This post is part of the Dog Agility Bloggers Network event; go here to see other people’s opinions on the subject of “The Mental Game”.
I am prone to bad jokes when under stress, so my first thought on the subject of “The Mental Game” is to say “you have to be mental to do dog agility.” But… I don’t actually believe that. After all, dog agility is the only sport I know of where fat(ish) middle-aged women can compete equally with skinny mid-twenties of either sex. In fact, in many ways, older people have a huge advantage in agility because we have more experience with dog training, and with life in general. So no, we’re not mental.
One of my most memorable agility runs ever came early on in my agility career, when I was running Elly. Elly had a sense of humor that was positively diabolical and I never knew whether I’d get the sweet well-trained dog I knew in practice (well, sometimes–I’m afraid I thought I was a better trainer than I actually was) or the devil spawn she morphed into occasionally, the poodle who ran like the wind and took whatever she felt like, running circles around the ring and making the judge laugh. Or worse, the dog who took one jump and trotted to her leash.
On this occasion, we were the last dog in the class, the class was Starters Snooker (USDAA) and Elly was jumping 26″ (when I had about a year’s experience in competition, in the spring of 2006). As I stepped to the line, the judge called for the coursebuilders to be ready. The previous three dogs had all become card-carrying members of the one-point club, whistled out microseconds after they started. I told the judge I would need all fifty seconds–and in fact we finished, with 46 points, in 49.85 seconds. Two sevens and a two.
It was a nice run, but what I remember clearly was the surge of anger, energy, and determination that I felt when the judge seemed to be expecting us to fail. Elly did fail, often. Her structure was terrible–she was often injured or sore–and I was an inexperienced handler and trainer. But… I was so angry when I thought the judge was belittling us. Elly the cream poodle? Not a border collie? Of course the judge thinks this run won’t last long: all these thoughts flashed through my brain in the second before I told the judge I would need those 50 seconds. At the same time, I was hoping, hoping!, I was right and that I wouldn’t be whistled out! (Now that I’m aware that asking for the coursebuilders to be ready is common, I still think it’s rude to the handler that’s coming to the line. Having the gate steward call “last dog in class” should be sufficient.)
This is what I learned in those seconds as I walked to the line. I narrowed the world down to me and Elly and my own determination. I wanted that Q; I was going to prove that my flaky dog was in fact wonderful and that I did, in fact, know what I was doing. I used that anger and I channeled that energy and I put it all into a sharp focus that made everything else, every other distraction, disappear.
I’d never done that before that run. I’d been worrying what people thought; I was seeing my run as if it were someone else’s movie, instead of being the lead actress in the drama myself. I learned a lot in those 49.85 seconds: I learned that narrowing the world down to the obstacles and the dog–being fully present in that moment and no other–pays off.
I can’t do it every run, though. It’s exhausting to pull together that focus.
What do I do instead? I try to relax. This run? This run is not that important. It’d be nice to get a Q but I don’t have to. There will be other days, other runs. I’ve walked the course well. My training is solid. My dog is wonderful. I’m here to test my training against this judge’s course; it’s not life-or-death. If we don’t Q, I’ll know what I need to train. This is a game we’re playing. I lead out, or I don’t, but I look back and smile at my dog as we start. It’s a game! Enjoy it! Let’s go!
That’s for most runs.
But every weekend, I try to pick one run, maybe two, where I drill down on the focus and I make every step count, where I take that determination to make Rush look his best and I run all out (“balls to the wall” as an old friend would say), where I run with Dancer the way she wants me to run, three feet to her side, right there. And every time I do that, the next time gets a little easier. Some weekends now I can do three runs that way.
How do I find that spot within myself? I close my ears while I’m waiting to run; I focus on my dog; I pause before I start (usually as I walk in and take off the leash) to review the course, obstacle by obstacle; I tell my muscles to get ready and I give the dog a good look; I take a deep breath; I attack the course. It’s over too quickly; then I breathe again and I tell my dog “you’re the best.”