For much of my 25 shooting career I was pretty mediocre, managing the occasional possible or bar in the meeting; however I just knew that if I could somehow master myself and my technique then I could do much better. It felt like there was a good shooter inside me fighting to get out. If this describes the frustration that you feel about your shooting, then you should probably read on. I can't promise "one weird trick" to make you effortlessly qualify for the next Commonwealth Games or gain your first shooting place on the Palma Team, but I can give you some pointers. The good news is that achieving such goals is within your grasp; I absolutely believe that pretty much anyone can do it. The bad news is that unless you're very naturally talented, it's going to take quite a lot of hard work.
Looking back, there seem to be two key points in time where I've made major leaps in performance, each of which correlates with some lesson that I've learned. These haven't been about the specifics of technique; although both of them resulted in changes in technique which later improved my results. Nor have these been about increasing the volume of livefire practice that I've completed, and although the amount of shooting I have done has increased, that has been a consequence of improved performance and the increased number of invitations to tour or shoot in matches that I have received as a result.
Rather, these lessons have been much more general in nature. Think of them as philosophies that have informed my approach to my shooting.
Lesson 1 - Work out what you're doing wrong. Stop doing it wrong. Start doing it right.
Believe it or not, it took me about a decade in shooting to work this one out. It sounds very simple, trivially obvious even, yet when people have asked me for a critique of their position or some other aspect of their technique, and I have made comment about one flaw or another I have often received the answer, "But I've always done that. I don't think it's a problem."
It's incredible that such self-deception is possible but I believe that it is relatively common. I was certainly guilty of it for quite a while (see my post One Weird Trick for details.) Note that the person in question knows of the problem, very often they know that it's contrary to the principles of marksmanship, but still they do not perceive that it's a probable cause of poor performance despite the evidence to the contrary. The real issue very often lies not knowing that there is a problem, but in acknowledging it and acting upon that knowledge.
Lesson 2 - Stop practising. Start training.
The 2007 Palma Team tour was a critical turning point for me, not because I shot brilliantly as an individual and then earned my first Palma Match cap as a shooter. Actually, I shot mediocre groups in the DCRA meeting and the Individual WLRC. As a result, the Captain made the entirely correct decision that I was to be reserve for the Palma Match and plotted both days. While I was delighted that I could still contribute to the team's success, I was gutted that it wasn't as a shooter. In my post-season analysis, I realised that I wasn't learning very effectively, spending most of my time banging rounds down Century and Stickledown ranges. I needed to focus less on practising, and more on training.
As a result of this lesson, I began to do a lot more dry firing, SCATT and visualisation. During my practice sessions, I spent more time on creative exercises. One particular favourite is to mix a few dummy rounds in with lives in a cloth bag and not look when loading, which gives immediate feedback on flinch and follow-through. Speed shooting is also a useful exercise, and a real area for improvement for me as anyone who has coached me can probably tell you. I also spent less time on the range in the following year, but my results improved. Since that time, I've expanded the range of activities that I do to train effectively to include cardio, stretching and other physical activities. I'll talk about some of these in future posts.
In the 2011 GB Palma Team Brochure I defined practise as "...the constant repetition of existing technique, often flawed..." and training as "...a schedule of highly varied exercises designed to identify and address flaws in technique planned around achieving a defined goal." My guess is that many, if not most fullbore shooters, do not train effectively and certainly do not have a defined plan to improve and yet they expect somehow to get better. How is this reasonable?
Take the time to make an honest appraisal of your shooting, and use the lessons you learn to build yourself a new plan to train, rather than merely to practise.