In my last article I talked about how the way you think about things has a huge influence (both positively and negatively) on your agility performance. The focus of that article was on how you might be accidentally thinking about your performance or training after the fact in ways that are undermining your progress and achievement.
This article is focused on what you can think about before you compete to help you perform better in the ring.
First an example using your dog to illustrate the transitioning process.
It might be helpful to think about how you prepare your dog for their performance first before we think about how you prepare yourself. I think its very helpful to teach your dog how to mentally transition from their “in the crate” mindset to their “working” mindset so that they not only expect to move between those two states whenever you invite them to come play with you, but also so they get good at it. The steps that I recommend go like this:
100% environment —- This is where your dog is in their crate and able to think about whatever crosses their mind, smells, distractions, noises, napping…
Start transition —- If they notice you are there, you open the crate door giving them an opportunity to offer a behavior that will earn them the chance to come out and play.
Offer a self control behavior — If they are able to wait (or sit, or give eye contact) or whatever you have taught them to do, without you asking for it -- Then you can release them.
Orient to you —-After they come out of the crate, I teach them to immediately orient to me (instead of going off sniffing, investigating the crates nearby etc.) -
Mindless play —- If they are able to choose to orient to me, then I will engage them in mindless play (tug, treats, or whatever I am going to reward them with)
Offer to work (for what I have to give) —- If they are interested in what I have to offer, I will give them a chance to try to earn it by offering a few behaviors for rewards. Each behavior of their choosing earns a reward, treat, tug, ball throw, whatever they value.
Ask for work —-If they can offer me a couple of things, then I will ask them to do a couple of things that I know they know really well (nose touch, come to heel, sit, down, high 5.....) for rewards.
If I am getting a nice keen response to what I know they are already good at, then I feel like they are ready mentally to try to do something more complex (practice, train, learn, compete) - I have my 100% teammate.
If you habitually work through this process with your dog, what I find is that they mentally transition faster because they understand how to engage with you, expect to interact this way and anticipate where this is all heading. In other words, they get good at transitioning from 100% environment to 100% teammate.
Handlers who fast-forward through these steps risk asking a dog to perform complex behaviors when they are half “awake” if that analogy makes sense and the dog is very likely to make mistakes and not so great decisions until they catch up mentally.
OK, so now back to you and your mental state.
When you are getting ready to compete, you are going through a similar transition. Way before your run, you are probably 100% environment as well (visiting, catching up, watching other runs, working in the ring....) and when you go to the line, you probably would like to be 100% teammate too.
Are you good at making that transition? Since you don’t have the help of someone else leading you through the steps, you’ll have to do that for yourself. If you insist that you go through these steps, you will get good at transitioning too and your performance in the ring will improve as a result. You can use these steps before you do any “performance” activity. Before you study the course map, walk the course, run a training sequence, visualizing your run, go into the competition ring etc.
100% environment —- This is where you are not with your dog, literally and mentally. It’s also helpful if you are not letting your “competition” mindset run open loop either. If you are inattentive to what you are thinking about, but you are thinking about your upcoming run - you could very likely be rehearsing some of the unhelpful thought processes that I described in my previous article.
Start Transition ——This is a deliberate action that you pick that will mark the beginning of your mental transition from environment to competitor/teammate. Maybe you take a deep breath. Maybe you Crack your knuckles. Maybe you wipe your hands on your pants. If this kind of thing sounds familiar - that’s because elite athletes do this. When you do this thing - it means you are going to take yourself through each step in preparation to execute and perform.
Offer a self control behavior —- Find some calming, focusing activities that work for you. Maybe it is yoga, stretching, breathing exercises or just mindless walking with your dog. Practice the self control of not agonizing over the course map, hovering at the gate, fixating on other people's runs or thinking about the work that isn't getting done at home while you spend the weekend at the trial.
Orient yourself to what is going to happen next —- Have a routine of what you do with your treats, toys, potty routine, find your leash, note whatever you need to so that you can get to the ring in a timely manner - in short, get organized. Do this before you get your dog.
Mindless play —- Now make a point of doing something silly and energizing. Maybe it is playing with your dog, maybe it is bouncing in place. More energetic stretching, running in place, tai chi - whatever works, just burn off some pent up energy. This can also be combined with what your dog is doing - fetch, tug, hide-n-seek, chase. However if you put your dog into the mix - be present in the game you are playing with them. You can’t stand there and throw the tennis ball while you stress about the cross between 10 and 11.
Offer to work —- Ask yourself to think about something awesome and great that is about to happen. These are rewardable thoughts: “I can't wait to go play in the ring”, “I’m excited to try that blind cross”, “I am so lucky to have this little guy as a partner.
Ask yourself to work —-If I can offer myself a couple of things that are rewardable, then I will ask myself to do a couple of things that I know really well for rewards. Good examples are: Self, do a micro walk through of the course and visualize the whole run. Self-go to the warm up jump and lead out with a perfect release. Self, do some ground work or cue the warm up jump with some beautiful jump behaviors. Reward yourself for excellent performance of each task. Self - “you nailed it- this is going to be so fun”
If I am getting a nice keen response to what I know I am already good at, then I feel like I am mentally ready to do something more complex (practice, train, learn, compete) - I am 100% the teammate I want to be for my dog!