In this week’s Agility Challenge Tip, I want to talk about a concept called hard vs soft skills. I love the idea of thinking about hard and soft skills as somewhat separate, and requiring different strategies when it comes to learning those skills. When I’m on my own, in daily training, most of the time, I’m focused on HARD skills. This past weekend was all about SOFT skills for my youngster Savi and me at a competition we hosted at our facility in Troy, Ohio (Dude had the weekend off) – figuring out how and where to employ the hard skills we’ve worked on in sequences IS a soft skill!
The first step toward building a skill is to figure out exactly what type of skill you’re building.
Every skill falls into one of two categories: hard skills and soft skills. Again, this tip comes from Daniel Coyle’s The Little Book Of Talent, and is adapted for use by us agility handlers!
Thinking about skills in terms of ‘hard’ vs ‘soft’ skills has made it really clear for me as to when to say, “no, we don’t have the hard skill required to successfully do this sequence” and when to say “yes we have (maybe multiple) hard skills that will work to solve this sequence.” This, in turn, helps make it clear what I need to write down on my ‘to do’ list for hard skills, and what will need to be worked on at future workshops, seminars, competitions, or group play on sequences for “soft” skills.
So what is a ‘soft’ skill?
For me, soft skills are things that are easier to work on with a group of people, primarily because it sometimes takes multiple turns on the same sequence to figure out what works, and it’s hard to do that if you don’t have other teams present to give you and your own dog a break!
The whole idea of hard and soft skills has been one that has really helped me clarify my own training and handling, AND it has also helped me be less anxious and more confident in my approach to sequences. I hope you enjoy reading about (or listening to) this week’s tip!
HARD, HIGH-PRECISION SKILLS
It’s important to note that when I say ‘hard’ in this context, I don’t mean difficult. Hard, high precision skills are actions that are performed as correctly and consistently as possible, every time. They are skills that have one path to an ideal result; skill that you could imagine being performed by a reliable robot. Hard skills are about repeatable precision, and tend to be found in specialized pursuits, particularly physical ones. Sounds a lot like dog agility and dog training to me! Here are some examples:
- Asking your dog for a sit stay and then leading out, keeping your eye on your dog in the same fashion every time – and releasing your dog in the same fashion every time.
- Watching to see if your dog is actually in two on two off on his contacts before releasing him, and making sure your release is not accompanied by the introduction of new motion.
- Saying your release cue or any other verbal the same way each and every time – same tone, same pitch, same volume, etc. – so that it is easily recognized by your dog
- Memorizing a course map
- Pushing off laterally as you send your dog to an obstacle and start to move in the opposite direction to get ahead
- Footwork for a front cross
- Footwork for a blind cross
SOFT, HIGH-FLEXIBILITY SKILLS
Soft, high-flexibility skills, on the other hand, are those that have many paths to a good result, not just one. These skills are not about doing the same thing perfectly every time, but rather about being agile and interactive; about instantly recognizing patterns as they unfold and making smart, timely choices. Some examples might be:
- Sensing that your dog is about to go off course toward an obstacle in a way you hadn’t anticipated and reacting with your handling to get your dog back on track
- Tweaking the timing of your front cross or blind cross to set a line on a particular course
- Sensing that your dog could use some urging on in the weave poles, or on a given point on course
- Leaning in to your dog to help him maintain his stay on the table
With soft skills, you’re aiming for the ability to quickly recognize a pattern or possibility, and work past a complex set of obstacles.
Soft skills are about the three Rs:
Hard skills and soft skills are different! They literally use different circuits in your brain. So, they have to be developed using different approaches and methods. Start by asking yourself which skills in your training and handling need to be executed with robotic precision, every single time? These are hard skills. Then, ask yourself which skills need to be flexible, and variable, depending on the situation? Which depend on instantly recognizing patterns and selecting one optimal choice? These are the soft skills.
If you’re not sure if a skill is hard or soft, here’s a test: Is a teacher or coach involved in the early stages of learning the skill? If yes, then it’s probably a hard skill. If no, then it’s probably a soft skill. The next three tips will take this idea further, and we’ll talk about the methods of deep practice that Dan Coyle suggests work best to develop each type of skill.