The Second Story

by Mar 6, 2020

This post is based on self-reflection after having gone through one of the most emotionally challenging periods of my adult life.  I’m not sharing this to evoke empathy or out of a need for personal release … a corner has been turned and the emotional side has calmed.  I was recently reminded that the most important part of any life challenge is the lesson learned.  I wrote this for you or maybe someone you know, for anyone who has ever found themself not enjoying their agility runs, feeling pressured or alone, or believing that they are under-achieving.  My greatest hope is that you find this piece reassuring that you are not alone, there are ways to manage ring nerves and performance anxiety, and there is a path back to the great joy and fulfillment that got us all ‘hooked’ on this sport.  I hope reading this will encourage you to take action and get back to a good place.

If one were to look at 2019 purely from a statistical standpoint (like reading the box score of a baseball game), most people would probably say that ‘Rita and I had a very good year.  Having earned six Championship level awards, passing the 5,000 LIfetime Points milestone, being awarded a “Distance Cup” for exceptional teamwork and finishing in 2nd Place in a very challenging division at the Championships event, along with winding up in the Top Ten by breed in six of the eight classes offered, all indicate 2019 brought us a good deal of success in the sport of dog agility.  We ran well, but only rarely was it fun.  

To be perfectly clear, my dog brings me an immense amount of joy.  Every time she smiles at me or we look in to each others’ eyes … my heart is filled and there are few things I would want to do more than get in the ring and say “OK Go!” as we proceed to conquer yet another course.  What went on outside the ring is where the tougher challenges were presented and greater victory was to be won.   Social posturing, condescending and demeaning remarks about those who train with me from a group of crate whisperers, financial difficulties, and allowing others to ‘get in my head and stay there rent free’ all combined to leave me feeling trapped and defensive at almost every event.  The pressure, stress, and uncertainty over “What next?” sucked the joy out of good runs and really amplified troublesome moments to the point of wondering whether we actually did have any teamwork in place.  I didn’t want to run my dog at trials in my own back yard because of mounting concerns throughout the season.  By the time our last trial of the season rolled around, I had been working on two hours of sleep each night for a week prior and was in a full-blown anxiety attack for the entire trial … shaking, racing heart, shortness of breath, unable to focus on the courses or the well being of my dog.  There was very little about that experience which would make me look forward to participating in another trial weekend.

My wife, daughter, and friends all made it abundantly clear to me that I could not go on “as is”.  I had to either walk away from the sport or find help in figuring this out.  While thinking about those who trusted me as their trainer / coach and had invested their time, talent, and funds in taking their dog on an agility journey with me, it became obvious that I would be extremely uncomfortable with quitting the sport.  Oh yeah, and then there’s my dog and me; we would not be the same without competing in agility either.  Fortunately, I was encouraged by some highly successful people to keep on, press through the struggle, and come out the other side to enjoy the game again.  I took that encouragement to heart.

When working with a training client I always try to help them “build on their wins”.  Use one successful moment as the basis for another successful moment, add a new skill, or try something more challenging.  That was the approach I had to take with rebuilding my own confidence and figuring out a better way to play in this sport.  So I drew on the Championships event and all that “went right” there as my springboard for a better approach to entering the ring with my dog.  The starting point was to determine what it was about Champs that made it feel so much more relaxed and in control?  After all, there are TV cameras, an announcer, hundreds of extremely knowledgeable eyeballs in the stands observing every run … why did it “feel better”?  Truly a puzzle as logic says it shouldn’t … yet it did.  

An abundance of reading, counseling, and conversations with others in the sport who I respect greatly, all helped me to consciously learn more about my previous experiences, this exploration in to the mental part of agility helped me reverse-engineer why the Championships event went well and felt better.  Never before had I actually sorted out a true methodology to the mental side of the game, it always just kind of happened.  Either I was having a good day and things went well, or I was having a rough day and our runs would fall apart.  There was no direction or control over what was permitted in my mindset – our performance was entirely a product of the environment with no filters or regulations.  At the Championships event I had a routines and rituals which kept me focused on simple tasks in a prioritized and predefined manner, not allowing my mind to race in different directions.  I replayed the course in my head while putting on my cleats, I connected with my dog while walking from her crate to the queue, I went through a mental checklist of what I needed to tell ‘Rita on our run instead of watching others’ runs.  Clarity and focus on tasks made all the difference.

Through further study I also gained new insights and methods for handling my approach to performance in the ring.  Throughout the process I discussed what I was learning with just about everybody I encountered.  It was fascinating to me how many people were going through, or HAD gone through, similar troubling experiences.  For many, at one time or another heading in to the ring meant performance anxiety, fear of disapproval, or just being resigned to the possibility that failure was eminent yet again.  When asked why we had not had this conversation previously most people responded that they were hesitant because it would either be a “bummer” to others around them, or they just didn’t want to admit it, possibly appear weak, unhappy, or maybe that they didn’t trust anyone else enough to discuss it.  

Thinking of stress or performance anxiety as something we have to remain silent about or face on our own seems so unproductive.  While there are aspects of the ‘mental game’ that are unique to each person and we all have to sort some things out for ourselves, wouldn’t it be immensely helpful to learn from others who have been down this road ahead of us?  Having a guide can make the journey much more efficient and far less treacherous. 

The methodology I have been so fortunate to study, learn, and implement in to my training over the past several months has proved itself valuable beyond what I ever thought possible.  Throughout the process my desire to run at a live event rose from its’ all-time low in December (dreading the thought) to “We have got to put this in to play and see how it works!”  Because of expense and travel logistics, getting back in the ring quickly meant a big change for ‘Rita and me, the only viable option was competing in a completely new venue, starting over with a very different course design philosophy, and six new pieces of equipment we had little training time on (most of it she had not seen in over a year).  Of course, the ‘social’ aspect was still present at this weekend’s event because this first trial in the new venue was not very far from home.  Fortunately the majority of the people who I knew at this past weekend’s trial were friendly, welcoming, and went out of their way to make it an easy acclimation to the new environment. 

I was very deliberate to put my routines into practice upon arrival at the trial site and throughout the first morning as there were a few moments when I felt the anxiety starting to build again.  By the time we hit the ring for our first run my mindset was far better than most of the events I participated in throughout the previous year.  Only once did I break from my pre-run ritual for some chatter while we were waiting in the queue, but caught that, did a quick mental reset, and got back in the proper state before we were told to “Go when ready”.  We had two fault-free qualifying runs with first and second place rankings respectively.

The courses on the second day were such that ‘Rita and I could run quite comfortably with a moderate amount of distance.  ‘Rita had already proven that she understood her job on all the new (unfamiliar) equipment and we were back to running for the fun of running.  It actually felt almost as relaxed and confident as we were at Championships in the venue I had grown accustomed to for 18 years!  I kept a consistent approach to the runs on this second day, stayed locked in to my routines, and again we did extremely well.  

Looking back at the November trial where our Q rate was below 50% and I felt like a total wreck, compared to this past weekend with a 100% Q rate (3 of 4 runs completely fault-free, with only minor bobbles on a couple of runs) and we experienced joy-filled runs with a much better mindset, I can only conclude that the mechanisms and techniques I have been working on have done a world of good and further reinforcement and refinement of these mental skills will be an essential piece to our future in this sport.  

So you may be wondering “What’s the lesson?” 

Top athletes universally agree that the skills necessary to be the best at what they do can be acquired … learning a skill and developing it to the highest level is a process which can be done systematically.  Excellence, confidence, and the greatest joy in what they do comes from addressing the  the mental aspect of their game.  Those at the top of their game agree that the mental aspect of what they do is 90% of the formula for success and pleasure in their field of choice.   Study, practice, and manage the mental side of the game – that’s the lesson. Finding your routine, your coping mechanisms, and your path to the best mental state will do amazing things for the joy and success you experience in the ring and throughout the rest of your life. 

If I were to offer one final tip about recovering joy and confidence while playing our game, it would be “Don’t face this alone.”  Identify a friend or a group of friends who genuinely care about you.  Not someone who says they’ll help you and then walks away when things get tough, one or more people who run TO you when things start getting challenging.  Those are the people you need.  This story would be quite different without the people in my life who made themselves part of the solution rather than compounding the problems by perpetually complaining about things.  All of us need support and there are likely people around you who would be delighted to help if you asked them to come along on your journey, be your source of encouragement, and they may even grow a bit themselves in the process.  I, to this day, remain amazed at the number of people who have been willing to step up for me and to what extent they have been willing to go.  I am humbled and grateful to each of them for their support, compassion, and true friendship.

Please feel free to get in touch with me if you would like to discuss how to get started on a program or if you have questions.  I wish your the best in this essential area of your growth as an agility handler and great partner to your dog!

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