This was published within the last couple of years in the Working Border Collie Magazine.
In the moment, you must focus.
by Diane Pagel 2010
Ever watch the runs of the top handlers, wonder how they seem so cool and collected, and lay down stellar runs, one after each other? We all know they were Novices once and had not so stellar runs. So how did they rise to the top? They could even take an average dog and make the dog look like a star. They shone with a talented dog. Even when the talented dog was sold, it usually never shined as brightly with the new owner. Did these top handlers have some mystery recipe? What was it?
Just one simple word.
How many of you have lost your focus on the trial field, then have your run fall apart? How many of you have carried that one error to the next element and then proceeded to continue to have a bad run?” How many of you gone to the post with the words in your mind saying, “I can’t beat this top handler” or “My dog grips at the top so I have to be hard on him” or “My dog is weak.”
I know that I certainly have done all of the above and more.
Once I identified that I had lost my focus, the solution was much clearer. I had to let go of my preconceived ideas and run with a clean slate. My dogs had weaknesses but also had strengths. I had let go of any errors in the runs and focus on the next step. I had to tune out all the negative energy and get into a zone.
Easy to say but hard to do. Winning the lotto would be easier, I felt at this point. But I had to evaluate myself so my dog and I could be a winning team.
In a former life, I used to play Ultimate Frisbee, played at the World level several times, and won a Gold and Bronze medal. What was different? Ultimate is a team sport but no dog or sheep are involved but your mind has to be in the game and you have to be at the peak performance as an athlete. I would go into the game with a a positive attitude and if we had an error, we would shake it off, and play on. You didn’t allow your mental mistakes to lose the game. You had to work as a single flowing unit and if you falter, the flow would be disrupted and you would start to be beat. Each team had strengths and weaknesses and you adjusted your game to fit the situation. I took my prior knowledge, sat down, and took a long look at my dogs, my handling and myself.
I had let my errors on the field be carried over to the next aspect of work and it clouded my judgment. The top handler’s run in the moment and make the split second adjustments needed to get that edge. A slow command costs you dearly. The decision must be made in a split second. You can not even think about what you could have done, what went wrong, how the other handlers did in that situation, or anything else but what you need to do next. My first step was to remained focused and be in the moment.
But that was not the total solution. I kept looking deep inside myself to see what else I could do. I had to be quicker on my decisions on the field. I had to make the correct adjustments and not guess my choice. I had to feel what was going to happen and be proactive than reactive. Most of us are reactive and playing catch up on the trial field, You have to look ahead to see what you need to do.
I knew what my weaknesses were and then had to look at my dog’s weaknesses. Sad to say, even thought I think Tess was perfect she was not. Nan and Roo were not perfect either. Each dog brought their weakness to the field and I had to adjust my handling for each dog. It was my job to capitalize on their strength and help them in their weak area. One way was to see the prior runs, course and anything else that would help me. Taking note of them, I would devise a plan before I stepped out on the field. I would handle my dog through their weak areas more and let them shine more in their strong areas. By doing so, the runs were more fluid and my dog began to trust me more. By being there in their weak areas, they felt like I was not letting them hang out to dry, but as a team we made it through the tough part.
One extremely hard area for me to let go, was the errors on the field. I had to release them as soon as they were made. I would make a mental note to address them at home but released the negative thought in my head. My dogs started to feel more at ease and less tense, when the negative energy was gone. I saw them relax and soon it was not a fight. I began to see their point of view; they would feel my anger and tense up and the cycle would get worse as the run went along. I would tell myself, “oops” and then toss the negative energy away.
I said before that I would have a plan. Also I would visualize my run, step by step before I even went out on the field. I would try to sit with my dog and visualize the run with my dog. Each component of the run was perfect in my mental plan and I let no negative energy in the plan. My dogs would relax and look up the field and I would see kindness and willingness in their eyes. Often I would do a little ritual with each dog to get them into the zone. Tess and I would do a country western dance and then she would go to the post full of herself. We would just have to gaze into each other eyes at the post and we got into the zone. We could read each other’s minds.
I would relax before my runs and not get tense or stressed. By getting am mental plan, having a relaxed attitude, I would feel confident with myself. Soon it began to payback on the trial field. If the sheep were tough for a bunch of dogs in one area, I would have a game plan on how to handle it before I went to the post. It was a proactive plan so I could make that split second decision than be slow and hope I made the right choice.
Walking to the post with confidence will give you dog confidence. If you slump your shoulders, whistle half heartedly or franticly, then your dog will do actions quickly often not the correct one. Have you ever watched the great athletes; they portray full confidence in their sport. Walk to the post with confidence with the thought that you will win and you win.
When I change with my new attitude, I began to win and was able to qualify my dogs for the finals in a few months. I was unable to run for most of the trial year due to multiple open heart surgeries and only had a few months to qualify. Had I run my dogs with the old style, I would have not done well. By changing myself, I was able to do well. I am still working on myself as it is a dynamic endeavor but I see results now. To be at the top of your game, you must change yourself first and that is a hard pill to swallow. It’s not a secret but a change of your mindset. Learn a new style that is effective. You will then become a better handler.