Post-competition debriefs: what riders really need to hear and when *H&H Plus*

  • A competition debrief helps a rider assimilate their experience, and provides valuable team information. Ellie Hughes talks tactics with riders and coaches...

    PICTURE the scene: a top rider has just left the arena after a high-pressure test or round that has been crucial for Britain’s fortunes at a major championship. Emotions are running high and the atmosphere in the collecting ring is electric. The rider’s first port of call – sometimes even before dismounting – is a quick debrief with the team manager or trainer.

    There is a pat on the back and heads are nodding, but what exactly are they talking about? Are they reliving the ride down the final treble, discussing what might have caused the missed tempi change, or is it a more general overview? Is a post-performance debrief something we can all benefit from and, if so, who should we enlist to help?

    According to British eventing team coach Chris Bartle, what is said in the immediate aftermath depends entirely on the situation.

    “Often it’s a time for me to listen, not speak,” he says. “It’s a case of accepting what has happened and letting the rider talk if they want to. Some riders clam up and want to be left alone, while others are keen to talk through their test or round straight away.”

    International dressage rider and coach Adam Kemp saves the technicalities for a lot later.

    “Whatever you say to someone who has just come out of the arena will go in one ear and straight out the other,” he quips. “Top riders generally know their mistakes and what they’ve done or not done. If they’ve had a good ride I’ll probably just give them a wink. If they’ve had a bad ride I might use body language – a gesture that says these things happen, that kind of thing…”

    Britain’s junior, young rider and children-on-horses coach Corinne Bracken agrees that knowing a rider’s personality makes her job a lot easier.

    “I have a rider I help in Hong Kong [Corinne is also showjumping performance manager for the Hong Kong Jockey Club] and we have an agreement whereby I won’t say a word to her for 10 minutes after her round because she wants that time to reflect on her own, so we exchange a smile and that’s it until later,” she says. “I have other riders who start talking to me before they’ve even left the arena. It is the skill of the coach to know the character of the person they are helping.”

    For riders who are keen to discuss their rounds immediately, Corinne makes sure she is ready to listen – “too many coaches want to do all the talking”.

    “Often people just want reassurance. For example I might get asked whether the rail that fell was because they were too deep or too far off. The level of detail I go into depends on the rider’s experience. An experienced rider will already know the answer but will want confirmation, whereas with a less experienced rider I will highlight the good bits and suggest we discuss the rail later. Chances are they will be going back in the same arena again so I try and leave the negatives aside and steer them to the positives.”

    Eventer turned showjumper Emily Llewellyn works closely with her fiancé, fellow showjumper Max Routledge. They try to watch each other’s rounds whenever they can.

    “It’s important to remember that whatever has happened, you have tried your hardest, so immediately after a round is not the time to be critical, it’s the time to stay positive,” she says.

    Keeping the positives at the forefront of post-performance discussion is something that all experienced coaches agree on, not least because a competition is never won or lost at the first hurdle.

    “There are plenty of times in eventing that teams and individuals have gone on to win medals having been midway down the leaderboard after the dressage,” points out Team GBR eventing performance manager Dickie Waygood. “And in our sport there is a safety element to consider, too. You can’t set out on the cross-country in a negative mindset, so whatever has happened before has to be put to one side.”

    Psychologically, when things go awry early on – whether it’s a tricky ride in the dressage phase of an event or a bad round on the first horse of the day when you have two or three more to ride – having the right people saying the right things at the right time is crucial.

    When reigning world champion Ros Canter suffered a horse fall with the first of her three four-star rides at Burgham last year she still had two more to steer round the cross-country, including her gold medal-winning partner, Allstar B.

    “I was in the lead with ‘Albie’, so the pressure was on for me,” she explains. “After my fall, Chris Bartle and Caroline Moore both said to me, ‘Stick to the system, Ros’. They didn’t go into any more detail because they knew I didn’t need to be dwelling on what had just happened. It was important for me to get straight back into a positive mindset and those few words helped me do that.”

    The pair went on to win the class.

    A helpful observer need not be an expert

    So what are the options for those of us without the benefit of elite coaching or a trainer at hand? Dickie points out that not all useful feedback has to come from an expert.

    “You don’t need to be an All Black to recognise a forward pass,” he says, meaning that it is still possible to be a helpful observer, even if you do not have in-depth knowledge of the subject. “As a rider, one of the most useful things you can hear is what your performance looked like – not what you could have done better – and it doesn’t take an expert to do that.”

    Corinne cautions against having parents play too close a part in the immediate debrief.

    “People often say things they don’t really mean in the heat of the moment, so it’s better to have someone more removed on a personal level to give riders that initial feedback.”

    International dressage rider and coach Maria Eilberg, who works alongside her father, Ferdi, and brother, Michael, acknowledges that their closeness has not always made the job easy.

    “When I was a young rider starting out my father used to get very emotional after my tests, especially when things didn’t go to plan, and often he’d just walk off,” she laughs. “A lot of riders wouldn’t have minded, but I was always keen to talk things through, especially if I’d had a rough ride.”

    Nowadays, the Eilberg team is a well-oiled machine (see below) and Maria uses her experience to debrief the riders she coaches.

    “Often a test can look different to how it feels, so it’s really helpful to have someone on the ground to give you that initial feedback,” she says. “Obviously you can’t have a trainer or knowledgeable person on hand all the time, so I encourage people to have their tests videoed so we can analyse them together afterwards. It’s something I do with my own horses, especially if I am at a show on my own.”

    It is important to remember that the collecting ring at a major competition or championship is a very public place, with spectators (in non-Covid times, at least), the media and sometimes even live television crews focusing on what is going on immediately before and after riders ride in and out of the arena.

    “As coaches and riders we have to consider the impact we have on other people,” Dickie cautions.

    Adam adds: “Public perception and horse welfare has to come first. The exit is not the place to be discussing what went wrong. If something’s not gone to plan I’ll likely give the horse a pat and tell the rider we’ll sit down and talk through it later.”

    Family values

    Having a family member or partner competing and training alongside you can be extremely advantageous when it comes to the debrief.

    Dressage siblings Maria and Michael Eilberg make a point of watching each other’s tests whenever possible.

    “We have become very good at sharing tips,” says Maria. “It can be hard to keep emotion out the equation, but over the years we’ve found a way to make it work and we tell each other what the test looks like from the ground rather than focusing on the technicalities.”

    Showjumpers Emily Llewellyn and Max Routledge tailor their feedback for one another according to the situation and horse they are riding.

    “If I’m on a young horse Max might tell me how he thought the horse jumped and help me decide the next steps. If I’m on a more established horse and we’ve gone well in the first round we will discuss a plan for the jump-off and he’ll give me some tips.”

    In addition, Emily tries to have every round she rides videoed.

    “We will always sit down in the evening after a show and go through each round in much finer detail,” she says.

    Also published in H&H magazine, on sale Thursday 25 February


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