In a previous post, several years ago (2013!), I discussed just what makes a GOOD coach. It’s something I think a lot about; after all, being a coach/instructor/mentor is my gig. Over the years, I’ve been the beneficiary of some amazing coaches, instructors, and mentors, and wouldn’t be where I am today without the likes of Linda Mecklenburg and Bob Bailey. You can read about how I stalked Linda Mecklenburg HERE, if you’re curious. So today, I’m going to revisit the topic of coaching and teaching, and talk about The 5 Ways to Pick A High Quality Coach as put forth by Dan Coyle in his book, The Little Book Of Talent.
My own teaching is not the “show up and run a course once and work it out on your own” type. I’m going to push you out of your comfort zone as a handler and trainer. I’m going to work to help you get comfortable with the fundamentals of training and handling. Some of these things will come easily to you. Some of these things will be more difficult. Some of these things will feel good. Some of these things will feel awkward, and uncomfortable, and will shine a light on your weaknesses. I assume that if you are paying me money for my time, attention, and instruction, that you WANT this from me, and so I endeavor to give as much of myself as I can in this regard.
I do not sugar coat my feedback. I’m pretty direct, and to some, over the years, that has felt ‘mean’. In this sport/hobby/activity, often, what I’d call “rah rah” feedback and praise is valued over constructive criticism. ACTUAL feedback and constructive criticism, and attempts to get a trainer/handler to change his/her behavior, can be uncomfortable. Many are just looking for a good time, rather than actual improvement. That’s fine – but that is not what you are likely to get from me.
That’s not to say that learning shouldn’t be enjoyable – but if you are working to expand your skills, working at the edges, being challenged, there WILL be times that you are frustrated, unsure, and uneasy. My primary goal as a coach/mentor/instructor is to help you BE better, not necessarily to always FEEL better.
Expanding your skills means expanding your comfort zone. Getting out of your comfort zone can be, well, uncomfortable! But, if you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten. And when a student comes to me, again, I assume that they are looking to expand their skills as a trainer, as a handler, and maybe, as a competitor.
I do not care one tiny bit what the level of a student’s goals may be – that is completely irrelevant to me with respect to helping that student grow their skills and their comfort zone. I work to take a student where they’re at, figure out what the edges of their skill and comfort are, and as much as I’m able, to work at those edges and push them ever outward. My favorite students are the ones who are the most growth minded, and who enjoy challenging themselves, pushing themselves, constantly working to problem solve, and who choose the challenging path, rather than the one that is more likely to yield success. You may never see those students at a competition, because they have no interest in competing. They just enjoy the challenge.
My primary goal as a coach/mentor/instructor is to help you BE better, not necessarily to always FEEL better.
My MOST favorite students are the ones who, like I have been, tend to struggle with a growth mindset, but who learn over time to be more comfortable being uncomfortable and look toward challenges with a ‘bring it on’ attitude rather than an attitude of avoidance.
If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.
My teaching is definitely not for everyone. For many, weekly classes are just a way to get out of the house with the dog. Seminars are primarily a way to go run courses and be cheered by the instructor and onlookers. Again, that’s not to say my teaching is without PRAISE, since, like dogs we tend to thrive with positive reinforcement. Like dogs, it has to also be worthwhile for people to play the game! But if you run a course or sequence clean in a class or seminar, I am almost immediately going to CHALLENGE you after some praise. You’ve proven you’re ready for more, and I’m going to nudge you a bit! Challenges build your training muscles, after all!
I’ve talked at length about these ideas in the past in The Agility Challenge, and even here on my blog in my What Makes A Good Coach post. Over the years, I’ve referenced a really neat little pocket sized book called The Little Book of Talent, by Daniel Coyle, and one of my favorite tips is Tip #12: Five Ways To Pick A High Quality Teacher Or Coach. In summary, those five ways are:
- Avoid someone who reminds you of a courteous waiter: Coyle says “This species of teacher/coach/mentor is increasingly abundant in our world: one who focuses his efforts on keeping you comfortable and happy, on making things go smoothly, with a minimum of effort. “
- Seek someone who scares you a little: Coyle says to look for someone who watches you closely, is action oriented, and who is honest, sometimes unnervingly so.
- Seek someone who gives short, clear directions
- Seek someone who loves teaching the fundamentals: great coaches/mentors/instructors know that the fundamentals are the core of your skills, and are willing to spend time on those skills even if you really wanted to just run a whole course. The more advanced you are, the more crucial those fundamentals become.
- Other things being equal, pick the older person: Coyle points out that teaching, like any other talent, takes time to grow. Not every instructor with grey hair is a genius, and not every instructor who is quite a bit younger should be discounted as not being any good. BUT, other things being equal, go with older.
While I may not want to fit that category, #5 is pretty unavoidable 🙂 If you’re curious here are some more thoughts by Coyle on coaching.
Over the years, I’ve been lucky to have learned under some of the greats in dog training, animal training, and dog agility. I can say with absolute certainty that they met ALL of the five criteria put forth by Coyle above. I attribute my own success as a trainer, handler, and instructor to having learned from those mentors, coaches, and instructors. It hasn’t always been easy, and sometimes, it was downright difficult. I struggled, chafed, whined, cried, and bristled at comments, suggestions, instruction, etc. But in the end, it was absolutely worth it. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
For those who, like me, are using dog agility as a means to get more comfortable with a growth mindset, challenging themselves to grow and change, I hope that you are fortunate as I have been to be able to work with such a coach/instructor/mentor.