Erik Duvander: How I Coach the U.S. Eventing Team With a 'Growth Mindset' after Disappointment at WEG

Erik Duvander: How I Coach the U.S. Eventing Team With a 'Growth Mindset' after Disappointment at WEG

Words by Amber Heintzberger

Professor Carol Dweck of Stanford University studies human motivation, delving into reasons why people succeed or don’t, and how having either a “growth mindset” or a “fixed mindset” affects performance. According to Dweck, “…having innate talent is not a goal. Expanding skills and knowledge is.” How teachers communicate with their students can also have a profound impact on how they view themselves and whether they see difficulty as a challenge to rise above, or become defeated and give up.

U.S. Eventing Team Chef d’Equipe Erik Duvander began coaching the U.S. Eventing Team at the end of October 2017 after having worked with the New Zealand Eventing Team for a decade. Duvander, who was born in the USA but raised in Sweden, rode for Sweden for many years, competing at the Olympic Games and World Equestrian Games and winning team gold at the 1993 European Championships at Achselschwang, Germany.

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Duvander encourages a growth mindset in his training program so that riders will learn and grow from their experiences and ultimately become better athletes. Reflecting on the recent FEI World Equestrian Games in Tryon, North Carolina, obviously, a gold medal was the goal. But things did not go as well as hoped when the U.S. Team finished in eighth place, just outside of qualification for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo (the top six teams qualify, plus the host team, Japan, gets automatic qualification – they placed fourth overall, opening up space for the seventh-placed team).

Duvander discussed his thoughts on how the riders can use this time as an opportunity for growth and learning and how he encourages a growth mindset in his training.

Photo by Libby Law.

Noëlle Floyd: How do you encourage the U.S. Team riders to grow and learn from this WEG experience?
Erik Duvander: Everything is a little bit of a process. Sure, it’s painful, but all of the riders have been working hard, and it’s part of what I see as their general development. When you’ve had a failure, that’s a time that you can really improve. Some people have a growth mindset where they take feedback in the right way; they don’t take it as criticism but as a gift, and that is where you can get the real learning.

After spending so much time with the riders I have a better reference for how to approach things and how to improve with each individual. From my point of view, it will be interesting to see how they take that feedback and find out who’s ready to work smarter and with more clarity.

Obviously, it’s a sensitive area – not all people do take criticism in the right way and see it as the core of learning. The job for the coach is to deliver the message in the right way so people can make use of it. As you’re delivering the feedback you also have to have some answers, some suggestions so they can look closer at what that individual needs to change, or what their circumstances are: are they sitting on the right horsepower? Working with the right people? Running their business well?

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By the end of the season, I’ll have seen more of the riders in the team environment and I will know better how to get them to perform their best in a team scenario. That’s important for our program and quite a different scenario for them from a regular event. We’ll go to Boekelo CCI3* in the Netherlands in a few weeks’ time with another group of riders, who I haven’t seen that often other than Will Coleman, and that will be interesting for me to see how they work together at a team event. The High-Performance training list varies. Probably the list is a bit too big for me to have a top-end impact, so going forward I need to look closely at how I can be most effective.

"The job for the coach is to deliver the message in the right way so people can make use of it."

NF: How do you advise riders about their business management?
ED: With the Worlds coming up I spent some extra time with Boyd and Phillip to see how they can best focus on their high-performance activities: making sure for example that they didn’t ride a top horse, then teach a lesson, which is distracting, before they get on another horse.

They both spent time in Wellington, Florida last year and competed in some straight jumper shows. They need to make money and spend time with family too, but if you want to be best in the world you have to dig in in a smart way. By setting aside time each morning to focus strictly on his high performance horses, for example, Boyd keeps accountable and fine-tunes things even more.

There are a lot of areas where I think we can improve, but like everything, it’s going to take a bit of time in the individual yards as well as the team culture, which likely shone through at the WEG. It was difficult to get the best performances out of them at the championship – they had some good performances leading up to Tryon, but championships are difficult. It’s hard to understand from the outside, but the pressure of your country on your shoulders is a lot to handle and that’s where we need to get better. We had very little time to practice that with the riders, as well.

Photo by Libby Law.

NF: How do you maintain your own positive outlook as a coach when things don’t go as planned for the Team?
ED: Like the riders, a lot of my time is spent reflecting on the WEG and taking notes. After the competition the process really starts immediately: the day after the WEG you think about the Olympic Games, it’s a constant rolling on. The riders believe I’m the right person to lead them and I’ll give them my utmost. I knew that my coming on board as coach last year wasn’t going to be a magic bullet and everything would come right; we’re not winning at the big international competitions, so it’s very unlikely we’ll win at a world championship. It takes patience and I don’t want people to get complacent; I want to keep them motivated to improve. America’s got a lot of new events and a lot of people who are new to the sport. Having had a good ten months living in a brand-new country gives me the strength to move forward. I’m highly competitive and have a great belief in our riders, that’s what’s the driver.

NF: You have three children back home in New Zealand; what have you learned as a parent that you apply to coaching?
ED: I think my coaching has helped me to be a better parent! I ended up being a father a bit later in life, however being a parent is a huge advantage for me - they are my children, but all people, including my children, are individuals and need individual treatment. The same can be said for the riders that I am coaching.

Erik congratulates Tamra Smith after dressage at Boekelo CCIO3*. Photo by Libby Law.

NF: Can you discuss short term versus long term goals as a coach?
ED: They will all have a different speed of learning, we have Phillip Dutton with loads of experience down to riders with less experience, and some have better horsepower than others. I looked at our list from last December and it looks quite different now. It’s constant rolling over.

One of the key things is looking at the horses in the barn and which will be the best in four years’ time - or in two years’ time for the Olympics - and figure out what they need, what sort of experience they need to have to be competitive at that level. We had a few horses get nervous in the stadium at the WEG, and those horses need to be more comfortable in that kind of environment.

It’s about having a long-term plan; the minimum now is a two-year plan for the Olympic Games. We need to work with these horses and give them experience in international travel or whatever they need, but you can’t do all that in one year; you need to give them time. If we’re looking at horses for the next WEG or even two Olympic Games from now, then we’re on the right track.

"We need to work with these horses and give them experience in international travel or whatever they need, but you can’t do all that in one year; you need to give them time."

NF: In order to qualify for the Olympic Games the U.S. Eventing Team will need to win a gold medal at the Pan American Games in Peru next year. Can you discuss this?
ED: People have said going to Peru is a bit of a bother, but it’s another team experience and we can work on being better at the team events. For sure Lima is probably not the favorite place for eventers to travel to, but we need to embrace it and make the most of the experience.

NF: Can you talk about the difference between working hard to reach a goal, and working hard with good quality coaching to make sure you are on the right track, so that your hard work is actually effective?
ED: That goes down to planning as well, looking at the dressage or show jumping or cross country and what will benefit the athletes, which events will benefit them in the future. When you’re working with professional riders, sometimes they have to ride horses that aren’t the best quality and that can drag their riding down as well. That’s why they need to focus on their high performance horses. That’s why Boyd spends half the day on the high performance and half the day on his business.

I’ve been around the main riders at least fortnightly, and I try to keep it as frequent as possible. In order to give them a fundamental idea of where I’m coming from it was necessary to do that. For me to be part of the package and have an influence on the riders in a relatively short about of time before the WEG, I needed to spend as much time as possible with all of them.

Erik watches U.S. Team rider Lynn Symansky trot up Donner WEG. Photo by Shannon Brinkman.

That said, you can get a little blinded if you’re too close to the program, so I’m trying to be objective and give them more frequent reviews and make sure they are tracking in the right direction. If they’re not developing we need to ask the hard questions and ask why.

Every rider has different needs as well, and it depends how you want to break it up: it’s not just lessons but focusing on how you’re going to grow the athlete or grow the horse’s experience and improve their wellbeing. I really find the highest value looking from the outside in. For example, Boyd and Phillip work regularly with Scott Hassler in the dressage and Richard Picken in the show jumping, and I observe their training and give them feedback. I really enjoy being in the center of the ring and working directly with the riders too, so I won’t completely back away from that.

NF: You have been coaching the U.S. Team for nearly a year; have you determined how long you will spend working with them?
ED: I haven’t put a number on how long I’ll coach the US team. I think it comes down to if I have an impact; however, if we get to that goal within three years that could be a stopping point. If there’s more to be done I might stay on longer, but I don’t plan to stay on indefinitely. I think there’s a finite amount of time where you have an impact. To make real change they say takes seven years, so that might be a good number. I don’t think I should be too hung up on a timeframe, I think it should be about how well it’s working and we should be open-minded about that.

Feature photo by Shannon Brinkman.