This past weekend, Frodo and I headed to Perry, Georgia for the 2017 AKC Agility National Championships. As in the past when I've gone to Crufts, the NAC follows almost immediately after. This year, NAC marked the end of a 2.5 week stay in Germany, followed by Crufts, and then, Perry, GA. Frodo and I have come a long way since our first AKC Nationals together, in Reno, NV, back in 2015. We weren't much of a team, although we did manage to have a good run in I think Jumpers with Weaves. We didn't know each other very well, and I was still deeply disappointed to have lost Solar as my running mate when he was still arguably in his prime.
I didn't go to AKC NAC in 2016, for various reasons, but I'd been looking forward to the event this past weekend, because at this point, Frodo and I are a good working team. We still have places to go with respect to our development, we're not finished growing yet as a team, but we're a pretty smoothly functioning team at this point nonetheless.
I'm fairly objective about our odds most of the time, and in my mind, our odds this year were pretty good, given the data that I had going in to the event. And at the event, in the International Sweepstakes Round, we put down a great run, coming in third by just a few fractions of a second. I'd wanted to do well, although winning would have meant turning down a spot to go to the European Open in Italy. Why turn it down? Last year at the European Open, Frodo had a hard time with the crowds ringside – he's much better at big stadium style events where there's more distance between the noisy crowd and the ring. So, while it's possible he'd be better this year, I didn't feel like it was in line with my goals. In any case, ISC was perfect – we did really well, but we didn't win, and so I didn't have to say no, which is chronically difficult for me.
In our first NAC run, jumpers, we had a solid run, and came in first place. I probably could have cleaned up a corner here or there, but it was a solid run. In round two, we had a solid run going, and Frodo slipped trying to take off for a jump. I felt pretty bad for him, he really does try very hard to keep the bars up, and I can't even remember when the last one he dropped was. But, mistakes happen. The rest of the run was a little wobbly, as I was thrown off by the dropped bar. In any case, that ended my plans for making it to the Finals by just having three clear rounds.
By Sunday morning, before round 3, I was a little angry, and a little disappointed. Not in Frodo, just disappointed with myself, and for not having done better. I tend to run a bit better when I'm a little fired up, so it worked out well for us in the third round, and Frodo and I got first again, which meant we made it to a special Challenger's Round. Winning that round meant another shot at the Finals, and again, I knew the odds were in our favor. That's not the same as saying I think I've got something in the bag, obviously. But if you know the times that you and your dog are capable of, and the times that your competition is capable of, you know if you have a shot or not.
Nothing is in the bag, though, and a miscalculation in Challengers, a mistake on my part, cost us what was a pretty nice run up to that point. Again, disappointed.
After that run, several people came up to me and said “nice run!”, which really was kind of annoying, because it was not a nice run. It was an elimination. It was a nice TRY, but it was not a nice run. And that's ok. But please, don't tell me I had a nice run when it was an elimination. Tell me it was a valiant effort, or a great try, or that it was a great run UP TO THAT POINT, but not just…nice run. I don't want to be soothed in to thinking that an elimination was a nice run, because my personal goals and standards demand more of me than that.
I debated writing about that, or about disappointment in general, because I'm not sure how it would be received amongst the USA agility population in general. I'm disappointed about the weekend, no doubt about that. Over and over, I heard people saying that they were “just happy to be here”. That's fine, and I don't begrudge people that, they SHOULD be happy to just be at NAC. But, that is not how I roll. It just isn't. I'm not *just* happy to be there. I'm there because I want to compete, and I want to try to end up on the top of the heap. Finals is not “just gravy” for me. It's what I'm aiming for. It's the meat at the end of the HUNT. And, this past weekend, Frodo and I came home from the hunt empty handed. Yes, we placed at the top of the heap in a couple rounds leading up to the Finals, but with respect to the BIG hunt, we fell short.
Now, don't get me wrong. Our performances were really good, and I am happy with them. After sleeping off the disappointment of mucking up the Challenger Round, I'm even happy with how THAT run went, ultimately. I messed it up and chose to immediately take Frodo to his leash, and his treats, and his toy, rather than finishing up the run in a fog of disappointment. Frodo never knew anything was wrong all weekend, and historically, hiding my disappointment from my dogs is not something I've always been successful at doing. I can be happy with parts of how the weekend went and still be disappointed, though!
There's nothing inherently wrong with disappointment. To gloss disappointment over in a Pollyanna “well I'm just happy to be here” way, or a “this is just gravy” way, or “this is just a game I play with my dog” way can be limiting, though, in my mind. Of course, this IS a game, but it's not JUST a game. Saying something is “only” a game or “just” a game limits its importance in our lives. There's no doubt about it that this game is basically my life. I eat, drink, sleep, and dream this game. Basketball is “just a game” as well, but my guess is that after a big loss, NBA players aren't shrugging off their loss as an “oh well, it's just a game” moment. Minimizing disappointment, or pretending that disappointment in an outcome is inappropriate because “it's just a game” prevents self-reflection. It prevents rumbling with the uncomfortable feelings of not being good enough, not being able to make it happen when it counted, wondering how things could have been prevented or improved.
So, on the two hour or so drive back to the airport, I rumbled a lot with disappointment. Again, not disappointed with Frodo. He did really well, and I couldn't have been more pleased with him. Disappointed in a couple of my handling choices. And just, disappointed in general that I didn't meet my objective. It's Monday morning, and I'm still disappointed. Last night, while deep in that stage of rumbling with my disappointment, I was questioning whether or not I should go to Tryouts at the end of April. I'm far less certain about the odds being in my favor at Tryouts than I was for NAC, and look how NAC turned out? If I couldn't ‘get ‘er done' at NAC, what makes me think I'm good enough to get the job done at Tryouts? These were the thoughts rumbling through my head while I drove and listened to music.
One of the things I am NOT disappointed in over the past weekend was that I played to win. I was pretty sure, given the data, that I could have “just run clean” in most of the rounds, and that those clean rounds would have been good enough for the Finals. But, I didn't want to play to not lose, I wanted to play to win. I watched several competitors this past weekend play to not lose, instead of playing to win. I don't want to do that any more. I really enjoyed playing to win in Germany, and at Crufts. It's what I enjoy about the bigger competitions. However, if I'm playing not to lose at smaller shows, shifting to a ‘playing to win' mindset at bigger shows is going to be that much more difficult. Sure, there's more risk involved in playing to win, or at least it feels that way, but at this point, I'd rather take the risk and fail than just play not to lose. These ideas are talked about at length in a book I read recently called Top Dog: The Science of Winning and Losing. You can click on the link to read about it if you're interested, and I highly recommend it.
Anyway, so, what makes me think I'm good enough for Tryouts? That's kind of where I left it last night. This morning, I'm still very unsure about the odds. It feels risky. It feels like a lot of money and time for maybe no reward at all other than having taken a risk. I'd like to play to win, despite not knowing the odds. The reward, after all, is a big one. World Championships has always been my dream, my goal, ever since I started agility in 1999 and found out about it. It's not about the notoriety, and it's clearly not about the money (what money?). It's not my dream because it's easy. This dream has put me in front of more disappointment and heartache than I could have ever dreamed a passion would make possible, and yet, I persist at it.
I'm not religious, and I don't believe in karma, but for whatever reason, agility, and THIS type of agility in particular, it's in every cell of my body to want to be a part of it. I've been fortunate enough to be able to participate not one, or two, or three, but five times on that stage. Sadly, just about every time I've gotten there, I've played to not lose. Even now, holding on to the idea of playing to win is tricky for me. Our system of agility in the USA does not promote playing to win, on the whole. It promotes caution, and playing not to lose. Trying to hold on to a mindset of playing to win requires thinking outside the ring gates to some extent. Every time I've spent any amount of time in Europe or Scandinavia, it doesn't take long to get in to the playing to win mindset, and after the latest excursion, I am trying hard to hold on to that mindset with all I've got.
Back to disappointment. I am disappointed by this past weekend. But, I spent some time rumbling with it, accepting it for what it is, and looking at it. Not discounting it, not discarding it, and not plastering over it with trite and happy sayings. I'm still deeply unsure about the odds being in my favor in any way at Tryouts next month. But I can't not go. I will not accept defeat, and my bruised ego will survive. I will get up, and I will go out to my amazing arena and beat my head against those things that I know are weaknesses for Frodo and I for the next month. I will go out and work on precisely the things that make me feel uncomfortable, in an effort to knock some of those things off of that list. And I'll head to Tryouts with a foolish sense of gumption, trying my hardest to ignore the odds and focus on the rewards, because the risk, ultimately, is worth the effort.
The hunt is on.