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A Trial Day - My Mental Game

The following is a break down of a typical trial day for me for nose work. I've tried to include some details that otherwise I might not have included. Realistically, I could exchange a few minor things and it'd be extremely similar to a typical agility trial day too! I'd love to hear your tricks that help you get through a trial day!

Before. Sleeping the night before a trial day is super important, and sometimes it's harder said than done. I pack my nose work gear, water, set up stuff (aluminet & chair) and organize my food the night before. This helps my brain turn off instead of running through the list of "what if" and "I can't forget".

Before bed, I run through my day, and if I feel like I may have forgotten something, I either write it down or text it to myself so I see the unanswered message in the morning. Writing it down takes the pressure off to remember something in the morning. OR I will place that item in the middle of the floor so I might trip on it!

On My Own or With A Friend. This piece is so different for each of us! I travel either alone or with a friend to trials. I'm going to go through the steps of my mental game for what I do when I'm alone. But know that the first time you travel with a friend (good to save costs and it's so nice to have someone to talk to and have around all day!), can throw off your own mental game. It's important to figure out how a routine will fit with someone else around.

On my way. Once I pack everything, I run quickly through my day before leaving the driveway. I visualize pulling up to the site, parking, getting out, setting up my car for the day, checking in, briefing, getting my dog out and running through a search, and back to my car. What did I forget?

Once I'm on the road, I like to listen to something that isn't super attention-grabbing. I personally like podcasts, but music can work too. I let myself not think too hard about things and just allow myself to relax and enjoy my drive. This is my "fill up the happy bucket" time. I also don't look at my phone at this point. Social media isn't super healthy to start and seeing it first thing in the morning isn't great. I allow the morning to be me time (something that recharges me - know what recharges you!).

Arrival. I have a routine that I go through to help me feel like I'm ready for the day. I drive up to my spot, open the windows, put up the front window sun shield then get out and throw the aluminet screens on my car. I then go find check-in (If there is one!). If there is a briefing, I attend the briefing :)

I like to take Tana out before or after the briefing to potty. I allow her to sniff and explore, getting to know the smells of the space. The air, the plants, the dirt, all are new at each place and she works best if I allow her this time to get familiar with the background smells. Some people like to take a walk, I don't. I usually stick close, but find a spot where we both don't really have to "talk" to any one or any other dog. It's our time :) This time allows her to get her sniffing out, but it also allows us to enjoy each other outside of "work". She might get the zoomies (I have my long line on her usually) and it's a good time to get out the excess energy.

My Day. The #1 thing I need to know through the day is when am I expected to be at the line/in a chair waiting. This can be from a run order list (with a number for NACSW) or actual run order for AKC. I often take a picture of this list so I have it handy on me. Knowing when I have to be ready is so important! For me, being in the know is my sanity! I also check out the list to make sure I know who are the 4 dogs ahead of me. The day is broken into the following parts:

  • Waiting. This happens between classes. There is so much waiting! I might use this time to chat with some neighbors, getting to know who is around me and saying hi to old friends. Being more introverted, I don't spend a ton of time doing this, but it's nice to have social connections and to cheer each other on! Usually, when I'm waiting I will hang out with Tana, sit and enjoy the weather, and play mindless games on my phone. I might listen to a podcast or music too. Making sure I have a charged phone is important!! This time is actually way more important than we realize. If I spend this time talking to others worrying about the search or getting obsessed over some sort of small details, it limits my ability to stay in a growth mindset (open to learning and observation without judgment).

  • Getting close. At the level I'm competing, searches usually take about 3 minutes a dog, and frequently they are back-to-back searches, so a minimum of 5 minutes a dog. If Tana has not been out recently, I like to get her out at 6 dogs before our turn to potty. I then put her back up and we wait until 2-3 dogs before our turn. I then go through my routine - put on my apron, pull out Tana's collar & leash, fill my pockets with the treats I need, have a drink/quick something to eat, leave my phone in the car, input the search time into my watch. It's at this point that I start to get a little nervous. Realistically, it's where I'm starting to feel the excitement! I'm finally able to get out and test our skills. :) Excitement and nervousness feel the same to your body. It's up to our heads to decipher and put a name on it!

    • Grounding myself - Being unfocused doesn't help either end of the leash, so I take the time while I'm getting my stuff ready to ground myself. I do it through Routine (see above), Visualization (below), and 3 conscious breaths in and out. Grounding allows me to be much more observant and allows me to react to Tana's actions instead of trying to take the lead.

    • Visualization - If I've seen my search area, I can visualize what the search can look like. I close my eyes and walk myself through space, making sure I walk the perimeter into the corners. I become familiar with the space so I don't have to wonder where to go next when I'm searching. IF there isn't a briefing before the search (AKC allows judges to do it at the line with COVID), I visualize a similar search with my dog in the past. For example, if I'm at a school and I'm about to go in for an exterior search, I visualize my favorite exterior search at a school- going through from walking to the start, asking Tana to start, allowing her to work the space, calling alert, calling finish, party with her afterward and leaving the search.

  • Chairs. Once we get to the chairs, I continue my focus on grounding, focus on my dog, and being aware of were we go next. I like to connect with my dog, laugh with her if I can. I know I easily start to disconnect from her at this point, so it's a conscious decision to stay present in the moment. It's not the time for "what if" or "I just need this Q".

  • Start Line & Search - I'm not going to go into the detail of my mental game of the search here. So much to say!! I'll save that for a future time.

  • Leaving the search. Doesn't matter if it went well or not, this is a big moment of release! All the anticipation is done and it's time to walk away! #1 - I'm partying with my dog. She worked for me, regardless of the outcome, and so she deserves an awesome party. If I'm holding onto something, I like to take a walk. This can be to help reduce the rush of adrenalin from finishing (and doing well) in a hard search, or this can be to walk off a "no" or what feels like a failure in the run. A walk, away from the competitors (but still within the area where we are allowed to be), allows me to process and reframe a search before coming back to my vehicle.

Process & Reframe

I wanted to pull out this statement because I think it's key to enjoying any dog sports. We can't all be perfect all the time (even if we want it really badly or if we train really hard). Dog sports require so much of both the handler and the dog, and the higher the level of competition, the more pressure exists on both parties. Taking the time to process your performance and frame it productively is SO IMPORTANT. Here is what I do to help walk away from every search smiling:

  • What was a shining moment?

  • What is one moment I can learn from?

  • Will it matter in 5 minutes, 5 days, 5 weeks, 5 years?

If I'm really struggling (years of agility competition with an "off breed" has been helpful to learn this lesson): Let go. Sometimes there just isn't a great answer. Pick up the small lessons you can and write the rest of the performance off as "it just didn't work". One Search, one run is just a snapshot of your performance of you, of your dog, ON THAT DAY, THAT MOMENT. If I have one of those "let it go" runs, I definitely go for a walk. I find the reason why I love my dog, I laugh with her and enjoy her joy in the world. I make an attempt to separate my goals from hers - which are just to have fun and earn cookies.

Then what?

I earned my cookies :) I write down my lesson in my notebook and give myself a cookie (chocolate). And get ready to do it all over again!

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Nov 30, 2020

I love reading this and what your thoughts and feelings were during the whole process….I expect that I will have some of the same when it happens for us, and it is helpful to have ideas of how to plan for the whole thing! Thanks for sharing!!

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