Cheryl May's Tips for Conquering Ring Nerves

Copyright by Cheryl May. May be reprinted without permission 1) if used in its entirety without editing; and 2) provided copyright notice remains in place.

Let's be frank.

The restroom is one of the most popular places at an obedience or agility trial. Exhibitors, nervous and anxious, scurry to the restroom before their turn in the ring. Upset stomachs (or worse) are common among exhibitors, even the most experienced.

If the thought of going in the ring and competing leaves your hands clammy and your stomach churning, it's time to do some things to turn the situation around.

A certain amount of tension is normal, and even desirable to give you that adrenaline rush to give your best performance. But if the stress causes you to go blank so that you walk through the performance in a haze, you need to consider changes that will allow you to concentrate better.

There are two reasons to fix this problem. First, you are uncomfortable and these sports are supposed to be FUN. Getting sick isn't fun. Second, and most important, you owe it to your dog to be there, 100 percent.

Obedience and agility are team sports and you are the leader of the team. As team leader it is your responsibility to be there for your dog. The dog deserves it!

So how do you get a handle on the nervousness problem?

Here are some tips:
1.) Prepare yourself and your dog thoroughly for the performance. In obedience, trade run-throughs with a training buddy, so that the exercises become familiar for both you and your dog. Take your dog to as many matches as you can. There is no substitute for experience, and although matches don't reproduce the stress of a real trial, they will help your team gain confidence. Similarly, be sure to train in a variety of locations so that your dog doesn't become a "backyard UD," who can perform all exercises to perfection, but only at home or at your regular training building.

In agility, practice complex sequences. A good resource for excellent sequences is the "exercise of the month" on the Clean Run web page.

Agility competitors also do well to collect courses and study them. Look for difficult and challenging sequences and then set them up in your backyard. Be ready for any challenge the judge may present. Mary Jo Sminkey regularly posts courses on her Dogpatch website.

Knowing that you and your dog are READY helps reduce stress. Don't take a dog into the ring wondering if your team will qualify. Know that you and the dog are well prepared and ready for the challenge. Of course, things may happen and your dog may NQ, but the better prepared you both are, the more likely you are to come home with a qualifying ribbon, or even a placement.

2.) Visualize a successful performance. Top athletes do this. It works for them. It will work for you. Find a quiet place where you won't be disturbed. Visualize a mind picture of you and your dog successfully competing. Include as many details as you can, and go through the performance one step at a time. The more difficult the level of competition, the more important this is. In obedience, if you aren't the first one in the ring in your class, you can watch the pattern before doing your "mind movie." If you are first, you'll have fewer details to work with in your mind, but the imaging still works. In agility, do your visualizing after you walk the course. This helps prevent your getting lost on course, too.

3.) Read (and highlight) a book on sports psychology. Take it with you to shows and re-read the highlighted parts. The book need not be about dog sports to be helpful. For example, "Inner Skiing" and "Inner Golf," are both on my bookshelf and I've found them helpful even though I neither ski nor golf. Virtually anything by Maxwell Maltz is excellent, although sometimes a little complex for easy reading. And "That Winning Feeling" by Jane Savoie, a horsewoman, is a classic on this topic. She explains in great detail how to conquer ring fears. She also has audio cassette tapes which you can play on your way to trials. The latter are available through Direct Book Service. Their phone number is 1-800-776-2665.

4.) Tune out your critics. Savoie's book has a drawing of a rider with a clear helmet around her head with criticisms bouncing off the shield. Make sure that you construct a mental shield around yourself so that critical remarks do not bother you. If a friend wants to offer constructive criticism during a training session, fine. Listen and evaluate whether it is helpful or not. But some comments are never appropriate: "your dog will never be any good"; "you'll never be any good"; "you and your dog aren't capable of high scores." Don't listen to this stuff. It isn't in your best interest to do so. You might consider asking the person, "Why on earth would you say something like that to me?" Remember, everyone is not kind and good. There are bad people in the world and sometimes you meet them. Fortunately, they are in the minority.

Take these suggestions and make them work for you. Good luck and remember to have FUN!

copyright 1998 by Cheryl May.

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