An average coach will make you feel his or her greatness. A perfect coach will make you feel yours!
I also believe that you should probably have several coaches or instructors in your agility career. Not everyone has a diverse enough skill set to teach everything you need to know. . . . Lately my perfect coach/instructor is my dogs and my favorite tool is my video camera.
All dogs are individuals, of course. They’re not all typical (or stereotypical) of their breed; they all need to be treated as individuals within their breeds. But breed matters. Anyone who says it doesn’t, doesn’t Get It. Papillons, for example, need a 4 on contact at the bottom of the see-saw for a safe landing and to drive the board down quickly, so don't insist I put their treat on a target 6" out from the board. In fact, let me remove the target when it's my turn.
First and foremost, a coach’s role is to provide you with information you currently do not have. I resent teachers who mindlessly teach me things I clearly already know, which just reveals that they aren't actually teaching ME. "Place your front cross further out" is useful. "A front cross is a change of sides", insults me.
What makes a great instructor/coach? Here are some of my criteria:
- The instructor must be as kind to the student as they expect the student to be to their dog (for me, only positive training would be acceptable).
- They must be kind, empathetic and have endless patience.
- There would NEVER EVER be a harsh word muttered towards the student or the dog.
- They would NEVER EVER blame the dog for ANYTHING that goes wrong, and they would not accept that from their students either.
- No matter what happens on course, a great instructor teaches their students to smile as they leave the course and be kind to their dog.
- A great instructor teaches their students to be good losers as well as good winners.
- They would never roll their eyes at a student, belittle them or use sarcasm when teaching.
- Instructors should never ever tell tales outside of class. What happens in class stays in class. It would be unprofessional to do anything else.
- Great instructors gently encourage their students to be more than they think they can be. They never shame them into anything or ridicule their students.
- A great instructor will not over face their students. They know how to train reliable behaviors and will break things down into small pieces so the students and dogs gain confidence as they learn and never feel overwhelmed.
- A great instructor is not afraid to search for more answers from others who are successful.
- And finally, a great instructor will not only answer any and all questions the student asks, they will do so with a smile.
A great agility coach applies pressure to students in class, pushes them out of their comfort zone, asks them to hurry to the start line, shouts “please go now!” to replicate the trial atmosphere. First I've heard of "replicating the trial atmosphere in class". At the advanced levels, I like it!
A good coach will watch from ringside and mentally will you to work your start-line, reinforce your contact criteria, cue a front cross sooner . . . . . Cue a front cross????? I've never heard that one. How do you cue a front cross before you front cross?
Any instructor that suggests the sport can be taught differently if you don’t have “world team aspirations” suffers from a limited vision. Things like body awareness, shadow handling, foundation jump grids, games of drive and control prior to ever getting on agility obstacles all make the “foundation” agility training so easy. Anyone who attempts to teach agility obstacles first without these elements in place is surely inviting frustration to be a constant companion of both the dog and the handler throughout their agility playing career. This is why I offered a Handling Fundamentals class at our club last spring, but it had few takers and was ridiculed by our regular teachers, who claimed they already teach the fundamentals. But they never taught me shadow handling, body awareness, start line stays, footwork, and games of drive in their classes -- all we did was run sequences. The only two who took my class had a very respectable Q rate in their first Novice trials!
A great teacher "recognizes how agility has changed — Agility continues to evolve. Trends in course design have changed, and different handling maneuvers are needed. Weave pole entries are more difficult, serpentines are prevalent, and wraps are becoming more common. A good trainer recognizes this, and will also alter the focus of training exercises to focus on current challenges in agility.
A great instructor also has an instructor! It's all about continuing education! Never settle for someone who assumes they already know it all and has nothing left to learn. Teaching the same things you’ve taught for years or teaching things the same way you’ve taught for years is just stale.
A great instructor realizes that they are not just training a dog, but a person too! You can teach a dog every complicated move in the book, but if the handler cannot perform those moves, well, you’ve really not accomplished anything.
- Passion: a true, genuine passion for what they do. . . . . It’s totally unreasonable to expect your students to follow your lead when you’re not particularly enthused about it yourself. . . . . . Happiness is contagious, it excites the pleasure centres of your brain, so you associate learning with pleasure, not a feeling of boredom or obligation. That can’t not be a good thing.
And this one saved for last, from Bud Huston, a big name agility instructor, really sums it up. It's long but well worth reading by any teacher who cares to improve, and by any student who needs a handle on what the teacher is going through trying to manage a class or help a student successfully. Plus, I no longer feel like a maverick trying to incorporate games into my classes, giving homework, using a stopwatch, or suggesting special events or socials.
Care about your students. Learn their names. You don’t know everything; don’t even pretend. Learn some good jokes. Pay attention to their progress. Socialize with their dogs; and give them treats out of your own hand. If you must set them back to repeat a class, allow it to be their idea and praise them for being prudent and clever dog trainers. Give everyone equal value. Allow everyone equal time on the floor. Don’t bullshit them. They come to you for instruction, so be honest. Don’t forget to get them signed up for the next session of classes early; they won’t take it as nagging or selling, but will feel that you honestly care about them. Leave your prejudices about certain breeds of dogs at home. Smile occasionally and laugh often. Always apologize for being stupid. Don’t try to fix everything at once; it’s okay to take the long view. Try to be clever about finding just the right thing to fix or help with. Remind your students from time to time that agility is just a game. Remind yourself from time to time that agility is just a game. Prepare for every class that you teach. Feel free to state objectives and offer handling advice and remedy; but remember ultimately that they come to get out on the floor working their dogs not to hear you lecture. Be humble about your own accomplishments; but ask your students for their brags every week. Be mindful that you know your students in a narrow context – they may contend with drama and tragedy in their own lives of which you are unaware. Always inquire about dogs and family members who have been ill or injured. Be a student of the game. Don’t express extreme political views to your students. Remember that they come to class to chat and socialize not to hear you lecture; so when you must address the class to take a teaching moment, interrupt politely, be brief, and let them get back to chatting and socializing. Be consistent in your training advice. Remember that teaching is a game of repetition. An adult must hear a thing 28 times before it finally sinks in. You have no choice but to be patient; tearing out your hair only loses you your hair. Never chastise a student angrily. You can make fun of a student in a jovial way, but only if you really did have fun with it and only if you are prepared to help your student with your training genius. Teach with games whenever possible. Follow current trends in the sport; collect course maps and study video. Don’t be afraid to cheer for your students and encourage them to cheer for each other. Introduce new students to your classes. Celebrate graduations. Give your students homework. Honor the accomplishments of your students’ dogs. Hang their ribbons in your training center. Give homework. Check to see who’s been doing their homework. Remember that new students often don’t know simple things or fundamental things. Feel free to teach when you are instructing. Remember that nobody absolutely nobody wants to use up class time listening to you brag about your past accomplishments. Be a mentor. Teach from a philosophical perspective. Use positive reward-based training methods. Teach your students to be clever dog trainers. Remember that they don’t learn much when being spoon fed. Problem solving is good. Welcome back students who have been away for awhile. Always start an exercise with the entertainment round in which your students can solve with their own handling choices; otherwise you won’t be so clear on what you need to teach. Don’t be catty in your conversation about people who are not present; it’s a small small world, and it’s not very attractive to the listener. You are responsible for your students’ dogs’ safety. Don’t allow any dog to be terrorized or attacked by another dog. Get rid of aggressive dogs from your program immediately. Always check the safety and repair of your equipment. Provide a clean and pleasant and safe training environment for your students. Remember that everyone wants and deserves basic respect. Always address or speak of other instructors in front of your students with fundamental respect. Keep in mind that some of your students are actually smarter than you and have more education. It might be possible that some of your students are a lot smarter than you and actually have less education. It doesn’t pay to be pompous. Be skillful with students who interrupt, or disrupt, or undermine. Get rid of aggressive handlers from your program immediately. Your other students deserve a safe place to play. It just doesn’t mean any more than it is. Have special events and socials with your students. Encourage a sense of community. When your students arrive for class be sure to say hi to their dogs too. Use your students as the good example when they are. Have a long range vision for your students. Track progress if you can. Keep in perspective that agility is a game we play with our dogs on the weekend in a park.
Upwards and onward!