Although I originally posted this on my personal website some time ago, the information is perennially relevant, so I thought I'd share here on the Classroom Blog, where posts of a more educational nature reside 🙂
There are a lot of online classrooms springing up here and there, and I think it will be interesting to see how they evolve over time. Some seem to provide little to no personal feedback at all, and instead simply drip scripted content to the user over time. Others, like mine, really are the online equivalent of a class, where students receive homework, do their homework, receive feedback on their homework, and also participate in discussions, sometimes with, and sometimes without the instructor chiming in. But, the instructor is providing that oh-so-valuable feedback! And, as an update, I'm happy to say that my Classroom now provides the best of BOTH worlds – those on a tight budget can still get the valuable information at a lower price, and those with a little more disposable income can participate in the discussions, still, at a reasonable price – something I'm proud that all the instructors here have stuck to.
As an instructor and coach, and as a person who actually has a formal education and degree in Science Education (and as somebody who taught in the public school system for a number of years!), the question of what makes a good coach is an important one that I think every person should consider. But it's not the only question! As lifelong learners, we all need to consider several factors when deciding what makes a good instructor or coach for US, personally.
That's probably the first question to ask. Why not pick up a book and just learn about dog agility by reading? Or, why not just watch free videos on Youtube? I do think that as a kinesthetic activity, the vast majority of learners are not going to realize maximum learning by simply reading about or watching dog agility – although I do think watching is better than reading when it comes to kinesthetic sorts of activities. DOING is going to be the thing that really helps us learn how to DO dog agility with our canine partners. And, when it comes to DOING, we're going to make lots of mistakes – some of them essential to learning. However, with the help of a coach or instructor, who has hopefully made at least some of those mistakes herself, you as a learner can avoid some of the basic mistakes, and move on to more advanced learning more quickly!
Dog agility as a vehicle for self improvement involves changing your behavior. BECOMING. Becoming faster, fitter, smarter, happier, more relaxed, more confident, more clever…there is a whole list of such things that I'm betting you could come up with, but at the end of it all, dog agility, like many other activities in life, is a way for you and your dog to BECOME something. And becoming something means that you are CHANGING – changing from something you WERE to something…else. There doesn't need to be a goal for this, it's just something that happens to all of us as we live our lives. This is where coaches and instructors come in. Coaches and instructors provide feedback. And, feedback helps you change your behavior. And, changing your behavior helps you in your process of becoming. For many of us, myself included, it can be difficult to change our behavior and become something we're not comfortable being. Coaches can help us find ways to move forward, either by asking us pointed questions that we can think over for ourselves, or by telling us specifically how to move our bodies, when to reward our dogs, what sequences we should practice, etc. etc.
Asking yourself what your specific needs with respect to coaching are going to be will help you determine just what kind of coach you are looking for. Everybody's needs are going to be slightly different, as we're all unique individuals with unique needs. But, I do think that there are a few things that are important for all coaches to possess.
While I don't think a good coach NEEDS a formal education in education or coaching, I do think that the best instructors and coaches are those who either have had some formal education on the topic, like myself, OR, they've had some tutelage and mentorship from instructors and coaches who themselves have had some formal education in the field of education. Anybody can hang their shingle out as a professional trainer of dog owners – but make sure your instructor has more than just a shingle to hang out 🙂
First and foremost, a coach's role is to provide you with information you currently do not have. An experienced coach can help jumpstart your learning by providing you with information so that you don't have to discover how to do things well (or poorly) through trial and error. Although you should still be evaluating the information you receive to make sure it makes logical sense, it's information you don't have to go out and spend time on yourself. If your coach or instructor makes you feel really good about yourself, and you have a lot of laughs, and a great time, but at the end of the lesson or seminar or workshop, you realize you really didn't receive any information, then you weren't coached – you were just at a social gathering.
Although I just said in the previous point that coaches need to provide information, and that if they're just really good at making you feel good and are NOT providing information, they aren't really a coach, I do think that it is important that a coach or instructor help ‘build you up' with the information they're presenting, rather than tearing you down. Now, I'm not a really touchy feely, hugging, kissing, flowers and rainbows type of person myself. Ask my husband and close friends; sometimes my ‘bedside manner' just plain sucks 🙂 I get really in to giving information, and lots of it, and I can forget that sometimes it needs to be softened around the edges so that the receiver of the information can actually RECEIVE and USE that information! I'm not going to tell somebody they're great unless they were really great – but on the other hand, if somebody is putting forth a great effort, I will definitely be letting them know! Coaches need to present information and skills that are perhaps just out of reach with respect to the learner's current ability, and then encourage the learner to work to raise their ability. There's a big difference between encouraging and coddling. When I teach a lesson, workshop, or seminar, my primary interest is in helping to raise the ability of each and every individual. Sometimes, it doesn't always feel good for the learner at that moment of learning; it can be frustrating, uncomfortable, awkward, and nerve wracking to work on changing your behavior, changing your skill level. If I allowed everybody who came to me to stay in a comfortable place where they always felt good, they probably wouldn't be learning much. But, on the other hand, I think it is important for a coach to recognize that it IS awkward and uncomfortable to be pressing forward, and to be appropriately encouraging.
This is a really hard one. People learn in different ways. Some people, even though they are paying a coach for a lesson, are ‘drivers', and like to feel like they are behind the wheel. They need a coach who can gently guide them to think that every new idea is THEIR idea, allowing that driver to stay behind the wheel, so that they will learn more effectively. Try to drive a driver and they will ‘mule up', planting their feet in the sand and refusing to budge, mentally or physically. Of course, coaches are people too, and being able to put on a different hat every time a coach is presented with a different student is a skill that many coaches simply do not possess. You can be before the most knowledgeable coach in the world, but if they do not present their information in a way that jives with your learning style, you won't learn much (of course, you as a learner should be working to meet your coach halfway, you are, after all, trying to change your behavior! :))
There are a lot of people out there presenting themselves as coaches. They have a passion for their sport and want to make money doing something related to their sport. In agility, there are a few ways to do that – make equipment, breed dogs for the sport, or teach. OK, maybe a few others, but you get the idea 🙂 A *good* coach needs to have experience. Getting lucky with one dog and shooting to the top of the sport does not necessarily count as experience! I have enjoyed a lot of success with a couple of my dogs, and of course that makes you more aware of me – but like many in the sport, the dogs you DON'T know about so much, the ones who HAVEN'T been as successful, may well have given me more experience than the ones who HAVE. Ideally, a good coach can point to personal experiences with dogs who are naturally talented, and those who are not. If you want to win, who do you think you will learn more about winning from? Somebody who has ONLY won, or somebody who has won AND lost? Which person will more fully know all the different aspects of winning and losing? Coaches are typically also competitors, and their dogs are their pets, so it's a little unrealistic to expect a coach to have owned YOUR breed of dog – after all, there is only so much room in one's house for pets! But, a good coach should at least have experience working with students who have YOUR breed of dog, and they should be able to recognize the general character traits that might be more prevalent in your breed of dog.
This sort of goes along with the last point. Coaches need to be able to see the BIG PICTURE. To explain to you why this one silly little thing you're being asked to do today is important in the grand scheme of things, even if it doesn't make sense NOW. They need to be able to present you with information that is going to stand the test of time, rather than just presenting you with a bag of tricks that works on one, two, a few dogs. What are the BIG things that tend to work across the board? With ALL dogs? Those are the important things, those are the things that a good coach can then help you customize for YOUR dog. Start big, then work your way back to the details for YOUR dog. If an instructor or coach is presenting you with ‘tricks' – newfangled things with fancy names – that might be fun, but is it going to be something that really helps further your understanding? Does it really help you to BECOME?
Your coach needs to be somebody that you can go to with questions. And, your coach needs to be somebody that is comfortable saying I DON'T KNOW, when your understanding starts to approach that of your coach's understanding, and you start to ask questions. This is the coach's opportunity to learn from you, or at least learn with you – a good coach is comfortable saying, “I don't know, but let's find out together”. Personally, I would walk away, and FAST, from an instructor or coach who got huffy or defensive when I asked a question. Having said that, be sure that YOU are not asking the SAME question over and over – that's different, and that will drive even the best coaches crazy! If you are asking the same question over and over, and not getting a satisfactory answer, make it clear that that is WHY you keep asking. Or, ask the question differently. Keep asking GOOD questions, and a good coach will keep giving good answers, and “I don't know but let's find out together” is maybe the best answer of all, because then the coach AND the student are learning from one another. Both have given one another an amazing opportunity for self improvement!
Finding a coach that suits your learning style, as well as your needs and wants, can be challenging. It was even more challenging before the internet made the world smaller – prior to online classes, geography was the main consideration for most, and in all likelihood, still is. But there are so many more important factors to take in to consideration! Ideally, online learning would be coupled with local instruction, and you as the learner would schedule a lesson time with your local instructor, not for an actual lesson, but to discuss how you can help your coach help you to be the best you can be. Periodically revisiting that idea helps your coach remain aware of the need for self improvement as a coach, and helps you remain aware of the need for self improvement as a learner, and then everybody gets closer to the REAL goal…of BECOMING 🙂
Recently, I listened to an interview on the radio with a Psychology Professor named Jim Stigler at UCLA. He was talking about how he'd watched anxiously as a fourth grader in a Japanese math classroom struggled at the front of the class to solve a problem.
Maybe you didn't know this, but I used to be a high school chemistry teacher. So although I don't teach high school any longer, I'm still keenly interested in pedagogy (the study of teaching), and my ears always perk up when I hear things that relate to teaching, mental training, and that sort of thing, as I think those topics are applicable to agility.
Anyway, this guy was talking about how the teacher had called on a student who obviously DIDN'T know the answer to the problem at hand. Now, as a teacher, I always tried to choose a student who I was pretty sure knew the answer 🙂 But in this case, the student didn't know the answer, and was up at the front of the room for a LONG time, getting the problem WRONG, over and over again. Finally, they solved the problem, and the class applauded.
To make a long story short, the point of the article was really that in the mind of this Professor, and according to his research, it seems that Eastern cultures have really promoted the idea that intellectual struggle is a GOOD thing, that the process of struggling intellectually is what MAKES you intellectually strong. He contrasts that to the prevailing notion in Western cultures, that intellectual ability is something innate, something you either have or don't have.
What if we were to change our thinking about ‘struggle' in other facets of our lives? This goes right along with all of my mental training for agility – the idea that it's the PROCESS that's the important thing, rather than the outcome. That the outcome really is a product OF the process.
It got me thinking – in my day to day life, do I view struggle as a sign of weakness? Or, do I view struggle as a challenge, as an opportunity for growth? In my day to day interactions with my dogs, how to I react when I bump up against something I don't know, don't understand, or struggle with?
If your ‘training chops' are a muscle, if your intellectual ability is a muscle, and if muscles are made strong by exercise, by working through resistance, then think of your training challenges as that resistance that will make you stronger.
Rather than getting frustrated, or disappointed, think of anything that you view as a struggle as an opportunity to become more fluent through the process of persistance, not giving up, trying and trying again and trying differently until you SOLVE your training, trialling, or mental game challenge.
If you're interested in reading to or listening to the article that caught my attention, check it out here: Struggle for Smarts
Juno had her big Novice Debut this weekend! She's almost certainly had the least preparation and training of any of my dogs to date, given my busy travel schedule and focus on Solar and Jester, but nevertheless, she did great. I've been waiting for her debut for some time, not only because running a Novice dog is a ton of fun, but to prove to people that you don't have to step in to the ring perfect, or perfectly prepared. To the contrary, there are things I believe that the dogs will only learn in the ring, and so I see no reason to wait til they're running Master's level courses to enter them in a trial, provided that I can provide a positive experience that will further growth between my dog and myself as a team.
Juno's debut in the Novice ring has gotten me thinking how all of the things I've been working lately to make sure I'm implementing as a coach for my students really applies to our dogs as well. For those of us involved in a team sport with our dogs, we serve not only as trainers, but as canine coaches too, and although it's taken me several years to fully grasp the concept, I do believe that in order to achieve maximum success with our dogs as athletes, we must be flexible coaches, able to be the coach our dog needs us to be as his/her needs change, rather than expecting our dogs to conform constantly to our needs.
Like us, I believe our dogs move through different levels of competency as they learn the ins and outs of the sport of dog agility. To review, here are the four basic levels of competency:
Obviously, I'm going to continue to put an emphasis on enjoyment together as a team throughout these different learning stages, but like us, I really do feel that what makes something “fun” changes as you move through these stages. For example, in the first stage, most would not find nitty gritty details and highly analytical training to be very fun. That's not terribly motivating for a beginner in any endeavor! But, as the thirst for more develops, there may well come a time when a lot of pleasure can be taken in learning the finer details involved in perfecting a particular mechanical skill. Our dogs, like us, are changing all the time. When I look at Fly, who is now 12.5 years old, he is definitely not the same dog he was when he was a year old. Likewise, Jester, Solar, and Juno are all different dogs than they were when they arrived in our family, both physically and mentally. Their development as individuals as we progress together as companions and teammates is what makes the sport so much fun, and so rewarding. Our dogs aren't the only ones changing, though. We of course, are changing all the time too. As handlers, we may ourselves be moving through the four learning stages listed above, and then our task is doubled, as we'll have to be our own coaches as well as our dogs' coaches. Our circumstances in life change as well. We move, our interests change, jobs, partners, you name it. The only thing that stays the same is that things always change. But, being alert to the needs of your canine partner with respect to what they require from you as a companion, a leader, a handler, and a coach, is something that benefits both dog and human alike – it's the name of the game!
Juno's First Trial, 4/30-5/2, 2011