February 19

Agility Challenge Tip #8 – To build hard skills, work like a carpenter

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In his book The Little Book of Talent, author Daniel Coyle has the following to say about developing what he calls “hard skills” (which I introduced in Tip #7). He says that to develop reliable hard skills, you have to connect the right wires in your brain. You want to be careful, slow, and highly aware of errors. You want to work like a careful carpenter. He uses the example of the Suzuki music instruction method. Suzuki students begin by spending several lessons learning simply how to hold the bow and the violin with the proper finger curve and pressure, the right stance, and the right posture. Each fundamental, no matter how humble, is introduced as a skill of huge importance, because of course it IS of huge importance.

When it comes to agility, we are often so keen to get in to the ring with our dogs, or to get on course with our dogs, that we completely overlook the fundamentals. We want to run a course with our dogs before we’re even comfortable with the mechanical skill of delivering a treat quickly and accurately to our dogs, or before we can accurately throw a toy to reward our dogs for a behavior. We want to be out on course competing before we even understand the complicated footwork of a front cross. Plenty of instructors, knowing that if they DO try to break things down to their fundamental and important pieces they’ll lose enthusiastic beginners to the instructor down the street who lets students get on equipment right away, don’t even bother with the details in the name of student retention and business.

Left to our own devices, how many of us will carefully and cautiously walk through the steps of a front cross without our dogs, until we’re comfortable with the hard skill of the front cross footwork and can speed it up a bit more and a bit more, until finally we can do it at a run?

With hard skills, precision matters, and it matters that you develop it early on. It matters not only for us, but for our dogs. So many of us ask our dogs to perform highly complex mechanical skills at a run before they’re even comfortable with those skills at a walk, to say nothing of the soft skills our dogs will also require to make good decisions about when to employ those hard skills! Your first reps with a hard skill establish pathways for the future, much like the tracks of a sled in the snow. The first tracks made are those that your mental sled will tend to try to follow on subsequent attempts.

To build hard skills, work like a carpenter.

So, for both you and your dog, when you learn hard skills, be precise and measured. Make one simple move at a time, repeating it and perfecting it before you move on. Pay attention to errors, and fix them, especially at the start. Learning fundamentals only seems boring, but in fact, it’s ALL about the fundamentals. If you build the right pathways early on, you’ll save yourself a lot of time and trouble down the line.

As I have said often to students in classes, workshops, and seminars – you shouldn’t ever have to go BACK to fundamentals, because you shouldn’t have ever gotten that far away from them in the first place. I’ve also been known to say ‘slow is smooth, and smooth is fast’. The point is, it only makes sense to start with slow movements, and perfect them, and then move faster as we gain fluency with those movements and skills. The same is true for our dogs as well. So, while we want to maintain drive and motivation, we also want to be able to find ways to break skills down for ourselves and for our dogs, so that we can learn the hard skills as precisely and thoroughly as possible!


agility challenge tip, growth mindset

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  • Totally agree and in line with my recent issue it is obvious. I will say that being able to find a great (or even good) instructor as a beginner is a huge challenge. Many competitors I know started with a puppy looking for something to keep that busy puppy engaged, having no idea where that would take them. So how can we reach out and educate beginners about starting with a respected qualified (via competition) instructor? My 1st exposures to you as an instructor was via auditing since I was too nervous to actually participate. And that is MY issue but has led to some poor handling over 2 decades.

    • This is a great question – plenty of great competitors are TERRIBLE instructors. And there are also plenty of instructors out there who will make you FEEL good, but that is different than helping you BE good.

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