E168: Megan Foster - "Training Your Brain to Compete"

Can you stay focused and stick to your plan even when your nerves raise their head or do other areas of your life intrude into the ring? Megan and I talk about how to train your brain to be competition ready.

Transcription

Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.

Today we'll be talking to Megan Foster.

Megan has been involved in the dog sports world nearly her entire life. Though her family did compete in obedience, agility was Megan's passion right from the start. With over 20 years experience, she has competed with a variety of dogs, including an American Eskimo and West Highland Terrier, Shelties, Border Collies, and Parson Russell Terriers, and has worked with an even larger variety of breeds. She got her first dog, a Sheltie, when she was 7 years old, and since then she has competed with six of her own dogs and seven dogs belonging to others. Her accomplishments include many ADCh (USDAA Agility Dog Champion) titles, MACh (AKC Master Agility Champion) titles, Regional and National Championships, and representing the U.S. on the European Open in 2015. Megan was also a USDAA judge for over ten years, providing valuable insight into course design, course analysis, and handling styles throughout the United States.

Megan became a OneMind Dogs Assistant Coach in 2016 and finished her Coach Certification in 2018. She believes in developing a system of communication based on the dog's perspective and what dogs naturally understand, and then individualizing that system for the humans that train and run them.

Megan has been teaching agility full-time, in person and online, for six years, through her training school, Synergy Dog Sports. Her passion for sharing knowledge with her students drives her to constantly be learning, growing, and evolving. Synergy Dog Sports is named for the truly great things a team can accomplish together when they focus on using the strengths of both the dog's mind and body and the handler's mind and body, and improving on any potential weaknesses.

Hi Megan, welcome to the podcast!

Megan Foster: Hey Melissa. Thanks for having me back.

Melissa Breau: Excited to talk today! To start us out, can you remind listeners who the animals are that you currently share your life with and what you're working on with them?

Megan Foster: Sure. There are five dogs in our home. Three of them are mine. Smack is a 12-year-old Border Collie who is, I think, mostly retired from agility; not really sure if he'll get an opportunity to go back on the scene before he's not physically capable of continuing.

I have his little sister Shock, who is an 8-year-old Border Collie who mostly does all of my demo dog videos for my online classes and things like that, because she prefers agility as an outdoor sport, and when you live in Washington, it's a mostly indoor sport.

Shrek is my 4-year-old Parson Russell Terrier, and I refer to him as my full-time job because he always has something to work on and he keeps me very busy with the things that we have to train to keep going in agility and TEAM.

Melissa Breau: Awesome. I know you've got quite a few things on the FDSA schedule right now, but the main reason I wanted to chat is because in June you're offering what I think is your first six-week class at FDSA, and you're doing it on mindset training for dog sports. So I want to talk about that. What is mindset training? Why does it matter?

Megan Foster: Mindset training is the skills that we need to literally change our brain — rewire it, so to speak — and accepting the fact that we can change these things, and that so much of what we do is not who we are, and embracing more of a growth mindset instead of a fixed mindset. So having those skills to work toward that growth and change, rather than staying stagnant as a person.

It matters for dog sports because we are just one person, and even though I think people try to separate their job and their social life and their different dog sports, but really and truly it's all there all of the time. So when we enter competition, we can sometimes get distracted by everything else going on in our lives, and that ability to zone in and focus on what you can control helps you become a better competitor.

Melissa Breau: What led you to become interested in this and eventually develop a class?

Megan Foster: It's been, I think, a long time coming. When I got my first Border Collie, Smack, in 2008, my perception of my social surroundings changed. Whether it was real or all in my head, who knows, but my perception was that I was a real competitor now because I was not a little girl with a Sheltie. I had a Border Collie. I was going to be something.

And that very quickly ruined … I thought I had nerves of steel. I always felt that way when I was running the dogs before I got Smack. And then with him, something just changed. Who knows. I was also a teenage girl, so anything was possible what could have actually been happening. But things were different.

So it started there, trying to find mentors and information out there. Of course there's tons of sports psychology. Every other sport out there has access to mentors and people just because you're on a team professionally. That wasn't really normalized in dog sports and especially agility. It would be really weird to hear someone talk about it. So it took me a while to find the mentor that I really clicked with, but once I did, and that was in 2015, it took off from there.

The skills that she taught me I could not only apply to my competition skills, but I found myself applying them to how I work with students and how I teach others. I could see that helping my students. And so I think especially now, people need this more than ever. We need to be able to focus on what we can control and make our brains do some work for good instead of evil.

Melissa Breau: You mentioned the idea that part of it is being able to shut out the rest of the world, whatever else is around. It sounds like focus to me. You touched on the idea that maybe it also has a little bit to do with nerves. Is that right?

Megan Foster: Yeah. We can use those feelings of nervousness for good. We can use them in a way that can actually coach us a little bit in the moment because we have those feelings for good reasons.

But if we have those feelings because we think that a certain person is watching us and that makes us feel nervous, those feelings of nervousness aren't serving us. We want to be able to tune out those types of distractions because they're not helping, and most of the time they're hurting us, and focus more on the feelings of nervousness that maybe are serving us.

Melissa Breau: I know one of the things that you talk about in the class is long-term goal setting. I think that's definitely an area where a lot of us struggle, me included. After all, how can you tell what your dog is going to be able to learn and know a year or even multiple years into the future? Can you talk about how to handle that a little bit, just setting long-term training goals?

Megan Foster: It's a little bit counterintuitive, but the day that I separated my long-term goals from any goal I have with a specific dog, everything became more achievable. And it is because we can't know. The dogs are living, breathing, individual creatures that have their own plans and own ideas and own feelings, and so it's very, very difficult to attach a specific goal of your own to one particular dog.

So I like to, when we start to put together this long-term plan, I want to focus on what the handler wants to achieve, rather than what the handler wants to achieve with that dog. We take it step by step, and each dog we have should help us along the way, but it's not up to that one specific dog to make sure that you reach that end goal.

Melissa Breau: That's an interesting way of thinking about it. That's got my brain turning. Obviously a lot of people right now feel like all of their goals and all their plans have to be up in the air because the pandemic has thrown this huge wrench in competition plans and your ability to train in public even sometimes. I'd love to hear you talk a little bit about how you're handling that with your guys.

Megan Foster: It certainly has thrown a wrench in things, and it's worse if you have put these specific goals on one particular dog, because maybe you're in a situation like I am with Smack. He's 12 years old, he was competing happily just a couple of weekends before the world shut down, and now I feel like maybe that was it for him. If that was the end of my story, that would be crushing. If that was the end of … OK, now I have nothing else to go for because everything was tied to him, and that also makes anything unexpected more crushing — an injury, illness, sometimes we lose our dogs way too young, things like that.

But ultimately it has just shifted my timeline. It has provided me more time to put into Shrek's training and more time into what he's going to help me with this progression. I'm just looking at my timeline a little bit differently and seeing how this current shift is going to affect me professionally and personally and of course in my own competitive things. It's just going to take a shift. It's not going to completely derail me.

Melissa Breau: Right. Obviously it's still OK to feel sad about his career coming to a close. That's a bummer. But I get what you're saying about if you're not tying the stakes, if it's not dog dependent, then you don't have to give up on your own goals just because one particular dog can or cannot accomplish those things.

Megan Foster: Exactly, because the dog doesn't have those goals. Smack has zero idea that that was maybe his last agility run, because I can still take him out into the back yard and do things. So when we strip it down and get down to what's important, it's a little bit easier to swallow. But yeah, it's disappointing.

I think there is some cultural fog around mindset training as being always perky and positive and never being sad, and that's not it at all. But I can't control it, so there's not a whole lot of benefit for me to put a whole lot of energy into that sort of situation. So I gave myself some time, gave myself a pity party, and then you move on to the next thing that you can do. But yeah, it is disappointing.

Melissa Breau: I think there's a lot of people right now who are really struggling with staying motivated and continuing to make progress and adapting to, like you said, accepting that there are things in this world that you cannot change. Do you have any tips that listeners can try and apply?

Megan Foster: Yeah. My favorite one is to plan for a puppy, and it is exactly one of the first things that I did is I went back to my timeline and I said, "When am I getting a puppy? How does this affect that?" Because I think that makes everyone feel better is to plan for their next puppy. So that's tip number one is decide when you're going to get a puppy, because I think quite a few of my friends on social media have gotten puppies on a whim because they have the time for a puppy right now.

So that helps smooth things over if you're feeling disappointed is to look forward to a puppy or anything to look forward to. Instead of focusing on the things that were cancelled, focus on what's next, what am I going to start aiming for next, and look for the opportunity that cancelled events have given you and how much easier it's going to make getting to that next stepping stone because you have maybe a little bit more time.

Melissa Breau: If nothing else, you have more time to actually spend with your dog, and get a little extra training in, and be a little bit more prepared for whatever that next step was for the next competition.

Megan Foster: Yeah, exactly. And going back to that, that it's OK if you don't achieve everything you thought you would achieve with this particular dog. That you get to keep going.

Melissa Breau: What else do you cover in the course? Can you talk a little more about what else is included?

Megan Foster: Once we start rewiring our brains and thinking more in the growth phases and things like that, we're going to start to apply those skills to our agility training. So making sure that we're able to watch our videos with a growth mindset versus a fixed mindset and how that's going to be applied to future training plans, and creating more of a feedback loop for yourself from training to trialing and back again.

We're going to really dive into what it is like to compete and build routines and set boundaries around your competition day so that you have enough mental energy to give each run. And figuring out your plans before you walk the course or during your course walkthrough, and giving a lot of focus on just sticking to the plan and not necessarily chickening out on your plan at the last minute.

Melissa Breau: Fair enough. I mentioned at the beginning that the class isn't the only thing on the FDSA calendar that you're working on right now. I know that in addition to the June class, you've got a workshop starting June 7 on Agility Jumping Skills that folks can register for, and a webinar coming up on teaching agility professionally. So first to talk about the workshop, can you share a little on what you plan to cover?

Megan Foster: It's maybe a little bit different than people are expecting, but it's going to be the jumping skills that I teach my dog, and it's going to be laid out in each stage so that a young puppy could do it or an adolescent dog or a more seasoned dog could do it.

We're going to focus on the skills that they need for extension and collection and wrapping and slicing and backside slices and backside wrapping, and also giving the dogs the concept of ignoring distractions while jumping, those distractions specifically being us, the handlers. When we're handling, that's usually the dog's biggest distraction while they're trying to jump, so the dogs need to know how to tune us out while they are jumping to be a clean line. So we're going to focus a lot on that.

Melissa Breau: Thinking about who would be the right fit as folks are listening to this, is there any particular thing that they should know or shouldn't know or ages or anything else? Who is the right fit for this workshop?

Megan Foster: The right fit would be that we know that the dog is structurally sound for jumping and fit for jumping. I mentioned that I will include the progression so that when I start the skills, I teach them without a bar present so there's no jumping, so a young puppy could do it, and then I do show the progression of how to add the bar and raise it over time.

So it's pretty accessible for all ages, but they should be fit for the job, so structurally sound. I wouldn't do it necessarily if your puppy is in that floppy stage where they don't know anything about where their feet are, or they just realized they have a tail, and they're falling over their ears, something like that. But it would be good to maybe have in your library for when they're not in that gangly stage.

Melissa Breau: The wet noodle stage. That's what Hannah calls it.

Megan Foster: Exactly.

Melissa Breau: What about the webinar? I know it's titled "Building a Successful Agility Class Curriculum and Format." What do you plan to cover?

Megan Foster: Well … I think the title says it all. It was such a mouthful. That one, we're going to talk about what your job description is as an agility instructor, and figuring that out for yourself so that you don't get trapped in giving more than you're getting back in terms of effort and engagement and participation.

And then we're going to talk about the pros and cons of different class formats, so the length of the class, the number of dogs that you have, and how to build a curriculum that can reasonably flow from one week to the next without boring your more advanced students or leaving your less-experienced students behind.

Melissa Breau: I feel like agility is one of those hard ones to do class curriculums for, because newbies often want to skip the beginner steps because they want to get to what they see as the fun parts, and of course the beginner steps, the foundation pieces, are the part that matter the most for safety and for ultimate skill level. I just feel like it's a hard class to figure that out for.

Megan Foster: It can be, and I think a lot of agility instructors, myself included, we run into … the client schedule really determines where they end up and which class, and that can really make things even more difficult. I do touch on that as well in the webinar about drawing a line about is this going to be appropriate for this student to be in this class. Can we make this work, or is it going to disrupt everything else you've built it for.

Melissa Breau: If somebody is trying to decide if this webinar is a good choice for them, can you just talk to that?

Megan Foster: Sure. I think if you feel like your curriculums aren't working, or you're having a really hard time managing all the different levels, I think there's a lot of good tips in there for that. Or if you really struggle with time management of the class, I've spent quite a bit of time on trying to create a format that works time-wise, where you get enough instruction time in and they also get to work their dogs enough. Or if you're just interested in seeing if you can make your classes that are going really well, if you want to make them a little bit better. I think there's something in it for everyone.

Melissa Breau: One last question, the one that I like to end with these days: What's something that you've learned or that you've been reminded of recently when it comes to training?

Megan Foster: Oh, well, Shrek has reminded me that dog training is not linear. Sometimes you just have to take a couple steps back to go forward a little bit.

The agility field where I train is very full of wildlife and, well, it became springtime, and the bunnies and the birds are just so busy right now. Even just a couple of months ago he was so completely OK with running full courses, and a hundred percent focused, and then about a month ago he reminded me that he is very much a terrier and would much rather hunt. And so we've had to take a couple of steps back and figure out how to do agility instead of hunting.

Melissa Breau: Sometimes it's a hard lesson to be reminded of.

Megan Foster: It is, but I can't compete right now anyway, so I might as well work on the not hunting.

Melissa Breau: Absolutely. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast Megan!

Megan Foster: Thanks for having me. This was fun.

Melissa Breau: Always. And thank you to our listeners for tuning in! We'll be back next week with Nicole Wiebusch to talk about virtual rally competitions and what most people get wrong when teaching stay.

Don't miss it! If you haven't already, subscribe to our podcast in iTunes or the podcast app of your choice to have our next episode automatically downloaded to your phone as soon as it becomes available. 

Credits

Today's show is brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy. Special thanks to Denise Fenzi for supporting this podcast. Music provided royalty-free by BenSound.com; the track featured here is called "Buddy." Audio editing provided by Chris Lang.

Thanks again for tuning in -- and happy training!

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