As I sit here, watching the British November rain run down the windows, I have been thinking about the last 12 months. With so much negativity in the world and a general inability to achieve previously set targets this year, it feels as though someone has pressed the pause button on life.
Being positive, I’ve been reflecting on what the Canadian Para-Dressage Team actually managed to achieve in these strange and challenging times, and more importantly on how we can make gains in dressage scores that impact on our performance on the world stage without the budget that other countries have and with the challenges of athletes living thousands of miles apart.
As well as qualifying a team for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, this year Canada managed to send para-dressage athletes to four separate international competitions and continue to show that we are improving on the world stage. We have had two athletes achieve lifetime best scores and two other athletes achieve higher scores than they have in several years. I am not so interested in the actual placings (although ribbons are always an awesome reminder of past successes); instead, we use percentile scores to benchmark and check for improvements.
Sports like athletics or cycling start off with an easy premise: to win, you have to be faster than your opponents. But dressage is subjective, as scores are based on the opinion of other people. And yet, over the course of several competitions, it is possible to demonstrate improvements in a methodical, calculated way. So, in that hunt for both internal personal achievement and external success via high scores, how can we create a system that proves hard fact in black and white? By studying statistical data, we can find visible fact in a subjective sport.
As a coach, I start with this mantra that when one judge raises a concern or notices something, I make a note of what’s said and think about it but do not necessarily change the program. It is only when three different judges who were all sitting in the same judging position state the same observation on three separate occasions that I really revisit my training program in order to improve. I find that if three different judges have noticed the same thing over a period of time, that demonstrates a trend rather than just the opinion of one person.
Now onto the scores themselves:
If athletes achieve a score of 67% it will often put them in the middle of the leaderboard, whereas a 72% often puts you closer to being in podium contention. A 67% test is based on an average score of 6.7 per movement with three judges. This could mean two judges are scoring an average of 6.5 per movement, while one is scoring a 7. Obviously, a 72% test demonstrates a 5% increase on the overall score, and yet that is only an average mark of 7.2. This could mean two judges were scoring 7.5 and one scored a 7. That is only an increase of 0.5 of a mark per movement!
By breaking scores down to tiny achievable targets such as an 0.5 increase, the podium may suddenly be a lot closer than it seemed at first glance—giving us more motivation and confidence in our performance. When we analyze podium scores on the international stage, national teams can win with a very narrow margin. At the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, the top five teams were separated by less than nine marks, with each team comprising of three horse and rider combinations. That is an average of 2.9 marks (not percentages) per athlete in the top five teams!
The Equestrian Canada (EC) system means that we believe in improving the average. Studying peaks and troughs in a test by looking at the individual movement marks shows us our strengths and weaknesses. Some athletes see the higher marks and strive to make those better, pulling the average up from the top, whereas other athletes address the lower marks, pushing the average up by improving weaker areas. In my experience, I believe that it is easier to turn a 6.5 into a 7 than it is turn an 8 into an 8.5.
Of course, in para-dressage tests, several of the movements have a coefficient of two, meaning there are double marks on offer:
- With one judge, 10 available marks turn into 20.
- With three judges, 30 available marks turn into 60.
- With five judges at a championship, 50 available marks turn into 100.
So again, if we look at a marginal gain of a one-mark improvement per judge per movement:
- With one judge, 6 marks turn into 12, but 7 turn into 14 (a two-mark increase from 12).
- With three judges, 6 marks turn into 36, but 7 turn into 42 (a six-mark increase from 36)
- With five judges, 6 marks turn into 60, but 7 turn into 70 (a ten-mark increase from 60).
Looking at this shows how one movement with a coefficient can really influence a score and mean the difference between a medal and fourth place. Can any athlete afford not to rehearse and improve each movement, especially with these sorts of marks at stake?
At EC, all Para-Dressage National Team Program athletes must submit their score sheets into a central database where results are held. Not only is the final percentage filed, but every component movement is also logged. After three tests at the same level are logged, we can start to see the strengths and weakness of each component movement in each test. Discovering weakness could be seen as a coaching negative or criticism, which I don’t like as a coach. However, if you think of these averages as being a baseline, it demonstrates the starting point from which we evolve.
So as a technical leader, how do I analyze the dressage test sheets and strive for improvements? For a start, in para-dressage, the international technical tests can have between 21 and 36 component movements. Clearly, it is impossible to improve 36 sets of marks quickly, so I first read the collective boxes at the end of the sheet to see if there are any overarching challenges or strengths that the judges see. Then I read the comments from the test to see if the judges repeat words or statements. After three tests at the international level are completed, we create a graph for each test. It is becoming easier to lay results from other athletes with the same judges over the top of the scores for each Canadian athlete to see where they are ahead of or behind the winner.
Once this graph has been created, we have hard data with which we can improve. These graphs demonstrate to each athlete the need for improvement and clinically show where marks can be gained, removing the potential for defensiveness that judges’ scores and comments can sometimes cause. The graphs are there on the screen in black and white, leaving no need for discussion on where the weakness in each test lie.
With the data logged in a central database, we can create whatever graphs we desire. We can show a single class for each athlete, plotting the data points for all the judges. We can add the overall score as an average, showing where athletes rose above or dipped below, or we can add the average scores of the world’s leading athletes, demonstrating how close to podium level we are per movement or per class.
All relevant parties, not only athletes and coaching staff but also the team vet, saddler, and human and equine physiotherapist have access to this information to support team performances and skill acquisition. These graphs are sent very quickly so a plan can be created while the information is fresh in everyone’s mind. In some cases, adjustments can be made overnight during a competition to improve the following day’s results. Even under coronavirus (COVID-19) restrictions, we improved results using technology: I watched international competitions from the UK via livestream alongside an international para-dressage judge and then fed observations back to the onsite coach. We then worked in tandem to decided how much relevant information to give back to the athlete under pressure.
One of the challenges that Canadian athletes face is that fact we have limited access to competitions compared with European athletes. This means that it is much more difficult to compare like with like scores. Generating data from individual competitions means we can look to see how Canadian athletes would have fared with the same judges in European competition and start to study judging trends.
Once a particular challenge has been identified in a performance, the athlete’s support team can start working on improvements: Coaching intervention can determine if the athlete correctly understand the movement and the coach can then create a training plan to close the weakness gap. Judges can be brought in to specifically explain where marks in the movement can be gained. The horse trainer can also ride the horse more effectively with focus on making troublesome movements easier through education, confidence in the aids and muscle strength. Over time, the team vet can analyze the need for veterinary intervention to improve performance. The saddler can specifically check to see if there is movement restriction during a particular movement. A physiotherapist can work with the athlete away from the horse to improve movement confidence, core stability and suppleness, and to see if the athlete’s weight shifts significantly during a particular turn or movement. The team mental performance coach is also included so that we can ally particular nerves and fears towards a movement with the use of breathing and imagery techniques to improve focus and confidence.
Thanks for sticking with me to learn a bit about how we use statistical data in the Canadian Para-Dressage Team’s podium pursuit. I hope you’ll join me again next month to learn about how this data analysis fits into Gold Medal Profiles, EC’s larger strategy for high performance success!