I’ve been thinking a lot about sportsmanship. Because no, it doesn’t just apply to elementary school kids playing soccer. I’ve thought about what it is, how it affects this game– and more importantly, what it looks like. I was thinking about it long before I decided to write a post about it, and long before I was witness to some ugly and beautiful things in this sport.

“Sportsmanship is when a guy walks off the court and you really can’t tell whether he won or lost, when he carries himself with pride either way.” – Jim Courier

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The Cluster is one of my favorite events of the year. In a lot of ways it hold some of the excitement of a regional event (if not a national back in its heyday). The shopping, the atmosphere, the number of handlers and skilled teams is one of the best in the area all year. In past years I’ve had miserable weekends where NAC qualifications were missed by a single Q– but still, Nike gave me everything he had. I wish I had been mature and wise enough years ago to really see that and appreciate it. Sportsmanship exists between us and our dogs. Because there will be days and weekends when one of us acts as a weak link. That’s what I was at Cynosports. I still can’t explain my mindset there, but I was off, I was the weakness in our team. It happens. The difference from where I was years ago with Nike and where I am now with Bolt is mostly due to a change in mentality– to a deeper perspective. I’m working hard not to let small defeats snowball into lengthy despairing inner monologues (who hasn’t had the thoughts that goals will never happen, that you’re a terrible handler, that you’ve wasted your time? Even if ever so briefly). The Cluster weekend was one of the first in a long time where I could honestly say I was completely satisfied with our performance with the faults. I didn’t leave with a lingering unhappiness, or disappointment in our performance. We didn’t need to qualify and win each run to make it mean something. That, to me, was the biggest success.

It’s not about falsifying happiness after bad runs—that doesn’t work. We are human, emotions are strong. But it always hurts to see a handler end a run angry at themselves, or their dog—even if the run held successes in it. I always strive to end my runs in the same positive way (minus those rare walks of shame) even if faults occurred. Strive means that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes it hurts. Sometimes you curse yourself. Sometimes you can laugh it off. Sometimes you need to throw a pity party in your car before you pick yourself back up. Human, remember.

Sportsmanship exists within us. We’re a team in and of ourselves. The unique thing about agility is that we don’t compete each weekend on a traditional team. The team is us and our dogs. Ultimately, we really can only rely on ourselves to make the right choices on course. There’s no one else out there with us. We need to forgive ourselves for mistakes, we need to praise ourselves for successes.

Sportsmanship exists between us and other competitors. Obviously. I’ve seen some ugliness from the dog world recently, and unfortunately it’s not new and it won’t go away. It’s impossible to win everything every time (obviously, again) and yet I see ugliness when a loss happens. I saw it at the Cluster in particular. Winning with grace is easier than losing with grace. Taking frustrations out for a loss on others is a far bigger reflection of who we are than being able to be kind when we’re winning. I’ve heard fellow competitors make rude comments on the side lines. I’ve seen a public attack on a young girl’s character– a young girl going through one of the toughest decisions she’s had to make.

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At the same time I’ve seen the best of people. People defending that same young girl in a public forum. Of fellow competitors encouraging teams struggling to stay positive. Of handlers going off course in a finals round at nationals and getting the judge and the crowd to cheer them to the finish line in incredible fashion. To a judge sitting on the ground with a handler, helping to coax a fearful dog back into her leash at the end of a novice run.

The good and bad of this sport can be seen every weekend. Each will always exist. Sportsmanship is part of how we react and more of how we respond.

In the end we won’t be remembered as much for our Q’s and our wins, as we will for the kind of competitor we were.