What I wish my agility teachers knew

I wanted to write this because these thoughts have been circulating in my head for months – often haunting me on Thursday nights after practice – in the hope that it would make me feel better but now that I’ve laid out all the reasons why, I’m less certain why it’s a good idea to spend your limited time on earth doing something that you’re really bad at.

Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.

Arthur Ashe

Almost since the beginning of starting agility three years ago, I’ve gathered from the reactions of my trainers they find me a somewhat difficult student to teach. I don’t even need to read between the lines to sense the frustration that I seem to be unable or perhaps unwilling to follow their advice, and their perception that I’m somewhat incompetent is often glaringly obvious from the advice I receive.

When I get told once again that “It’s no wonder she did the weaves wrong – you shouted five different commands to her!” I feel like apologising: sorry I messed up but if I could’ve stopped multiple words tumbling from my mouth, I would.

I’m very aware of all my shortcomings but as time goes on it increasingly weighs on me that, although our progress may be slow and extremely underwhelming and even disappointing by other people’s standards, it’s not because I have any illusions about my ability nor because I don’t value the advice I receive.

On the contrary, I am trying hard: the short version of this post is my ability to do well in agility reflects the fact that my start line is way behind most people, and specific disabling factors limit the resources at my disposal.

Many disabilities are invisible – and although the things I’m about to talk about are not too much of a problem in my everyday life, they are significant hurdles for me to overcome in agility handling. In that sense, they predictably and consistently dis-able me from doing what I know I should do, what I want to do and what most others practicing this sport do without having to think about it much.

I’m physically unsuited to agility

My respiratory system makes me particularly poorly suited to fast-paced sports activities due to exercise-induced bronchoconstriction: strenuous exercise narrows the airways in my lungs and causes shortness of breath, wheezing and dizziness. Thanks to this invisible problem I’ve never enjoyed sports much and I particularly hate running.

Another contributor to my lifelong dislike of any kind of sportsing is my sense of balance: I’m so clumsy I regularly trip over on flat pavement in flat shoes. I’m also known to constantly bump into things like furniture, drop items or not be aware of my position and knock things over. I don’t have a diagnosis for dyspraxia but it describes me pretty well:

  1. Poor balance (sometimes even falling over in mid-step) – tripping over one’s own feet is also common.
  2. Difficulty combining movements into a controlled sequence and remembering the next movement in a sequence
  3. Poor timing
  4. Problems with spatial awareness, or proprioception (aka bull in a china shop – I regularly fling glasses and cutlery off the table)
  5. Clumsiness to the point of knocking things over, causing minor injuries to oneself and bumping into people accidentally (mysterious bruises are my kind of body art)
  6. Difficulty in determining left from right (since childhood I’ve used my thumbnails to check – one has a different shape thanks to a dog bite)

It’s not hard to imagine how this makes agility challenging for me – they’re pretty much the core skills required from a successful agility handler. What’s worse is that I can’t explain to anyone that despite my best intentions and strong desire to follow instructions for particular turns, positioning my feet in a certain way or keeping my arms from flailing about, my brain does not like to collaborate with my body. What seems like a ridiculously low bar to others is something I’m genuinely happy about after each practice or competition: at least I did not crash into any obstacles or stumble over my dog, possibly injuring her.

Worst of all, this fundamental inability to force my body do what I want makes it look like I don’t listen to or understand instructions, that I’m a bit stupid, or perhaps I don’t value the advice given to me as I may react to it with slight amusement/desperation because I know what I am supposed to do, I’m just not in full control of my extremities.

As the cherry on top, I’m fully aware how crazy the above explanation seems when I seem (relatively) capable of everyday life and not visibly disabled. I know this because for most of my life I have blamed, berated and shamed myself these motor challenges and only recently understood it’s just the way I was born. I’m reminded of this flaw every time my arms refuse to stay neatly by my side or I run too close to jumps, so if I didn’t choose to laugh at myself every agility lesson would make me want to cry and never come back.

Does practice help? Yes, but it’s like running in mud – you progress slowly with each step taking more effort than you’d expect, the slippery ground makes you feel anxious and the whole exercise leaves you way more exhausted than if you’d been running on pavement.

I’m also mentally unsuited to agility

I have an ADHD brain which adds to the challenges of agility handling. How ADHD manifests for each individual is a little bit different, so there isn’t as clear a checklist as there is for dyspraxia. ADHD also isn’t something I have – it’s not like an illness that can be separated from who I am because processing the world in a different way has inevitably shaped my personality.

One of the common misunderstandings about ADHD is that it’s about lack of attention when, in reality, it’s about the ability to consciously regulate it. When it looks like I’m distracted, it usually just means my brain is focused on several other things at the same time like having lots of browser tabs open and two of them are mysteriously playing music but you don’t know which ones.

My ADHD brain also hates repetition – counterintuitively, practice does not necessarily make me perfect because my attention starts to fade quickly. Novelty and challenge are attractive to my brain, which also means I tend to do better in competitions than at practice (relatively speaking!) because the adrenaline sharpens my brain. This, too, is so counterintuitive that it’s nearly impossible to explain why, paradoxically, adding more challenge (vs. less) probably makes me perform better.

Example of an agility course map

My working memory is also pretty patchy so I easily forget the course or obstacles at practice, especially if the information included more than three steps and was only given to me verbally. I process auditory information much more poorly than visual or written information, so you might need to tell me the same thing ten times but only show it to me once written or drawn.

In case you’re wondering, I do have ADHD medication which helps me to force my focus on things that my brain interprets as boring but unfortunately evening practice coincides with the power of meds waning and my brain being exhausted from a full work day of focus.

Before I entered my first real competition, I was terrified of forgetting the course and contemplated bringing a tablet with me to draw it for memorising later. The reason I thought this way was because I was/am constantly making mistakes up at practice – and to be honest, I’m sure it surprised my teachers too because of how utterly incompetent I seem at practice. It turns out that I’m fine when I can take a bit of time and visualise the course with 20 obstacles in my own way while actually walking it – even though it’s nearly impossible for me to remember a verbal description of a sequence of 3-5 jumps when standing on the edge of the course.

Working memory limits also show up in my obvious inability to come up with consistent cues for each of the obstacles. Perhaps in my slight defence, I have a real word soup in my brain because I have been learning about agility in three languages (Dutch teachers, English materials online and Finnish books because they explain more theory and I follow Finnish agility Instagram accounts). It’s a bit tricky to decide which ones are most easily retrievable in the moment, especially as the naming logic differs in places:

EnglishDutchFinnish
DogwalkKattenloop (catwalk)/kattPuomi (beam)
A-frameSchutting (fence)A-este  (A-obstacle/jump)
WeavesSlalom/paaltjes (poles)Kepit (sticks)
SeesawWipKeinu (swing)
Hoop/tyreBand (tyre)Rengas (ring/tyre)

Pick one language, you say? Sure, but… my brain struggles to retrieve the word in the moment if it doesn’t really match the visual. “Catwalk” makes more sense than dogwalk because cats walk on a fence, but “fence” and A-frame are equally nonsensical (and A-frame is too many syllables). Weaves and slalom describe the action but “poles” and “sticks” describe the obstacle, like the rest of the vocabulary – illogical! Worst of all is the tyre because my brain conceptualises it as a hole the dog is jumping through, and therefore wants to shout “HOLE!” which sounds a bit wrong.

Because that’s not enough, there’s also the vocabulary for various handling techniques which gets confusing when Dutch teachers translate the names but they make no sense to me so I have to match them with the literature I’ve read in other languages:

  • Front cross = Belgische wissel (Belgian switch)
  • Blind cross = Franse wissel (French switch)
  • Rear cross = Klassieke wissel (classic switch)

Of course, in Dutch there are also crosses named after other countries – I have no idea why, but it makes absolutely no sense to me so there’s little chance I’ll actually remember them and if I choose the non-Dutch terms I still have to mentally convert them every time. Possibly doable and even feasible for someone with a non-ADHD brain, but a mental mountain for me.

My learning style is incompatible with how agility is taught

It also seems I learn things things very differently to most people. I often need to understand the bigger picture before smaller pieces make sense to me (a prerequisite for me learning and remembering them). The reason this is a challenge is that most people seem to think practicing in small bits is how one learns so dog training is typically designed like Duolingo – broken down into small parts without explaining the basic principles.

Click on the book to find it online

Unfortunately, I usually need to understand the point of doing something first. For language, I start with grammar and with agility everything seemed very confusing because I didn’t see how everything fitted together: for example, why do we use a particular turn here but another one there?

Another way to describe it is that I need to understand strategy before learning tactics, and it seems that agility is taught (at least here in the Netherlands) bottom-up through tactics whereas my mind prefers theory and principles kind of top-down approach. Luckily I stumbled across books written by a Finnish agility judge where she explained how courses are designed – when I understood they comprise of speed and technique sections I also understood better what choices I needed to make on the course and why. Based on my performance at practice, reading such a technical book that perhaps seemed way above my level – in reality, it helped me find more meaning in what we do and perhaps the level of complexity helped my brain to pay more attention, too.

I know I will never be great at agility

At the very beginning, I had no ambitions to compete – we did agility because Grace seemed to really enjoy it and it gave us an opportunity to bond as a team. Agility was also a great way to teach Grace important life skills like emotional control and focus.

Last summer I joined a training group where people compete – I was the least experienced, and often left training sessions feeling low about how terrible we were in comparison. Lesson by lesson I understood just how poorly suited I was to agility and how my invisible challenges likely made me seem… strange, to say the least. I pushed through because I love Grace beyond words and this seemed to be something she really loves. Thankfully, I’ve spent the years since my diagnosis on learning how my brain works and was confident enough to try competing – if I’d waited to be great at practice, I might have given up the whole hobby in desperation.

Over time, I realised that agility was an opportunity for personal growth. Turning up to an activity week after week that forces you to see your weaknesses in all of their glorious detail is exhausting and often depressing. I’m painfully aware of my own limitations and the fact that for us to become “good”, I would have to invest a lot more time into this – the best I can ever aspire for in agility is to “not be terrible”. For some, which probably includes my very talented trainers, that is a bar so low I shouldn’t even bother but I’m not goal oriented when it comes to agility, because as soon as goals and performance enter the picture, it stops being fun and becomes a chore.

Here’s the thing: the fact that I’m still doing agility after three years is a personal victory because I have never stuck to a hobby this long – my brain hates routine and loves novel challenges. Like many ADHD people, I find it hard to do even the things I know I enjoy (for complicated reasons), let alone something that regularly makes me feel crap.

Every week I get a tiny better at blocking out the loud voice in my head that shouts about my incompetence and just focus on doing things our way and having fun with Grace. I try to challenge myself to find a few things that went well every time we compete regardless of the results, and remind myself that you don’t have to be great to compete – for us that’s just another training session, a more fun one at that.

Above all, I try to remind myself it’s more about how far we have come – not how far we still have to go.

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