Friday, January 31, 2014

What it really takes to be a World Class Handler

With both the AKC National Agility Championship and Westminster's first big agility show coming up very soon, there has been a lot of buzz in the agility community about last minute surprises, new inconveniences, and increased expenses. Some people aren't too comfy with that and I've been studying this with a somewhat selfish interest.

People seem expect a lot from these shows. They are a big deal, representing significant emotional and financial investment. There's a lot of rings, the best equipment, a lot of expertise, and a huge crowd of spectators waiting to be entertained. Exhibitors going to such shows seem to expect perfection and predictability in kind with the perceived status of such an event.

At the same time as all this buzz was going on, a friend drove down to New York City to do an agility demo for The Today Show to help promote the Purina Incredible Dog Challenge. That's also a big event, but this demo was a very small event. As with most demos the ring was a small cordoned square with only a few obstacles all jammed together. Although the handlers were introduced, hardly anyone present knew of this handler's accomplishments or really much of anything about dog agility.  But, there was a huge crowd of spectators waiting to be entertained.

At this demo, the deck was stacked against any chance of demonstrating excellence. There simply wasn't room; the cameramen were in the way, the crowd was rowdy, the show hosts and all the other demo exhibitors were all crammed into this little space. Some of the dogs got stressed, a few got confused, the show hosts made dog agility into their own silly game complete with paper pom-poms. If anyone watching that event was expecting perfection or predictably, they were certainly disappointed. Yet from what I observed, the crowd was all smiles and laughter, loving the dogs as much when they passed the obstacles as when they did them. The handlers showed exceptional good sportsmanship, got into the spirit of the game and worked the situation with as much sincerity as if it had been a national championship. This entire short, admittedly amateurish event came off communicating the message that dog agility, while not always perfect, was just a boatload of joy.  Is there any more perfect message to convey about the sport we all love?

Last year I missed the joy boat. I cancelled a national event, a regional event, and a lot of local trials. I used reasons like it would be too much chaos, too much hype, too many last minute surprises, too much pressure for perfection, etc. There would be problems and I wouldn't be able to show to the level I expect of myself. I would seem like an amateur when I wanted to seem World Class. Now I'm hearing people use that same logic about these upcoming big events. Some are already declaring that they won't be able to have any fun, a few have said they might back out, and a lot have mentioned that they never go to such events because of these reasons. I said that too, and then I started to think about it,..

I've read about some past big events over the past 12 years.  I've read about schedule changes, venue changes, bad equipment and dark, wet rings. I've even read about handlers who have had to clean glass from the ring or rake gravel from it before being able to compete in a big international event. These are things we think we'd never tolerate at even a local trial, but those handlers who invested all their effort into getting there didn't just go back to the hotel until things were perfect. They took a less than ideal situation, changed it as best they could, and then put themselves into a headspace which believed that whatever else was going on, this was their perfect moment with their dog. They shone, and we were inspired by it. So did the handlers at the agility demo today, and for the exact same reasons.

So, what does it take to be a World Class handler? Its apparently not about being able to excel under ideal circumstances, since this seems to almost never occur. Its more about being able to create your own perfection and predictability inside the ring when everything outside that ring is so far from ideal. It doesn't matter what size that ring is or how many obstacles are in it. The mental energy is the same, and having it in your toolbox is no accident. When you can convince your dog that all is well when it is anything but, when you can convey infectious joy when you have every right to be worried or stressed, when you can step into the ring and focus on every run being about just you and your amazing partner,.. Nothing else,.. Then, by my definition at least, you have become a World Class Handler. Every single other consideration, including the event itself,  is really just a minor detail.

I want to congratulate my friend on a great event, and wish you all the same. Don't miss that joy boat, wherever it may take you.

Monday, December 2, 2013

On Mental Management

The mental game is something that has fascinated me since the days of Chess Master Bobby Fischer. There’s a lot of Mental Management experts focusing on Dog Agility now, and those more versed than I will certainly address the topic more expertly.  Instead, from the student’s perspective I thought I’d mention a few tricky bits about the mental game- 

Mental Management won’t improve your timing or your front cross.  Its not magic. You will still need to develop your hard skills or all the brain games in the world won’t do you much good on course.

Mental Management is about what you do, not who you are. It isn’t really about becoming a better person, although that might occur. It likewise doesn't imply that you are in any way defective if you elect to work your mental game. It's simply about creating a more powerful performance by getting you out of the way of you; there is no you!

No one ever died of Negativity. Don’t overreact to it; you’re likely to do more damage than good. 

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.  It's easy to overthink Mental Management. For example, feeling a quick pang of anxiety before a run doesn’t mean you should stop competing until you can be perfectly calm!  Every one of us is a work in progress. 

Mental Management  isn’t psychotherapy.  In other words, don’t go pushing Humpty Dumpty off the wall if you aren’t reasonably sure you can put him back together again in time for the show. Take it easy on yourself. Love yourself extra during transitional work, and if your self-image is turning to Swiss cheese from all the introspection, give yourself permission to be mentally imperfect for a while longer. There are plenty of successful competitors out there who have not given a moment’s thought to what’s going on in their heads. 

Find a supportive mentor. Really. Mental Management is hard work. Find someone who inspires you to keep going and feel good about your journey. 

It will be interesting to come back in a year and see how much of this I still agree with, but my summary perception is this- Mental Management is just another tool in the toolbox, in the end. As with Agility itself, don't take it all too seriously.

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Sunday, October 27, 2013

The Season of Setting Goals

Its a windy enough day to stay indoors; leaf raking is futile. The 2013 Cynosport competition is over, marking the end of another dog agility season. That's the time when I tally up my year, perhaps along with others who have more cause to count.

I achieved the performance goals I wanted this year. We got the speed, distance, and confidence I wanted from Talos so he probably would have done ok at nationals after all. Not great but ok, as in not stressed or slow. That's huge and I'm proud of him as well as the changes I made to me so he could trust getting there. However, I didn't reach any of my competitive goals. I cancelled going to Cynosport although I had planned on it from the moment the 2012 event had ended.  I had felt unsettled since our last big competition. Not unhappy, because Talos ran his little heart out and I had a great time while there,.. It was something else that took hold shortly after the one regionals I attended. Clever me, I had cancelled the other regionals before I could feel either unsettled or happy.  Earlier in the year I also stopped trying to get him qualified for AKC nationals- so I could focus on USDAA, said I. So if I did not reach those goals it WAS for lack of trying, and I need to figure out why I'm habitually standing in my own way. My goals always seem great but tend to lose luster as the events grow closer. They have no staying power.  I know there are Mental Management skills for that, but I'm not convinced it was the wrong choice to let these goals go. On the other hand, trying to function without goals is no choice for me at all.

I also didn't get the last 2 Q's for Talos' ADCH this season, which was to be my lesser 'replacement goal'. There have been so many near misses that I can see he has developed those skills; we just need a little more luck. Still, luck is such a tease that I think for now I will accept that its not going to happen this year.  I know he can do it but the two Q's have also lost their luster. I hear myself saying how I should really spend those entry fees on things like firewood and snow tires. Cold weather apparently brings out my more pragmatic self. Hopefully I will still be employed, healthy, and able to play agility next time the weather warms. If not, I'll have bigger worries than earning another ribbon. After all, my walls are full of ribbons and only the spiders seem to care. Loss of  luster strikes again- its a basic defect of setting goals.

It drives me nuts when people say they don't have goals, that they 'do agility for fun'. Can it be they might actually know people who do agility to feel miserable?  Of course not! We each define fun by our own measures, based on what we personally find reinforcing. We cannot define this for others and should not judge it, but it seems a good idea to at least define it for yourself.  Perhaps that's what the long winter is for. And here it is, the north wind sliding down the mountain and blustering through the fields. Excuse me while I throw another log on the fire, and try to define what it is that might maintain the luster just one more season.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Even in Agility, you get what you give


I've just finished posting a worker schedule for a friend's trial. Last weekend I was a Ring Manager- the person who has to fill in all those holes when volunteers either do not volunteer or do not show up. Both times this involved an organization that has always identified itself with being less competitive, community-minded, and fun. The weekend before that, it another org, but the same result. Well,.. Something has changed with exhibitors, I think! Didn't matter if we begged, promised the world, or yelled. No one could be motivated to step up and help. Shamefully, there were children who were working harder than the grown-ups- and they did come to understand that it was work, as grown-ups criticized their efforts to create a little fun. The people who were being asked to work 3-4 times a day to make up for the lack of workers were also not having fun, nor were the exhibitors who were waiting around as the day grew longer and longer from delays. Completing a worker scheduler is definitely not any fun with 30 or so positions to fill, and maybe 8 available workers per ring. This becomes an exercise in taking advantage of the very people who have been generous enough to help, and as a worker scheduler, you do feel terrible about this. The trial hosts are not having fun as their trials run late and people complain and threaten to trial elsewhere next time. Adding all this up, I just do not see how it is not in everyone's best interests for everyone to contribute in some small way. Everyone, just in case you missed that word.

I see no proof that the word 'volunteer' was ever meant to imply that contributing to a well run trial was somehow optional. If that happened in the old days, there could be no trial to enter or attend. Rather, what 'volunteering' means in the context of this sport is that how you choose to contribute is up to you. Contrary to popular superstition, volunteering and excelling are not mutually incompatible. Exhibitors have proved this over and over again, as Chief Course Builders or Trial Chairs win Grand Prixes or earn ADChs and CATCHs.

If you still think that helping out at a trial is optional, ask yourself this question next time you step to the line in hopes of getting an important Q- what if you looked about and saw there was no timer, no scribe, no scorer, no one to re-set the chute? Or, more commonly, what if there were, but these folks were so tired from being over-worked that they were not at their best for your run? Maybe they were up half the night with the worker schedule, and hit the start button early, or the finish button late. Maybe they put an extra fault or two on your sheet, or your score on someone else's sheet. Maybe your dog would get tangled in the chute, or injured jumping a spread that was not correctly set. Is this really the experience you want agility to be? Is this 'fun'? Then go ahead, sit back in your comfy chair, and *try* to enjoy it. You may find that this is more work than offering to work a simple job for 45 minutes.

I am not writing to rehash this debate. There simply is no justifiable 'other side' to this issue. Excellence can be achieved at many levels and I am writing to urge you to develop excellence, from the inside out. Make the commitment to become an agility person all of us are happy to see, and to watch. I wish you fun,.. and that warm, gratifying sense of community that comes from looking beyond yourself.

-Devora Locke

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Welcome to yet another bit of information overload

Is there really room in our brains for every little bit of trivia that crosses our friends' minds? Blogs, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter,.. There seems no end to it. I sometimes wonder,.. perhaps it might be better not to know too much about what person spends their time thinking about. We may be disappointed,.. So,.. I'll try to make content here somewhat relevant. Thanks for reading.