Gender and Coaching

Dale Forbes

Rick Graff

This post is about gender trends in coaches in the US, women in coaching roles–and Rick’s and my experience of the resistance to those roles!

First, state of the union: women high achievers in dressage: most US Olympic teams over the years have run about 50-50 with regard to gender. 2012 was no exception–slightly tilted toward the guys in the end.  Of the roster of 43 declared combinations trying for a spot on the 2012 Olympic Dressage team, gender shook out like this: there were 12 men and 24 women wanting places.  How does that equal 43?  Five of the men declared trying with two horses, whereas two of the women had a double shot.  The final team of three: two men, one woman.  The rider who went as an individual was a woman and the reserve rider was a man.  Grand total: three men two women.

And it also says something that the vast majority of sponsored riders are male.  Of the top 13 riders, 4 owned their horses, three of them women and only one man.   The rest belonged to sponsors.  This is totally consistent with the facts of life I outline below.

Here’s an off the top of my head list of the great female coaches I have watched closely or ridden with in the last twenty years:

Kyra Kyrklund. Debbie McDonald, Betsy Steiner, Felicitas Von Neumann-Cosell

Here’s a list of men I’ve also ridden with in the last twenty years.

(The ones I’ve watched closely are really too many to name.)

Anders Lidgren, Denny Callin, Jan Ebling, Steffen Peters, Gunter Seidel, Michael Poulin, Michael Beining, Rudolf Zeilinger, Wili Schultheis, Klaus Balkenhol  (Clinic in LA), Jeff Moore, Dietrich Von Hopffgarten

16 coaches, 4 women, 12 men.  That’s 75% male-dominated teaching.

In a sport in the US that is currently populated at the lower level by women–I’d say 10-1 is a pretty good guess–with both MOST coaches and riders being female, does anyone find the gender difference in my “upper level”coaching experience startling?

Keep in mind these numbers are representative of coaching as a whole–generally there are fewer top-level women coaches in all athletics now than in 1972. Half as many. Source: Crisis in Female Coaches Shortchanges Women, Athletes.    There used to be many women coaches.  But when coaching became better paid, more “professional,”  men took over the professional posts in colleges and high schools.

[I’m not even going to go into the gender gap thing–but if you would like to there is an interesting article:  ]

Unlike high school softball, there still are in dressage a large group of semi-pro women coaches at the lower level.  I’m defining semi-pro as someone who teaches, but does not actually earn a living by doing it–just enough activity to finance their own riding.  The sport is expensive so there is quite a lot of this in the US, aided by the fact that no license is required nor certification necessary.  So becoming a riding teacher in America is easy, but it does not guarantee, as in some other places, that the person owning and nailing up the shingle knows much.   There is not much standardization in the US–and a lot more mobility, and entrepreneurship.   Thus there also is a lot of variance of opinion on the basics.  This creates confusion and conflict–but it is peculiarly American and we like it.  What can I say?

So lots of women ride, and lots of women teach, but not lots of them–statistically anyway–do it very, very well.  And almost nobody has the same background set of skills.

Becoming a top-level dressage coach and trainer is a full-time commitment.   It means achieving an advanced degree of skill and training yourself, and that currently means mastering not only the personal organization to do this, but raising funds, developing networks and getting support from your community.   (That means earning a living by the way.)  And men are more likely to do this than women.  They are also more likely to have been through some formal European school or training system than the Americans.  Looking at the coaches list above it is pretty clear.  There is an avenue to becoming a professional in Europe that is largely lacking here in the States.  It is not a quick and easy route, but a multi-year commitment to being taught–and sometimes not so nicely!

It could be–and likely is–that US women are sometimes in dressage for their own purpose.  Probably both the new professionals and the students.  We hear a lot from dressage riders who want to “be friends” with their horses.  Or they value being part of a barn community–they like their new coach.  And they may have gotten interested in dressage because it looks light and easy and effortless when it is done well.  This is sometimes fed into by people who have not experienced the hard work, money and time it takes to become a competitive dressage rider.  Or the professional knows it, but also know their clients “won’t like it” if asked to change very much.  That’s okay too.  It is up to the client, after all.

There is no one formula. But you also find many lower level US professionals–and their many lower level riding students–who eventually would really like to improve, but get stuck because they don’t know how to get rid of the old program and move on to better practices.  They defend the mistakes.  If a lower level pro or his/her student want to progress they must probably unlearn lots of things.  And that is hard and threatening, and needs a reasoned approach.  We enter the profession this way–there is no other method–we can expect the result.

How do they get to the next step–moving on into the upper levels in a way that is proven to work?   There is no real gauge of excellence.  Competition success?  That can be slanted both by how much cash a person puts into it and where they do it.  Teaching style?  That makes life nice, but it has nothing to do with content.

Here’s how the decision is often made, given the innate competition with anyone local, the best guess is riding with someone from out-of-town is “safe.”  If not necessarily ultimately effective!

Arrive the clinic circuit as a method of education! (please see  post  To Clinic or Not to Clinic?  )

The trouble of course is that a three-day weekend does not make an education, nor does it teach the long-term skill of how to be coached. This is not such a trouble in Germany, by the way, where the standard is set out–it’s a good,effective one–and to teach one must be licensed.  Trainer-hopping and clinic weekends are not (that I can see) really done very much.  You train with the local and if you get beyond that you travel to one of the big names and school for a time.

Not so in the US. And if you want to learn, sometimes you have to quiet the noise of what you already know and listen a bit.  You also have to get used to lessons not as a performance, but largely deconstruction toward improvement.  If you are used to telling everyone how to do it and want to look good in front of your clients or friends, this skill may not be top on the list. Thus, below, how to actually be coached, when you are not trying to be friends with your female coach or in competition with her.  It works too with your male coach who REALLY does not understand the constant need to be friendly.

First being coached: I am not saying that women are intrinsically harder to coach than men, they are not, but I will say, from comparing my experience coaching to my partner Rick’s experience being coached, that women in the US tend to be less experienced that men at the skill of being coached. They don’t get as much opportunity as the guys to be coached, and women are wired a little differently about social connections.  Women, simply sometimes do not know how to respond to the directives of coaching.  Doubly so if they are not clear about what they want out of that coaching.

And as coaches?  Rick points out that the job of a coach is to help the person run faster, jump higher, swing better.  That is what is going on in that transaction.  A good coach may have a feel for the mental state of their student, but it is not their JOB to make the student feel good (or look good) in the short-term.  It is their job to give directives and get results.

And men are usually better at giving directives than women.

I’m sorry, but I really think this is true.  Look at the trouble the Hillary Clinton has.  Too directive you are a bitch, not directive enough, you’re weak.  It is a problem. You CAN give a directive as a woman, but not as easily as the man can.  Please see my list at the top of all those great coaches.  Every single one of those women was a better teacher than any of the men on the list.  Were they as popular or successful?  You tell me.  They certainly were not as plentiful!

Please see the linguist Deborah Tannen’s very good book–one of several on gender and discourse:

She makes a convincing argument that men and women are after fundamentally different things when they communicate.

Men TEND to live in a hierarchy.  Much of their conversation is based on oneupsmanship that if indulged in by women would lead to “unfriending.”

Women TEND to live in a world where connection and social harmony is important. Much of their conversation is based on making each other feel liked and equal.

This example may make this more clear:

Professionally this is a slippery slope.  As a coach should it be your main goal to be liked and equal?  And how do you cope as the student with the “Do this!  Do that!” of training if your feelings are constantly hurt?

Both genders are of course capable of going out of their way to create social equality: that is called diplomacy.  (And both genders are capable as well of seeing how they get paid.)  But is diplomacy what we are striving for in our riding lessons?  (In our training yes, for sure.) But is one of the jobs of the coach to be diplomatic?

Rick would say, no.

I’d say, heck yes! 

Women sort of have to be diplomatic, particularly working with other women.  Men?  My experience?  Not so much so.

But wouldn’t that woman to woman relationship be easier (and more productive) if we agreed who was in charge–just for this hour?

Thought: The blunt direction that *****of a coach is giving you is not coming from your mother, or your faithless friend.  It’s not about you.  It’s about a skill that you can’t learn without directives–and following those directives.  Doing it is not up for discussion or debate.  We’re in the army now.  Just for the hour.  You’ll see why at the end–it’s faster, cleaner and happier.

Please See Melynnda’s post about being a good Student.

Back to men and women and coaching and being a professional here in the US.  Here’s a story.

(This does have a point as well as being a good story.)

For years, before going to Germany, I trained along side a local (male) jumper rider out of the same barn.  We got along great.  Arena time was no problem, we looked at each others horses, we shared some students.  No problems.  Zero. This fine professional relationship lasted many, many years.

A year or two ago another male dressage professional moved to town. He had spent a year with Rudolf and I was excited to have another person who had experienced that training–even if it was for a single year.  The newcomer was exactly my age.  I figured we had a lot in common.

When I said I was interested to see him ride and teach, one of my clients rather jealously pointed out that my competition scores were much better than his, and I’d coached more people to FEI.  (That was and is true.)  I was still interested, and wanted to make the connection, though at first I could not understand the arrival of another trainer.  It was my experience that people in Spokane preferred clinics to regular instruction.  Very few pined for the day-to-day unglamorous grind of regular lessons. And many of the serious riders were professionals themselves–or at least taught a bit.

And then the competition: Spokane is a beautiful place, but not as competitive as the coasts.  And since a rider is only really as good as their best competition, that is something to look out for.  It is a trap: you only have to be just good enough to get the high score on that day, to get a lot of reinforcement.  Too much reinforcement too early is not a good idea.  It makes riders not want to go to the next level. That can be a small pond with a top score a bit over 60.

Anyway, in the fall, two years ago, just when the other foreign-trained professional moved to town I had two young warmbloods–only a few months under saddle that needed an enclosed arena, so I approached the newcomer, asking if he’d like to work as a team with me for a month or two on getting them forward in the arena.  It was August, and things were clearly slow and he said, sure.

Through that, I got to be a bug on the wall in the barn and watch the sameness–and large differences–in how we approached the sport and our clients.  That was all very interesting.

But, back to gender and horses, and our new male pro. After a few months it became clear that 24 stalls were not going to be filled 100% of the time by the Spokane dressage crowd.  He was doing remarkably well, but it wasn’t enough. So the barn moved in a jumper rider.  Guess who?  My old friend.  I was happy.  Asked if he would jump one of my youngsters once a week.

And then the **** hit the fan and even bugs on the wall had to duck and run.

The two men immediately began a spectacularly gladiatorial stand-off about the arena.  The jumps were in at certain hours and days. A schedule was posted.  The new dressage trainer then penciled in virtually every other hour and minute as “his.”  With the exception of four hours on the entire week–time that the arena was scheduled to be worked.  The arena was now split between the two men.  It was nearly impossible for anyone to ride without a scheduled lesson.

How convenient. . .

The jumper rider invited me to come and ride during his hours, a small smile on his face.

The dressage rider amusingly wished that my young horse buck the jumper rider off and break both his legs!

This is an example of what I am talking about above–two men with the same permission and role, in total conflict.  The jumper rider was not hard to get along with–for me–because I never approached him from a “one up” position.  Do you suppose both those men had a flock of women riders that they somewhat abused–either talked down to, yelled at, made belittling comments about?  Your guess.

Did they take their students seriously?  Probably, but had no doubt that if a good yelling was in order it was going to happen.  This is entirely different from the work around that women trainers tend to go through, which is, if anything, less useful than yelling–which is at least clear!

See the link from the tweet below.

Betsy is a great trainer.  A lot to give. And I know cash is hard to come by in that location, at that time of year.  (Watching the pros look for clients is like seeing a flock of ducks all after the same worm. I’ve been there.)  So, join The Ladies Club! (TLC)  Bring your horse, bring $100 and you can have a group lesson and do a drill team!    (Don’t get me wrong, I ride with my riders all the time–and they often ride in pairs and groups.  But not at $100 each times 6 riders. )

I’d rather be yelled at than given that message.  Who says “serious” training is not fun?

Please also see what Rudolf said to me:

Given (from Rudolf and really most of us) you will get the lesson you deserve and ask for, it is absolutely imperative that a rider tell the coach honestly what they want, hope for and can afford.  This can be done through words and plans, but it is most convincingly done by actions. If you want to have “fun”, say so.  We’ll work on it.  If you want to improve, put a horse in training, come and work seriously and that’s pretty obvious.  Say you want to be an FEI rider in the sixties and practice three times a week, get one lesson a month–not so much so.

Ladies, get what you really want from your coach!

Most Grand Prix riders CAN give an utterly stress-free lesson. Or, they can develop a program to achieve the elements of the Grand Prix.  The strategies, however are totally different–though they may look the same at the start as very, very few people are in a place to access the upper level (the way I experience it anyway) because they have not mastered the basics.  So that is where to begin.

Sadly, the real difficulty of teaching women in dressage–as a woman–is that you must take care not to “get too far above” your students to get along, so a lot of time is spent on the relationship, which has little to do with riding and teaching , but liking each other.  As noted above, men understand hierarchy rather naturally.  Women do not as easily, and many riders, having little view about their own level of skill–or lack thereof–do not forgive not being seen/treated as “equal” by other women–even their coaches.  This is not to their advantage.  If you want to peer with your coach all the time, think about your use of time. Does it make you better to try to outdo them?  Look smart?  Compete?   In the Dojo or the football field that kind of thing would get you push ups.  Your job, having decided to learn, is to listen and do.  Do that.

So if you are a woman wanting good training, cut to the chase!  Tell you trainer what you want, let her tell you what the cost and effort is likely to be. (She probably knows this.) Decide if that is for you.  Don’t argue or try to wheedle the system.  It is a waste of time and you  are paying for it.

The “woman dynamic” gets in the way of women training, collecting and keeping clients–and making happy successful riders.  It also makes simply “being” in the world as a professional women in sports difficult.

Google “women in coaching” and you will hear tale after tale of the women head coaches being walked right by as the opposition coach approaches the male assistant to shake hands before the game.

This is possibly the fault of the women coaches themselves, waiting to be approached.

PS. One last note.  Do you suppose that the new dressage pro, with a fraction my time in Germany, and truthfully not the results, ever asked me one thing about anything?


But he did say to Melynnda, complaining about her seat and gesturing at me on one of the young horses: “Sit like that!”

Thank you.  We’ll get right on that. . . Ladies let’s ride.

For hints on being a great student

Piece of news you might want to follow–good or bad:

Sheryl Sandberg (CEO Facebook) on her new book, Lean In

“We hold ourselves back in ways both big and small, by lacking self-confidence, by not raising our hands, and by pulling back when we should be leaning in,” she writes, and the result is that “men still run the world.”

Got an opinion?  I’d love to hear it.  Join the discussion below.