As a child I was very shy. Anyone who knows me now will likely find that surprising. These days I am fairly comfortable in my skin, liberal, and frankly quite shameless (much to my friends’ discomfort). But as a kid I was very quiet, and often happy to be left in my own little world. I didn’t have a lot of friends, and I was absolutely never popular in school (and was even picked on in Junior High quite ruthlessly). Yet I can say that once I hit puberty I never really felt terrified of public performances, and got increasingly relaxed as time went by. It might seem strange but I think it’s just a part of my natural personality. I wasn’t quiet because I was scared of talking, I was quiet because I either couldn’t think of anything to say, or I preferred to spend time indulging my imagination (which is still the case). And when I was forced to talk I would often find myself doing something…weird.
The earliest example comes from a story my father told me. I was quite young (young enough that I have no memory of this), and my dad had taken me to some sort of gathering. I was the only kid there and seemed intimidated. Finally someone bent down and asked my how I was doing, and without missing a beat I replied, “My dad eats Kraft Dinner out of the pot.”
A few things can be gleaned from this little anecdote. Firstly, I’m sure my dad will be super excited to know that I shared that story on the internet to be preserved for all time. Secondly, I also eat Kraft Dinner out of the pot. I mean, why dirty a dish if you know you’re going to eat all of it yourself anyway? (Damn, now I want some KD….) Thirdly, when faced with having to expose myself in public my first ever instinct was to just do whatever popped into my head first, and say it with extreme authority (even my four-year-old brain thought there was something worth considering about the idea of skipping the “plate” part of lunch).
Later in life I got into theatre, and kept doing that until University. One of the phrases that gets tossed around when you’re performing is “If it feels stupid, you’re doing it right.” I think I took those words to heart more than anything else in this world. That and, “Fake it like you mean it.” Seriously, if you’re being silly and fun, people don’t always notice that you have no idea what you’re doing. I’ve done presentations on written works I haven’t read just by picking up on one point and ranting. I’ve convinced 1,300 lb animals that were out to kill me that they should just do what I want by walking around the place like I owned it.
I really think there is something in that life philosophy which is the key to conquering your ring nerves: stop worrying about the consequences of not doing well and just work with what is in front of you. When you’re training at home, spend time not fixing anything. Let it suck a bit, and just see if you can pull it together and finish a sequence. Don’t do the same thing over and over again. Mix it up, throw in a turn you weren’t planning, addlib a bit and see how you and your dog cope.
So many people over-prepare for a trial and think that that will give them the confidence to “get over” ring nerves. Obviously I’m not suggesting you stop practicing, but you have to accept that you cannot anticipate everything that could happen out there. There are a million, million variables at play, and the really good handlers are fluid enough in their plans that when something goes wrong they shift gears.
One of the things we talked about a lot when I worked as a groom for some of Canada’s top showjumping riders was the idea of “leaving it out of the ring.” Whatever baggage you have hanging around? It’s too heavy to carry around the course with you. Leave it at home (or in the warm-up area). We also talked about the idea that “you can’t fix it in the warm-up.” If it wasn’t working in your warm-up, then it probably isn’t going to happen in the ring. So don’t worry about it. All you have out there is you and the dog you currently have. Not the dog you think he should be, or the one he was a month ago before he freaked himself out flying off the teeter. He is a living, breathing, changing creature, which adds variables into the equation of your run that cannot be predicted.
The last thing I would recommend is to stop trying to Q. Seriously. Go in the ring and assume that you’ve already missed your chance to qualify, so you might as well go for it. Trust me, you will have a lot more fun that way, and so will your dog. Develop your plan, and then run after it like you have nothing to lose.
Why? Because you actually don’t have anything to lose. It’s just agility, no one is going to kick you out if you aren’t the best out there, otherwise we’d all get the boot before we made it out of Starters. And the only difference your dog notices between this and playing at agility in your backyard is that his human is suddenly very nervous about something. So, pretend like you don’t care if it’s perfect, pretend like this is a training round, and your dog won’t know any different. Getting in this mindset isn’t just about forcibly relaxing your shoulders, or talking in a happy voice, it’s about convincing yourself that you don’t care if you win or lose. Once you accept that the titles are actually meaningless (you get those after an arbitrarily chosen amount of runs, after all, and I’ve earned quite a few Qs with runs that were just not deserving of any recognition), that the joy of agility is found in the midst of your run and not when it’s over and you’re obsessively tallying your results, then you can start to relax and play.
Remember, there is no end goal for agility. There is no max level. You could win every championship in the world and do you know what would happen? Next year there will be more competitions to win, with different courses and harder challenges. It never ends. It reminds me of this scene from Angel. It’s a short speech that resonates with me deeply, and while he’s talking about being a hero and protecting the world, I think it applies for anyone competing and working to win at this agility business (or working towards anything challenging):
If none of the titles or championships really matter (beyond bragging rights), then the only thing that matters in agility is agility. Every jump you leave up, every contact your dog hits, every turn you cue perfectly, every one of those matters, and there will always be chances to try again. Have goals, but know that if you meet them, or don’t meet them, you still get to keep playing, and trying, and that’s where the fun is.
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