Training and Shooting
Starting out, shooting athletes are told to train hard and, with diligence, you'll become a talented marksman. So, how do you actually train? What’s involved? How do you reach your goal?
Lanny Bassham, Olympic gold medallist and rifle shooter, advises beginners to find the best shooters and steal their techniques and training plans. Study the champions: listen and observe. Once you figure out what they are doing, copy them shamelessly. Afterwards, when you've attained a level of competence, move from copying others to adapting the training and skills to be unique to yourself. For instance, learn the proper, textbook stance and then (later) modify it to suit your particular frame. First copy, then create.
Canada is a big country and that tends to isolate our shooters and coaches. I'd wager that its similar throughout the United States as well. As such, you'll have to read whatever you can on the subject, as I've been doing (and I guess that's why you're here.) Of particular note, I've been looking for training schedules and annual plans, essentially anything that says: "Do this for "x" minutes, so many times a week for this time period." This is an overview of what I’ve read.
Warning: some people have said some things that others won't agree with. Everyone's personal experience is unique. What worked for Ragnar Skanaker may fail miserably for you. Furthermore, some recommendations are harsh and could lead to inflamed joints or worse. Be careful in every aspect of your training and always check with your coach and/or doctor before you try anything. Listen to pain: your body is telling you that something is wrong. Also, beware of over-training: too much of a good thing can lead to burnout, both physically and mentally.
Lastly, these are my impressions of other people's anecdotal thoughts on their personal training experiences. There is no empirical data that proves that one particular training method is superior to another. None-the-less, while there is no definitive answer, threads of commonality run through them all. (For an excellent online read, check out Pilkington’s Interview Page.)
First thing: "Champions work hard in training and easy in matches. Everybody else works the other way around." This is a paraphrase of something Lanny said in a seminar (he really is great to see) and it should stick in your mind. It is the basis for all training if your goal is to win, regardless of the level of competition. This means a few things.
First, take your training very seriously (while having fun, of course.) An hour or two of practice during the weeks preceding your match isn’t going to cut it. You have to devote time and energy on a regular basis to make your goals happen. Stay disciplined.
Furthermore, when you’re training, you must be 100% focussed on your training. Chatting with your friends at the range, instead of shooting on the line, doesn’t help improve your technique. Make time for your friends and be social, but jealously guard your training time.
At the match, don’t try to force things to happen: allow your technique to flow. Trust your training. Let all of the hard work that you’ve put into practice flow through you in a match. Reward yourself with an excellent performance of technique.
Learn the basics and ingrain them. If you cannot consistently shoot a 10 in training (at your home range, without match pressure), then the odds are stacked against you at an important championship. Similarly, if you can't shoot that 10 without time restrictions, then you shouldn't be trying to shoot five 10's in 10 seconds. The advice here is "Learn what it takes to shoot a single 10, then repeat it over and over again." Eventually, you’ll reach the stage when your delivery of technique will be subconscious. You won’t think about how to release the trigger: you’ll just do it, very Zen-like. That’s your goal down the road, but now you’re going to build a foundation by focussing on the basics.
Learning and refining a skill takes repetition. Studies in learning (regardless of activities) state that you have to perform an activity on average about 3 times a week over an extended period to progress in your development. If you shoot once or twice a week, you may maintain your skill level, but in all probability your performance will drop off. International shooters will train 5-6 times a week as they move towards a major event. Each session will be rather intense as well, ranging from 2-6 hours in duration. This is on top of actual match participation. Start with regular training once or twice a week and build from there over the course of the year.
Similarly, climbing to the top takes time. One champion mentioned his belief that it takes 5-6 years to start being competitive internationally. This statement assumes that you’ll be working hard. Sure, we live in a society that coined the phrase, “Instant gratification takes too long.” I’m just as guilty as the next guy. We have to put these feelings aside, get down to work and keep working hard over the long haul. The rewards with eventually come. Gold medals come at a very high price in terms of time and personal commitment.
Dry firing and wall-holding are your best friends. These training tools are used by the overwhelming majority of top international shooters. Duration of sessions range from several (3-5) short sessions (10-20 minutes each) throughout the day to single sessions lasting an hour or two, almost every day of the week. Dry firing has been used to replace actual range time over extended periods with some people doing several hours of holding and dry firing five days a week. (Bassham reported training 5 hours a day, five days a week, with getting to the range only a handful of times, to come back and win a world cup match.)
Healthy muscle tone, muscular endurance and good aerobic capacity are extremely important to success in competitive shooting. Yes, there are some absolute stars who admit to being out of shape, rarely doing any exercises or walking, and then taking cigarette breaks in the middle of international matches. Note - the name has been withheld to protect the guilty. ;-)
None-the-less, these examples are the exception rather than the rule. Why make things harder for yourself? Through moderate physical activity (working out at the gym, cycling, jogging, roller blading, playing soccer – whatever works for your, as allowed by your doctor), you’ll be in better shape. By doing so, you’ll handle the exertions of your training and competitions better, both physically and mentally. At a minimum, you’ll probably live longer and that means more years of shooting! How can you go wrong?
As a sidenote: while you’re working out, you can involve your non-shooting wife/girlfriend husband/boyfriend partner/friend child/parent who can’t really remember your face because you’re always at the range training. By involving other people in your training, the odds increase that you’ll actually continue with the training.
Every top shooter has a mental component to their game that incorporates control, stress management, concentration, and strategy/tactics. Start now at the beginning and get a head start (pun intended.)
Develop an annual plan that incorporates technical, mental, physical and strategic components, so you'll be a well-rounded athlete that is prepared and capable to win.
Focus on performance delivery as opposed to performance outcome. Never worry about scores, either in training or in matches. You must learn how to group your shots together, preferably in the centre of the target. Unfortunately, if you're thinking about breaking your personal best score or achieving the minimum qualifying score, then you're not thinking about your sights, or your trigger, or whatever it takes to get that shot off without disturbing the sights. Everything beyond performance delivery (i.e. technique) is counter-productive and a detriment to your shot.
Similarly, some people try to occupy their minds when they shoot. They may repeat cue words like “smooth” to help them focus on a good trigger release. Some think “centre” to keep their mind on themselves and shut out any distractions. Some people sing to block out all thoughts in general, or drown out negative self-talk. The cue words are as numerous as the shooters. These words and songs are tools that can help you shut out “internal” distractions which are invariably worse than what is going on around us.