How did orange become the new gold? What does it take to be a successful coach? And most importantly – what does it take to build a solid team spirit that keeps its position year after year?
By Nina Fortgens and Therese Alhaug. Photos Therese Alhaug.
Rob Ehrens, 58, is not only a successful coach, his achievements as a rider is also quite impressive. The former international show jumping rider finished his career riding Celano at Hickstead in 2001 – at the same show where he started as a 23-years-old and in 1980 where he came second in the Grand Prix.In between he has won the Grand Prix of Calgary and the World Cup qualification in Hertogenbosch. He also took part in five European Championships, as well as four World Cup finals. Not to mention, Ehrens himself was part of the Dutch team at two Olympics: In Los Angeles 1984, and in Seoul in 1988.
“Coaching is not about a lot of words but, it is all about beeing present, about details and focus.”
In 2002 – 2004 he was coaching junior and young riders, until he took over the flag from Bert Romp as a team captain of the Dutch show jumping team, first as an interim, then as the new team captain. His success as a coach has since then been amazing! The Dutch team has gained historic championship wins the lasts years, winning double gold, team, and individual, in both the World championship in 2014 and in the European championships this summer. So what does it take to be a successful coach – year after year?
As the Dutch team captain since 2004, you have been very successful. What is your secret?
It was very difficult to start. I was thinking how do I do this job? I took a piece of paper and I wrote down all the names that I rode for during my career as a rider. Then I wrote down plusses and minuses regarding riding for others to get more insight in what was needed for good coaching. In my time as a rider, there was always a lack of correct information and “straight-line” vision. I, therefore, decided I had to make everything really clear for my riders. I also felt that communication is a very important matter as a coach. As I have been following these basic principles I have become a very happy coach. Still, It is a difficult job. For sure I have made a lot of people happy, but I have also made mistakes and made people angry. That is the way of life, and if you cannot deal with that you must stop being a coach.
What are your most important success factors?
First of all, you need riders that can finish a job. Let´s say you have good riders and then you have better riders. But for a team you need the best-skilled riders. And you need top class horses. When a rider wants to be part of the team they should ask themselves this question: Do I perform well enough and consistently the same, and can I work under pressure and finish the job? When I look back at 2014 and 2015, we have had four riders with first class riding skills, top horses who are able to form a good team together. This is what makes us so successful. The riders help each other, and they want to make the best possible results and have a great team spirit. A second factor is communication skills. I find communication essential in all training and coaching I do.
How do you create that great team spirit?
Team spirit is something that must come out of your heart. It’s all about being able to give each other support. An important task for me is, therefore, to get those riders together that want to play in a team. I´m also very lucky regarding this subject because the way I see it all Dutch riders have this capability. Sometimes, though, in other countries, this can be a problem. For example, I cannot understand why a team don´t eat breakfast together in the morning or getting together for lunch or dinner. We are always together. I don´t have to create this, it just happens. I find this very important, but the riders must also be in the position that they want to do it this way. For example in Aachen where we won the team competition, it was lovely. Of course, we celebrated together. We made an appointment in the hotel to have dinner together at 11 p.m. and at 10 minutes past 11 p.m. we were are all together at the dinner table and that is very nice. The coach has to put it all together and show initiative. In the end, it all depends on the character of the riders to make it a success.
“Team spirit is something that must come out of your heart. It’s all about being able to give each other support.
What are your training principles?
Communicating with your horse is something all top riders still work on. You need to have control over your horse. When you get that you can form a combination, which you can use while riding a course, and you can make decisions how to ride it.
Which coach do you admire?
I admire all persons who achieve good results and also I admire those who stay as a coach for a long period of time in the same country.
What win do you regard as your biggest success?
You are always proud when winning and all wins have a special place in your heart. For me, the World Championships in 2006 was extra special. It was a historical moment. The Netherlands had never had a team win in a World Championship. That was an enormous thing. There was intense pressure, especially on the last rider Gerco Schroder who had to make a clear to pull in the gold medal.
“It is very exciting, for example, to watch the jump off of a Grand Prix class where the horses are flying over 160 cm fences and you can see the skills of the riders and enjoy the teamwork of horse and rider, it is spectacular!”
The second win that still gives me the “goose bumps” is when Jeroen Dubbeldam won the individual gold medal in Caen in 2014. That moment in the arena, being part of his success, and being allowed to be there, was magic. The rider can choose 3 people that are allowed to join him in the arena during the final competition and I asked Jeroen before the final, who do you want to be with you? He said Rika, my groom, you and Gerco. Okay, then I already knew that Gerco’s plan was to go home on Sunday morning with his brothers. So I told Jeroen. Okay, he said – then I only need Rika and you he said. I was very honored that he asked me to be there for support. In the evening before the final on Sunday, we were sitting in the hotel. Everyone had already gone to bed when I said to Gerco «Do you want to do me a favor and stay tomorrow because Jeroen would really like you to be there?» «Yes, of course,» he said, and then he stayed. You know – seeing Jeroen`s face that morning that Gerco was still there to support him, was wonderful. The whole time during this competition I think we didn’t talk much to each other, only the very necessary matters. Coaching is not about a lot of words but is all about being there, about details and focus. These are two very special victories for me. When you win something for your country, it is always spectacular.
“The second win that still gives me the “goose bumps” is when Jeroen Dubbeldam won the individual gold medal in Caen in 2014. That moment in the arena, to be a part of his success and beeing allowed to be there… It was magic.”
Do you believe in sports psychology and how do you use it?
Yes, I do. We start really early with juniors and young riders, and we work a lot also with the current team riders to get stronger. For example, when the final decisions have to be made in the arena, you must not have any form of stress or failure, because then you cannot win those medals. And I must say that works really well. I find sports psychology very important. It has helped my team a lot.
How do you prepare for a big championship?
We make a show plan in the beginning of the season. Not only for the championships but also the national cups are important. We make a plan altogether with the riders. I think that is the best way, to do this in good harmony. I have a plan in my head and present that to the riders, and then we discuss it together and make some adjustments. The most important thing for me when planning shows is: Don’t do too much but also not too little. That is my major task: to fill in as many 5 star shows as possible for all of my riders, and that still fit the national cup shows and championship events.
What is the last word you say to your team members before they enter the ring?
«In fact I don’t say that much, I´m not a big speaker as I think the more you speak the more you can make them upset or distract them. I never forget in 2006 a lot of people came up to Gerco Schroder at the Euro Commerce in Berlin. He needed to have a clear round in order to win, and everybody came to him to give him the last piece of advice. I told everybody to get away.» I said: «This is not our job here.» Gerco looked at me and said, «What do I have to do?» I said: «Do what you always do, just ride clear.» «And with that message he went into the arena and did it. It’s all about details and focus, and I felt that also when I was riding myself. When a lot of people come in front of you just before you have to perform, and talk to try to help, it does not work. It only distracts and causes confusion. Talk about strategy and plans in front of the show and not during the show “less is always better”»
“It doesn’t matter how dark it becomes, the light will always come back”.
You have had so much success and so many wins. Have there also been hard times when things didn’t go as planned, and how did you cope with that?
It is always my task as a coach to stay optimistic. And that is very important. I never forget in 2005 when I started. The federation told me to skip the European Championships that summer and focus on the first division of the National Cup so we could stay in the league. We had a meeting with the riders and we said: «No way! We will go to the European Championships, and we will stay in the league.» «So, that was also what we did, and it brought us a lot of success. If you are in a good flow, everything is possible. But if you are out of the flow, nothing works and that happens quickly. Then you must not be upset or panic, that doesn’t work. My strength is that I always stay positive. As the Dutch saying: “It doesn’t matter how dark it becomes, the light will always come back”. Like after Kentucky when we were all disappointed and we were not qualified for the games. You cannot give up. As you stand up when you win you also have to do so when you lose. That is reality and that is the Dutch team, we are all normal and never need bigger shoes when we win.
What is your future plans and what is your next goal?
To win a gold medal at the next Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro.
What are your expectations for the Olympic games in Rio?
«Everyone has big expectations, but to tell you the truth it’s a bit of dreaming. We did so well the two last years after winning 2 gold medals at the World Championships and then two gold medals at the European championships. We nearly won the National Cup final again in Barcelona, but we became third. We are happy with that. Some people say: You lost in Barcelona.» I say: «We didn’t loose, we came third.» That is the reality. Winning and loosing are very close to each other. For instance, if Daniel Deusser would have been clear in Aachen, his country would have won the gold. The competitors are so close to each other, so for every moment of winning in this strong field of competitors, you must be really thankful and enjoy the moment as it can be over very quickly. If you are not in the flow and have four rounds with one down, that is what happened to us in 2012 in Kentucky. People said the horses were not good enough and the riders where not top, and more of that nonsense. That team in Kentucky also won in Dublin, which is a prestigious National cup show. In the second round in Kentucky, they all had two downs, and then you are gone. So you have to be realistic. But still my goal for 2016 is again the gold medal; otherwise, you are not a good coach. Especially with the riders and horses, we have today. A place within the top five is not good enough for us, so we go for gold and if we receive a medal that is satisfactory, but the main goal is gold.
Do you have enough good horses and riders for Rio?
When you have to fill in the names on paper a lot can happen, but we are really happy with SFN (Show jumpers´funds) and NOP (Dutch Olympic Horse) these are two organizations that invest and try to make sure that our good horses stay in the Netherlands. It was painful that a horse like Simon ridden by Jeroen Dubbeldam was sold to Bezzie Madden before the Olympic games in London, and he was not even showing at the Olympics at that time. The four combinations we now have in the team we hope to stay sound, but we also have other good combinations that are knocking on the door. That is fantastic. The more problems I have with filling in my team, the better it is. If I have no problems filling in the team, there are also nobody to choose from. You must be really lucky that the few you have can compete.
What is your motivation?
It is not only about winning. For starters, you do it for your country. That is important for me. I want to go on with this job as long as the riders, owners and federation back me up. Then it is a fantastic job to have.
“It is not only about winning. For starters, you do it for your country. “
Tell us something we didn’t know about you?
I’m an easy person to my surroundings but not for myself. I want everything to be perfect and well thought out. For example, we are now close to Jumping Indoor Maastricht where a lot of Dutch riders want to compete. I work 3 – 4 weeks to get the correct list of riders that are allowed to start and that worries me a lot because I don’t want to make mistakes. But mistakes sometimes happen, as we all make mistakes. I had to change a lot in my life like choosing this career. I love to speak out of my heart, but with doing this job that is not allowed. I always have to think about what I say and always be polite. One of my strong points is that when I make a mistake, I admit it and keep it in the open. I never hide behind other people. When I make a mistake it is my mistake and this attitude is something I had to learn. When I was younger I could be angry. That doesn’t work as a coach. Coaching is all about managing and making sure everything is taken care of. Such as mental coaching, so that all the riders can focus on their job. You always have to work together in good harmony and work on details for improvement. You need the trust of the riders.
What makes the equestrian show jumping sport so special?
-It is spectacular, competitive and fair. If you have 40 names on the starting list of a big class, they are all good enough to win. The audience can see that even the best riders and horses can have faults and, therefore, do not win that class. That makes it open for everybody. It is very exciting, for example, to watch the jump off of a Grand Prix class where the horses are flying over 160 cm fences and you can see the skills of the riders and enjoy the teamwork of horse and rider, it is spectacular!
Coach achievements as team captain of the senior Dutch showjumping team
European Championships 2005 San Patrignano team bronze & individual bronze
European Championships 2007 Mannheim team gold
European Championships 2009 Windsor individual bronze
European Championship 2015 Aachen team and individual gold
World Championships 2006 Aachen team gold
World Championships 2014 Caen team gold & individual gold
Olympic games 2012 London team silver & individual silver
Winning the Furusiyya Nations Cup in Barcelona 2014