The lonely world of dog sports.

anxiety & fear Sep 04, 2019
Photo by Kim Perry

I was coaching a client the other day and what surfaced for her was that she felt her success in the dog world was dependent on her results in the ring and in her accumulated titles. This started from an exercise I had given the Q-Confidence Masterclass to really delve into WHY they were disappointed or bummed when they NQ’ed. I urged the group to keep asking themselves, “But why?” until they got to the root of why an NQ was so disappointing. For this client, and for many others, it meant fear of failure and that failure would define her.

I think this is more common in dog sports than we all admit. I personally come from a corporate world where I had feedback, recognition, and accolades when I did my job well. When I messed up, I had bosses, mentors, and colleagues who would make me better, each with their own style of doing so (some better than others!). But at the end of the day, I was part of a team that was focused on the same company goals, all headed in the same direction.

For the most part, dog sports are solitary endeavors. We aren’t part of a bigger team and our friends at trials are usually focused on their own dogs. Sometimes we aren’t even able to watch our friends due to scheduling and conflicts. That’s normal, expected, and accepted. After the trial, we all go to our own homes and rely on Facebook to share “brags” from the weekend, our emotional support delivered via emojis and comments in an app.

Does individual mean solitary?

I’m used to individual sports. As a kid, I rode horses and it was much the same model – me and my best furry friend competing on weekends to accumulate ribbons/points toward our personal goals. But back then I had a coach who was invested in my success and who provided feedback every step of the way. We made a course plan together, we warmed up together, we dissected the trip together. I was always supported – my goals were hers as well.

It reminded me of my very first agility trial. Two of my instructors along with another (experienced) student convinced me my Novice A dog and I were ready to enter a trial. I had no idea what awaited but I was excited. My fellow student showed me how to get measured, got me checked in, and generally showed me the lay of the proverbial land. Being in Novice, I had a while to wait, watch and learn.

My instructors and friend were all so excited for me and beyond supportive! There was much to laugh about: On the first day, my young boy left the ring to shop the toy box, shocking those who were testing the squeakers. And on the second day, he jumped out of the ring landing at the backside of a woman who adeptly executed a full yoga backbend to avoid falling on him! Also on that second day, one of the instructors guarded the toy box so not a squeak was heard – friendship!

Still in all that camaraderie, one thing surprised me: my instructors were just fellow competitors once we were at a trial; we were all in the same boat – just four women running their dogs. The friendship, the support, the laughs all hooked me! (And to be crystal clear, those three women changed my life forevermore! I am beyond grateful and indebted!) Yet, my only paradigm to this point was that your coach at home was also your coach on the road and I was learning this was not normally the case in dog sports. We’re all out there together but doing our separate thing.

Creating your tribe

So without a natural support system, we’re on our own to create a group that wants to see us win. You would think it would be easy since, given the structure of competitions, we are not competing against each other as much as alongside each other. In other words, there are more than enough Qs to go around. Yet too often the chairs are chattering with gossip and disparaging comments about other competitors. It doesn’t feel so friendly most of the time.

So back to our core challenge: who recognizes you on the days when you don’t Q but make a ton of progress? Who sees you have one bar and still it’s your best run of the weekend? Who is there to lift you after you have “just one thing” go wrong? Who is there to cheer on your baby dog?

We are not only as good as our last Q or title. We are handlers each striving to evolve, each working with our animal partner who has his own challenges on any given day. There’s a popular meme that says, “Your tribe ought to want to see you win.” That’s 100% true. We all deserve to be surrounded by people who root for us, not against us. Seek out instructors, fellow competitors, friends, and yes, even performance coaches, who want to see you win. It can be an intensely lonely game, but it doesn’t have to be. Start by being there for someone else and then trust Karma to do his thing.

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