Dang, This Hill is Steep.

“Bump”.  I can only wheeze the word as my boots stumble left to pass my buddy on the trail and command my leg muscles to crawl back out from the rock they’re hiding under.   I’m packing about a quarter of my body weight, climbing a hill that according to rules of gravity should have steps…or an elevator.  But I’ve been running hard for weeks, and this is the hike I’m going to finish in the front half of the pack.  And I do.  I drag myself over the crest of the hill, lungs heaving, legs shaking, with triumph in my eye.  My look is met by my hotshot crew foreman, who grins back at me.  He gives me a second while I revel in my own awesomeness and repress the urge to hurl on my boots…before he (gleefully) tells me to loop back down the hill to the last crew member and haul myself back up to the top.

A few years after my hotshot days, I guess we didn't stop digging to take pictures before the advent of Facebook and YouTube.

Obviously not taken on that day…no hill, and my boots are vomit-free…

My legs tell me they’ll mutiny if I take one step back down that hill.  Sensing a moment of weakness, I get a shove over the edge from behind.  I’m pretty sure it was a boot.  Up the hill, and down and back up again, until all twenty of us are standing on top together.  Again, we grin at each other, done in, but still cocky.  Until we’re ordered to drop and do 50 pushups…with our packs on.  I used a lot of not-so-nice words to get through that morning, but I did learn one thing.  I’m only beaten when I let myself think I am.  And with a kick in the butt, I’m capable of a whole lot more.

Now that I’m an agility freak, instead of a member of a fire crew, there are a lot of ways to psych yourself up mentally – positive affirmations, preparation, making promises to the bar-knocking gods…but I’ve gotta say I still prefer an old fashioned boot to the ass.  I don’t know…call me a romantic?

Classic Duncan.  "She's carrying me!  This is MORTIFYING!!"   Thanks, Randy Gaines for the picture!

“She’s carrying me! This is MORTIFYING!!”  (Duncan at his Grumpypants best)
Thanks, Randy Gaines for the picture!

There are countless ways the “Mental Game” plays into our world of agility.  Check out the all the Dog Agility Action Blogging goodness going on today here:  http://dogagilityblogevents.wordpress.com/the-mental-game/

It could have been a real uphill battle this year.  Just a year ago this week, I had my third (!!) back surgery, a spinal fusion.  Nine months ago, I debuted my baby dog, Desmond, who has proven to be made of equal parts sweet pup, steam locomotive and Tasmanian Devil.  I was filled with doubts…what if I fell?  What if Des was too fast and I ruined all his training by my miserable attempts to shuffle behind him?  What if…if…if…aliens attacked earth and stole all the critters that help make delicious cheese and ice cream???  Yeah.  Pretty damn stupid, right?  There are a lot of us out there, various-stages-of-broken agility lovers, trying to get back to the dogs, friends and sport we adore.  The physical return is one thing, but how do we also battle back mentally?

When I looked at Des’s not-even-started career stretching ahead of us, I’d begin to panic.  But when I took him to the field, his enthusiasm to be playing with me was something I couldn’t deny.  He didn’t care I wasn’t running, or even walking in straight lines.  Or that I wasn’t cuing much more than weird minimalist disco moves.  He was playing with his mama, his favorite thing in the world, and it didn’t matter that she wasn’t moving right…it mattered that we were out there together.  Playing.  How on earth could I stay inside feeling sorry for myself in the face of that complete, unabashed JOY?  Yeah, pity party, party of one…check please!  Thanks for the kick in the butt, buddy!

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From that day forward, I worked to shift my mental focus off of what I couldn’t do, and back to what I was still able to do, no matter HOW slowly.  I was back out slogging up that hill, willing myself to take each step forward yet again.  Smaller steps, yes, but if I accepted that fact and moved on, each step was a bit easier than the last.

And yeah, it wasn’t all forward progress.  I’d take three steps forward, and slide back a few feet, a few months (or a few pounds!)  On course, Des was running like a brilliant maniac, and always with joy.  As for me?  His handler was not always so brilliant, but Des was having fun, so it didn’t matter.  If I screwed him up, he was not going to know.  I vowed to protect his joy.

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And there it was.  A big, shiny lesson…the Q didn’t matter a bit.  Holy crap, all those folks who preached that “the Q doesn’t matter” weren’t blowing smoke!  Was I having fun?  Heck yeah!  Was my boy having fun with me?  —> I have the bite marks to prove it!  Was I able to let the mistakes slide and let him learn that competing was even more fun as in our back yard?  As my ability to move improved, was I handling him like I wanted to, instead of how I thought I could safely get him around the course?  When you’re faced with the thought of not getting to play this game at all anymore, worrying over the little stuff suddenly becomes secondary to the joy of simply running.

I’m not gonna lie, we zero just as much as we hero, but I wasn’t leaving the course disappointed, either.  We’ve had some spectacular train wrecks, and I’ve smiled remembering those moments just as much as the runs where he doesn’t set a paw wrong. And strangely enough, the less I stress about failure, the more I’m able to focus in the moment and keep that locomotive on the rails.  Hero, indeed!

And he sticks the landing!!   Photo by Jan Skurzynski, judge and photographer extraordinaire!

And he sticks the landing!!
Photo by Jan Skurzynski, judge, photographer and renaissance woman extraordinaire.

My biggest challenge have been the nasty little doubts that live in my own head.  No matter what your goals… to run with your pups, to make that front cross, earn a particular title, make a world team or simply keep the shiny side up, it’s that little voice says “yeah, but…”  To which I make a concentrated effort to tell my inner voice “yeah but…shut the hell up.”  If the voice says I can’t make a cross, yet I think I can and should, I weigh my options, and then commit to the cross if I decide it’s worth the risk. I may not always DO, but I’m gonna always TRY.  Life is TOO short to spend much time on worry, doubt and the ‘what ifs’.  I for one, would rather be out there, running.  If something happens, I’ll deal with it.  Maybe after a sucking down a dozen sugar cookies and feeling sorry for myself, but then I’ll get annoyed, kick myself in the butt and get on with it.  Surgeries, setbacks or pushups…just one thing at a time.  Yep, the hill is steep.  Guess we’d better get going, right?

Surgery…getting screwed.  Same difference?

I’ve been screwed!

I’m definitely a believer in the PPPPPP school of thought:  Prior Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance.   Prepare yourself and your dog thoroughly.  Put in the time together to build solid skills, trust and teamwork.  Use course walkthroughs to sort through handling ideas to find the most efficient plan, and then visualize that plan, verbals and cues until it’s no longer a conscious thought, but a memorized movement.  If you push the boundaries and it doesn’t work, go home, work on it, then TRY it again, don’t beat yourself up at a time and place where you can’t take steps to improve.  Take care of your teammate particularly in the moments before you step into the ring.  Then step to the line, take a breath, walk out with confidence.  Oh, and make sure your pants won’t fall down.

Most of all, if you’re a beginner or rock star, able bodied or broken, believe in yourself, your teammate and your skills…no matter freaking what.

Gardens blow.  Agility fields rock! Photo by Randy Gaines

BELIEVE.  Then work your butt off.     Photo by Randy Gaines