What makes a good handler great?

Why it is that the same people qualify for major finals and the world championship team consistently year after year? Who better to reflect on this phenomenon than Steve Croxford who is  in the unique position of having been able to study the top handlers here and abroad as a competitor, judge and latterly as the Manager of the Kennel Club’s World Championship Agility Team.

Agility has matured sufficiently as a sport for us now to begin to see the emergence of a third generation of agility handlers. It is interesting to compare and contrast the names from each generation and to use this as a start point for an assessment of what makes the really exceptional agility handlers, trainers and dogs stand out from the rest. I started out by generating my own list of handlers and dogs who I think fit in this category, but rather than repeating mine here I think that you, the reader, should come up with your own. A good theme for a game with friends the next time you are short of conversation at a weekend show perhaps?

I define the ‘first generation’ handlers as those that have grown up inside the sport from the fairly early days and who have had to continually adapt their handling and training methods to keep up with the game and with handlers new to the sport who are unfettered by what has happened in the past. This leads us to the first attribute - adaptability and acceptance and embracement of change.
Ten  Important Attributes
of a Great Handler
  1. Acceptance of change.
  2. Has a 'feeling' for the sport.
  3. Striving to improve on their technique
  4. Experience competing
  5. Ability to focus on performance
  6. Learning to lose
  7. Determination to find the perfect agility run
  8. Motivation to succeed
  9. Focus on the positive
  10. Rapport with their dog(s)

The people I would describe as ‘second generation’ handlers are those that have literally grown up with the sport. These are handlers that started out in the Junior ranks and worked their way to the top a few years ago. They have a feel for how things should be done and because they were taught good foundations from the beginning have been able to spend many years perfecting what they do. For them, it seems to come naturally. So the second attribute we have is a ‘feeling’ for the sport.

More recently we have seen the emergence of some third generation handlers who these are reaping the benefits of the many years of experimentation with training techniques that have gone before. ‘Easy for them’, I hear you say. However, in many ways these handlers have a more difficult task; how do they improve on these techniques so they can beat the best there is? So the third attribute we have is the ability to assess their training approach so as to constantly improve on their technique.
If you think about your list of exceptional handlers above it won’t surprise you to learn they didn’t just turn up and become instantly good. Many of them have had ‘unsuccessful’ dogs to start with. In most cases, this is a relative term, i.e. relative to their later successes. This is not meant as an insult. I simply use this to point out they have served an apprenticeship. Experience is our fourth attribute.
I have had the privilege to work quite closely with some of the handlers on my list in quite stressful situations. What becomes clear about them from close quarters is their ability to remain focussed in pressure situations. Imagine being the third to run in a three-handler team knowing that you have to go clear to be in with a chance of becoming world champions. Could you remain focussed in that situation? Focus and concentration on the process of performance and not outcomes is our fifth attribute.
Learning to lose is the sixth attribute. This does not mean accepting defeat. This is about learning to deal with it and taking the positives out of it, going away and working harder to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Losing again then learning from it, adapting and changing until success becomes an inevitable consequence of the process.
Which leads to the seventh of our attributes, determination and hard work. These people simply do not accept second best. Even in winning they are looking to find areas of improvement. Believe it or not after a winning run in a World Championship event you can still find these handlers assessing their performance and asking ‘where could I have found an extra tenth of a second?’ Why, because they know that to stay at the top you need to be consistently better than the next handler, who is going to be asking exactly the same question.  Yes, sheer bloody mindedness and determination to find the perfect agility run.
Motivation to succeed is our eighth attribute. What drives these people is a much more difficult question to answer, because drive and motivation to succeed is such a personal thing. However, they certainly have it, why else would they be putting in hours and hours of training honing their skills?
Focus on the positive. Never let negatives get in the way of performance. These people understand why they are successful and they play to these strengths. If ever a negative though comes into their head, they work out how to try to turn it into a positive, or put it out of their mind altogether. Negative thoughts sap the energy of others around them, especially in teams where team where building confidence in the others around you is key. Negative thoughts waste energy and have no place in the mind of the champion.
Our tenth attribute is possibly the most important and may be a surprise to some; the rapport these handlers have with their agility partner – their dog. They spend quality time with their dogs, getting to understand them. The partnership is so good that they make everything look easy. It is a partnership built on mutual respect and trust. It is so good that if one partner makes a small mistake, the other can make up for it in an imperceptible instant. They spend hours and hours building a relationship so they know each other so well that each move becomes instinctive and instantaneous. This is what the exceptional agility handler lives for. Without this final attribute, none of the previous ones would be worth a thing.

About the author...
Steve Croxford has been teaching agility and competing for over 20 years. He turned to professional agility training in 2003. Steve is a former Olympia and double Crufts Team winner and has competed successfully abroad. Steve was a member of the British Team that beat world-class opposition at the World Dog show in Brussels in 1995 (using borrowed dogs!). He has been the Manager of the British Agility Team since 2001.

He says, 'I am very interested in developing and improving my coaching and training techniques and have done extensive research into how elite performers are successful in other sports as well as agility. This learning can be applied to improving your agility training at whatever level you are competing at.'

If you would like to find out more about your improving your training techniques and developing a winning approach then why not check out the PACE-Agility web site: www.pace-agility.org


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