The Helpful Coach - David Kearney at IEF 2016

       David Kearney - the Helpful Coach


Ever heard of a coach called David Kearney? If not, it’s not surprising as he is better known in golfing than equestrian circles, as a ‘teaching professional and mentor’ to many professional and amateur golfers. Earlier this month David won the PGAs of Europe 5-Star Professional Award in recognition of his work in various areas of golf but we first came across him at the International Eventing Forum in 2016; we'll be covering the IEF 2019 that takes place on February 4th but thought that these insights from David are well worth a re-visit



At the 2016 International Eventing Forum at Hartpury College he presented some incisive insights into the role of ‘The Helpful Coach’. They included some gems of concepts which apply equally well to coaches of riders as of golfers for, after all, “A helpful coach is a helpful coach whatever sport or whatever line of work you’re involved in”

David started by asking the audience to write down the five words they associated with a top coach and the audience supplied him with many of the usual words such as ‘motivated’ and ‘passionate’ but the five characteristics that he went on to discuss were probably not those that the audience, which included a large number of equestrian coaches, were expecting.

The five main points were;

Aligning Vision and Values

Identifying Interest

Providing Autonomy

Understanding the adolescent

The Big Perspective


Vision and Values

The coach and the pupil both have to align their values with their vision. At the end of the day, you need to need to be able to say ‘I’m going to achieve X but, in order to do it, I’m not willing to compromise on Y”

In the question time, one coach asked if young riders shouldn’t pay more heed to what they are told by their coaches and, in maybe slightly old fashioned terms, “just do as you’re are told”. David pointed out that if a rider isn’t willing to listen their coach’s advice and tow the line then this is an example of the Vision and Values not matching

“If the pupil does not appreciate your values (e.g. being on time, paying attention etc) then you as the coach need to point out that their vision (e.g. becoming a better rider) does not match your values and maybe you need to sit down and sort this out. That may mean that they are just not suited to being coached by you. The two of you need to address both of your values and vision and ensure that they are aligned”



 “The mistakes I’ve made are first, assuming that people are interested when they’re not really and second, assuming that people are not interested when they really are”

“It’s very important to work out what are their interests and where they lie – I find it’s really important for me as a coach”

David gave a couple of examples; one was a young man going through some turbulent times academically because he couldn’t make his mind up whether to study Medicine or Petrochemical Engineering at University

“He’s a very smart kid and it’s a nice problem to have but the answer was quite simple. I asked him ‘if in the evening you have some spare time and you open your laptop, what would you prefer to look papers on – Medicine or Petrochemical Engineering?’ He immediately replied ‘Petrochemical Engineering’ so there was the answer.”

“If you always put your interest to the front, it will come out in spades later on”

David also gave the example of Apple founder Steve Jobs as a person whose main interest was design not computers, but it was through following his main interest that he provided the world with some of the best devices, in both technical and design terms. If he had simply been interested in technology, the Apple products would be very different today and the company not the one we know



“When I tell you what point number three is you’ll probably think that it gives the appearance that you’re not being helpful as a coach because it is to give your pupil autonomy” says David

“Autonomy is the ability to allow people to make mistakes, it is the ability for people to have buy-in and be involved. It is so important and we’re by-passing it all day every day, not just with young people but with everybody. Why? Because we apparently know better but we don’t, because the buy-in of the people we are dealing with as a coach is incredibly important”

“Teaching isn’t telling and listening isn’t learning, so just telling people what to do isn’t going to get you too far”

“You may think that, as a coach you’re doing the right thing by telling somebody what to do but by doing it that way, you’re preventing that person from making that decision themselves” and David pointed out “It was interesting to hear both Tina and Pippa this morning talking about ‘allowing’ their horses to do the right thing rather than insisting that they do it the rider’s way all the time; it was an interesting crossover on this subject that I would never have thought of before but of course it applies to coaching the horse too”

“So giving autonomy to the horse or to a person you coach, allowing someone to say what they think, what they want to do is really important and this can start really early in life”

“My daughter is learning to ride and I love that the coach at the equestrian centre asks which horse she would like to ride that day - even a small choice between X and Y horse is a great thing to give a child of that age”

“Autonomy is the ability to let the person fend for themselves, the ability to let that person be involved in the decision making process. So the hierarchy of saying ‘Well, I’ll make the decision because I’m more experienced when you’re dealing with an athlete does not work – kids, adults, it doesn’t matter what age, nobody needs to be told what to do, there must be buy-in on the decision”

The age of the pupil however did have some bearing on point four


Understanding the adolescent

“The next time you’re battling to get a teenager to bed, the best of luck, you’re battling science” laughed David as he pointed out that the World Health Organisation officially characterises adolescence as being between 12 and 25 years of age, not 12 and 18 as is often thought.

Sigmund Freud’s right hand man, Erik Eriksson wrote of autonomy “If, as adolescents we were given enough space and time to explore our world safely, we will develop a deep understanding of who we are and a great confidence in taking on the world. If however parents, teachers and society are too insistent on the direction we take before bold exploration and true self-discovery, this can affect our lives and relationships later in life”

This was obviously an area that David is passionate about and here is a small section of audio from his presentation on the subject


Understanding the adolescent


At the end of the session David added “If I had to leave you today with just one message it would be to look after the young people in your sport”


The Big Perspective

“Are you a coach in terms of coaching the whole person, having perspective or are you just coaching the performance? Are you criticising the person or are you criticising the performance?”

David had mentioned previously in his talk that he would be looking at recent golf results by his pupils while he was away and that he would have to discuss areas of performance with them when he returned. However it’s easy to over-react to bad results when you first encounter them whereas you need to look at the results and that particular competition in perspective, as well as just viewing them as a performance indicator

“Keep the big perspective as the corner piece of what you do”

“When we look at the kids we work with, it’s a value of our programme and it’s our aim and our intent to understand the difference between excellence and obsession. We’re not mad on obsession because, generally speaking, – obsession usually ends in tears. Balance and perspective is definitely something that the helpful coach can bring”

“In the past few years I would say that our ability to spot, interact and influence technically has dropped and our ability to influence the whole being has gone through the roof. However it’s very important as a coach to keep your balance board, as some people will naturally gravitate towards one side or the other”

David referred to an article about the Irish horse trainer Aiden O’Brien in The Irish Times in 2009 as an example of one the values that he and his pupils have agreed on – doing the right thing, even if it isn’t easy

“I am lucky to be here. I am only here because of the whole line of circumstances. There are always two questions that you have to ask yourself. What I want to do? And what I should do? Being human and because we can be tempted, doing what you want to do isn’t that hard an option.

“I am lucky. I think I was taught to do the right thing. But it’s hard. It mightn’t always be the nicest thing for yourself. Usually the right thing isn’t the easy thing. If we try to do the right thing, though, we will be better off. You can do the right thing for the longest time and then something will fall into your life and you won’t understand why it happened, but it is because you did the right thing. I believe that.” Aiden O’Brien

It’s very important to bring that culture of ‘doing the right thing’ not just from the sport’s perspective but also to bring it right through to the way that young sportspeople live their lives, suggests David “That’s what we owe to them”

Read our overview of the 2016 International Eventing Forum

Video: Pippa Funnell and pole exercises at IEF 2016