Developing YOUR System
I generally define a system as what you do, how you do it and why you do it. Getting more technical, a system is the combination of your tactics (the what part), strategy (the how part) and objective (the why part). I’m going to talk through what this type of system looks like for an event rider and how I generally develop a personalised system for the riders I work with.
The reason why a system-based approach works is because you have something you can repeat, refine and improve as you develop. Working hard and trying new things are important, but without structure and a process you will never be able to optimise your pursuit of progress.
Step 1. Discover your PURPOSE
You will encounter failures...there will be times when you just want to quit.
Your purpose isn’t part of your system, but it drives your system. You will encounter failures. System failures, outcome failures and personal failures. You will question why you do what you do, you will stare defeat (permanent failure) in the face and there will be times when you just want to quit. At this point, in your darkest hour, if I talk to you about objectives, strategies or tactics you will throw some choice words back at me. This is where I can only give you three words of advice and the rest is up to you – 'remember your purpose'.
My purpose isn’t about me. It could be. Things like ‘pushing the boundaries of performance’ or ‘to be the best of the best’ work for many people. When you say the words, they should almost make the hair on your neck stand up because they are that motivating and inspiring for you. I, like many, have a purpose that is self-transcending, bigger than me and my aspirations. If you watch the Olympics, you will see a lot of athletes thanking God for their success. Religion is an example of that higher purpose that can empower humans to do extraordinary things.
I have a fortunate situation in that my wife is my eventing manager. She feeds the horses every morning at 5:00 am, was tacking-up three horses at an international two days after having our first child and is simply so passionate and dedicated to our eventing journey. She is famous on the eventing circuit for her attention to detail, extraordinary work ethic and leaving no stone unturned. However, none of the visible and amazing things that she does are as powerful as the one invisible thing that she does. She is my purpose. I don’t pick myself off the floor for me. I might be the one that wants to surrender. I get up for her, someone I would do anything for because she has done everything for me.
Unfortunately, I can’t help you with your purpose. You have to discover it for yourself. It may change over time, but spend time working it out. You will need it. Your purpose can give that performance edge in competition, it can help you to find that extra ounce of motivation in training and it can be the strength that brings some light when the darkness descends.
Step 2. Define your OBJECTIVE
If you set the right objective, it can turn your performance around.
This is probably the easiest part, but many do make mistakes here. Your objective should be something tangible, it should have a deadline and it should be something that is currently out of reach but within sight.
‘Getting better’ is not an objective. My tagline is ‘The relentless pursuit of progress’, but that’s a tagline, a mindset and a statement, not an objective.
‘Winning the Olympics’ is most likely a dream for most rather than an objective. It is measurable but it is too far out of sight for the majority of people and far too distant if it’s beyond a year away. There is also another reason why ‘winning’ is a bad objective. Firstly, you have no control over your opponents and, secondly, you can’t manage winning, you can only manage your chance of winning. A decent win likelihood in eventing is 10%, so if your system is working well and you boost that to a 25% probability (which would make you favourite for most competitions), then that’s a job well done, but you’re still highly likely to miss your objective.
Measurable, time-specific and appropriate
My objective in 2015 was to achieve a show jumping clear rate of 50% or higher in four-star short events. Chance could still deceive or flatter, but it was measurable, time-specific and appropriate. 2014 produced a second terrible show jumping experience for me at the World Games and I was jumping clear at a rate of just 28.6% in four-star short classes over a two-year period. I wanted to park the long formats to one side for now and just start with some progress in the short formats where the clear rates are slightly higher. 50% was achievable, but at the same time almost doubling my current clear rate.
Don’t fear that an achievable objective will somehow cap or limit your performance. In 2015 I jumped five clears from five attempts in four-star short formats and at the end of 2016 my two-year clear rate was 83.3% (compared to 28.6% over the 2013/2014 period). There were 266 athletes in the world that jumped more than five internationals at four-star short competitions throughout 2015 and 2016 and my clear rate of 83.3% was the highest. Kitty King (81.8%) and my teammate Sarah Ennis (76.5%) were just behind me and the German trio of Ingrid Klimke, Sandra Auffarth and Julia Krajewski were all on 75% just behind them.
I was a terrible show jumper that had embarrassed myself at two World Games (2010 and 2014) with 16 faults on both occasions. Achieving that objective was the catalyst for further progress in my long format competitions too. From 2015 to 2019 I went to three major championships on three different horses and didn’t have a single fence on the last day on any of them.
If you set the right objective, it can turn your performance around. It feels easy to just set a target, but it is a subtle art that should be informed by analysis. I usually discuss possible objectives with my athletes on video calls, then do some analysis behind the scenes before making a final call on it together.
Step 3. Devise your STRATEGY
Simplicity is your friend, measuring is a must and less to manage is often more effective.
This is essentially how you are going to achieve your objective. It can be a combination of things (marginal gains), but simplicity is your friend, measuring is a must and less to manage is often more effective.
I would say to most athletes that you shouldn’t really be expected to devise and formulate your strategy. Experience and knowledge are crucial to getting this right. I like to get to know an athlete’s strengths and weaknesses before deciding the strategy. This usually happens via a series of attribute tests, but it can also be informed by performance analysis as well. Ultimately, the strategy must not only be effective for the given objective but it should also suit the people that will need to implement it (i.e. athlete, coaches and team members).
A good example of developing a system is losing weight. Objective – lose 5kgs in 20 weeks (beware of short-term weight loss as it is easy to bounce back). Strategy – frequent exercise and reduced carbohydrate intake. The strategy is double-edged (exercise and diet) but the reason for this strategy should be well thought-out. For someone who is very time-poor, exercise is difficult to fit in, so definitely don’t schedule long walks. Maybe some high-intensity workouts could suit in that case, but you probably want to look at the diet side more.
For me, my strategy in 2015 to get that clear rate to 50% was ‘accountable accuracy’. Everything you want to manage or improve should be measurable, but the emphasis on accountable was important and it suited me. Accuracy is simple. A lack of it was the cause of many knocked-rails and if you’re accurate then you can get away with a lot of other imperfections. My style is pretty non-existent. In fact, many would say that it exists but just not in traditional form. However, if I could place my horses two yards (ideal take-off point) away from every fence I was going to jump plenty of clear rounds.
Step 4. Deliver your TACTICS
These are the training exercises that you do every day.
This is the what you DO. Emphasis on ‘do’. You need to have a clear plan (clear plans get followed, unclear plans get confusing and fall apart), you need to be organised and then you need to deliver. You will have to deliver but I (and other coaches) should absolutely be consulted to identify suitable and effective tactics. These are the training exercises that you do every day.
If we go back to the weight-loss system, a tactic could be to replace potatoes with a green vegetable three times a week. It could be substituting lattes and cappuccinos for filter coffee which would yield a major gain over 20 weeks for a typical person who works long hours in the office and drinks a lot of caffeine.
A lot of my tactics were canter-pole exercises. Single poles sitting 3 inches off the ground and if I knocked one it was a measurable failure. Related distances were great to work with because I could get feedback on the set distance. I could also increase the difficultly by changing the number of strides on the set distance which means I needed control, balance, engagement and suppleness. I have over a dozen canter-pole exercises that became the bread and butter tactics that helped me achieve my objective. Of course, my dressage and cross-country phases still needed to be trained, but I continued to adopt the accuracy strategy in those phases too. The more you embrace and adopt something, the better you get at it.
Own your system
Did I top that 2015/2016 clear show jumping rate just because of canter-poles? Success is a team sport for starters, so no, it wasn’t just one thing I did. However, I focused on what mattered most to me and my performance at the time (objective), I worked out the most effective and efficient way to improve it (strategy) and I executed my daily training (tactics) with clarity, understanding and accountability (measurable deliverables). That is what a system is. I work with super horses, I have the best (😊) groom, I have superb nutritional support, fantastic sponsors, great saddles, safe paddocks, the list goes on. Some of those things I am very fortunate to have, but the training system, that is something you can create, assess, refine and improve right now.
Purpose – drives your system
Objective – driven by data and analytics
Strategy – driven by expertise, intuition and experience
Tactics – driven by discipline, organisation and clarity