February 26

Agility Challenge Tip #9 – To build soft skills, play like a skateboarder

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Hard skills, those that we want to be able to perform perfectly and automatically every time, are best developed slowly, carefully, and methodically, with the precision of a good carpenter. These are mechanical skills, both on the part of us as handlers and trainers, and on the part of our dogs. While we want to make sure our dogs are excited to play with us, we’re wise to develop their jumping skills slowly and carefully, for example, so that we can help them focus on desirable ways of moving their bodies up to and over a jump bar.

As the old acronym goes – DASH – Desire, Accuracy, Speed, Habitat…notice that desire comes first, but then accuracy comes BEFORE speed.

So often we want to jump straight to the speed part of things, both with ourselves and with our dogs. Learning the footwork for a front cross slowly and methodically and then speeding up as you gain fluency is much more in keeping with what the research says about learning hard skills, and not just from Daniel Coyle’s book, The Little Book of Talentwhich I’ve been referencing throughout this Agility Talent Tip series.

Soft skills, however, are a different beast. They catch our eye because they are beautiful. Picture Tereza Kralova and her border collie Say winning the World Championships a few years ago, for example:

Or, picture Jennifer Crank and Bee at Westminster in 2023:

Or, yours truly with youngster Sativa at the 2023 European Open Team Tryouts:

These handlers appear magical and unique, but, according to Daniel Coyle, they are in fact the result of super-fast brain software recognizing patterns and responding in just the right way. He writes:

While hard skills are best put together with measured precision, soft skills are built by playing and exploring inside challenging, ever-changing environments. These are places where you encounter different obstacles and respond to them over and over, building the network of sensitive wiring you need to read, recognize, and react. In other words, to build soft skills you should behave less like a careful carpenter and more like a skateboarder in a skateboard park: aggressive, curious, and experimental, always seeking new ways to challenge yourself. 

Coyle also goes on to write about how Brazil is home to many of the world’s most skilled soccer players. It turns out that their skills are developed not by playing soccer, but instead, by playing a game called futebol de salão (“soccer in the room”). Compared to soccer, futebol de salão is an insanely fast, tightly compressed 5 on 5 version of the game, played on a basketball sized court instead of a soccer sized field. By compressing the game down, players get 600 percent more touches, and the game demands instant pattern recognition. The game is called Brazil’s “laboratory of improvisation” by those who study soccer.

Examples of playing like a skateboarder can also be found in comedy – Chicago’s Second City, which has served as a training ground for some of America’s most accomplished and successful comedians, does it by giving comedians a “rich, competitive, endlessly varied space in which to practice improvisation, sketch comedy, and stand-up.” 

Coyle goes on to point out that even the most creative skills – especially  the most creative skills – require long periods of clumsiness. This is an important point to remember when we’re flailing around feeling clumsy!

When you practice a soft skill, focus on making a high number of varied reps, unlike when practicing a hard skill. Focus on a high number of varied reps, and do so in a way that you can get clear feedback (often, this feedback comes in the form of our dogs’ responses to our cues).

Don’t worry too much about making errors – the important thing is to EXPLORE.

Soft skills are often more fun to practice, but they’re also tougher because they demand that you coach yourself. After each session ask yourself:

  • What worked?
  • What didn’t?
  • And why?

Be playful, keep it varied, and remember that you’re not after perfection here, you’re after experience


dog agility, soft skills, talent tip

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