Skill & Athleticism
I am a natural athlete. This became evident at a young age when I became the pitcher for the neighborhood softball team at the age of 7. I had a 183 average in bowling at the age of 11 and was forced into the adult league because I was winning everything in the junior league. At 15 I came close to going to the Olympics in swimming. The only thing I really lacked was skill because most of my coaches sat back and just watched my natural abilities move me. Sometimes I received instruction in how to hone a skill, but it was rare.
I see this in dog sports all the time. It's even common in pet dog training. It's assumed that only the best of the best, both canine and human will be able to learn the skills necessary to compete or to have a harmonious life together.
The use of athleticism and talent is evident in nearly every sport whether human or canine. From our children to the multi-million dollar football star, it's the athleticism that is glorified, not the skill. And yet, a skillful player could run circles around the merely talented.
It's been common in dog sports for many decades to cull the unfit from obedience to protection sports and practice. The labels of "soft" and "hard", "dominant" and "submissive" are all an attempt to remove those who don't have the talent and personality to succeed with the methods being used. Injury has also been rife in dog sports due to a lack of skill and a lack of familiarization with as many situations as possible. Skills were and still are with many trainers, taught "in field" instead of as separate exercises. The dog either learns the skill or washes out. At trial time, those dogs with the greater talent and the greater ability to roll with the training methods, win. But there are accidents, missed bars in agility, reactivity and the inability to stay put without moving.
All for the lack of "skill".
Functional training teaches skills at their most basic level. Functional training programs enhance athleticism by honing skills and improve efficiency in every aspect of the sport and in daily life. Functional training takes into account that to prevent injury, increase situational awareness and function effectively within a sport demands a thorough and complete understanding of the demands of that sport.
Life and sports demand a certain amount of athleticism and a certain degree of skill. Athleticism is defined as the ability to perform movements with precision, style and grace. Depending on the sport, athleticism includes the ability to be at optimum speed in the context of the sport. Skill is the ability to do movements of the sport with a high degree of precision and proficiency. The two aspects work together to create a winner. Natural talent is increase by skill, but the components of athleticism can be built by knowing and having fluency in the skills involved.
Skill development and general fitness are not mutually exclusive. Speed, for example, requires aerobic fitness and specific muscle strength. Muscle strength, as well as a sense of balance will affect coordination. Inadequate flexibility may hinder agility and reaction times.
The basic skills necessary for any sport and life itself for our dogs.
Balance and Proprioception
Balance is awareness of the body's position in space and time. When static, balance is the ability to stay centered the body's base of support. In order for balance to occur, the dog needs to know what all his body parts are, their function, their mobility and range and where they are in relation to each other. Much of this is built into the genetics and instinct, but what we ask of our dogs in life and sports is not always part of evolutionary functionality. This knowledge of body parts is called proprioception, and includes knowing where each part is in space and time and it's relation to the other parts and the environment.
Agility is directly related to reaction time but includes the quick decisive movements of the dog when navigating the environment and to external stimuli without losing balance or postural alignment. Inherent in agility is the actual decision made as to what movement and direction is most effective and efficient. "Movement time" is the term used in human sports and reducing that movement time is the goal of training for agility.
Coordination is the harmonious movement of muscles or groups of muscles. There are two types of balance that are part of the definition of coordination – static and dynamic balance. Every move our dogs make involves balance and the coordination of the legs, head, tail and in some instances toes and even the dew claws. There should be a flow of movement, not jerky off balance motions. I’ve always like this definition of coordination when discussing fitness: “The ability to use the senses and body parts to perform tasks smoothly, efficiently, and accurately”.
There are many elements to reaction time. All our senses need to be engaged to have quick reflexes. You have to sense it with sight, hearing, taste, kinesthestics, and touch. Sight can be broken down into peripheral vision (of which a dogs is much greater than ours), depth perception, movement tracking and more. There are 1000’s of elements to consider when dealing with reaction time.
Reaction time can be broken down into:
- · Sensation: the time it takes to detect the sensory input from an object or stimuli. This stage often is not a function of conscious awareness.
- · Recognition: understanding that there is something there
- · Situational awareness: quickly assessing and interpreting the situation.
- · Response selection: assigning an effective and associative response.
Posture and the Center Of Gravity
Posture and alignment are fundamental to balance and moving through space. Learning how to hold and move the body and maintain its natural alignment is beneficial throughout life, and not just in fitness and sports. Developing the awareness of posture and alignment will help dogs to balance, to recover safely from mishaps, and to move the body through space.
Balance is all about holding the alignment and posture of the body relatively still and using opposing muscular energies to achieve this. But if there are any parts of the body out of alignment, stress develops on muscles, ligaments and joints. The dog will tire easily and it will become difficult to maintain balance.
The center of gravity of a dog lies close to the shoulders, probably near the base of the heart. In a normal stance, 60% of the dog's weight rests over the front legs: extension of the head and neck or lowering of the head can increase this forward weight bias by 10% to 15%. Conversely, raising the head and neck reduces the forward weight and moves it to the rear.
Gravity affects all structures of a dog’s body, whether the body parts are moving or just standing still. A dog’s inability to deal with gravity during movement will readily show movement issues and structural faults. Determining these issues and faults is the one time in Functional Training that movement is mostly suspended and relative stillness required.