The Goal

The Goal

Saturday, 28 November 2015

Where have all the coaches gone?

My friend and Aussie rifle shooter Tony Sultana recently posted an astonishingly accurate comment and piece of advice on Facebook the other day, which I reproduce below with his permission.

"I am still astonished for a better word that the vast majority (read nearly 100%) of dedicated rifle competitors that do not have coaches, I assume this is due to the fact that most shooters are an individualistic mob, and the word team has a rather loose term when it comes to competing in team events, we tend to pull together a fixed number of highly successful individuals and then call them a team, it doesn't work that way folks.

 A stand out from the crowd are the British T
eams, and any teams that have the majority of members that are military or ex military as are trained and know how and do operate in a team environment, their results reflect this the majority of times, this is an insight one how as shooters we predominantly think from my observations.

 So do yourself a favour go find a coach or mentor that can add value to what your are trying to achieve, remember if you want the same outcome you just keep doing what you're doing and it is guaranteed.

 This is not about teams, but how we tend to work, how long has it been now 1, 5, 10, 15 years since you have seen an improvement?

 Do yourself a favour. here are some start points to move forward.

• Ballistics and equipment ,Bryan Litz great books and articles
• Setting up a rifle (I can hear it now) I know how to do this, guess what you don't, David Tubb has a video that explains how to set up a rifle, invaluable advice.
• Psychology, process, training and practice, Lanny Bassham absolute gold mine of information.

 So find someone to help you.

This is probably one of the most insightful pieces of commentary I have read on the state of coaching* in fullbore rifle shooting. For me it captures both the problem and the solution.

Why don't we have coaches now?
I can only really speak for the UK, but there's something of a coaching gap between juniors and the international levels of the sport. Most people start of as shooters in the cadets, where they get taught the basics by cadet officers who are often keen amateur shots themselves, or they come from shooting families and get taught by their parents, uncles or aunts. Once they leave school and start university there's something of a void. Although partially filled by University clubs, very often the standard of coaching is variable at best and occasionally people just get taught to do the wrong thing. Once the education system is a thing of the past, there's not a lot in the way of organised coaching and I'm not even sure how much of an appetite there is for it. As Tony says, many people seem to want to just bang rounds down the range wishfully thinking it will make them better shots.

By way of example, various members of an association of which I was (and continue to be) a full member had voiced complaints that the small number of senior international shooters who were members never passed on any of their skills to other members. I volunteered to run a training skills weekend, which included a review of technique, training, psychology etc... Attendance was miserable, not least by those who had originally made the complaint. I had tried something similar with another association and had much the same result. People would turn out for matches (selection was more or less guaranteed if you could hold any kind of group) but not for any form of training.

I have bad news, and then again I have good news...
The bad news is that I don't really see this changing a great deal, unfortunately. While some of the clubs are making an effort, a lot of others aren't (and indeed in some cases have rules which preclude useful sessions like running SCATT training sessions in their clubhouses.)

The good news is that all is not lost for those who do get the value of having some independent advice. Many (but not all) senior TR shooters are perfectly willing to be approached for advice, but there are so many things you can do for yourself also:
  1. As Tony suggests, get educated! There's a huge amount of information available for nothing on t'internet from the likes of the US Army Marksmanship Unit and other resources.
  2. Try and find yourself a mentor or coach who you can run problems by; however please note that willingness to give an opinion is not always correlated with knowledge and skill!
  3. Finally, consider setting up a training group with a small number of like-minded individuals: share the cost of a SCATT, reloading equipment etc... I've seen this done in the UK which some success.
  4. For UK shooters, if you're of the right standard or even close to it, apply for the next GB U25 or GB touring team. Increasingly, team training sessions are focussed on just that - training - and not on selection or doing lots of shooting.
Good luck.

* Coaching in the sense of mentoring athletes to improve their performance, rather than the shooting sense of someone who reads the wind in a team match.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Run, not gun!

Dear readers, please excuse the lack of a shooting-related post last weekend. I was busy running a marathon down in Queenstown. I finished in 3:25:41 chip time, which I'm quite chuffed about.

Normal service will resume shortly.

Put one foot in front of the other. Alternate. Stop when you've crossed the finish line.

Saturday, 14 November 2015

Revolution or Evolution?

I recently remarked that if I want to progress to higher levels of performance in shooting, I'm going to need to shock the system and find new ways of training. I've been thinking about this for a while, and it has occurred to me that what I need is a revolutionary increase in performance, which can only come from a revolutionary change in technique, approach, training or equipment.

I used to think that improvements in my performance would come gradually over time though practice and lead on a smooth slope to the eventual nirvana of Grand Aggregate wins and Commonwealth Medals. I have since revised that view and now believe that performance improvement comes through a combination of revolutionary change, evolutionary improvements and stagnation, which are all driven by limiting factors and their elimination*.


Let us consider the example of our Tyro rifle shot. (S)he has picked up the sport, maybe attended an NRA Open Day and has been taught some of the fundamental principles of marksmanship. (S)he doesn't really train as such and so achieves only modest level of performance; although starting from a low base, some evolutionary improvement is possible. His or her kit is fundamentally sound (although the jacket might need a bit of attention) but technique is poor and this limits any improvement to level of accuracy implied by the standard of technique.

One day, the shooter gets picked for their club team and shoots in the match. They do OK, even if their long range groups are a bit ropy. During the tea after the match, our novice is pulled aside by one of the club coaches** who tells them that they cant a little and they look like they're holding the rifle on the target, rather than letting it rest naturally. The coach has a target booked the next morning, invites her along and gives her some pointers. Rapid progress is made as a result of changes in technique, but soon other limiting factors come into play and equilibrium is reached until the next change which drives a significant performance improvement.

Fast forward a few years. Our tyro has progressed through a series of revolutionary changes in performance driven by revolutionary changes in technique, approach, training or equipment; and (s)he has now earned his or her first GB cap. The issue now is that significant improvements in performance are becoming harder to gain: (S)he has addressed all of the obvious flaws in technique and maintains good form and equipment. Continuing to train effectively in ways that have worked before is no longer enough to ensure improvement.

The lessons from my story are clear. To make revolutionary improvements, we need to make revolutionary changes. As we improve, what has driven performance gains in the past is no longer enough to drive future gains.

* For the Biology nerds among you, this is akin to the distinction between Charles Darwin's classical theory of (gradual) evolution and the more modern idea of punctuated evolution.

** I am referring to a "coach" in the fullbore sense of someone who reads the wind during a team match; however in this case, they are also acting as a "coach" in the more general sense.

Monday, 9 November 2015

When work gets in the way...

Unfortunately most of us have to work for a living, and sometimes work will get in the way; however there is at least some good news. Quite a few top-flight shooters (in the UK at least) appear to have demanding careers, so it is possible to combine work and fullbore rifle shooting in a way that is probably less doable were you to be a rower or distance runner. It goes without saying that training effectively, rather than merely practising, will give you even more of a fighting chance of maintaining your level of performance when times are tough.

I reckon there are two main strategies:
  1. To hell with work. If they really wanted you to work that hard, they'd pay you more.
  2. Minimise the effects by focussing on the training you can do in otherwise unproductive time.
The first approach is perfectly reasonable. Shooting is far more important than work, after all; however when it is employed literally as a tactic it is probably only really sustainable in the short term. Keep this up for too long and your employer is likely to pay you considerably less. And stop giving you work entirely. As a managed strategy, it can be sustainable in the longer-term. I know several highly intelligent and extremely capable people who have made a deliberate choice not to pursue as challenging a career as they are capable of to allow them to focus instead on their sport or other things that matter to them more. That said, be aware that this must be a conscious choice and you will have to accept the consequences. A price will be paid in reduced salary growth and less interesting work, both of which may be beneficial to your shooting career in the longer-term. Let us not forget that shooting is getting damned expensive and it is perfectly possible to compete at the top level in shooting into your sixties.

The second approach is to reorganise your daily routine to fit shooting training in and to de-emphasise your daily activities which get in the way. Practice visualisation on the train* into work; do some SCATT last thing at night or first thing in the morning. Stop watching crap on TV or going to the pub. For example, I'm running the Queenstown Marathon in two weeks' time and to fit all the training in, I started running the 9 miles back from the centre of Auckland to the train station where I park the car in the mornings: Time spent commuting by train ~55 mins; time spent running 1hr 20mins; I get a 3:1 return on the additional 25 mins added to my day. This is the algebra of high performance that you will have to perform.

What I have tended to find is that I now need to spend less time training to maintain a given level of performance, which means that I can more easily accommodate surges in demand for my time from work. That said, further improvement has become harder to come by and constant repetition of technique has less value, and to make any such improvement I'm going to need to shock the system, which is probably going to require me to make a massive change in my level of commitment, training and a consequent easy patch at work.

* Or write blog posts, as in this case.