David’s Breakfast: The Road to Excellence


Incoming US eventing coach David O’Connor held an open, but unpublicized US high performance seminar at 8am Thursday morning at the 2012 USEA Convention, where he presented his vision for the future, specifically directed at the high performance athletes. The seminar focused on specific techniques and principles that high performance riders need to adopt to make them successful.  Needless to say the meeting was extremely well attended by the high performance riders of today and the future.  My guess is that this was the kind of meeting that you either attend or don’t plan on being part of the program.

The seminar  stuck me as, most of all, evidence that US eventing high performance is changing before our very eyes.  A public meeting held by the coach?  Clear principles presented to the riders based on scientific principles, technology, and lessons learned from other sports?  Openness?  Where has this kind of thing been?

David projected confidence, command of the topic, and ambition to get the US to the top.  The meeting was very serious, but there were a few moments of humor from David to keep the riders engaged.  As someone who has spent a fair amount of time ranting about US eventing high performance leadership, I found David’s seminar was an incredibly welcome, and very tangible step in the right direction.  I can only describe the meeting as a fresh of breath air.  Also, there was no breakfast.

To set the scene, David used a projector and powerpoint to guide the seminar while we all sat in chairs in the ballroom.  Note pads were out for about half of the riders.  I don’t know that this year’s convention will feature a more important or instructive meeting, so hopefully I do it justice.  Below are my notes from the seminar, typed while it was in progress.

David started the presentation with a discussion about how eventing needs to pay more attention to how other sports work.  He first mentioned the developmental systems within soccer, rowing, and other sports including developmental high school systems and scouts.

He said that he has spent time looking at other National Governing Bodies.  He rhetorically asked how much time soccer and football players spend in the classroom with a whiteboard learning as an example of something that helps other sports to thrive that eventing doesn’t take advantage of.  His point was that we need to be open to learning from what makes other sports successful.

Self assessment is critical, including strengths and weakness as well as goals.  Wanting to be an Olympian is different than wanting to be #1 in the world.  Being the former doesn’t by any means mean you will be the later.  Being the later means that you will almost surely be the former.

What does it take to the top?
1) Ambition — Ambition is the driver.
2) Intelligence/emotional control — You need intelligence because you need to figure out the game to beat the game.
3) Technique
4) Selecting Appropriate Horses — In the horse/rider importance scale, the horse is most important
5) Horse Management/time management — Competitors have to set aside time for just them and the horses. He said he doesn’t believe this is all day, and that he understands riders have business, but top riders should take 2-3 hours a day to shut out all else in the barn.
6) Talent — The least important part, according to David.  He said the top 5 principles are much more important than talent.

Book RecommendationThe Talent Code.  It’s not about practice, it’s about determined practice.

Rhetorical question: Do you “get it?”  Do you understand the sacrifice that it takes to be the best? “This game is about being the best that you can be.”  Do you understand the sacrifice and are you willing to do everything you can to get the job done?

Two words for improvement — Awareness and responsibility

Awareness — Perceiving things as they actually are. Self awareness is recognizing those internal factors that distort one’s own perception of reality.

Responsibility — The correct action taken in a moment.  The correct action to set up a required feeling.


Levels of Learning:

1) Technique
— Videos: People are getting better about using videos. Stop looking at your horse in the video and look at yourself. More importantly, look at videos of other people, people you want to learn from and emulate. Pick someone with your body type — short riders shouldn’t spend a ton of time watching William Fox-Pitt, for example. Use of Dartfish technology to perform video analysis.
–Mirrors: Use of mirrors is important. Don’t spend time just admiring yourself.

2) Theory
–The step by step process that leads to competitive excellence.
–Understanding your riding position to communicate — “The most important aid is your seat, the second most important aid is your seat, the third most important aid is your seat.” If your seat changes something should change in your horse. Make sure you improve your seat rather than just blasting a bunch of “noise” at your horse that they learn to ignore.
–Appropriate exercises for level of the horse
–Use of aids
–Timing of aids
–Search the internet of all theoretical thought process

According to David — Two books you have to have in your library: The Principles of Riding and Advanced Techniques of Dressage (both from German Federation). You absolutely have to have these books and read them according to David.

3) Instinct
–David says that he believes the US has very strong instinctual riders, but we are being beaten by programs with more structure.
–The ability to react properly without thinking about it.
–Technique must first be perfect to achieve instinct.
–In competition you must let go of thinking about the technique
–Sports psychology

4) Intuition/philosophy
–What are your most basic beliefs that are unchangeable for you that drives how you train and compete your horses?

5) Imagination
— The highest level
–Can you see the “field” differently?
–The ability to process multiple inputs without thinking of them and setting up a plan.

The point of presenting these principles is that as riders we need to evaluate where we are and figure out how we can get better.  David says that he doesn’t think anyone in the US has all of these five principles mastered for all three phases.

Use of coaches — What are coaches for?
–To help you achieve your goals
–To perfect technique
–Put into your own words the theoretical process
–The step by step process of goal achievement
–Creating necessary tools
–The timing of those tools for situations
–The assessment of horses

Goal setting:
–Set both long and short term goals
–Look at small achievements on a daily basis, not at the total picture every day.
–Over a day, a week, a month, and a year.

Here endeth the lesson.  The seminar was one of several that David is hosting for high performance athletes this weekend, including a seminar Wednesday night.  The next session is at 12.  Go eventing.


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