Thursday, April 14, 2011

A Recipe For World Class Athletes

I wrote this column for the March 2011 issue of the USEA News, reprinted with their kind permission:

If you were one of the die-hard
event officiandos that were on
hand for one of this winter’s USEF
Eventing High Performance training
sessions you may very well have
seen a few more smiles on the faces
of the coach and his back-up team.
This is despite having to contend
with unseasonably cold weather in
the east, ten-hour teaching days,
and a little rain here and there.
What I believe really had Mark Phillips exhibiting a little bounce in his
step was the depth of talent, both equine and human, that he had to
work with in Aiken, Ocala, and Thousand Oaks. >>>
About a decade ago I remember sitting
around my kitchen table with Mark, Jim
Wolf, and several of the “senior” riders.
At the end of a long days’ teaching
during a training session at my farm
Mark had a troubled look on his face.
He confessed to us that he was a little
more than concerned about where the
next batch of future stars was going to
come from. He just wasn’t seeing the
genuine talent out there that would
sustain U.S. excellence on the world
stage well into the future.
As it naturally occurs, a couple of
riders popped up here and there that
would go on to represent our country
well in the 2000’s, but that still wasn’t
making anyone completely reassured
about the situation. So, with each
passing year Mark and the High Performance
Committee fine-tuned the
focus of the Developing Rider (DR)
program, making it truly a pipeline
from the two-star ranks through to
the four-star level.
What started out in the ‘90s as
little more than a “feel good” exercise
to reward one and two-star (mostly
young) riders, that more times than
not were transitioning between
horses and the “real world,” had now
become a very competitive program
indeed, one that saw a talented group
of future stars finish second in the
team competition at Boekelo this
past autumn. The DR program has been
assisted the last few years by the Talent
Spotting Program, which has had some
of the country’s top riders and trainers
keeping an eye out for raw riding ability
and funneling them into the system
as well. The program as a whole is still
a work in progress, but it’s starting to
produce results. If you look at the Developing
Rider list from this winter, most
of those folks have either won at the
two-star level or have shown legitimate
three-star success.
What this article is really more about,
though, is to recognize and celebrate
the fact that the United States, I believe,
now has coming through its ranks an
impressive number of very talented
“younger riders” (I would roughly define
this group as those 30ish and below) and
young horses that genuinely “look the
business.” I would venture to say this
is the best group we have had since the
days of Jack LeGoff, some thirty years
ago. Jack would have been just itching
to marshall some of the talent that’s
out there today to his star-producing
factory in South Hamilton, Massachusetts
and meld them into medal-winning
machines. For better or worse, things
don’t happen that way anymore, so these
riders have had to rely on other ways of
getting to the point of being on the verge
of team selection.
As chairman of the Eventing High
Performance Committee I’d like to think
it’s all because of the programs we
put in place, but I’m not na├»ve. I know
limited resources have much of the time
left the developing event rider on their
own to navigate a way to the top. So
when I look at this group (and believe
me I’d love to name names, but that is
fraught with danger to put it mildly!)
there are certain characteristics that
most of these athletes possess:

Talent: Obviously. Nature “divies” this
commodity out in varying amounts, but
there is no denying this is a very talented
group of riders. Riders with a bit of
talent are a dime a dozen, but what sets
this group apart is their…

Dedication/Desire: This is one “hungry”
group that has shown they are willing
to work, work, and work some more
to achieve their goals. You can be the
hardest working individual out there,
but to get to the top you have to have…

Horse Power- They all have at least
one “good” horse that looks talented
enough to get them on a team, but
what is just as exciting is to see that
all of these riders are also out there
competing many younger horses as well.
They are learning from the get-go that
to be a successful team rider over a long
span of time you can’t be a “one-horse
wonder.” You must be constantly developing
a string of future stars as well,
which leads to…

Owners- As anyone who has tried to
do this sport at the top level knows,
owners are the life-blood of the sport. I
feel pretty confident that this new group
of riders have observed those top riders
in the country today that enjoy the
support of several owners (i.e. Phillip,
Karen, Boyd, Buck) and see that developing
and nurturing great relationships
with owners has to be part of any successful
business model. Owners want to
be connected with great riders that can
produce results, but they also want to
feel part of the process and appreciated.
I can think of three or four up and comers
right off the top of my head who are
already benefiting from great relationships
with enthusiastic owners. What do
these riders have in common?....

Personality- In today’s world, it’s not just
when you get to the Olympics that you
have to be smart about dealings with the
public and the media. Being media-savvy,
and using all of the different outlets to
get your name out there from the start
is key. The general public wants and
expects their eventing heroes to be accessible,
personable, human, smart, and
to both present themselves and speak
well. This new group of riders have never
known anything different, so they do it
all with…

Confidence- A few might even be borderline
cocky, but if they are out there
producing the results, we’ll take a little
cocky. No one should be apologetic
about their will to win, and there is no
doubt that this group is highly…

Competitive- Whether it’s outdoing one
another in the mandatory physical fitness
marker test (I’m confident after hearing
of some of the results that this is a “fit”
group of riders) that all listed riders had
to be subject to this winter, or good naturedly
wanting to leave their friends and
rivals in the dust at competitions, the
U.S. needs its riders to be more unabashedly
competitive like this group. It isn’t
good enough to make a team and show
up just to compete for the stall plaque,
you have to want to WIN. This group
realizes, however, that winning can’t
come at the expense of…

Horsemanship- Many old timers bemoan
the loss of the true horsemen in
today’s ranks, but I feel confident their
elders were saying the same thing about
them 50 years ago. Every generation
thinks they did it the best and that all
is going to hell in a hand basket. I think
the reality is that there will always be
good horsemen and bad horsemen,
and on balance these riders I’m talking
about know long-term viability in this
sport require them to be meticulous
caretakers of their equine partners.
Most of this information they didn’t
learn in books. Most of these riders
that I’m thinking about for this article
came from (and this might be the most
important point of all) an established
and successful…

Program- No one can do it all on their
own, so the smart rider will from early
on try to get involved with the best. We
are lucky in this country to have some
excellent horsemen that also happen to
be great competitors where those willing
to really work hard can watch, work,
ride and learn how to become the best.
There is, of course, more than one way
to skin a cat, but it’s also no accident
that many of the riders on the cusp of
greatness today got their start from,
and in many cases continue under the
guidance of, the most country’s successful
event riders and their “programs.”
These are not, in most cases, wealthy
kids who have had everything handed to
them. They are, however, the ones that
the top trainers recognize have the potential,
work ethic, and drive to become
the best, and will go out of their way to
give a leg-up to.
This new group will one day have
their own “programs” based in part on
what they learned coming through the
ranks, and they will in turn pass this
knowledge down to the next era of riders.
That is how horsemanship lives on
from generation to generation.

One might gather from what I’ve
written here that I’m quite bullish
about the future of American Eventing
on the world stage. You would be correct.
After the WEG last fall there was
so much negativity coming from all
sides in our sport, which was understandable
but not wholly productive.
We qualified a team for the Olympics and I
think it’s incumbent on each person
that loves this sport and wants to see
our athletes succeed to stay focused,
realistic, and yes, optimistic. I have no
doubt we will see a couple of these riders
that I’ve just written about on the
podium in London. They have what it
takes. We need to give them the support
they deserve.

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