The Empty Method

2014 PPP Cheyenne 1

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.

Feel Center!

Photos:

– Cheyenne Vaughan at Fort Benning competing in the 2014 PPP nationals.

– Katelyn Abeln, Cheyenne Vaughan, and Sandra Uptagraff at the 2014 PPP nationals.

Your comments and responses are always welcome.

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2014 PPP Cheyenne Katelyn Sandra

 

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I Can’t – Yet!

Ashley Sport Pistol

How often do we hear an athlete say “I can’t!” when presented with a new challenge? How often do we say that about ourselves? It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we think we cannot, we are correct. If we think we can, or are open to the possibility, we just might surprise ourselves!

The athlete depicted above is competing in the USA Shooting National Championships in the 25 meter pistol (sport pistol) event. At that point, she had been shooting target pistols less than one year, and her competition experience up to this competition was only about six air pistol competitions and only one previous sport pistol competition.

Could she win the event this year? Not likely.

Could she get through a training day and two competition days without being disqualified for too many frame hits? Good question.

That was one of her pre-match concerns. Instead of saying “I can’t!” she opened her mind to the possibility that she would be able to focus on each shot, make it as good as she could, and get through the three days in good shape.

And she did.

Can she win the event next time? Not likely.

Should she give up on ever being able to win the event, or should she get busy? Many athletes have lofty goals. Instead of saying “I can’t!” they say “I can’t – Yet”! and get to work. Then things happen!

“I Can’t” is giving up on yourself.
“I Can’t – Yet” is encouraging yourself.

Feel Center!

 

The Only Six Words Parents Need to Say to Their Kids About Sports — Or Any Performance

Original photograph "The Natural" by Greg Westfall

Original photograph “The Natural” by Greg Westfall

I came across a delightful item today and have based this post on it and its theme.

The Only Six Words Parents Need to Say to Their Kids About Sports – Or Any Performance – By Brad M. Griffin

Please take a moment to read Brad’s excellent post – and then come back here to read the rest of this post.

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As a coach, I agree wholeheartedly with Brad’s message. Athletes want their coach to inspire and teach them. Athletes want their parents to encourage and love them. Period.

I do have one very important change to the suggested things to say afterward. Instead of “I am proud of you.” I feel it is much better to say something that sounds similar on the surface but that is very different and more to the point: “You should be proud of yourself.” It is not about your approval and how you feel about yourself as a parent. It is about your support and encouragement of your child.

  • Things to say before a competition:
    • Have fun!
    • Play hard!
    • I love you!
  • Things to say after a competition:
    • Did you have fun?
    • You should be proud of yourself!
    • I love you!
  • The most important thing to say anytime:
    • I love to watch you play!

As a coach, I am very good at the first item on the lists about fun. Athletes and parents sometimes are taken aback by my emphasis on fun. But they catch on. It isn’t about frivolity.

Although I don’t say the exact words “Play hard” I do encourage the athletes to give it a great effort. I need to be sure the athlete doesn’t think I am telling them to focus on getting a high score; I want to encourage them to focus inward, give their best on what they can control, and allow the score to take care of itself. It always does. Afterward, I often tell the athletes how much they should be proud of themselves. We always find  a silver lining and a lesson learned.

As for the third item on the lists, a coach should rarely say that, and then only where there is a well established long term coach-athlete relationship and where the message cannot be misunderstood by the athlete or parent – or a bystander who overhears and thinks the worst. In my case, this third phrase is often replaced with “I believe in you!” An athlete’s face really lights up when their coach says that and means it. But say it only if you truly mean it; even 12 year old athletes have a highly refined “BS” meter.

I do sometimes say “I love to watch you shoot!” and athletes really respond to that as well. It is amazing to watch them work and I truly do love to watch them shoot, so I tell them. Not often enough, but now I will a lot more.

It means a lot to an athlete when their coach believes in them and when their coach – and especially their parent – comments on how much they love watching them play.

Some coaches and parents think there is no need to give an athlete encouragement when they are doing what is expected of them, reserving it only for special results. Our expectations, or lack thereof, in no way diminish the effort the athlete made and we need to acknowledge that hard work each time.

Here are some additional thoughts based on the original article, its comments, sport parent courses, and on personal experience. Most parents “get” these topics and a few will benefit from a review.

  • Parents (who are not coaches) should:
    • Watch and listen during training and competitions when appropriate – after all, this is your child, not the coach’s child
    • Be positive and sportsmanlike to all – including officials and volunteers – and to athletes, coaches, and parents from other teams or programs and your own
    • Remember, it is never about score or winning – let the coach handle that
    • Thank the volunteers and officials – congratulate the athletes, coaches, and parents from the other teams or programs and your own
    • When speaking to the coach in front of your child, only positive things are to be said and nothing about suggestions on improving your child athlete’s performance or technique
    • Speak with the coach privately beforehand or afterward if there are concerns or suggestions about the coaching, the team or program, and/or about your child athlete (speaking in front of your child on these topics is damaging to your child and/or to the coach and/or to other athletes, except when your child wishes to have you as part of the conversation with the coach on a topic)
    • Do not step in to “help” the coach, especially if you feel the need to correct your child’s behavior while the coach is actively working with the athlete
  • Parents who are coaches should:
    • Follow all above items
    • If multiple coaches are available, have the other coaches do the majority of the work with your child if and when possible (there are notable exceptions where the parent/coach and child/athlete have an understanding, and these relationships work quite well in some cases)
    • When coaching your child, be sure you two have frequent and very clear communication – including that when acting as coach and athlete it is a peer-to-peer partnership. (Can you handle that and walk the walk on this point? If not, you may not be ready to coach any child, especially not your own. Yes, the coach is in charge of the program, but when working with an athlete, a collaborative peer-to-peer relationship with all except true beginners is most appropriate and effective.)
    • Remember that the coach hat goes on and off as you enter and leave the training ground and the field of play – yet the parent hat is permanently attached even when the coach hat is on, so tread lightly
    • Parent/coaches who can do these things are very special – you and your child are very lucky!

You may be shocked to learn how many happy kids, after a loss, are crushed by a well meaning parent saying how it is too bad they lost, how low their score was, or how they messed up that one thing — when the child wants to happily talk with you about how much fun they had, how much they learned (sometimes even related to that “messed up” item and now they now know what to do about it!) and how they are glad you were there to watch. Instead, they clam up. It is all very subtle.

Tell your child – and mean it – that you are happy for them and love them and that you love to watch them play – regardless of the outcome. You might get invited to watch more often. Careful though, they might not stop talking to you on the ride home!

Coaches: We especially need to remember and practice these concepts as well.

Feel Center!

[Revised Wed 15 Oct 2014]

The original photograph, un-cropped and without the article title, is here.

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Your comments and responses are always welcome.

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Involved or Committed?

bacon-and-eggs

Are you committed to your goals and plans or only involved in them?

Are you committed to your work and effort or only involved and therefore merely going through the motions?

Are you committed to your self-improvement or only involved?

It is easy to say we want to achieve something or that we want to do something. That which has value also has a cost. How often do we make the investment needed? Do we do the work and make the effort or do we just go through the motions? After all, most people will not go to those extremes, and they ridicule us if we do. That not allows them to feel better about themselves, because we are not excelling past them, yet it is at our expense because it holds us back from what we truly want to achieve. Do we want to fit in or do we want to stick out and excel?

Too often, we are involved in doing something yet do not fully commit. What is the difference between involvement and commitment?

Consider the bacon and eggs breakfast. The chicken is only involved. The pig, on the other hand, is committed.

Happily, we do not have to commit to the level of the pig to enjoy and excel in our activities. Yet, we must go far beyond involvement, take personal ownership for our own happiness and success, and commit to what we are doing.

Impossible? I’m Possible!

Handstand

We face many obstacles along the journey towards ultimate performance. Many obstacles come in expected ways and from expected places. Some obstacles come in unexpected ways and from unexpected places. There is a third source of obstacles, and this catches us by surprise. The obstacles that cause us the most problem are the ones that originate inside ourselves.

Usually when I ask a young athlete or group of athletes what is holding them back in their shooting, the typical answers are heard: positions, certain guns or events, hold, triggering, “mental game” (whatever that is – it’s like saying “physical game” whatever that is), or other basic topics. Recently, I heard a very different set of answers, coming in rapid fire succession, from an exceptional group of young athletes. Here is their list:

Ego
Laziness
Passiveness
Worry
Impatience
No Confidence
Staying In Comfort zone
Trying too hard
Worry about score and outcome
Worry about what other people think
Fear of failure

What a remarkable list for such young athletes! We could write a blog post, or an entire book chapter or book, on each of these topics. Elite athletes know the importance of these topics, and many other related topics, so it is good that this group is already learning about and working on them.

Too many athletes fall short of their goals and dreams because they do not overcome these obstacles. They feel that the goal is impossible. Instead, they need to think “I’m Possible!” and work through the pain, fear, frustration, and all the other challenges they face.

This inspiring video (link below) speaks to these and related topics. Crank up the volume (don’t hurt your ears or disturb others) and listen – really listen – to the the narration. Then play it again a few times and listen again and again. You won’t catch it all the first time or two.

How hard are you willing to work? How much are you willing to work? How much are you willing to push yourself? How adaptable are you to working on the right things in the right way at the right time? Where are your priorities? Is your focus on the important things or the easy things?

Best Workout Motivational – Be Blind (Sail Awolnation)

Impossible? I’m Possible!

Stupid Baby!

baby-learning-to-walk_thumb

One of my favorite things to ask an athlete is “This is a yes or no question: Would you like me to ask you to tell us what you often say to yourself after a bad shot?” Universally the answer is “No!”

OK, next question: “How would you feel if I came up to you after a bad shot and said to you whatever it is that you say to yourself?” Answer: “I would be very upset with you.” (Or other much stronger words and feelings! Ha!)

My response: “If we are supposed to be our own best friend, why do we say such things to ourselves?” Response: “Uh….”

Culturally, we are conditioned to be hyper-critical of ourselves, others, and everything. This is sad. We look at our own activities and call ourselves bad names and have other negative self talk when we make mistakes. Making mistakes is part of learning!

Have you ever watched a baby learn to walk? They fall down quite a bit at first, don’t they! Have you ever heard a baby say to them-self “Stupid baby!” after falling down? No, of course not. They just get right back up and work at it all over again. No judgement and reaction. Just observation and action.

We should do the same!

Two Groups – Not One

New - Leigh GroupNew - Ashley Group

Please take a look at these two groups. The air group was shot by a brand new shooter (two months of light training) in the standing position with no suit or boots. The smallbore group (A-36 target) was shot in the standing position by an experienced air rifle shooter in her first weekend of smallbore.

What do you see? How would you evaluate these targets? How would you discuss them with yourself if they were yours or with the athlete?

Did your answer involve the use of the word “flyers” or anything related? Did your answer emphasize the one or two wide shots or the majority of the shots near the middle of the group? Did you emphasize score or the size of the group?

From now on, the word “flyer” is prohibited!

There are two groups, not one. When we first start to shoot, our “group” may look more like a shotgun pattern. Quickly we learn and our group shrinks. Soon enough, we get targets like the ones shown here. Each target illustrates two groups.

The main group is what people generally refer to as “the group” when discussing a target. As we make progress, the main group becomes smaller and it has a higher percentage of the shots. The outer group are the wide shots that aren’t in the main group yet. As we make progress, the outer group also shrinks and it has a lower percentage of the shots. Eventually it, too, shrinks and all the shots are in the main group. Even in the smallbore target above, there are two groups even though all the shots touch. At least one shot is obviously not truly in the main group.

What is the point of this discussion?

Focus your mind and thoughts on the main group. It is your future. The outer group is your past. Which way are you headed? Answer: in the direction you spend the most time thinking about.

Recently at a collegiate match, an athlete commented on how he had shot a 7 in a practice session that week. His coach, whom I greatly respect, immediately responded: “No that is not how you talk about that session! You shot a 591 with 54 tens!” The athlete got the point!

I like to look at a match result with an athlete this way: Lets see, 34 Xs, 19 tens, and 7 nines. The X count is growing!

Focus on the positive and the future. Congratulate yourself on those tight main groups and let the process take care of the outer group for you.

Which wolf are you feeding?