Own Goal New Zealand

We're delighted to welcome William Micklem as EN's newest columnist. Click here to read his first column for EN, and click here to read all the latest updates on the Andrew Nicholson debacle.

Andrew Nicholson and Nereo at WEG. Photo by Jenni Autry. Andrew Nicholson and Nereo at WEG. Photo by Jenni Autry.

I hope that the management of Equestrian Sports New Zealand (ESNZ) are not trying to be horse trainers or elite riders or coaches, because they would probably fall flat on their faces very quickly, particularly if they were faced with the inevitable “difficult” horse or student.

For the moment, let’s define “difficult” as being unwilling to be submissive, a little emotional and possibly even anti-social. Of course, there are degrees of being difficult, and it is certainly true that even the best of horses and humans have their difficult moments! Therefore, this is a key area that is widely required and needs an effective strategy.

So what does a good trainer do with a “difficult” horse, a coach with a difficult student or even a parent with a difficult child? How do they cope with those difficult moments? Let’s take the child first. In the past, a good measure of violence, under the banner of corporal punishment, or threats of physical pain were a common method for dealing with a difficult child.

But we have moved on to a more positive approach, as it became clear that this damages children. Instead, by rewarding the behaviour we want repeated and focusing on what is required, rather than what is not required, much more is achieved both in the short and long term.

The same applies to a difficult horse. Getting into a major fight with a horse invariably has two unsatisfactory outcomes. Either it leaves you losing the battle or leaves the horse mentally broken and dispirited, with a grudging acceptance of what you are asking and little enthusiasm for the next lesson or giving more than the minimum.

Instead, what the trainer has to do is keep the task at hand easy and simple and then react instantly and positively to anything they do well. It may be as simple a task as getting the horse to move around you in both directions. But good trainers show day in and day out that once there is a little trust and understanding, the floodgates of extraordinary progress are well and truly opened.

So the question is: Does this approach work with adults as well? And, let’s add another question: Does it work with elite performers and does it work with elite teams? Does it even work with certain hot-headed, difficult, elite performers? All the research says, “YES!”

Last weekend, Christiano Ronaldo was acknowledged as the best footballer in the world for the third time with the presentation of the Ballon d’OR. Ronaldo, like Andrew Nicholson, to all intents and purposes “lost” his father at an early stage and, like Andrew, has been described as stubborn and difficult.

Both are also seen as consummate professionals, rarely seen out late, always punctual, always training harder than those around them. Ronaldo is also known as a prima donna who is rude to staff and teammates when competition passions are high. One issue of the Manchester United fan magazine even described him as “a conniving little shit!

Therefore, what is interesting is how the legendary Manchester United manager Alex Ferguson handled Ronaldo to get the best out of him. Ferguson has the reputation of being a hard man who few dared cross.

However, Ronaldo explained last week that he remembers a different man who was “fantastic. He told me to keep improving all the time. He said, ‘Christiano, you’re the best. Don’t worry about the rest.’ He still rings me regularly to remind me that I’m the best. He would finish most of his team talks with: ‘Now go out and enjoy yourself.’ It was never, ‘Do this, do that,’ because that can take away a player’s flair. I miss him.” 

In the USA last year, Alex Ferguson spoke to leading business figures and explained that the two most powerful words he could use as a coach were “well done.” He also emphasized that the timing of compliments was everything, and that it was important to “get in early with the positive and use the positive to melt away the negative and potential conflict.” One wonders how quickly ESNZ have praised and encouraged Andrew in the past?

People may have different views regarding the recent ESNZ actions, but the vast majority agree that that the timing used by them  shows incompetence. Why did they not instantly and positively welcome the first sign of Andrew being consilatory at the beginning of December? Or at the very least, they could have delayed announcement of the new High Performance squad a few days while the Andrew Nicholson situation was sorted out.

Instead, a full six weeks after Andrew withdrew from the squad, the ESNZ chairman Chris Hodson announced: “What we’re doing at this moment, and we should have it finalized next week, is working to figure out what steps would be necessary in order to Andrew to reclaim his spot with the High Performance squad.”

That should have taken two days and the whole matter settled before the latest High Performance list. That would have shown ESNZ in a positive and proactive light and confirmed their belief in their core goal stated so clearly on their website: to “support High Performance riders with the ability to achieve our vision.”

That action would have shown real leadership skills and an understanding that a win-win situation requires a positive approach. Instead, they effectively punish Andrew with a fine of NZ $50,000, which would have been his grant from ESNZ for 2015. And bear in mind that whereas Christiano Ronaldo is worth approximately $245 million, Andrew still has to sell horses to survive despite his huge success over a long, long career winning medals for New Zealand.

So ESNZ have scored an own goal and need to listen to Alex Ferguson, who says the second most important quality of leadership “is having the balls to admit you were wrong.”