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 Performance  Agility  Coaching & Evaluation

Excellence in coaching at any pursuit is arguably more of an art than a science. There are rows and rows of excellent scientifically based researched books on the subject in any book store, but as with any theoretical knowledge it is how you put it into practise that really counts.

I have used a number of sources of inspiration for my coaching techniques from the world of football, athletics and many other team games. I have been able to draw on over 25 years management experience working for a large financial institution; managing, motivating and getting the high performance required in today’s business world has taught me a lot about how to get the best out of people. I have spent many years, more than I care to remember, training agility handlers and dogs of all standards. Finally, I have had the privilege of witnessing some of world’s top handlers at work behind the scenes at the world championships.

Why coaching and not training?
By and large more experienced handlers have a good grasp of dog training techniques. So basic training and basic dog handling techniques are not necessarily what the experienced handler needs.

My aim with all handlers is to continually evaluate their performance, both in training and in the agility ring. The objective is to identify where improvements can be made in their handling technique and apply the learning consistently throughout a programme of training.

As a coach, identifying areas for improvement can be quite demanding, as the changes required are often subtle and hard to spot. However, I would suggest that such evaluation is as important for the most experienced handlers as it is for the raw novice.

Why? Well agility rounds at all levels in the UK these days are won and lost on as little as one thousandth of one second. If you are not aware as handler where time can be made and lost, you could be doomed to a series of creditable second places, or worse still, failure to qualify for that major final you had set as an objective that year.

What it takes
There is of course some psychology involved. Although I cannot claim to be an expert in this field there are some fairly obvious pointers to what sets apart the merely good experienced handler from the very best.

Focus, concentration and mental preparation, especially for a big final, is critical and is often overlooked. You can have the best trained agility dog in the world but if your own preparation is not right you are passing the advantage to the handler, possibly with a slower dog, that has their preparation exactly right.

Having competed at the top level for many years, and having had the privilege of observing many of the UK’s top handlers at major competition finals and at the World Championships it is not difficult to identify who has got this right and who hasn’t.

I would summarise the things that sets the winning handlers apart from the others as being:

  • Well grounded agility training based on proven training techniques

  • Highly tuned handling skills

  • An ability to evaluate, constructively criticise their own performance after each agility round

  • Able to put right any deficiencies in performance no matter how small

  • The ability to apply consistently what they have practised in training in the competition ring

  • The ability to set clear and concise training goals aimed at achieving success at either one or more major competitions

  • The right positive mental attitude

  • A fast accurate and responsive dog

Not everyone is lucky enough to have the last of these positive attributes, but how many handlers have you seen with a quick responsive dog that cannot seem to get the best out of it and themselves? Many handlers in the habit of winning can squeeze out the best performance from quite ordinary dogs; arguably this is another key attribute.

The role of the coach
The key objective for the coach is to ensure that the handler and dog get to the start line as well prepared as possible. This means that the handler needs to be confident, focused and relaxed (a relative term as far as competition is concerned). In other words they are ready and able to get the best performance from their dog.

Once the dog has crossed the start line it is down to the handler and dog. However, the coach also has a role in analysing competition performance and feeding the learning back into the coaching programme.

This whole process should start well before the handler gets to a show or a major competition. The coach will work with the handler in training to evaluate their performance over a series of training sequences. These may be sequences that have been practised many times before, but this is about both consistency and squeezing out that extra hundredth / thousandth of a second from an agility round.

There is also the question of ‘knowing your dog’. This is something that probably only the handler will know and therefore the handler must understand how his or her dog is likely to perform under given circumstances.

The coach has a role to play in observing how the dog and handler work together and then work with the handler to analyse these performance attributes. These are then assessed and any deficiencies addressed as part of pre-event preparation or by the handler when planning the agility round on the day of a competition.

There is no magic solution or training video that can provide the answer to your coaching needs. My aim as a coach is to find the best, most efficient and effective handling solution for the handler / dog combination.

So in essence, the coach’s is role is to help the handler identify all of these things and to set out with the handler a programme of training and training drills that ensures both dog and handler team are as well prepared as they can be when they reach the start line.

The PACE Performance Assessment
In order to assess a handler’s performance I have devised a set of criteria that I use to benchmark the handler and dog. The assessment measures capabilities against a predefined set of actions and sequences. These measures are designed to pick up on any weaknesses in your handling style and the dog’s performance.

Once the assessment has been carried out it is used to determine where improvements can be made and to focus on training to improve on weaknesses. Once the initial performance assessment has been carried out it is used to measure progress throughout the training programme.

This method is effective with handlers at all levels from starters to the very experienced.

How well prepared are you?

About the author...
Steve Croxford has recently announced his intention to do agility training and handler coaching on a full-time basis. He plans to all cater for all levels, from beginner to advanced and all standards and sizes of dog, individuals and groups. 

Manager of the Kennel Club British Agility Team for the past three years,  Steve led the British Team to World Championship success in this year's event in Lievin, France.

He trains regularly at Hinckley DTC and has many year's experience in training dogs and coaching handlers. He and his wife Yvonne ran their own successful dog training club for a while during the 1990s until the pressure of their full-time careers caused them to close it down.

Steve has judged at the highest level and, as well as judging at Crufts in 2000, regularly judges at home and abroad. A regular competitor on the agility circuit, he is particularly proud to be one of the handful of people to have won the Pedigree Olympia singles final and the Crufts team competition.

Steve offers a wide range of training services including coaching, one to one training, training for small groups, club training days and club trainer training. More details can be found on his website www.pace-agility.org