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 🙂