I’ve long thought there’s no room for ego in teaching, particularly if your subject is a physical skill. It’s all too easy to get frustrated, or simply and naively believe that you are offering a demonstration by stepping in and literally showing your student how it’s done when they get stuck. I’ve witnessed riding instructors who order their student from the saddle, hop on and proceed to perfect the desired manoeuvre with ease. I’ve also seen it backfire, with the mount continuing to refuse to offer the required movement – and these days, I view that from the perspective of horsemanship and relationships – and the situation descending into chaos, which can involve anything from quiet chuntering to out and out violence.
There are other reasons as to why offering students a demonstration doesn’t always work. For one, many people aren’t visual learners, and won’t be able to spot the differences in their teacher’s technique in order to replicate them. Even visual learners might struggle sometimes, as many cues are almost invisible to the naked eye without the aid of video analysis or other technological tools. Another key reason for demonstrations failing is that you are at serious risk of damaging your student’s fragile ego. When a person is struggling to achieve something, they are already psychologically in a precarious position, and more often than not, what they need is building up rather than bringing down. And given that a fundamental part of teaching human beings is the skill of communicating verbally and explaining the topic you are allegedly an expert in, the inability to do so is surely a failure on the part of the coach.
There are, of course, subtle ways of demonstrating your point, without taking over and literally showing off. With many sports, it’s possible to physically guide your student through the process – this has to be managed carefully, particularly if your student is a child, but at camp we’re advised that touching in order to teach sports or other activities is fine providing we’ve explained what we’re going to do and sought the child’s consent. A person being on a horse isn’t a barrier to an instructor helping them to improve by guiding them physically: you can reposition a rider with them in the saddle and yourself on the ground; many establishments have mirrors so that you can show your client what their body looks like and, if mirrors aren’t available, there are the good old fashioned riding instructor series of squat poses in order to demonstrate what your client looks like on a horse (NB: it’s not always pretty). When it comes to kids and horsemanship, I’ve often found myself holding a child, a rope (and therefore a horse) and a carrot stick and waving four arms around in order to direct an animal who is at the other end of a three metre line – I’m positive that it doesn’t look elegant, but I’m just as certain that it works.
What I’ve learned recently is that ego can pop up during teaching in another way: it also relates to progress. Whilst it’s important not to show off in front of your clients, it’s also critical to manage their progression in a way which supports them rather than harms them. It’s a common situation: a client has a goal in mind and, sometimes, they will drag you towards it rather than allowing you to guide the process. Sometimes, it’s not just the student who makes use of pester power – they may have a significant other putting a deadline on them, or a classic pushy parent in the wings. Keeping clients in check is an important skill not just for their confidence and your sanity, but also for their safety.
I figured this out having made the error a couple of times recently. Sometimes, it’s just hard to think to say “no” rather than “yes”. Sometimes, I too am eager to reach the mythical finish line. A horsemanship student I know very well asked if he could move on to the next exercise. My gut quietly muttered “no”, and my ego excitedly squealed “yes, do it, today’s the last day, let’s go out with a bang!” Of course, things ended with a splat, and it wasn’t me who suffered. I failed my student by letting him take charge, and it’s my job to fix the situation. And I can fix it, but I also can’t let it happen again.