Some Thoughts on Goals and Success

22 May 2009Steve Schwarz

In a recent trial post I made what I thought was an innocent remark: “from a Q perspective we didn’t do very well (only 3 for 7)” and received an email from a reader who felt I was scoffing at other teams who didn’t achieve that Q rate and asking “what did I consider success?“. I was really surprised by that email, as that was the furthest thing from my intentions, and I tried to explain my thinking in a reply to that reader. But that email got me to do some more thinking and write this post about how I choose my goals and measure my successes against them. Maybe you’ll find something of interest.

Why Do You Do Agility?

I think this is an important question for each of us to ask ourselves. For me the answer is, I feel great when we have a clean run and go running across the finish line. That feeling of meeting the challenge of the course is the reason why I do agility. It takes Meeker and me being perfectly in sync and “in the moment” to make it happen and when it does it is a wonderful feeling. I always got a lot of grief from instructors and classmates for my philosophy of “I’d rather train than trial” because I can get that good feeling completing a practice course. So I typically don’t trial all that often.

I’ve heard agility referred to as “solving a handling puzzle” and I enjoy the challenge of finding the best (and unusual) handling methods to get around a course. For me discussing/analyzing courses is almost as fun as running them.

There are additional challenges when completing a course in a trial situation. We put additional pressure on ourselves, our dogs pickup on that and there is the excitement (and/or stress) that everything surrounding a trial puts on our dogs (and us). So it can be much, much more difficult to run a course clean in a trial. With those additional challenges and the excitement of the trial environment I find additional elation when we complete a trial run clean. That good feeling makes me want to do it again.

Thoughts on Goals

So the answer to the “Why?” question leads me to consider my goals. Since the most fun for me is to go to the line with my dog and and execute the plan that gets us around the course clean and in sync, then that is my ultimate goal. When we are doing that I’m happy.

But that primary goal isn’t always appropriate for me or my dog; when Meeker was just learning the game that would be way too big a goal to achieve. So I set smaller goals, like getting to the start line without him loosing his mind. Then goals like staying at the line until I took a lead out, and so on. If we achieved those goals I’d celebrate and I’d be genuinely happy too. They were goals appropriate to his experience and comfort level.

Maybe Weaving is Too Hard a Goal Right Now...

As we achieved our goals I raised them to include new challenges for myself like keeping Meeker in extension more often, executing crosses without slowing him and other refinements. New (to us) agility strategy games (like Snooker and Gamblers) also introduce new challenges for which I try to set achievable goals.

Do I have flights of fancy where I imagine going to some try-out and we win our way on to a World Team “out of nowhere”? Sure I do. But that’s not something I’m planning for nor taking any steps toward. So it isn’t a goal.

Some agility folk I know do have goals and plans for earning their way onto world teams. Others have goals of earning a MACH or ADCH title. Or their 20th MACH. Still others have a goal of being able to step to the start line in their local club’s trial, take a jump and run back to their crate. All of those are the aspirations special to each team and I’d never considering judging those goals.

Measuring Success

Success is often measured by whether or not you reach your goals. Experience should cause us to reevaluate our goals and adjust them as necessary.

I think that anyone who knows me knows that I am supportive of other teams, I’m not “Mr Competitive” and I don’t consider myself competing against the other teams (“beating” another team isn’t one of my goals). My success or failure doesn’t have any bearing on anyone else’s success or failure and vice versa. I like to root for my friends’, students’ and teachers’ runs and commiserate with their challenges. And, like most of us, I can back-seat analyze a run standing on the sideline with the “if only they had…“. But I also know I’m just as likely to make a mistake on course for which someone else will say “if only he had…“.

My personality imposes a certain amount of pressure to meet my goals. I like “doing well” and meeting or exceeding my goals. There is a little additional pressure since blog readers might watch my videos and say things like: “Steve says to do X but did you see how crappy he was at X in that video?“. So I’m not immune to the exposure I’ve brought upon myself by blogging.

I’d like to say I always keep my ego out of measuring my success, but that is still a personal goal toward which I’m always working. I may have related this story previously… At our first USDAA trial I was trying to figure out the accumulator sheet, on which scores are posted, for Starters Standard. There were a number of us hovering around the sheet. When I finally figured out Meeker took 3rd place (or some such) I said something like “cool Meeker took 3rd place”. A lady standing there then turned to me and said “Hey why were we in 4th place? We kicked your ass!“. It is the closest I’ve come to cursing someone out at a trial. I mean, come on, it is Starters not some world championship; so I’m happy to say I just turned away. I do admit to a feeling of shadenfreude when, after having the table check her score sheet, she ended up being moved further down in the placements.

I also admit to taking some pride in getting a placement or if we are in the running with other teams at our level. But I don’t focus on placements as measure of success. Taking Meeker to his first AKC trial and getting a couple first places after he’d been in training for a couple years and trialing in CPE and USDAA isn’t an indication of how we are doing on our goals. At that point our goals had moved past being able to qualify on a Novice course.

I don’t go into a weekend with goals about qualifying or winning (except for my current obsession with getting our first USDAA Snooker leg). After running the courses I do evaluate how we did and I rate our success by asking: “Did I execute correctly?” and “What additional training do we need?“. But I won’t beat myself up for me or my dog not being able to execute things outside of our skill level.

So evaluating my and my dog’s skill level over time is important for setting and revising goals. Meeker and I run Excellent/Masters level courses a couple times a week in classes (and thanks to my instructors the courses are often more complex than you’d see at an actual trial). So I know we should have most of the skills to take on the “average” Excellent/Masters Standard or Jumpers course. That is where we are today, but that will change over time.

So to take our last trial as an example, we had seven runs. We qualified in three of them. I mishandled an otherwise nice Jumpers run and the closing of our Snooker run. So those are two runs I “should have” qualified. We missed two Gamblers Qs because they needed skills for which I haven’t trained Meeker. I don’t count that as a “failure” to meet our goals. So in my mind we should have been 5 of 7. I guess you could say by making that statement I am judging my success by our Q rate. But to me the number of Qs is only a side effect of whether or not I executed correctly, assuming I’ve trained my dog to have the skills required by the courses. So I don’t know my overall Q rate and it isn’t something that is important to me.

Keeping a Positive Attitude

If you’ve stuck with this post this long you can see I have taken to heart some of Lanny Bassham’s views but without

competitive goal setting. I don't have a goal like "Win first place at the XYZ Nationals in 2010" and stepwise goals to get me there.

But I do have a very positive attitude and that gives me a certain amount of confidence. At our current skill level I believe there is no reasonable course on which we can’t qualify. I don’t mean that to sound like a brag. I say that because I know Meeker’s abilities and I know my abilities. The times we don’t qualify are almost entirely due to mental lapses on my part. There are still areas where both Meeker and I need improvement. I try to note those as we train and trial and then work on them. As Lanny would have me say to myself: “It is like us to qualify”. Or as I put on my wristbands: “We Are Ready”.

The other reason I believe in our abilities is because there is no benefit in doing otherwise. If we have the skills why should I go to the line expecting anything but to qualify? I trust Meeker and believe in him; I hope he does the same for me. Having that positive attitude could give me that little something “extra” that will get us to our next goal.

I’m sorry this was such a long and rambling post. Maybe my thoughts will help you find your own answers to Why? and How? to get to your happy place on the agility course with your teammate.

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