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Agility Challenge Tip #12 – Five ways to pick a high-quality teacher or coach

This is one of my favorite tips from The Little Book of Talent, by author Daniel CoyleI love it because it not only gives direction to a student looking for a teacher or coach, but it also gives direction to instructors and coaches looking to best instruct their students! As somebody who has been formally educated as an educator (remember, I was a high school chemistry teacher for several years before jumping off the deep end to instruct agility full time!), I firmly believe that teaching, just like anything else, is a skill that must be developed. While I don’t believe there’s any such thing as a ‘naturally talented teacher’, and that good teachers are those who have practiced good teaching skills, I also think there are a lot of instructors out there in our sport who have not paid as much attention as they could or should to the practice of actually teaching. So, here are five ways Coyle presents to pick a teacher or coach who will help you improve and grow your skills:

  1. Avoid someone who reminds you of a courteous waiter. This is the instructor who focuses his or her efforts on keeping you comfortable and happy, and on making things go smoothly with a minimum of effort. This is the instructor who covers a lot of material in a short period of time, smiles a lot, and says things like, “Don’t worry, no problem, we can take care of that later.” This is a good person to have as a waiter in a restaurant, but a terrible person to have as your teacher, coach, or mentor.
  2. Seek someone who scares you a little. In contrast to encounters with courteous waiters, encounters with great teachers/coaches/mentors tend to be filled with unfamiliar emotion: feelings of respect, admiration, and often, a shiver of fear. This is a good sign. Look for somebody who:
    • Watches you closely – he or she is interested in figuring you out. What you want, where you’re coming from, where your dog is coming from, and what motivates both of you.
    • Is action oriented – she wont’ want to spend a lot of time chatting. Instead, she’ll want to jump in to a few activities right away, so she can get a feel for you and your dog, and vice versa.
    • Is honest, sometimes unnervingly so – she will tell you the truth about your performance in clear language. This stings at first! But, you’ll come to see that it’s not personal – its the information you can use to get better.
  3. Seek someone who gives short, clear directions. Most great teachers/coaches/mentors don’t give long winded speeches. They don’t give sermons or lectures. They give short, unmistakably clear directions, and they guide you to a target.
  4. Seek someone who loves teaching fundamentals. Great teachers will often spend entire practice sessions on one seemingly small fundamental – for example, the single step required to move away laterally from your dog on course, or the footwork for a front cross, or a front/blind cross combination, etc. This might seem strange or tedious, but it shows that they understand the importance of the fundamentals that are at the core of your skills. The more advanced you are, the more crucial those fundamentals become!
  5. All things being equal, pick the older person. It’s tempting to go after the latest and greatest agility performer who is on the teaching circuit. However, for an instructor, or coach, or mentor, all other things being equal, pick the older person. As I mentioned earlier, teaching is a skill like any other; it takes time and perseverance to develop.  Of course there are good teachers at any age, and of course it’s not true that every older instructor is a guaranteed genius. However, if you have the choice to go with somebody who has been in the sport longer, and who has been teaching longer (and who is probably older), all things being equal, go for that person over the newcomer.

This tip marks the last tip of our first category of tips – tips designed to help ignite and motivate. Tips 13-42 will be all about improving skills. Now that you have the information about how to practice, and what some of the elements of good practice and developing talent are, the next section will focus on finding the sweet spot for improvement, and then reaching for more. These first 12 tips were all about getting ready – the next several tips will be about action: simple strategies and techniques to direct you toward deep, deliberate practice, and nudge you away from “the unproductive swamp of shallow practice.”

The unproductive swamp of shallow practice.

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