I was in my 30s when, based on a couple of articles I'd written for an equestrian magazine and a general willingness, I was offered a full-time position in marketing.
Keen to broaden my skills and embrace a new challenge I accepted, and one of the things I learnt in those first few weeks and months was, ironically enough, a valuable lesson for any coach - about how learnt behaviours affect execution of tasks.
In my life as an equestrian coach, up until then, the timely completion of tasks was of premium importance. Got 45 mins to ride a horse before your next lesson? Better not waste time chatting if you want to do the job properly. Got a client who desperately wants to jump an upright today? The lesson needs to focus on skills needed to achieve that. Or take yard work - you can't put off mucking out or feeding - they need to be done today, as they will again tomorrow, and the day after that. Growing up in this environment gives you a uniquely task-focused attitude, which got me into some trouble in my new role as a marketeer.
Used to relying on myself and trusting my own judgement and experience, I was unfamiliar with consulting and seeking sign-off from what felt like a multitude of stakeholders - all of whom took their omission from decisions badly! My urgency to start and finish tasks caused me to have tunnel vision. Focused above all on timely completion of tasks I was careless and inattentive to detail. And the thing is, the mistakes that I made really upset me. I was mortified, went over and over them in my head day and night and resolved to do it better next time. But, guess what - it kept happening. It really took quite a long time to improve upon this.
So what was happening? I think that, despite my desire to excel in my new job, my neural pathways, emblazoned by years of task-orientated behaviours, just over-rode my conscious thought processes. I realised there were parallels between what I was experiencing; the dichotomy between what I knew was the right hing to do, and what I actually did; and what, for example, a horse goes through when you're re-training it. Say you have a lazy horse. More than likely it's not lazy, but has become desensitised to a riders over-active leg. Your first job is to use fewer smaller leg aids and reward the horse prolifically when it responds. Very quickly, within a single training session, most horses are delighted with this arrangement and an immediate improvement is seen. But does it last? No, the next day the horse is as “lazy” as ever. But he's not stupid or wilful, he's just having to re-programme a bunch of neural paths, and that takes time. The same parallel can be drawn in riders whose bad habits, especially physical and balance-related ones such as getting in front of the movement before a jump, persist, despite their very best intentions. It's frustrating, and it takes time and endless repetition to change.
I did eventually become quite good at my marketing job. I learnt to be patient, that sometimes inaction is called for, and that it's worth taking the time to ensure all parties are consulted before decisions are made. And it was humbling to be put in a situation where everything is new. It gave me a much greater insight into how beginner riders must feel, or indeed any rider when they face a new challenge, and I hope, made me a better coach. I'm also now always mindful of just how many repetitions it takes to build "good" habits, and that's why, when coaching, I need to ensure the goals are chosen by the rider - anything arbitrarily imposed by me is unlikely to get the required repetitions for success.