With correct instruction, it doesn’t take long to learn how to properly and safely operate a firearm. With good instruction, it doesn’t take much longer to start to develop marksmanship skills. However, when a target shooting athlete strives to raise their game and thrive under pressure, then things can get exciting!
There are multiple paths and techniques to achieve great things. Some paths and techniques are longer and harder while others are… a little bit less long and hard. (No, I won’t say any are short and easy!)
In our culture, we are taught to take control, make things happen, pay attention, try harder, and so forth. Each of those ideas has appropriate applicator. Even where appropriate, how the ideas are applied can be more important that what is done – that “how” can make all the difference. We are also taught to use our mind and directly apply it to our activities.
In this teaching, we learn about and exercise only the “active thought” part of the mind. This is known variously as the “conscious” mind, or “thinking” mind, or “analytic” mind, or “slow” mind, or… more familiarly to our daily existence: the “talking” mind. This is the part of the mind we most often use when shooting; partly because this is the part of the mind we must use in order to learn anything, and partly because we are almost never taught that there is another – much more powerful – part of the mind.
This other part of the mind is what I call the “deeper thought” part of the mind. It is often know as the “subconscious” mind or “intuitive” mind, or “quiet” mind, or “fast” mind. This is the part of the mind that learns deeper patterns, sequences, and timings. Unless you are learning to tie your shoes, the “deeper thought” part of the mind is generally doing the work. Last time you tied your shoes or boots, do you remember actually doing the activity?
High level target shooting demands use of the deeper mind. We are culturally conditioned to not use that part of the mind, if we even realize it exists. The primary challenge we see with elite athletes, and improving athletes at all levels, is overcoming the cultural conditioning, learning about the deeper thought part of the mind, learning how to tap into its power, and trusting that manner of shooting.
About 1-1/2 years or so prior to he 2000 Sydney Olympics, Nancy Johnson’s performances and especially her consistency seemed to dramatically improve. Why? One reason that she and her national team coach Dan Durben will point to is her hard work. Hard, hard work, year after year. She never gave up despite times of frustration and sometimes even feeling like quitting. There is no substitute for experience! Another reason that she spoke about seemed unusual to some listeners. She said she had to learn to “just be” in order to shoot well. “I lived for my yoga class!” she once remarked. Nancy had taught herself to tap into the power of the deeper thought part of the mind.
Right after she graduated from college, where she was an All-American and NCAA rifle athlete, Kathy Vaughan started shooting and coaching with us in the Atlanta area. She now coaches a small group of pistol athletes, including her daughter, along with another coach, the father of another of the athletes in the group. There are three middle school girls shooting pistol, each shooting international standing position now for a year or less, and all are doing very well. Kathy’s daughter, Cheyenne, said she wanted to write a short essay about something she had learned. With her permission, and her mother’s permission, we share her essay with you.
The Empty Method
by Cheyenne Vaughan
I grew up shooting air pistol. My mom, Kathy Vaughan, got me into shooting matches at the age of nine. I’m thirteen now, almost fourteen. This is an exciting year for me, going into my first year of the J2 age group. Shooting for about 5 years, I’ve learned that I can’t shoot well while I’m thinking. Last year with the help of one of my coaches, JP O’Connor, I figured out that if I empty out my head before shooting, I shoot better and group better. I try to empty my mind before a match, practice, and even dry-fire drills. I call this the Empty Method.
After figuring out how to process this method, it took me about a month to empty everything out without trying. My scores have gone up and it’s also helped me with my school work. I don’t hear voices in my head telling me to do this, or don’t do that; it’s all peace and quiet.
The empty method works on any kind of shooter, especially air pistol and air rifle, I have learned from experience. Almost every Tuesday night, at practice, JP comes to help coach. After shooting a target, or black card, we talk about our shots. When we first started this, my two team mates at the time, Katelyn Abeln and Nick McCoy, talked about their shots and how they felt when they released the trigger. It was my turn and I just sat there. I had to try and remember what I shot and how it felt, but really I didn’t know how they felt or what the trigger felt like when I released it. It wasn’t because I was stupid, it’s because I wasn’t thinking; my head was empty. Now, a year later, I’m able to shoot and remember a little bit about how it feels when shooting each shot.
There are a number of profound topics lurking deep within in this short essay. I also like Cheyenne’s name for this style of performing: The Empty Method.
The athlete must empty their mind of all the trash and chatter.
One of the keys to attaining an empty or quiet mind is separating “outcome” (in all its forms!) from “doing” in the mind of the athlete. Our ego wants to win, get a high score, not be embarrassed, and so on. All are beyond the athlete’s direct control and all are in the future – or in the past and the athlete is still dwelling on the good or bad result. Even the last shot is in the past, and the score for this shot is still, ever so slightly, in the future.
Which brings the next key to a quiet or empty mind. One must exist (“just be”) in the Present Moment without thought or care. One must learn to trust this method. When was the last time you tied your shoe or boot laces while worrying about whether or not you would mess it up? Don’t laugh; that’s what we do to ourselves in shooting, especially in a match!
There are many additional factors, too numerous to list or discuss in one already too long blog posting.
Notice how at one point, Cheyenne mentions that she cannot immediately recall and discuss what happened. “I had to try and remember what I shot and how it felt, but really I didn’t know how they felt or what the trigger felt like when I released it. It wasn’t because I was stupid, it’s because I wasn’t thinking; my head was empty.” This is very typical of deeper mind activity.
Have you ever had little to say, or little to write in your journal right after shooting, but a few hours later you could talk or write all about what happened? The active thought part of the mind is the one doing the thinking and speaking or writing. The deeper thought part is the one doing the shooting in the Quiet Method so there is nothing for the active thought part to speak or write about. After things process for awhile, the information is available to the active thought part of the mind and we can discuss the events. As a high school student and then already an excellent shooting athlete, Jamie Beyerle Gray noticed this same effect. No doubt many of you have had the same experience. Keep your journal handy!
Cheyenne may or may not yet be entering flow state (the so-called zone) at this point, though she is getting close, if not already there. We are patiently working the process. Her teammate, Katelyn Abeln is also working on this method and is now entering flow state at moments.
We will have a lot more to say about flow state and choke proofing in future blogs.
– Cheyenne Vaughan at Fort Benning competing in the 2014 PPP nationals.
– Katelyn Abeln, Cheyenne Vaughan, and Sandra Uptagraff at the 2014 PPP nationals.
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