By Chris Kerton
A bit of time has passed since I came back from Austria as handler fitness coach with the GB team. It’s given me an opportunity to evaluate what I saw, and sit with my thoughts. There was some fantastic agility on show. The best of the best. It really was motivational, from a coaching point of view, and as a competitor myself. The GB team performed really well, over a few hard days of competition. The EO’s is hugely enjoyable, but also a hugely pressurised environment. The team did so well coping with all the challenges thrown at them. From the long days, to the baking heat, to stress of competition….The list goes on. We had many people in finals, and a few more who very nearly made finals too. You know how agility can be; one incidental flick of the arm can be the difference between easy qualification and an E. The weekend was capped off by a brilliant performance from Team Red, where they earned a Silver medal in the large team competition. Incredible.
So, how did I see it from a fitness and athleticism point of view? Firstly, I would like to applaud the GB team management because we were the only team with a handler fitness coach over there. I am sure that other countries may start to follow our lead, but for now, we stand alone.
It seems a little strange to me that some people are still a little apprehensive about handler fitness. Especially when so many people do seem convinced about the canine side of fitness. Other teams had canine physios, vets, and massage therapists etc. Many of us will not think twice about taking our dogs to physio, massage, hydro treatments etc. Then we baulk at trying to improve our own fitness and performance. Does it make a difference? I am convinced more than ever that it does. Those courses at the EOs were fast. Fast, flowing, technical and big, and required as much technical manoeuvrability from the handlers as the dogs. I saw many people caught out on sections of courses, only because they weren’t where they needed to be. Sure, it was possible to get around some of the courses with less physical prowess, and relying more on training. However, how much easier would it be if that person who had the amazing training and skill set, could get there too, to influence all those intricate lines? Looking at the very top level too, the EO’s are won and lost by tiny margins. If you can get somewhere to handle a turn, there is time to be salvaged.
I don’t think it can be argued that as a general trend, the level of athleticism displayed by the top level of agility handler is improving. If our training of our dogs is getting better, meaning our dogs are getting better, it has to doesn’t it?
The warm up is one area often overlooked. Not overlooked in the sense that it is not performed (although we know some of us do totally overlook it). Overlooked in that it is not considered in as much depth as is could be truly beneficial. There is far more to a warm up, than just warming up in order to prevent injury. This is obviously important, but we need to be warming up to prepare ourselves for optimal performance. Priming our muscles and neural pathways for the type of work needed. Bringing us up to “GO mode”. You’ve all heard of the saying “I was caught cold”…That is basically where you haven’t been brought up to race pace before getting going. Creating those mind to muscle connections that are SO important in agility. Purposeful movement. Warm up should not all be about movement for movement’s sake, just to get warm. It should be specialised and relevant to the sport. Movement, with a purpose. There should always be a segment in the warm up where reaction time is covered and worked on. Through a call and response, explosive movement based game when I do it. Some of the GB team will be familiar with my phrase “get in the clock”.
From a broader point of view, watching the competition and the way people were moving in general, it has reinforced my thoughts that some specific areas in strength and power type training are either being covered insufficiently when considering their importance, or not addressed at all. I work with a few of Team GB away from the international scene, and I can’t wait to get stuck into an “off season” where we will be focusing on these areas. The scope for improvement is huge.
In my opinion, any top agility partnership consists of a great dog, great training, and a great handler. So handler fitness, including speed and agility, makes up a large part of that “great handler” section. If you are prepared to invest so much into improving via training, whether that be your dog or your handling, then why not invest a little time into your own fitness too. It could just make that difference you’ve been looking for.
Once again, massive thanks to Simon Peachey Photography for the great pictures.