Since the early 1990s, Canada has made a concerted effort to have sport coaching recognized as a profession. This led to two significant events: in 1997, Canada became a founding member of the International Coaching Council for Education (currently “Excellence”) and saw an increase in research into motor and technical skill development, investigating what makes an effective coach, and how can these be improved.

What was learned? Coaches relied on observing the behaviour (Behaviour Training, or BT) of an athlete/rider to give instruction or feedback when developing skills, and found that not all technical, tactical, or mental skills are observable. Training that incorporated the cognitive aspects (focus/concentration, pattern recognition, memory retrieval, problem solving, decision making) made significant improvements in the quality of an athlete/rider’s performance and long-term retention over behaviour training. Further outcome from this research led to a new approach to coaching – Decision Training (DT) model and the Three-Step Decision Training Planning Model developed by Dr. Joan Vickers of the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Kinesiology.

“In order for long-term retention and transfer of skills to occur, the athlete has to lay down new neural networks that underlie gains in motor performance,” notes Dr. Vickers. Using variable and random practices when planning lessons promises a wide range of exercises to successfully develop a variety of technical, tactical, and mental skills necessary to successfully compete at all levels.

Decision Training vs. Behaviour Training

Practice planning, instruction, and feedback make up the important building blocks in training all levels, from beginner to high performance. Here is how the two training methods compare:


Behaviour Training

Block training – setting up exercises that repeat the same skill over and over until it becomes automatic.

Pros: significant short-term improvement.

Cons: inconsistent performance success when adapting the skill to new situations or competition; little mental effort required by the rider; and low success for long-term retention.

Low variable practice – limited variations when learning or training
a skill.

Pros: learn a skill in a short period of time.

Cons: limited mental effort is being taught, limited performance success when transferring skills to competitions and low success for long-term retention.

Decision Training

Variable practice: select one group of skills and use a variety of exercises that are competition-like when training. (Competition-like refers to any skill that is necessary to perform the discipline well during competition.)

Examples of one group of skills that are competition-like include:

Show jumping requires a rider to be able to execute different crest releases – short, medium, long, and automatic. Exercise: Practice four crest releases over different types of jumps.

In dressage, the use of a rider’s eye is essential for riding accurate patterns. Exercise: The coach calls out a variety of patterns to ride while cones are used to teach focal points and accuracy of shape and size.

In eventing, a strong, correct leg position and hip angle are essential for balance during the cross-country phase. Exercise: Practice two-point work, trotting or cantering hills, to strengthen the rider’s leg position and hip angle.

Pros: leads to a higher quality of skill development, improvement in long-term retention, and greater success in transferring skills to new situations or competitions.

Cons: takes longer to learn the skill than block training.

Random practice: select different groups of skills and use a variety of exercises that are competition-like.

Pros: greater success of developing a variety of quality skills; technical, tactical and mental skills are combined while learning or training; an advanced level of decision-making and problem-solving; significant improvement in long-term retention; greater success in adapting different skills to competitions.

Cons: takes longer to learn the skills than block or low variable training.


• Part to whole training
• Simple to complex exercises
• Easy first instruction
• Technical emphasis
• Internal focus
• Low use of video modeling
• Tactical to whole training
• Competition-like exercises
• Hard (complex) first instruction
• Technical within tactics
• External focus
• High use of video modeling

This table examines the differences between BT and DT instruction in a broader scope. Decision training lesson plans include elements of the technical, tactical and mental skills required for the rider, and horse, to successfully perform the competition class specifications. In other words, lesson plans are competition-like.

An example of a hard first instruction for jumping would be lower jumps with more technical or tactical challenges, not necessarily higher jumps.

The variable and random example exercises demonstrate technical within tactical. Tactical concepts would include what pace will they ride the exercise, what turns will they take and when do they need to prepare for those turns. Technical aspects include what position is required for which turns (open hip angle or closed hip angle), and what aids does the rider give the horse to execute smooth turns and jump at the variety of paces.

Riders need to visualize and comprehend what is considered a good ride to be able to successfully compete consistently and to advance to a higher level of competing. Research has proven that watching experts through high use of video modeling during lessons achieves this.


Behaviour Training

Behaviour Training is a one-way communication; the coach gives continual feedback. A low use of questioning reduces the coach’s ability to understand what the rider is thinking or how they are feeling during a training session or competition. Behaviour training has a low use of video feedback, limiting the rider’s ability to analyze and reflect on their performance, a skill essential to reach high performance. All these factors lead to coach dependency, inconsistent performance success, low long-term retention and reduced likeliness of achieving a higher level of performance.

Decision Training

Decision Training provides feedback in a variety of ways.

Bandwidth feedback is incorporated into coaching by using three techniques when delivering feedback/instruction: frequency (decreasing as skill levels develop), delay (provided after seconds, minutes, or days so the rider can reflect), and fading (gradually reducing as skills develop). This comprehensive feedback approach broadens a rider’s ability to make decisions and solve problems independantly.

High use of questioning guides the rider through reflection of their performance and keeps an important two-way communication going. With high use of video feedback (watching yourself) and video modeling (watching others), riders learn what key performance factors make a good ride. All methods lead to better riding under under stress; riders learn to analyze their own rides, self-correct and develop the superior mental skills necessary to successfully compete at higher levels.

Coaching Conclusions

Over the decades, the characteristics that make up an effective coach haven’t changed. They still require leadership to inspire, engage, motivate, and guide; an in-depth understanding of the technical, tactical and mental skills to successfully compete and the training building blocks to develop these skills; awareness of the individual strengths, weaknesses, and emotions of both horse and rider; and solid communication skills to encourage active listening and open dialogue.

What has changed is the information and education available to coaches to help them evolve. In Canada, the science behind coaching is continually being used to develop and refine sport-specific coaching programs. Canada remains an active member of the International Council of Coaching Excellence ICCE, along with 30 other countries.

“In the sporting world, it is essential to continually learn and get better at whatever it is you are doing,” states Dr. Peter Jensen, PhD Sport Psychologist and founder of Performance Coaching. The Coaching Association of Canada is committed to helping all sport coaches stay on the forefront to be successful competing at all levels, from instructing beginners to high performance.