Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Mental (mis)Management

Today is another Dog Agility Blog event, where a bunch of us get together and write on the same subject. Please visit here to see what everyone else has to say – I know I will be doing so often because this is a subject on which I could probably use a little help.

The subject of the day is “The Mental Game” and I debated whether or not I even have anything to post on the subject. I do love a good blogger event, though, so I shall muddle through.

Running (hence the picture up top, but that’s also there because I didn’t plan and don’t have anything else to share…) is probably my biggest mental game these days. Many of my running friends will agree that running is more mental than physical. Often times it takes a lot of effort just to get myself out the door – ESPECIALLY now that it’s so miserable, wet and cold (oh, and dark) outside. Every time, though, I feel better for having gotten out and done it. I used to go through the same thing when it came to going to the barn to ride the horses in the winter. It took SO MUCH EFFORT to put on all of those layers of clothes just to go out and freeze my fingers & toes off, but in the end I was always glad for it. Sometimes you just need to be your own coach and make yourself get out there. By the way, I hate winter.

I feel fortunate that I have not faced the mental struggles of some of my fellow competitors in agility. I know people who are crippled by nerves at the smallest of local trials. I’m sure I can thank my years of showing horses (in dressage and hunters, where you are the only team in the ring and thus all eyes are on you) for having calmed my nerves in the ring. Truthfully, I have never found agility trials to be a stressful experience (that said, I wish I knew why karaoke makes me nervous!). In many ways, though, I feel this has made me a bit flip about the whole thing and that, too, can bite you in the ass!

My competitive agility career began in NADAC – and let’s face it, NADAC just isn’t all that competitive (at least in my area). Everyone is, for the most part, a very happy and positive bunch. It definitely has never been about the almighty Q (until you get on the countdown for NATCH at least :o) ) -- It's NOTHING like the QQ craziness in AKC or the SQ madness of USDAA Snooker. The atmosphere at NADAC trials made it very easy for me to continue to float around without any real grounding or mental game. The courses never really challenge(d) me and it’s pretty easy to wander through a course a couple of times during a walk-through, see the (obvious) patterns and call it good. And I have been, for the most part, fairly successful at this.

My complete lack of a mental game has, however, caused complete catastrophe at times. The most notable as well as most fresh in my mind was at NADAC Championships this past year. I went into that event with such high hopes for Kaiser. He has had a really fabulous year, becoming more consistent and faster than ever. Knowing how well we did when he was “on” in 2011 I thought for sure it was ours to win. I didn’t doubt it for a second.

Until we got there.

Then my head completely fell apart. I had put an incredible amount of pressure on myself. Nobody else did it; I did it to myself. Our first round was fairly decent. His exuberant off course to the dog walk wasted little time and he was fast enough to squeak out 7th place even with the fault. That said, the fault was still in my mind when we started Round 2, knowing that we couldn’t afford many more if I wanted to achieve our goal of “winning.” And…. Then I promptly caused two more faults in that round.

Round 3 was an absolute disaster. It was a repeat of one of the courses he won in 2011, so I figured “it’s in the bag.” Or not. We did rebound for Round 4, although my twitching did very nearly cost us another off course.

I want to totally forget about Round 5. This is where my brain fell out of my ears. Kaiser was the first of my dogs to run, but we had quite a long wait before then and I had the opportunity to watch several runs. In those runs that I watched, I saw approximately 75% of the dogs (big, fast dogs) missing a turn and taking an off-course hoop. For some unknown reason my brain immediately screamed, “ABORT! ABORT!” and decided that the plan I had walked would no longer work and instead needed to be replaced with a rear cross – which, for the record, Kaiser does not particularly enjoy.

I’m still so sad about that run. My entire insides were in knots as we approached the line. Shouldn’t that have been enough of an indicator that I was making a stupid decision? Kaiser, being the sensitive little soul that he is, became equally unglued as we went to the line. Mom had gone off her rocker, what was he to do?

I went through with the un-walked plan and we DID get that turn away from the magnetic hoop of death. And then he went straight off course to another obstacle because my mental waves were still screaming to him, “Crazy! This lady is crazy!” Our whole connection on that run was lost. He went off course again later on in the course. It was a sad moment for me because I had let myself down and I had let my dog down. There was no hope of really even making the finals at that point, so we just had fun the next two runs. They were still a bit of a mess but I felt like we at least enjoyed them more.

This is why I do my very best to not watch other runs at trials. Or at the very least, trust my gut and stick to the plan!

I have had to deal a little more with ring nerves since advancing through the levels in USDAA and AKC. I more or less waltzed through the lower levels with my usual relaxed manner but for some reason those first runs in Exc/Masters make my insides seize. lol  I have definitely tried to start putting a bit more thought behind my course walk routine since moving up to these levels as well and I do believe I am becoming a better handler in the ring for it.

My mental game is a work in progress for sure, but for the most part I feel I have a good mixture of competitiveness mixed with “it’s all cool.” I definitely need to continue to work on handling myself in more high-pressure situations, though, and that is why I am looking forward to what others have to say on this subject. Until I get it worked out, I have figured out that Xanax helps, too (although it is not my method of choice, because that makes me TOO relaxed and I still do stupid things – like not watching my dog as he breaks his start-line and goes off course at obstacle two in the finals at Champs…).

I’m expecting the nerves to kick in at our big Hounds AKC trial on Friday. That will be a good time to practice my mental management skills for sure. It will also be Kaiser’s debut in Excellent – and Secret’s first chance at a QQ – so there is a good chance I will be a basket case that morning.

Kizzy’s first trial is in three days. If that doesn’t test me mentally I don’t know what will.  :o)


  1. I also tend to get too relaxed sometimes, especially if the course is too easy/boring. I do much better with a bit of pressure and challenge.

    And you've motivated me to throw on my running shoes and some Yaxtrax despite the 7" of fresh snow and 12 degrees (feels like 3 degrees) arctic temps.

    1. That's awesome! I was just looking at the "Run" Yaxtrax this morning, as I'm trying to figure out how I'm going to keep running with the dogs this winter.... I think I'll need to go for it! :o) No snow here yet; I hope my resolve sticks.

  2. Yaxtrax are awesome on icy snowpack. Snowshoeing is fun too but better in deeper snow. Now if only I could pony up the money for one of those snow bikes with the giant tires.

  3. I faced a lot of mental/anxiety issues early in my competitive ( high school) running career. I put a ton of pressure on myself and had to learn to deal with it. Now my problems are all physical-currently sore foot. I also put a lot of pressure on Legend and I when she was younger. She taught me a lesson about not doing that!