What my 10 days on the road teaches us about protecting our rituals.

mental skills Oct 03, 2019
Photo by Kim Perry

I recently took about 10 days and drove back to Virginia from Colorado to judge. While it was a quick trip, I was floored with how much I was thrown off my routine. From what I ate to how I spent my days to working the dogs … it all seemed to go to hell!

It got me thinking: how can 10 days away do so much destruction to our plans and routines? Is it really this easy to give up on good habits? It can’t just be me, can it?

Routines and autopilot

There’s a certain rhythm to our daily lives. Some things are always scheduled and have a permanent place on our calendar – maybe we don’t even write them down anymore. This is the same for weekend dog shows, we just settle into our trial-day routine. We go on auto-pilot.

This auto-pilot life is a good thing – if frees up our minds to focus on the things that change, the variables, the novel. For example, when I have the same trial routine – from packing the van to setting up my crating area – I can let that be on autopilot and focus on competing and what each dog needs.

This is how the brain is efficient. It’s also why I have a soapbox dedicated to protecting our rituals! We need to know that a certain amount of our day is already handled. The more we can pre-plan and not worry about, the more we are free to focus on our dogs.

Novel = exhausting (for our brains)

So what happens then when we go somewhere new or break routine? Well, it turns out our minds now have to spend WAY more energy just getting us from point A to point B. Ever have to pack a rental car to go to a dog trial? It’s unnerving! I don’t know if I have everything much less know where everything is. It seems like a little thing, but it throws us.

A different car, different hotel, different trial site … they don’t seem like big deals, right? Maybe. Think about an away trial you go to regularly. Likely you drive your regular car to the same hotel then to the same site. Predictable. Autopilot. No stress.

Now imagine going to a national event in a brand new location, new hotel, days of driving, and six rings running all at once. There’s a LOT more to process, right? What often happens at national events, is otherwise well-prepared and solid competitors have the wheels come off in part because every part of their day is now different.

When our brains are distracted with processing change and having to make “extra” decisions, we often have trouble focusing on what we actually came to do. When nothing is on autopilot, there’s literally too much for our minds to think about and our performance can suffer.

When I compare the first time and last time I went to the AKC Agility Invitational, I can see this principle in action. The first time everything was new, my crating routine was different, my daily schedule was different and I gave myself a migraine. The last time I went, I knew what to expect, stayed at the same hotel, prepared for the crating and performed well. More was on autopilot that was new/different/novel.

So what do we do?

When it comes to big events, like a national or any other “important” trial, you have to first reduce the number of variables. Ask people what the venue is like. Get your clothes worked out in advance. Feel confident the car is packed with everything you might need. Plan your route, etc. In other words, eliminate as many stressors as possible.

Next, identify the parts of your routine – your rituals – that are non-negotiable. It may be your morning Starbucks, or the fact that you and your dog always take a long walk in the morning. You may listen to music while you walk the course or find time to be alone so you can visualize. You need to take with you those actions that will make it feel like just another trial – for you and your dog.

Finally, if you have something superstitious, do it, wear it … whatever. I personally believe that superstitions have two glorious purposes: 1) They ground us in the familiar and 2) They act as intentions. If you believe that’s your lucky collar then it is because it buoys your faith and connects you to a time when you were successful. Talismans, lucky shirts, favorite leashes – do it all!

We get into trouble when we abandon the things we know work for us and for our team. Our dogs don’t understand why everything is different, why all the humans seem so keyed up. It’s our job as their teammates to ensure we create the most familiar routines we can so they can also focus on the run.

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