather than bad tempered. Everyone knows he is good at his job and cares deeply about horses and riders doing well and horses being treated humanely. In everything he has standards and boundaries, and he doesn’t cross these boundaries. There is also a sort of law that states the older you are the more eccentric you are allowed to be! George would be the first to admit that he has good and bad days as a coach, but the bottom line is that George Morris has proved himself to be a fabulous coach for many years.

However, some coaches are too busy trying to be fabulous in order to court popularity and fame. A loudness and brashness brings them to the attention of those around them, but in the process this behavior often breaks that bond of trust and confidentiality between coach and rider. It’s designed to show how clever and accomplished they are, but what speaks loudest about the ability of a coach are the results on the scoreboard.

A good coach has to get the right results on both the scoreboard and on the faces of their students, and this type of ego-driven “fabulous” coach tends to fall short, especially on the latter. Fabulous is a great adjective for a film star or supermodel, and in that business it chimes with the mythical and imaginary meaning of fabulous, but it’s not always such a good adjective for a sports coach.

For 28 years and 1,500 matches Sir Alex Ferguson was the coach of Manchester United soccer club in England, one of the world’s greatest and most successful teams during his tenure. No soccer coach in the whole world can match his success and longevity. Outwardly he is known as a no-nonsense, powerful figure who anyone would be foolish to cross, and he has a reputation for having a short fuse.

Even David Beckham, his then captain and also captain of England, is rumored to have had a boot thrown at him after dissention in the changing room. However, his players have a deep respect for him, and in a presentation on leadership to the Harvard Business School, he stated, “The two most powerful words in coaching are well done.”

In addition, a key part of his strategy and success is to coach players to be creative and make their own decisions on the pitch. As I frequently say myself, the sign of a good coach is not how much he or she does for a student, but how much the student can do for themselves, by themselves. This is not the strategy of a bully and dictator but the strategy of a leader who respects and empowers his players, allowing their intelligence and individual skills to flourish. What is also interesting is that so many of Sir Alex’s players have gone on to become successful coaches themselves, confirming his ability to develop leadership skills. Most importantly he also loves horses and horse racing, so he must be a top man!

But Sir Alex is not “best buddies” with his players, and they certainly know who is the boss. This is a very important distinction for coaches of teams. A good relationship with the team does not require “being one of the boys,” and it certainly doesn’t require being fabulous with the press and television.

A famous equestrian coach of the past was well known for always standing beside the winner of the Badminton and Burghley three-days immediately after his or her show jumping round because the coach knew this moment would be televised. In my opinion, this person’s ego prevented them fulfilling their potential because they were too busy being fabulous to put their students first.

Yogi Breisner, who is boss of the British event team, and Chris Bartle, boss of the German event team, are currently without argument two of the most successful and respected coaches in the world, but they know that their priority is the rider, and with this strategy they have quietly and humbly scaled the world heights.

Popularity does not stem from being “fabulous darling!” It stems from commitment and reliability, positivity and simplicity, knowledge and expertise. It stems from a huge interest and curiosity in one’s subject and an ability to be both hugely demanding and hugely generous. It stems from a fundamental respect for one’s students. To this extent coaching is about popularity.

The coaching bottom line is an echo of what President Obama said in his inauguration speech, “We must act, knowing that our work will be imperfect. We must act, knowing that today’s victories will be only partial.”

We coach knowing that we don’t have all the answers, and we coach knowing that today’s victories will soon be forgotten. But we coach with full commitment using established best practice procedures and techniques, and we keep trying to get better each day. If a coach has this philosophy they are fabulous indeed, and they will be popular.

William Micklem is an international coach and educational and motivational speaker. He is a Fellow of the British Horse Society and author of The DK Complete Horse Riding Manual, the world’s top-selling training manual. He found Karen and David O’Connor’s three Olympic medalists Biko, Giltedge and Custom Made and breeds event horses, including Karen O’Connor’s Olympic horse Mandiba and Zara Phillips’ High Kingdom. He is also the inventor of the Micklem Bridle, which is now approved for use in dressage by the FEI.


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