No Candy Coating 

 September 23, 2021

By  Daisy

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:

  1. 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. “
  2. 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.
  3. Seek someone who gives short, clear directions
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

The Little Book Of Talent By Daniel Coyle

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.

Does your coach/instructor/mentor fit the description Coyle puts forth above? Sing their praises below!

  • I do think coaches should push us out of our comfort zones. I also think praise, like critique, when it’s specific and pointed, can be very valuable. I see lots of people who just want or just give general praise, but for me personally, as a student and an instructor, I want to mark very specifically what worked well so that I can repeat it and so that the praise is meaningful to me. When we train our dogs we mark success in very specific ways, using clickers and verbals like “yes” or “good”. And yet we too often fail to have that level of specificity when training humans. To me, someone saying “nice job” is almost meaningless and pretty much goes in one ear and out the next, but someone saying “you really sent and got down the line beautifully at jump 3” is meaningful and memorable. It honestly does take extra work, but as an instructor (of agility and college students) I try to always provide some specific positive feedback to balance out the inevitable, equally specific, critique that is coming. But generic vague praise isn’t very helpful in my opinion, even if it is popular. A great coach, IMO, need to be able to articulate precisely both what is working well and what needs improvement, and to additionally offer concrete suggestions for building on strong skills and bolstering weak ones.

  • “Crying in my rental car”… was one of my favorite articles. So are some of the philosophies: Change is not linear and you must have the “downs” to have the “ups”. You are not alone when you have a great coach who is willing to open up about their talents as well as their struggles.

  • I agree with Amy’s comment. A seminar presenter/coach/trainer needs to also provide *some* positive feedback.

    That said, I’ve been to a seminar with a top handler and gotten only praise after successfully completing a sequence. “Nice job. OK, next team”. Really, nothing to improve? Then, increase the challenge, test that the team can be successful with other approaches, etc. So adaptability would be a good characteristic.

    Trainers also need to “pick their battles”, I’ve seen trainers go through detailed feedback on the execution of every handling move through an entire sequence. I think students can only absorb so much feedback at a time. So it is important for the trainer to be able to prioritize the feedback to a few *actionable* tasks per sequence and stay in a tight training-feedback loop with the student to help them get to a better place. Save the other issues for another sequence, class, or session. aka “The Pareto Principle”.

    I just remembered I wrote a blog post about what makes a good coach back in 2012, and, after re-reading it, I still agree with past me 🙂

  • “My primary goal as a coach/mentor/instructor is to help you BE better, not necessarily to always FEEL better.“

    By the same token, this can’t be used as an excuse to make people feel like crap, to undermine their self-esteem, or cause them to feel inadequate.

    I’ve never been a fan of the Greg Derrett/Susan Garrett school of coaching. I’ve seen too many people brought to tears by abusive coaching methods. They are ineffective in any sport and serve only the ego of the coach.

    Humor, compassion and understanding go a long way toward improving performance.

    • I agree! There is an excellent detail oriented instructor within my range of travel for lessons but after years of being treated with a condescing downright mean spirited attitude while she favored other students was just too much. No training is worth being belittled and rarely given positive feedback. There is a way to be clear and constructive and precise in teaching without being rude and mean. For me or towards me this trainer lacked that skill.

      I now work with someone who is very positive but only when deserved and then he pushes for more. Always has us do the course or sequence another way once we get it right one way.
      The only thing I want more of is more foundation help when a skill needs improvement. I can get that from my online classes and privates with others as needed.

  • Absolutely on the mark. I have a great trainer and she pushes me weekly. I know if she says nice job, I did a good job on the course. But I also know she’s going to push me if I try and take the easy way around. Why did you choose that cross is a frequent question. But I totally agree I’m paying her for her help and opinion, not to sugarcoat everything.

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