Technicalities & Beauty: The Eye of the Beholder

(Original post on June 23, 2016: I have retired my Judge Hat so I may focus more on other factors like coaching and research, but this opinion still holds.)

It has been a year since I started the journey to become an AAC judge, and during that time and for quite a bit of time prior to that, I have been very interested in course design. As a coach and trainer, I have also been very interested in analyzing courses and pulling them apart to their fundamental skills that are being tested on course. As a handler, I have enjoyed facing a wide spectrum of courses present in Canada’s agility scene, and as a spectator, I have enjoyed walking and discussing course design with friends in England (like at KCAIF (also known as KCI). As a member of this great agility community, I have also heard the grapevine chatter of complaints ranging from not enough flow, to too much flow. Terms like “too technical,” “too confusing,” “too fast / open,” “too… [fill in the blank]” float around. So it got me reflecting on what are the technicalities, and is there a way to look at this for its benefits instead of the technicalities that make the sport appear ugly.
To that end, I reflected on my time in curling (if you don’t know what it is, it’s a sport that originated in Scotland and involves the precise throwing (and sweeping) of a very heavy stone down a pebbled sheet of ice). Curling is similar to agility in that curling has very specific etiquette about sportsmanship – one must be respectful of the teammates, the other team’s members, the hosting organization, and most importantly the icemaker. It is considered extremely improper to complain about the ice, which presents a lot of technical challenges to the sport. So while curling has the technicalities of learning how to slide, how to sweep, how to control speed (weight), curl, and direction of the rock. It also has the technicalities of learning strategy and technicalities of learning how to play on different forms of ice (as the same sheet will change over the span of a single game).
So to that end, agility has a range of technicalities within it that can make the sport beautiful or plain ugly, depending on your perspective. Here is my list of technicalities that I see in the sport of agility that the agility team must face:
  • Simple obstacle performance skills for the dog – this includes different looking / performing dog walks, teeters, jumps, weaves (skinny versus fat, striped versus plain);
  • Complex obstacle performance skills for the dog – this includes obstacle discrimination (tunnels versus contacts), and various jump grids;
  • Surface skills for the dog – this includes learning how to run, control speed, and maneuver on a variety of surfaces (sand, grass, turf, wet versus dry);
  • Surface skills for the handler – same as the above;
  • Focus skills for the dog – this includes learning how to perform the above in different (distracting) environments (e.g., privately, with a hoard of people surrounding the ring in chairs, cheering, electronic sounds of timing equipment, judge in the ring (and running in the ring), ring stewards, photographers and their cameras, announcers, music, barking dogs, running children, smell of food along ringside….);
  • Handler’s focus skills – along with the above, the handler also needs to learn how to manage the mental game of the sport, and the self-talk, goals and aspirations;
  • Strategy choices – the handler needs to be able to read a course and pick out the optimal handling options and identify their optimal handler’s path to navigate the course; and
  • Handler-dog dynamics – the handler and dog might have differences in speeds, abilities, connection, stress, arousal levels that add to the technicalities of the course.
As you can see from the list above, there is a lot of technicalities to this sport called agility. As a coach and an agility handler, I try to ensure that my students and canine teammate(s) work through these technicalities, so that when they enter that ring on trial day, the experience is a fun one, regardless of what the course looks like. Sometimes I’m caught off guard, like at Canada Cup, I discovered a few things about technicalities that Kelsey hadn’t mastered yet (electronic sounds of timing systems (“WHAT was THAT?!?!?!”), the presence of 40+ border collies (she LOOOOVES border collies, so that was a fun, happy distraction for her), cheering and clapping (preceded a slip on landing and a pole down due to not enough recovery)). I could have seen the ugliness of those technicalities and complained, but instead I was grateful for the new insights and added them to my “Technicalities to Train” list.
One of the things I truly love about agility is that you never face the same course over and over again. The variety in the course designs is what I love about this sport. We are very lucky in Canada to have course design principles that have safety of the dog and handler in mind. We are also blessed to have a team of people who volunteer to approve our courses. As a judge, what I aspire to do is to bring with me a bag of technicalities and offer a single trial as big of variety as possible so the teams who ace “technical, turning” courses get their chance, and teams who ace “grids, straighter lines, flowing” courses get their chance. Conversely, the teams get a test of where there may be gaps in their training of the technicalities.
In my Ph.D. training, we were taught how to pick apart and see every single flaw in every article. It was easy and a fun game to complain about how the authors failed in this way or that way. Until one day, a seasoned and well-respected professor, Dr. Brent Gallupe, stopped us and asked us, “What is the added value in this article? It got published for a reason. Instead of tearing it apart, you need to stop and ask what benefit and lesson it brings.” He never said to stop being critical in the learning process, rather he argued it was important to find the value.
So in closing, I propose that the next time you see the ugliness in a course and you seek to tear it apart for its flaws as you see them, step back and ask what beauty lies within that course? What technicality is it testing and is it a gap in your training regiment? That very ugliness may be your fellow competitor’s thing of beauty, next course may be your thing of beauty.
“Sometimes you win, sometimes you learn.”
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