This Year I Learned to Be Coachable In Order To Achieve My Goals

Photo courtesy of Piper Klemm


This year felt like the longest of my life, and I learned something important – I was uncoachable. I’ve always known that I am unmanageable, but at 30 I had honestly never considered coach-ability in myself.

You see, 2018 is the year that I became an athlete. In the gym, saddle and at work. Me? An athlete? I can barely type it… that’s like for, athletic people. I’m not athletic. I can’t even find the right sports bra, and I’m still trying to pass the FBI fitness test to prove something to myself. A real athlete wouldn’t have these issues.  

When I grew up, riding wasn’t considered a sport. I couldn’t use it to get out of gym class or get a varsity letter. Being the weird horse girl didn’t scream athletic to anyone. No one coached me to work on my mental skills, develop a healthy diet (besides general pressure towards anorexia), cross-train my muscles or generally take care of my body.

But in the last three years I’ve been trying to be athletic. At my worst, lost in a mess of stress, anxiety, work, travel and self-doubt, I lost hope until I met a horse that changed me. He let me win despite my mistakes, and inspired me to pledge to make myself strong again. So that I would be worthy if an opportunity like him ever came down my pipeline again.

Photo courtesy of Piper Klemm

In my efforts, I really didn’t start to think of myself like an athlete until two ah-ha moments in a sea of trips to the gym. The first was Daniel Stewart’s Equestrian Athlete Training Camp at the US Olympic Training Center in Lake Placid, New York. 

I had seen Daniel speak at last year’s Emerging Athletes Program National Finals. He was clear, rational, and, most importantly, he said everyone could sign up. I didn’t believe it. Something like that was for real riders. Good riders and athletes – not me. After hemming and hawing, I finally decided that I had nothing to lose. My husband promised to pick me up if I couldn’t get through the entire program. Packed with every piece of athletic wear I owned (and nothing else), he said he was proud of me and dropped me off.

Stewart started off at the Olympic Training Center by telling us that we are all athletes. All athletes share the same principals: willpower, mindset, cross-training, nutrition and healthy eating, and a desire to win. Over three days, we pushed our bodies to the limit and participated in seminars and discussions between workout after workout. I couldn’t do most of it. I failed at almost everything we did, but I was never made to feel fat or out of shape. I was told that with training and effort, I could do it.

Photo courtesy of Piper Klemm

I went home and worked. I started with doing stairs every morning – something I actually enjoyed. I set goals for myself and kept working towards them. The process exposed my weaknesses, but I never felt weak. I felt like I stared at a surmountable challenge. Coming into the Fall and Indoors season, I knew it would get harder, so I signed up for fitness class, equitation lessons, and a personal trainer. I set myself up for a challenge, but also with a support system that wanted me to succeed. And for the first time that I can remember, I didn’t gain a single pound during the Fall show season. 

My second ah-ha moment was standing up this fall to teach a First Year class at St. Lawrence University. As I stood in front of the classroom on entrepreneurship, I looked out and saw hockey, baseball, football, squash, soccer, and lacrosse players. And we connected on the mutual language of sports, practice, discipline, and… well, coachability. 

Because I never saw myself as an athlete, I never learned to be coachable. Always self-analyzing and self-correcting, I have been able to deflect and (mostly) avoid disaster, but my quest for perfectionism has been a double-edged sword. It kept me on the right track most of the time, but paired with my perfectionism, I was never trained out being overly sensitive or defensive over the most minor criticism. I saw comments in red pen marking up a report or tacit ‘do this differently’ statements as the end of the world. Critique was an enemy to vanquish and, let’s face it, little red places for tears to run down around. 

As I started teaching in a formal setting for the first time in a while this Fall, I heard faculty tell me that students reacted better to green or blue grading pen, that red was too harsh. I instantly got defensive in my head. I will grade in red and make them tough and strong, I thought. I will make them better. Instead, I brought it up to the class as a discussion point and we make a group decision. 

I explained to them that as a boss, leader, and adult, – the easiest thing in the world to do is to cut someone out of our lives. Fire, dismiss, and ignore them. The easiest thing I could do would be to give everyone A’s and not grade anything. That’s the best bang for my buck, the most financial payoff per hour of work. 

But, instead, I opted to do my job as educator, and read and critique and mark-up thoroughly every paper. Every week, every time. Each one marked with a grade of performance and quality. Because every person in your life that ever chooses to take their time to teach you, to help you, to guide you – especially when they don’t have to or aren’t being paid explicitly for that – they are worth their weight in gold in making you your best self. The class elected to have their work graded in red pen. 

Photo courtesy of Piper Klemm

Saying this out loud to my students made me start to see it more and more in my own life. I stopped being defensive. I stopped trying to fight with people who were credentialed in what they were advising me on. I went to a fitness class, and focused on myself instead of making fun of everyone else in my head. I went to the next fitness class, then the next one, and maintained a schedule of going and following through the movements for 60 minutes twice a week, something that I could never do when I was before I learned to be coachable.

Most importantly, I stopped taking everything so personally. I embraced “red pen” in all aspects of my life. I let comments on my performance not define me as a person. I took some social media comments that might have really upset me in prior years and was, for the first time, able to put them in a box where they belong. I’ve found myself crying less than ever, while taking more direction and critique than ever before. I have opened up new aspects of my life to let in more and let in people who I had shielded myself from in the past, knowing they would have the ability to hurt me.

Anyone who is teaching me or educating me for my own good has a free pass. I’m going to learn and not be hurt or upset or take it personally out on a relationship I might have with anyone. 

This year, I realized I was an athlete because I’m someone who participates in this great sport that we all share. I’m an athlete because I have camaraderie, and a plan to execute optimum fitness in the gym. I’m in my kitchen, preparing food to fuel my body. My mind knows that any aspiration is just a goal and a plan away. In business, I’m an athlete that’s ready to take criticism and march towards a better product.

Photo courtesy of Piper Klemm

And an athlete can’t do any of this without being coachable.

I started 2018 uncoachable, unmanageable, and spontaneous. Now, I close out the year in a way that I’ve never been able to. Looking towards 2019, I confidently call myself an equestrian athlete – a highly coachable one.

About the Author: Piper began her tenure as the Publisher of The Plaid Horse Magazine in 2014. She received her B.S. with Honors in Chemistry from Trinity College [Hartford, CT] in 2009 and her Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley in 2012. She is an active member of the hunter/jumper community, owning a fleet of lease ponies and showing in adult hunter divisions.
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