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Business, Olympic Edition Selecting the right team for the job

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By: Prue Barrett •  4 years ago •  

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I GREW UP IN A FAMILY THAT WAS HEAVILY INVOLVED IN EQUESTRIAN SPORTS. MY MOTHER COMPETED HERSELF QUITE A LOT AND IT WAS A FAMILY AFFAIR. MYSELF AND MY 3 OLDER SIBLINGS ALL RODE FROM AN EARLY AGE. I FIRST WENT TO MUSGRAVE PONY CLUB, IN BUNDABERG, QUEENSLAND, AND FOR MOST OF THAT TIME MY MOTHER WAS ALSO THE CHIEF INSTRUCTOR AT THE CLUB.

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um really directed us into eventing. We lived in a very strong area for eventing and show jumping and she saw it as a way to get us to do dressage! (Eventing consists of 3 phases: dressage, cross country and show jumping.) She was prepared to drive miles and miles for us to compete. I originally started coaching at the local pony club at age 18/19. Because my Mum was already a coach there, we always had kids that used to come and ride at our place, and I was put in charge of them.

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I worked in a ‘real job’ in a bank for a couple of years, and then went to work for Heath and Rozzie Ryan in NSW who had represented Australia. I did an apprenticeship of sorts with them, and gained my NCAS Level 1 coaching qualification. After that, I went overseas to train for a few months in England and based myself at the yards of British Olympians Lucinda and David Green, and Richard Meade. Once I came home, I concentrated on competing and set up business with my now husband, Craig, producing horses, coaching and competing at the highest level myself. I was selected for my first Australian team in 1993.

Craig is a coach as well, so it’s really good to work with someone else in that environment, developing your own coaching techniques and strategies, and learning to work with a group of riders. Craig and I had been coached by Heath Ryan and Wayne Roycroft, who at the time were national coaches themselves. We were brought into the NSW Institute of Sport (NSWIS) equestrian program and often when Heath or Wayne were not available, we would be called on instead. When I decided to start a family and stopped competing, we had the opportunity to be the NSWIS coach at major competitions in Australia. Because Craig was still competing, I took on that role for quite some time.

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In 2008, there was a scholarship program for coaches through the Australian Sports Commission. Equestrian Australia nominated me to be the scholarship coach at that time, which allowed me to go as the Assistant Coach for the national team at the World Equestrian Games in Kentucky 2010. I’d built up a relationship with Wayne Roycroft, first as a rider on national teams, and then as his assistant coach before being made the scholarship coach. With Wayne as my mentor, I was able to work under him quite successfully. It was great to have that experience going from a competitor to a coaching role.

At the moment I’m not heavily involved in the business at home with Craig. I concentrate solely on the Equestrian Australia role and my family. The sacrifices are things like, the dining room table becomes the family wardrobe – it’s where all the washing gets piled! – and luckily my husband and two sons don’t really mind that much. In the lead up to the Olympics, a lot of things don’t get done!

MANAGING THE HIGH PERFORMANCE SQUAD

With the high performance squad, they each have their own daily training environment and usually operate out of their own property. The squad members are generally people I know quite well because many of the riders are my own peers who I competed against when I was riding. I’ve got 15-20 years of relationship with these people that I’ve developed over a very long time. Half of the riders are based in the UK and half in Australia, which is a geographical challenge, so I’ve already done 4 trips overseas this year.

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The way I communicate with them depends on the person. For some, text messages are great, others are better with phone calls. Emails don’t work very well as, while you can send out bulk ones, a lot of the athletes have other people manning their email accounts, so you don’t really get that close to them with email. Usually ringing them works, and we keep track of their event schedules so I know in advance what their training and event programs look like. I look at my athletes as CEOs of their own organisations. They have their own staff, and their Olympic aspirations take up perhaps only 10% of their overall equestrian business.

When I put a program together, we work out what events they should be going to. They all have a variety of horses so you’re looking at multiple programs per person, because each horse requires its own. It’s not as simple as one program per person. A rider may qualify multiple horses for potential team selection and each horse/rider pairing is called a combination.

HOW TEAM SELECTION WORKS

We have a group of 4 selectors, including myself, who choose the combinations to represent Australia at a major championship. The rider can qualify multiple horses, and over a period of time we get a feeling from the rider which horse is the stronger contender for a team. Once a combination is selected, a rider might also have another horse nominated as a reserve horse. This reserve horse isn’t necessarily a direct replacement in the event of an injury to the selected horse. Each combination of rider and horse is considered separately and can be ranked differently. Therefore, if an initially selected combination has an injury, the replacement may not be the selected rider’s reserve horse but another combination entirely. Depending on the rules of the event, you can be allowed to take a second horse into the competition and only then would a reserve horse be a direct replacement due to the inability to bring in another whole combination to the event at the last minute, especially in an instance such as Rio where great flying distances and logistics are involved.

For Rio, we can have 4 named combinations in the team, and one travelling reserve, who is a whole separate combination named one week prior to Rio, not a second horse for one of the team riders. This reserve is named from the group of 4 reserves from our training camp in Gloucestershire, UK, just prior to the Olympics. Selection is completed on the 29th June, after our specified qualification period ends and the 4-member team and 4 reserves are announced by the AOC at the end of June.

As a team, we work with a sports psychologist, which the riders find very useful for the post-event review and in working out what we can do to improve and move forward. It definitely keeps the process more straightforward and helps me work with the athlete on a day-to-day level. The psychologist can also help me work out how best to deliver a message to an athlete.

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By the time the riders get to this stage, they’re all very experienced and know the risks. A horse can easily be injured at the last minute and force an athlete to withdraw from the team. In athlete terms, the event riders are very ‘mature’ athletes, sometimes also in terms of age (such as Andrew Hoy – 7-time Olympian), and are able to roll with the punches more than most. It’s no less disappointing, but they understand that this is what the sport is like.

We are looking to create a balanced team, where you have experienced combinations and perhaps a wildcard that might be able to do extremely well on a very good day – which could be an experienced competitor on a younger horse. These are the decisions you make as a selector. Everybody has a view about someone earning their selection, but in the end, we’re trying to pick a team that will achieve the outcome we’re looking for. The controversy is always whether we go with the ones that, from the outside, appear to have ‘earnt’ their selection on the team through consistent results, or with ones that might have the ability to threaten an individual medal on their best day.

I believe we’re a good chance of winning a medal. It’s not going to be an easy road, with the Germans and New Zealanders very strong. It will be very interesting and we’ll certainly be very competitive.

RIO ISN’T THE ONLY THING ON OUR MINDS

Our next major championship is the World Equestrian Games (WEG) is in Bromont, Canada, 2018. After Rio, we will sit down and do a 4-year program leading into the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, working in the WEG to that, rather than focusing solely on one and then the other. You find that 90% of combinations that do well at major championships have been a partnership for 4-5 years. Therefore, doing an 18-month program leading into the WEG doesn’t sit well within the trends of the sport. It’s better to do a 4-year program from one Olympics to another.

There was a time when you could take a rookie at perhaps age 21, such as when Wendy Schaeffer won an individual medal at the Atlanta Olympics, but the sport has changed considerably now, including the technical requirements. You really do need to be in the sport and competing at that level for quite a period of time before you can go to a WEG or Olympics and win. It’s certainly much more difficult now. Horses are retiring later and able to compete at that level for longer, so they get better and better. That’s what makes the sport so much harder to win at that level now.

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MY TOP TIPS FOR AIMING FOR HIGH PERFORMANCE COACHING

1

Attach yourself to someone who has been there before you and learn as much as you can from them. You don’t do it for the money involved. If it’s really what you want to do, don’t expect financial rewards in the beginning.

2

Never stop learning. Surround yourself with other coaches who understand different sports. No matter the sport, you’re still dealing with people, managing and working through programs. Share ideas with like-minded people.

ONES TO WATCH

The Germans – Michael Jung and Ingrid Klimke

The Kiwis – Jonelle Price and Mark Todd

The Aussies – Shane Rose, Stuart Tinney, Sam Griffiths and Christopher Burton

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