“Learning Agility”: A Word to Coaches

Sie lernen, ein reiten, indem Sie fegen.

~saying at a riding stable in SK, Canada~

I recently read a post from an agility coach regarding the behind-the-scenes work that coaches invest into their offerings and why agility enthusiasts should be kind to their coaches and accept the fees. The post was a great discussion starter, and I’d like to add a nuance here from my own past (and current) experiences.

For those of you who don’t speak German (that includes me), the quote above basically says, “You learn to ride a horse by sweeping.” Back when I used to ride horses (way back when), there was a gorgeous wood engraving over the entry to the indoor riding ring with this saying. It was ingrained in all of us, from the very start, that in order to learn how to ride a horse, we must also learn the maintenance around the horse (grooming, care, facility maintenance, equipment maintenance). This philosophy helped the stable run smoothly and also provided additional training to those of us entering and using those facilities.

This philosophy has been the backbone of all my agility coaching since then.

In order to learn to do agility, one must learn how to set-up and maintain the equipment, ring, training facility.

~D.P. Ford~

This blog is to explain why this is so important, not just from an educational perspective, but also for the sport’s health and growth. As coaches, we can either hinder or aid in this layer of education and progression of the sport.

Let me tell you of a story. One year, I was the trial manager, and I forgot to pick up the key to the gate to the facility. It was competition day and we still had to set up the ring and transfer the equipment into the ring.

While we were able to squeeze into the park (as were the dogs), we had to haul, hoist over the fence / squeeze between the gap all of the equipment (by hand) from the truck into the trial ring. The judge who was from another part of Canada was absolutely gobsmacked at how everyone was laughing and tackling the task without one frown or complaint. Obviously, I felt horrible as this was no easy task; I was apologizing left, right and center, and taking some kind ribbing. Yet every single competitor and volunteer rose to the task and got the equipment into the ring on record time. This was no coincidence. This was from a couple years of training and setting expectations: to do agility, one must lend a helping hand.

When you do it all, no one gets to learn or be altruistic.

~D. P. Ford.~

When coaches “protect” their students from the work of moving equipment, setting up spaces, we are removing a training opportunity. We can train our agility enthusiasts how to set up the equipment properly and safely. We can teach them the little tricks we have that makes it more efficient and easier.

When coaches do all the work themselves, they are actually removing the opportunity for people to develop psychological ownership. This is the belief that they own a part of that organization – that it is theirs. Psychological ownership is associated with many benefits to the business/club, including: more commitment, satisfaction, citizenship behaviours (going above and beyond what is expected), and also possibly some increased knowledge sharing.

I have served as President of two not-for-profit agility clubs in Canada now (one multiple times). Each club has benefited greatly from the “Many hands make for light work” mantra of training. Each club had massive growth spurts and organizational successes in terms of operational successes (facility upgrades/expansion of offerings/quality of equipment and investments) when they operated with this mantra. But most importantly, the members felt like they belonged to the club and that the club belonged to them. The culture that arises is one of support and nurture. That is a huge win, and it is not by accident!

When you do it all, you put yourself at risk of burnout from work overload.

~D. P. Ford~

Another issue of doing all the work themselves is that coaches put themselves at higher risk of burnout and work overload (if not workplace injuries). With the pandemic and associated public health measures in 2020, it was the first time ever my agility students and participants were not permitted to help me with moving equipment, set-up and tear-down. I will tell you… it was super hard back-breaking work for me and it made me naturally want to limit my offerings. I also felt more fatigued and perhaps grumpy (although really, watching people have successes with their dogs always puts a smile back on my face).

However, my agility clan also experienced negative reactions from not being able to help out. They experienced guilt and a strong desire to break the rules. Gratefully, the public health measures now permit people to help again, and they are keen to do so.

When we believe we have to do it all, we limit others’ learning, feelings of contributions and the associated benefits.

Getting people to help isn’t a failure; it’s education and training, that’s what coaches are supposed to do.

~D. P. Ford~

This does mean, though, we have to ask for help. If you view it as training and teaching them how to support and grow the sport, then it is a lot easier to ask for that help. Coaches need to teach all aspects of the sport for people to be able to do it safely.

So while there may be times I think I’m being “lazy” or a bad coach by not serving my clients like a servant, I stop and remind myself:

You learn to ride by sweeping.

You learn agility by helping.

[Feature photo of Brooke and me in a Horse-Dog Relay at the riding facility where I learned to sweep/ride, 1997.]

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