As an Agility coach, one of the most popular questions I get asked by students is, How do I analyze an Agility course?
Just like many aspects of Agility training, I find myself using my current "method" if you will, as a result of A LOT of trial and error over the years. Course Analysis itself is a specific skillset that is often overlooked and undervalued in the sport of Agility.
In my experience, competitors who can concisely make decisions about a course during a walkthrough tend to have the fastest, most efficient runs, consistently. Just as any other foundation skill, course analysis takes practice. Some individuals are more naturally talented at it than others, but anyone who has a mind to, can improve this skill.
I personally break my Course Analysis down into 5 steps. They are:
1) Course Map Analysis
2) Spatial Walkthrough
3) Dog's Path Walkthrough
4) Handling Walkthrough
5) Final Walkthrough
Out of these 5 steps, I firmly believe that the most vital step is Course Map Analysis. The course map itself contains SO MUCH information that you as a handler can use before you ever step foot on the course. I break my Course Map Analysis down into 5 different steps as well. They are:
1) Course Map Analysis
A) Finding the Course Numbers
B) Finding the Mouse-Line
C) Finding the Dog's Path
D) Finding the Handling Choices
E) Prepping for the Walk Through
In this post, I am going to focus on steps A and B.
Now, when I get to a trial, I have my own routine for getting settled in and preparing for the day. That includes gathering up any course maps that I will be running that day. As a general rule, I stack them in the order that I will be running them in and I remain focused on the top most map until I have run it. After I've run, I either toss or file away that map and focus on the next upcoming course. I find this system useful, as it allows me to keep my head as clear as possible and I am able to focus solely on a particular course and not bits and pieces of several different courses.
The exceptions to this rule are regional or national events where I will be walking several courses within a very short time frame or if I am running a strategy game such as Snooker or Gamblers.
I did a Google search and found this course map that I will use to explain HOW I break down the different layers of Course Map Analysis.
The course map:
A) Finding the Course Numbers:
Once I have the map in hand, the first thing I do, is figure out what the course actually is. I walk the numbers in my head to get a feel for the overall flow of the course. The more comfortable I am with WHERE the obstacles are on course, the less time I will spend locating them when I get to my walkthrough. Which is important, as that gives me more time to focus on more critical aspects of my run. Once I have a feel for where the numbers are I can move onto the next step.
B) Finding the Mouse-Line
Once I have a feel for it, I will run through the "mouse-line" on the course. The "mouse-line" is a term that Jenny Damm popularized and is the concept that if you were to run an itty-bitty mouse through the course, you will find the fastest most efficient path through the course. For this particular course, my mouse-line looks like so:
The reason I find the mouse-line so valuable is that it helps figure out where the lines and arcs are on a course, opposed to focusing on moving from one number to the next.
What do I mean when I'm talking about lines and arcs? In Agility, dogs really only run in one of two patterns. Straight(ish) lines and arcs. Being able to find both can help you as a handler.
How so, you ask?
I have worked with many students who have a hard time remembering courses and/or get lost on course. When we broke down their "course walking method" the vast majority of those same students looked at a course as 1 to 2, 2 to 3, 3 to 4 etc. The problem with remembering courses that way, is that you have to remember so many small elements. For example, on this course there are 18 obstacles, which written out look like this:
1-2, 2-3, 3-4, 4-5, 5-6, 6-7, 7-8, 8-9, 9-10, 10-11, 11-12, 12-13, 13-14, 14-15, 15-16, 16-17, 17-18.
That is 17 elements you need to try and keep track of. ON TOP of your handling choices and your dog.
By looking at this same course with a mouse-line, you can strip the course down in to lines and arcs and simplify what you need to remember.
The below diagram is color coated to show the different lines on this course. By focusing on the lines, this course simplifies to:
Pink (1-4), Blue (4-7), Orange (7-10), Green (10-11), Red (11-12), Pink (12-13), Blue (13-15), Orange (15-18).
Which is only 8 elements to remember instead of 17!
When I am competing or training, I try not to clutter my thinking and strategizing with unnecessary things. The mouse-line aids in doing just that.
Before I jump into the Finding the Dog's Path portion of Course Map Analysis, I will stop here (for the time being). I will continue with this topic next Tuesday, December 22nd.
Until then, if you want to improve your mouse-line skills, it is very easy to practice. Simply take out some old course maps that are laying around or print a few off and draw what you think is the most efficient path for your itty bitty mouse!
~ Kim Benjamin