Focus! It’s not just for dogs: Mindset Skills for Dog Sports Competitors

Story time! A small look into a huge turning point in my competitive career over the course of one weekend. I had been working with my current mentor for four months prior to attending a major competition. Read on to learn about the events surrounding that day, and how it was my mental skills that brought me across the finish line.

It's the morning of your event. You've traveled quite a ways, paid your entry fee, paid for a hotel, you've prepared for months. You get everything ready in the morning, you walk out of your hotel room to your car, and see your jeep, completely smooshed into the parking space.

What do you do? How do you react? How do you get to the trial site? How will you keep everything in perspective at the competition while you manage finding the owner of the truck, filing a police report, and oh yeah, GETTING to the competition at all?

Had this been a local agility competition, I probably would have pouted a bit, skipped the trial and dealt with the problem upfront.

However, it wasn't a local trial. It was the European Open Team Tryouts, and Smack and I were sitting pretty high up in the rankings after Day 1, and Large Dogs were first up the morning of Day 2.

After my initial moment of, "oh my god, now what?" I ran back in, told my partner what was going on, and he said "Go find anyone else in the parking lot that might be going to the show."

#1: You get to decide who is in your inner circle.

In my moment of panic, I really didn't know what I would do to get to the trial, but the support system around me did.

So, I'm running around the parking lot of the hotel looking for any agility person or vehicle. I finally found someone, and I even knew them, so that was a bonus. I quickly word vomited my story at them, and they luckily had enough room in their van for Smack and I to squeeze into. Man, I love minivans!

#2: It's ok to ask for help.

As much as I needed a ride to the competition, it was still difficult for me to go find help vs forfeit the competition. I had to not listen to the voices in my head telling me that making the team "just wasn't meant to be." I had to really choose to not give that kind of power to the person who parked too close to my car.

We get to the trial site, and now I have choices to make: Do I tell everyone who talks to me about my exciting morning? Do I go about my business as usual? The key here was my mental energy. There was no pretending that it didn't happen, but could I afford to use more energy on that problem? Course maps were going to be coming out soon, and I needed to spend my energy on making a plan for Smack. So, I stuck my earbuds in and started to get myself ready for a walk-through.

#3: You are one person.

You can't turn off your life outside of dog sports, but you can make a choice to put things on the back-burner while you compete. You can choose to tell the stories that serve you vs the ones that bring you down.

I remember walking the course, and having to work so hard to get the image of the rental car smooshed up against that truck out of my head. I remember warming Smack up, and stepping to the line, and then the rest goes blank. Luckily, there's video footage of the run, because otherwise, I wouldn't believe we had actually run the course! 

#4: Focus isn't just for the dogs.

As competitors, we need to be able to tune out the world around us — anything that isn't helping us through that particular run. We need to be able to zone in on what matters in that moment, and what we can control. In the case of dog agility, we can control our plan, we can control our thoughts, we can control our reactions to the situations surrounding agility. We cannot control the course, the judge, the other competitors, or their dogs.

It was a complete rush. A clear round. 4th place. I couldn't bring myself to look at the overall standings. There was a little voice in my head trying to pull me into thinking about outcome. "You only need to run clean…." The voice would say. 

Logically, I knew that another clear run in Round 4 would put me onto the team. It was so easy for my brain to go there. However, I had been working so hard the last four months to change the way I coach myself. I had to keep changing that sentence in my head to "You only need to do what Smack needs you to do." And that became my mantra for the rest of the day. 

#5: Process vs Outcome

When you focus on "running clean," you can gloss over important details, and get pulled into thinking about things you cannot control. When you choose to focus on the process (what your dog needs) you can visualize exactly how you're going to handle the course. You can nail down your plan and have confidence that you've done everything you can for that particular course on that particular day.

The rest of the day went by so slowly. Graham did finally arrive with our rental car mostly unscathed. So, we would spend the time walking, or sitting in the car, or finding a coffee shop. Just to give my brain some down time from the stimulation of such an exciting event. Anything I could do to recharge between Round 3 and Round 4 was crucial in those moments.

#6: It's not selfish to take care of yourself.

Understanding your cognitive limitations during a competition is key to being able to perform consistently at different types of events.

Round 4. The most challenging course of the weekend, in my head. I can replay this one so easily in my head. Not everything went 100% according the plan, but it rarely does. But somehow, that didn't distract me from what I was supposed to be doing: sticking to the plan and giving Smack exactly what he needed from me. 

#7: Give yourself some credit and stick to your plans.

When you decide on your course strategy, you make certain decisions for a reason. Give yourself some credit and stick to your plans. Changing them last second (figuratively or literally) only feeds the voice that questions your every decision.

Smack and I made the European Open Team that day. It was a huge moment, because it was another stepping stone towards my Big Picture Goal. It was another experience I was going to get to share with this incredible creature: competing internationally! 

Mindset Skills and The Big Picture Goal

2015 was the third year I had competed at the team tryouts with Smack. I'm not saying that my technical skills hadn't improved from year to year, but my technical ability to guide my dog around those courses wasn't what was lacking: it was my mental ability to guide my dog around those courses, and to manage it for two days and four rounds.

You can watch all four of Smack's rounds of the tryouts and his Team runs from the EO here (starting with round 1): 


In my upcoming class, Mindset Training for Dog Sports, we will explore how YOU can start re-wiring your brain so that you, too, are able to become a better competitor for yourself and for your dogs.


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