David Stickland On How Every Dressage Competitor Can Benefit From Analytics
By now, many people in the dressage world are familiar with the name David Stickland, in fact, he may be dressage's most famous non-competitor. More comfortable with a calculator than in the saddle, the physicist has found his niche in dressage with scoring analysis. Everyone from Laura Graves to Steffen Peters, and even Anky van Grunsven have relied on Stickland's detailed scoring breakdown to help edge them closer to their peak percentage. In addition, the world's highest judging systems are getting a makeover as Stickland provides consulting services to the FEI in effort to provide judges with educational feedback and reduce subjectivity. Of course this all sounds great if you're slated for the next World Cup, but one might wonder what does David Stickland's work matter to the local competitor?
Here's why simple statistics can benefit all competitive equestrians:
Reaching Your True Potential
Stickland first became interested in dressage scoring when his daughter received wildly different results on two dressage tests, from two different judges.
"About ten years ago my daughter went to her first dressage competition and she was first and last with two different judges, in a field of 24 riders. So I thought, well that's pretty weird."
From there he decided to take a closer look at scoring and in addition to examining large scoring discrepancies, he also helped his daughter to formulate a plan to break through her 62% - 63% scoring plateau. The physicist complied her tests over several shows and revealed her potential to reach the high 60's by explaining that if she took her best scores on each movement from several tests and added them together that she and her pony had a decent shot at achieving a 67%. He told her they simply needed to improve their consistency to raise their score, and insisted that the potential was there. Turns out Stickland's mental boost worked. As predicted, after some additional schooling she and her pony went on to high 60's glory.
It sounds like a Jedi Mind Trick, but Stickland says the same technique worked on Laura Graves when she felt discouraged after several European competitions prior to the 2016 Olympics.
"What I showed my daughter is similar to what I showed Laura - if you look back at the last four or five tests, what you can see is that each time there is a different thing that goes wrong. Sometimes you do the trot work really well and sometimes you do the canter work really but you don't get it all together at the same time. When you look at these numbers though what you can see is the potential when you pull it all together. So I showed Laura that when she put all of her best scores together they were just at about eighty percent. And of course that's exactly what Laura got after some time."
Discover The Patterns In Your Scores
Scores and comments from judges are designed to help riders improve, but all too often they aren't appropriately utilized, instead stashed away and rarely revisited. Stickland argues that some of the most valuable feedback from judges be found in not just one test, but scoring patterns over time.
"Looking at one score sheet doesn't really help, but what I've found is that putting together six months or so of scores sheets really allows you to see what's going up, what's going down, what has a lot of spread, and which things are pulling you up or down. By the time you've got four or five tests then you've really got a picture."
Stickland suggests that all riders can benefit from tracking their own scores and running a tally of those averages, minimum, and maximum scores.
"One can think of ways that they can follow their own scores through an Excel spreadsheet. At any given show a judge may be up or down on you because that just happens - but the observation is that if you are judged by different people there should be patterns. Look at your tests and categorize them based on some features - walk, trot, canter, or a particular movement - half passes for example."
Double Checking Your Scores
Just as your parents told you to always look over your credit card bill for oddities, according to Stickland double checking your test for addition or data entry errors should be religion.
"I think every rider should actually check what is written on their score sheet each time because there is a non-trivial number of mistakes. I always read my daughters' score sheets in detail when they get them. I look for adding mistakes or coefficients that are left off. I don't know how often it happens, but it's definitely not infrequent."
No one cares about your score as much as you, so it's essential that riders be their own advocate and take responsibility for checking the numbers.
Better Judging - Improvement from Top to Bottom
Since putting dressage scoring under the microscope, Stickland has made various observations about the challenges that judges face. For example, he discovered that judges struggle to score exceptionally poor or good performances accurately, finding the greatest disparity between judges' scores outside of the 6 - 7 range. Stickland attributes these challenges to a lack of valuable feedback provided to judges. To help improve judging and collect meaningful data, Stickland partnered with dressage advocate and supporter Akiko Yamazaki to launch Global Dressage Analytics.
"It's a small company that I set up with Akiko and it doesn't really make money or anything like that - there's not a lot of money to be made in dressage analysis! Basically, we really wanted to collect the data so we could determine how we could help judges by giving them feedback. Judges normally only get two kinds of feedback - from those people who are ecstatically happy because they feel they've just got too high of a score, or ones who think that they are morons. So the feedback for judges generally isn't so good either way. In our analysis I wanted to show how they compare with their colleagues - are they judging higher or judging lower, or are there types of movements where they might need help with their judging?"
Through both Global Dressage Analytics and a contract with the FEI Stickland has launched an informal campaign to reorganize the judging system by collecting data.
"The FEI has had almost no data about how judges are doing, which ones are better, which ones are worse, etcetera. So since January first the FEI requires all CDI's to submit the full scores."
Stickland explains that he's working towards "a judges' dashboard where hopefully all of these judges will be able to login and see how they are doing, how they compare to the other judges, and then they can tunnel into shows and into rides or they can compare themselves with their peers."
Stickland admits that change in a sport so rooted in tradition doesn't come easily, but he believes that the community at large will be behind the movement.
"We're looking for radical changes to the way that judging is done. We want to make it as objective as possible and integrate some methods used in other sports. The riders and the trainers are quite keen on it and the judges are less keen! But I don't expect them (judges) to buy into it until there's a better option that they can see for themselves."
This transition will impact higher ranked judges first, but it's no stretch of the imagination to assume that eventually the same practices will be used to help judges at all levels. For anyone who has ever been completely baffled by vastly different scores from two judges this may sound too good to be true, but the physicist believes progress is right around the corner. With the advancements that Stickland has outlined scores should become an even more valuable tool for both riders and judges. No longer will old tests collect dust, rather they can be used to propel both parties closer towards their greatest potential.