Effective coaching for dog sports

Whether we are providing advice in our role as a professional instructor, a volunteer instructor, or a supportive friend, knowing how to give training and competition advice in the most beneficial way is critically important.

To be effective and well-received, training and competition advice needs to be delivered at a time when the handler is unemotional, focused, and receptive to learning. Most competitors will be able to effectively process new information during a routine training session, but for others new information is best delivered at times separate from active training sessions or competitive events. Often the biggest "aha" moments occur for competitors when they are:

  • Listening to an instructor present a topic in a lecture-style setting (e.g. webinar, seminar, class).
  • Discussing training in an informal way with another trainer (e.g. when chatting before a class, or when on a break between periods of active training; or when meeting up for coffee, lunch, etc.)

The reason beneficial learning occurs at these times is because in these settings the individual is receptive; the person has the mental and emotional capacity to take on new information, process what they are hearing, and consider how it may relate to their current training sessions or competition performance. 

Coaching during a training session

Delivering information to a person whilst they are actively involved in a training session is extremely common and can be highly effective. The advice may relate to:

  • Technical skills (e.g. how to deliver a cue more effectively, improving timing of pre-cues, how to change a set-up to improve the dog's understanding of an exercise, etc.)
  • Mental skills (e.g. how to work towards improved focus, developing effective use of mental imagery, improving motivation to train, etc.)
  • Emotional management (e.g. strategies for emotional regulation, developing effective competition preparation routines, strategies for remaining relaxed, calm, and composed when things go wrong, etc.)

Effective coaching during a training session requires a full understanding of that individual, and their dog. For our coaching advice to be beneficial we need to be aware of factors such as:

  • The individual's overarching goal/s with this dog, in this sport (e.g. not all competitors want to win; not all competitors want to reach the top levels of their sport; not all competitors aspire to achieving perfect scores.)
  • The individual's goal for that session (e.g. improving precision in a certain exercise; improving their dog's engagement and confidence; building mental stamina, etc.)
  • The individual's goal with this exercise at this time (which may include aspects other than whether the exercise is technically correct or not).
  • The level of precision the person is aiming for (i.e. not everyone is aiming for the same end-goal).
  • The individual's history and experience in terms or training and competing.
  • How this person learns, how they process information, how they process critiquing.
  • The dog's background, learning history, and current skillset.
  • The dog's experience with this exercise and in this venue.
  • How this dog learns, how they best process new information, how they respond to perceived errors, how they respond to frustration.

If we are not adequately informed about the person's training history and their current individual goals, then it can be difficult to provide advice that is accurate and hence beneficial. Beyond this, even if our advice is completely accurate, but it is delivered in a way that is not well-timed, or is not palatable for that individual, then again it will still not be beneficial regardless of how accurate it may be.

When providing feedback during active training sessions, coaches always need to remain mindful of the learner's emotional state and be aware of the learner's emotional thresholds. Providing accurate information to a person who is not in an emotional state to receive it, will not help the person to reach their goals.

Coaching towards competition performance

Helping a handler prepare for competition performance is a common task for coaches. Prior to a handler entering a competition a good coach will:

  • Ensure all the required technical skills are established (for both the dog and the handler.)
  • Provide opportunities for both the dog and the handler to develop the additional mental and emotional skills required (i.e. the ability to perform with distractions, the ability to perform under pressure, etc.)
  • Assist the handler and their dog to develop the physical and mental stamina required for the sport/level.
  • Help the competitor to develop a plan for how they will arrive, acclimate, warm-up, and perform at the competition.

Once at a competition a coach's role shifts to other areas; mostly offering support and encouragement, rather than addressing technical components.

On competition day

Only certain types of learning can occur in a competition setting, this is because immediately prior to competing the competitor's focus needs to remain on delivering the performance they have trained towards, and after competing there is a period where an individual cannot be receptive to acquiring new information.

Receiving new information or even just being exposed to too much information prior to competing can have a negative impact on performance and should be avoided. As a coach, we need to remember that the training component has already occurred prior to competition day. Our goal on competition day is simply to help our competitor to undertake their specific pre-planned routines, and to remind them of the few key points that they have planned to focus on for that competition.

Immediately after the competition performance is over a good coach (or supportive friend) will offer support regardless of the performance and will look to highlight positive components of the performance. This is not the time to highlight errors, analyze the performance in detail, or undertake an in-depth discussion about changes that need to be made. That type of critical reflection needs to be undertaken at a much later time.

There are two primary reasons why critical performance analysis should not be undertaken immediately after competing.

  1. The individual is not in an emotional or mental state that is conducive to processing the information accurately. Hence providing new information or critical analysis at this time is not beneficial; it will not help the competitor to make the adjustments necessary to perform better in the future.
  2. Much in the same way as our dogs can develop a negative conditioned emotional response (CER) to aspects of the competition environment, so too can humans. If competing is stressful or unpleasant for a human (due to negative experiences in the ring, or after exiting the ring), this will reduce that individual's motivation to compete in the future, and it will also negatively impact their ability to remain focused and effective when they next enter the competition ring.

One of the best ways to ensure we provide a positive influence at a competition is to look at our role as one of support only. This may involve helping the competitor to remain focused, it may mean actively giving them space to mentally prepare, and in some instances, it may include providing practical support.

 A note for competitors...

We can always benefit from coaching advice, whether it is to improve technical aspects of our performance or to improve our mental skills or emotional management. However, the timing of that advice is critical if we want to be able to put it to best use. Competition days are all about putting forward the performance we have been working towards; a competition day is not the best day for taking on new information, suggestions, or advice.

How we think, feel, and behave at a competition will directly impact our competition performance on that day. Beyond this, our emotional and mental state whilst at a competition will go on to influence our confidence at future competitions and will also influence our overall motivation to continue to train and compete. For these reasons, we need to manage the area around us at a competition to ensure we are not being exposed to non-beneficial experiences. This may require us to be clear to our support crew about what we need at a competition; in some cases, it may be necessary to expressly ask our support people (friends) not to offer critical analysis of our performance on the day of the competition.

Reflecting on our competition performance; looking for areas that need adjustments and strategizing to fill those training gaps are important aspects of improving future performance, however, it is rarely beneficial to attempt to do this immediately after a competition performance. The most effective protocol is to undertake this reflection a day or so after the competition, ideally with video of the competition to allow for accurate analysis of the performance. It is at this point that we may wish to seek out advice and further information from our coach, our training buddies, and our friends; we can then go on to utilize their advice in a productive way.

Most people who offer advice at a competition mean well, their heart is absolutely in the right place, and all they want is to help us succeed. Unfortunately it is just not the most productive time to receive and process this information. For this reason, it may be necessary to ask the person if we can contact them at another time, or if we can organize to meet with them for a chat before a training session or over a coffee. This protects us from non-beneficial experiences on competition day, and allows us the opportunity to receive their input at a time when we can fully process the information they are offering and gain the most benefit from their advice.

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