Coach This!

05 Sep 2012Steve Schwarz

I know what I like in a coach, I’ve had a few dog agility trainers and instructors over the years and I’ve been happy them and extremely happy with a few. Today is the Dog Agility Blogger Event on the subject: “What makes a good coach/instructor?” and these are my thoughts.

Why do you need one? Two main reasons: to keep you honest and to see what you can’t see. Even if you video yourself and conscientiously review your video, nothing beats a second pair of eyes for seeing what you overlook (consciously or unconsciously) and spotting trends/connections. The feedback is more immediate too. Even the most elite handlers work with each other to improve their handling and troubleshoot issues.

I make a distinction between an instructor and a coach. At some point you’ve been instructed enough to get around an agility course and if you are looking to do more you want someone who can be a coach. To me a coach is someone who has seen you in action enough times, knows your goals, what your future might look like and they have ideas for how to help you get there. If you are pretty serious about dog agility I think you want to train with someone who can coach you.

A good coach will discuss frankly where I am and where I could/should go. I want them to push me and themselves. That’s right, the ideal coach is also actively learning how they can improve, they take on new challenges and try new training approaches. Just because it “has always worked” isn’t a good enough reason to slavishly stick with a training method. Just like “You’ll never see that in an AKC course” isn’t a good enough reason to not learn how to conquer (not just survive) an international course. The coach who is always striving themselves is the coach for me.

Did I mention push? Yes! My coach should push, challenge and even dare me to go for it! Sometimes I need to get out of my comfort zone and use a handling approach that is harder for me or my dog. You can’t improve only doing the things you already do well.

As an engineer I’m very analytical in nature, so it is important for me to work with a coach who enjoys considering different handling approaches and enjoys trying them to see what works for different teams. There is no one-size-fits-all system! My dogs and I are also changing over time; both growing into new skills and, as we both age, loosing some abilities. A great coach can see this and will help me if I fail to see what’s going on.

It is about seeing; really seeing what is going on. That takes experience and watching a lot of dogs and handlers - of many types. The best agility trainers/coaches are those who teach regular classes. They see a lot more issues and have to be more creative when working with a wider cross section of our sport. My favorite trainers/coaches work with people whose goals aren’t entirely focused on dog agility.

Good coaches also admit to not seeing. Sometimes shit happens and there isn’t a “reason”, so one doesn’t need to create a reason where one doesn’t exist. Or admitting they don’t know. No one and certainly no coach is omnipotent; any one who always “knows” probably doesn’t. I’d rather my coach say they don’t know.

A good coach doesn’t care what breed of dog I have or if we could or will never make the world team. My coach wants us to move forward; to be better.

My coach is happy when I succeed. I don’t have to bestest friends with my coach but it is nice if they share in our successes and help us move forward in our failures. My coach is interested in our progress.

One of my favorite song titles is: “You can’t spend your whole life hanging around with arseholes” by the Scottish band Ballboy. I don’t have time for trainers/coaches who are jerks or all about them or their dogs when it is time to work. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy for my coaches’ successes too! I’m happy to hear how their trialing and training went! But there are times when they are the coach and I’m the coachee and then I need it to be about me and my dog.

Sometimes the right coach for a time in my growth isn’t the right coach for the next chapter. We change, coaches change. I think every one I’ve taken instruction from over the years has tried their best to move me and our dogs forward. If I don’t train with some of them now it doesn’t mean anything. They were all doing their best and I benefited from their skill.

So those are many of the things I think about coaches and coaching. Forgive me for this really rambling article!

Someone is bound to ask who I’m training with. I’m happy to have a coach and friend in Dana Pike; we’ve trained together for 10 years. Yipes! Since I got Meeker and began really working hard on my agility game I’ve really benefited from training with her. I call her “unvarnished”; she calls it like she sees it.

If you got all the way through this article you must care about your dog agility training and improving your game. So take a moment to think about what you need in your trainer or coach as part of setting your dog agility goals.

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