The Mental Game

The picture in this post is my Border Collie Echo.  She has been gone for awhile now but she was one incredible teammate!  That is the point of this post.  Agility is a team sport.  We teach our dogs to work and play this game with us.  Some of us are fortunate to have dogs who not only love us but love to play the game of agility!  Echo was a Regional and National Champion who also travelled with me to The Netherlands to compete in the 2006 IFCS Championships.  Why am I telling you this?  What does this have to do with the mental game?  The post is about how to handle nerves!

First of all, and this is the most important, whether you are attending your first local trial or a National or even an International event, you are stepping to the line with your canine friend and you are there because you have trained or qualified to be there!  Nothing else matters!  You are there to put your teams skills to the test against the judges course!  That is one trick to help calm nerves!  Challenge yourself against the course.  Centralize your thoughts and focus on your handling of the course.  Visualize your intended path (visualization will be a separate post).  Do not watch the dog who is going before you!!  I will watch the dog start and then replace the handler team with myself and watch as though I am watching myself handle the course.  If I get distracted by what is happening in the ring (the dog is faulting) I will close my eyes and continue the course as though we are having a flawless run!  This is happening while I am waiting for my turn.  Basically, I tune out my nerves and turn the energy towards what is happening in the ring.

Where does Echo play a role in this?  She taught me an invaluable lesson (one of many, I might add).  We were at the Championships in the Netherlands and waiting our turn.  We had had a practice round which I pulled off by the skin of my teeth!  I was told I was lucky I had an honest dog (one who listens well, sometimes despite my efforts).  We were about to take on our first course that counted for the results.  As I was doing my focus stuff I realized my nerves were starting to take over!  Over time I have always had the ability overcome this.  I have played competitive sports and for awhile I played rep hockey as a goaltender.  There is no time for nerves.  You instead focus on your own physical abilities and nerves are lost.  You sometimes hear sports figures asked about nerves.  They often say it is anticipation.  This is true!!  If you can convince yourself you are ready and that what you are feeling is just how much you want to play you can eliminate self-doubt.

Back to Echo.  My nerves were taking over.  My hand was shaking.  I realized what was happening.  And I did something which had never before that moment occurred to me.  I turned to Echo and started praising her. I am so sentimental. I am tearing up just thinking about this moment in our career together!  I always lavish attention on my dogs at the start line.  This is part of my routine.  I have been known to kiss my dogs at the start line.  But I realized that she was there with me and that I needed her as much as she needed me.  We had our moment together and then we were ready to enter the ring.  My strength was renewed as I realized I was there to enjoy this moment with my dog and that is what I intended to do!  We ended up running almost all 8 of our courses clean and we ended up 8th overall in the aggregate and 8th overall in Biathlon.  I was very proud of Echo.  Still am!

Turn to your dog for inspiration in these moments and they won’t let you down!  They love attention!  Dogs are a calming influence.  Use this trait as a tool!  In future posts on this topic I will address other sources of possible inspiration.  I will also address other ways to conquer self-doubt.  Tune in until next time and good luck on your journey with your teammate!!!