Mindset Matters

Copyright 2018 JP O’Connor

Air Rifle Shot Distribution

A little over a week ago, I organized, and with help from many others, ran the first (annual? occasional? only?) Georgia Peach Matches. The program consisted of smallbore rifle indoors at 50 feet 3×40 qualification and final, and air rifle 10 meters 60 standing qualification and final, all fired under USA Shooting rules. Most competitors fired at the University of North Georgia and a few fired simultaneously at Georgia Southern University. We had a mix of high school students, ranging from beginner through advanced, college students, and one Olympic team member. A number of the young athletes shot very well with respect to where they are in their journey.

One of the participating athletes was Molly McGhin, a 16 year old advanced athlete with significant national match experience. She shot well in all 4 events. Her air qualification provided some interesting insights, both for the statistically minded and for those interested in the psychology of high performance. The decimal score was 618.3, good for 2nd place behind the Olympian’s score of 620.5 and her integer score was 592-40x. None of their scores were world class, but are certainly quite respectable for a pre-season pick up match.

Normally, we like to spend time looking at the “inner group” first to reinforce the aspects of the process which went well. At the same time it is instructive to take a quick look at the “outer group” for insight and reminders of areas for improvement in the process. As I looked at the score sheet for this athlete, I detected some interesting patterns and decided to do a histogram of her match, as shown above.

Looking at the “outer group” we see only 7 shots which scored below 10.0, meaning 53 shots scored 10.0 or higher. Interestingly, if these 7 shots had scored at least 10.0, she would have won the match by 0.2 points or more. (Of course, then her integer score would have been 600.) The competition is tough at the top!

We spent almost no time at all talking about the widest shot of all, since she rarely shoots anything below about 9.5 or 9.6. In fact we laughed about “the one that got away” and we moved on after she made a quick comment about what had happened. We aren’t worried about a repeat and certainly won’t spend time talking more about it. We focus on where we are headed, not on where we have been. The only reason I mention it here is because many people will make a big deal of that particular shot. It is no big deal and we moved on.

It is the “inner group” which initially caught my eye on the score sheet, demanding a histogram and further reflection. Often, an athlete’s shot distribution will cluster around a value consistent with their level of experience and capability. Conversely, this histogram shows a different, bi-modal pattern.

One mode is around 10.1 and 10.2, with 22 shots while the other mode is around 10.5 to 10.7 with another 22 shots. Each mode is 22 shots, with only 16 shots total outside both modes. (These are simple visual modes; no statistical analysis was performed.)

As an aside, notice the 4 shots at 9.9. It isn’t your imagination that we get lots of them!

Why are there 2 primary modes and why is there a gap of only 5 shots in between? To understand, we must first go back to where I first observed the phenomenon.

When I was an active recreational pistol athlete, I worked very hard at free pistol because it was so demanding, and thus so rewarding. One day in training outdoors at 50 meters, a friend saw I was stacking shots mostly inside the X ring, a generally rare feat for a non-elite athlete, especially in free pistol. Wondering if I really knew what I was doing, or merely enjoying a moment of extraordinarily good luck, he called out: “Call that shot!” I responded “Wide X at 2.” He kept demanding a call. “Deep X at 11. Center X. Middle X at 4.” And so on. Every call was perfect. It was no accident. I was in total Flow, seeing the smoke (good free pistol shooters understand), and enjoying the show. Afterwards he asked “What was your thought process when you adjusted your sight? Your group was already excellent.” I replied “There was no thought process. My hand just went over and just put on one click to better center the group.” (The group that was already inside the X ring.)

Upon examination of the target, with 25 shots, we discovered a swarm of shots from about 10.3 or so to 10.9, then an untouched area of about 10.2 to 9.6, then a sparse sprinkling of a few shots from about 9.5 and lower on the target. The inner group and outer group were separated by a “no man’s land” of no shots. Because the free pistol target is so large when compared to a 10 meter air rifle target, and because free pistol shot dispersion can get pretty wide all too quickly, the bi-modal clustering actually had a gap. Instantly I knew why and explained to my friend.

During my motorcycle racing days I had taught myself Flow, learned how to set the stage, and often spent extended periods of time deep in the Zone. It didn’t hurt that the threat of imminent death or maiming clarified and crystallized my focus! I had adapted this knowledge to my target shooting, especially free pistol because of its difficulty. Even when not in Flow, I had learned to shoot without mental and emotional interference. When discussing this one day with Abhinav Bindra, he talked about learning to “manufacture a shot” when there was no Flow and there still needed to be no interference. Watching him shoot was a treat and a clinic all in one.

Why did my target have such a strong bi-modal pattern? Quite simply, the inner group was fired by the deeper mind without interference (e.g. no outcome focus, no worry, and no attempts at control) while the outer “group” or ring was fired by the active mind with interference (e.g. outcome concern, taking control of the process).

The Outcome Equation: Results = Performance – Interference

Results are the outcomes we desire. Some forms of outcome are obvious: winning, score, making the final, earning a Junior Olympics invitation to the Olympic Training Center, etc. Other forms of outcome are less obvious: wanting to impress a college coach, not wanting to be embarrassed, etc. Still other forms of outcome are hidden deeply: wanting to feel good about oneself, not wanting to feel inadequate, no good, useless, etc.

Performance represents our capabilities. We spend countless hours honing our equipment, positions, and technique. Almost all our effort goes into this part of the equation. For most athletes, 99 to 100 percent of their time is spent in this area. We constantly work to improve our technique and improve our ability to perform.

Interference is all the factors reducing our performance. The primary factor here is outcome focus, which is the cause of choking. (See my article archive of the On The Firing Line series for articles Choking and Choke Proofing, which was referenced in US Olympic Coach magazine.) Remember, outcome takes many forms, often subtle and sneaky. The slightest thought or feeling of outcome increases interference. Sometimes just a little, though usually quite a bit. Generally, we have very little understanding of this area and do no training to reduce interference. This is why intermediate and higher level athletes often plateau for extended periods of time and/or have dramatically lower match scores compared to training. The two articles shed light on this area.

Returning to the athlete’s match charted above, I showed her the chart and we discussed the dynamics of her match. She described the higher mode (10.5-10.7) as being delivered with the “correct” shot processes, where her mind was quiet and her focus was on observing the shot process unfold. The lower mode (10.1-10.2) had the shots delivered where she felt the slightest bit of outcome focus, concern, or thought. A very subtle yet important difference. She noted that it was only after the shot was fired when she realized the difference and she was now going to pay attention to these ever so subtle hints. Several months ago she would not have even noticed this, so she is making great progress. Finally, the outliers were clear mistakes where the active mind was in full control trying to make a score or other outcome concern and “I should have rejected.” was the common theme. In all cases, the physical and technical fundamentals were identical. The only differences were in her mind.

If the differences in score are not attributable to physical and technical causes, what accounts for the variations? The differences in results are caused by differences in the mental and emotional state of the athlete. High performance requires physical, technical, mental, and emotional aspects to all be in top form and integrated closely with each other.

Too often, the former two (physical and technical) and the latter two (mental and emotional) are treated separately, with little or no integration. They must be fully integrated. Did you know the size of the rifle front sight aperture ring or pistol rear sight gaps have a profound effect on the athlete’s confidence and ability to decisively deliver a shot? (See my article archive of the On The Firing Line series for articles Where Are You Looking? – Part 1 and Where Are You Looking? – Part 2, along with the resource Front Aperture Selection to determine the minimum acceptable front aperture size.) Did you know that a trigger with too light of a total let off weight actually impedes high performance, causes the athlete to be tentative, and hinders the smooth “auto-magical” shot?

The mention of emotions may be off-putting to many people, especially to many boys and men. Have you ever been angry? Anger is an emotion. Is that masculine enough for you? Regardless of your gender, anger is one example of an emotional block to high performance. Thus the emphasis on both mental and emotional aspects.

We must fully integrate and utilize important details from all four aspects of high performance: physical, technical, mental, and emotional. (See my article archive of the On The Firing Line series for articles Mental and Emotional Skills and P-R-N-D, among many others addressing the mental and emotional aspects of high performance.) Developing athletes, and even athletes on the international circuit, often find the blocks to performance they face are not in their performance, rather the blocks are in their interference.

One little histogram from one little competition lent great insight into the state of mind of the athlete on that day, and provided much food for thought on the larger aspects of high performance. A day after discussing her histogram, we plotted another match which had a more typical bell curve shape with the mode around 10.4-10.5 with a decimal total above 621. Her mindset was a bit clearer during that match and we could clearly see a different pattern on the chart.

Air Rifle Shot Distribution - 2

When athletes have truly and fully “let go” of all interference, their mode is around 10.8-10.9 – though only for the shots delivered fully in that manner. No one yet does it for 60 shots! We can see the mindset difference in these shots on a Noptel or other electronic trainer. The “distance from center over time” graph of a shot allows us to see when the athlete was truly in their deeper mind and when the active mind was in charge. The latter shots also confirm the average length of human reaction time, by which time the sights are no longer centered on 10.9! Thus the bell curve histograms. At a world class winning level in air rifle, the typical score works out to about a 10.5 per shot average. There is still room for improvement! In the spirit of letting go, I suggest my article Christmas Tens and my post The Empty Method for your reading pleasure.

Molly was intrigued by the histograms and the insights she could gain from our discussions, as discussed in this article. After reading the first draft of this article and reflecting on the competition, she wrote an excellent short essay. Molly graciously agreed to allow its inclusion in this article.

My Thoughts

Every match you shoot, every hour on the range you have, and every shot you take is another step in the journey. Your journey will be filled with ups and downs, nerve-racking situations, feelings of success, and feelings of defeat. The only thing that matters is how you react to these feelings, and how you can take yourself to another level in your profession, even from the feelings of defeat.

Yes, I had many shots in my match that were deep. I also had shots that were not. By analyzing the shots on JP’s histogram, it gave new insights and ideas that I had never thought of in that way. For example, how many shots did I take in Flow? How many did I take while having interference? The histogram helped me answer those questions.

Even though I had a number to look at, (outcome), I did not perceive it as blindly analyzing a good and bad shot without a cause or reason. I analyzed the good shots by how I got them. I also noticed the bad shots; was it a mental or physical error? When I learned from my mistake, I moved on. But I did not hold on to the shot, knowing that it was only a mental and/or physical mistake, and the score just reflected it.

Considering this, it is very important to learn from the shots you take, good or bad. That is why every shot you take is another step in the journey. By learning from what you did, responding with a constructive attitude, and acting on what you learned in training will ultimately make your outlook on bad shots or matches in a positive and useful way.

Molly McGhin

Hopefully, this post and linked articles provide some insight and generate reflection on your part into how much the “Mind Matters” in all your activities, whether in sports, music, dance, other types of public performance, school, and work.

Enjoy the journey!

Feel Center!

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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!

 

I’ve Got It!

Preparation 1 - Matt Emmons - USA Shooting Winter Airgun 2004 - Photo copyright 2004 Dr. Dan Durben

Preparation 1 – Matt Emmons – USA Shooting Winter Airgun 2004 – Photo copyright 2004 Dr. Dan Durben

Preparation 2 - Jason Parker - USA Shooting Winter Air Gun 2004 - Photo copyright 2004 Dr. Dan Durben

Preparation 2 – Jason Parker – USA Shooting Winter Air Gun 2004 – Photo copyright 2004 Dr. Dan Durben

Often, an athlete will work at something and then, upon finally accomplishing the first successful attempt, say to themselves or others “I’ve got it!”

Have you ever struggled a bit and then started to get a string of good shots? When that happened, did you say to yourself “I’ve got it!” only to then lose it?

When our ego takes control, we lose control. When our ego tells us “I’ve got it!” then we subtly let up and lose that fine edge that was giving us the good shot process performance and then the good result. Any time you catch yourself saying “I’ve got it!” you need to immediately stop and regroup.

Every shot is new and the athlete must start over from scratch to achieve a great performance.

The very best athletes in the world do not believe “I’ve got it!” Instead, they have confidence in their training and routines, and believe they have trained themselves so well that they can perform consistently at a very high level, but only if they continue to put in hard work, both in training and in the competition – and on each individual shot process performance. You don’t believe that? Let’s take a look at a couple of photographs kindly given to me years ago by Dr. Dan Durben and find out why he took and shared those photographs.

Take a look at the first picture. What do you see? Who is the athlete and what is he doing? Matt Emmons is sitting quietly in the middle of the range. Notice that all the others are running around setting up or looking for their equipment. Matt is sitting quietly and preparing himself.

Take a look at the second picture. What do you see? Who is the athlete and what is he doing?  Jason Parker is starting to set up his position, balance, natural point of aim, and is settling in with holding and dry firing… before the preparation period has even begun. All the others are still getting their gear organized. After all “Prep hasn’t started yet.”

Are all those other athletes so much better that they can just jump right in? If Matt and Jason are so good, why are they working harder than anyone else and acting like they don’t have it all figured out? After all, aren’t they two of the best?

Let’s spin that around: Because these two athletes know that no athlete ever has it all figured out, and because they know that each shot is all new from the beginning, they work harder and longer than most others. That includes more and proper preparation.

Is it any coincidence that just 4 months earlier, out of all the athletes striving to fill the spots, Matt and Jason were the two members of the US Olympic Team for the men’s air rifle event? Probably not.

“Feel Center!”

Give up? — NEVER!!!

Jodie Briggs  sport pistolDSCF0390 s

Don’t let their petite stature, good looks, or blond hair fool you. These two ladies are forces to be reckoned with! Both are smart, sweet, hard working, accomplished, national champions, and… tough as nails. They will gladly exchange a friendly greeting with you before the match, and chat with you after the match, but during the match you had better bring your “A” game, because they are out to win. Period.

Despite their vast dissimilarities, and their very different journeys, these two amazing young women have a great number of things in common. As but one tiny example, they have worked hard – very hard – and  they have faced great adversity, both on and off the firing line, and succeeded.

One of the most important similarities they share is that, despite the incredible obstacles placed in their paths, both found ways to work past the obstacles, thrive, and win. Either one of them could have given up and folks would have understood. Not these two. Despite the pain, heartbreak, and frustrations they faced, neither was willing to allow herself to be diverted from her goals. Neither was willing to give in to the temptation to “ease the pain” and just walk away and give up. They never gave up on themselves and they never gave up on their dreams and goals.

Their mode of operation is very simple: NEVER GIVE UP!

“Come on, JP, get real. Stuff happens.” It most certainly does. That is no excuse to give up on yourself. Just ask these two young women.

One of these two athletes suffered a devastating loss of points early in the first match of a two day match – in her very first trip to the US Olympic Training Center. This was for the National Junior Olympic Championship. She could have given up. Many would have. Instead, she remained calm (we saw a lot of tears that morning, but not from her), trusted herself and her training in order to sort out the issues, and made the proper analysis and corrections all by herself. She shot so well for the rest of that match and all the next day that she made the final and finished 6th (and winning a shoot-off) in air pistol.

As an aside, although I was right there on the range, she knew what to do (being well trained and a hard worker) and knew that I trusted her completely and so she handled it perfectly all by herself. She knew I was there and would have come off the line to speak with me if she felt it was needed, and knew that I had every confidence in her. I cannot expect an athlete to trust herself if she doesn’t feel that I also trust her.

Just 72 hours before, upon entering the shooting center for the very first time in her life and watching the women’s smallbore final, she was so nervous she wanted to just run and get sick. But she didn’t run and instead she faced her fears head on, stuck with the plan, and executed.

The morning of the first match, she was so nervous that she backed up against my shoulder, sort of like a baby bird being sheltered under her parent’s wing, and I could literally feel her shoulder vibrating from the nerves. But she had coined a phrase “Somebody just say ‘Start!'” which reminded her that once the match started, she quickly went to work, calmed herself, and she thrived under pressure.

This story is  just one of the smaller (yes, smaller!) obstacles she faced in her shooting career. She would go on to make the final in both guns at subsequent JO competitions, be a collegiate All-American, and collegiate women’s air pistol national champion.

This same athlete helped me write article #35 “Intangibles” in my “On The Firing Line” series, since she is the student who participated in the conversation we had with the professional sports executive in that article. After the conversation was over, she said to me, “JP, he was talking about all the same things you always talk about!” It should be no surprise that, like the sought after pro athletes, she, too, possesses all of the so-called intangibles discussed in the article.

She and I are pictured above, the day before her first JO competitions.

Imagine being on top of your game, including being collegiate national champion in women’s air pistol (as a true freshman) and being on a junior World Championships team.

Then imagine having your game destroyed over the course of a year and ultimately performing very poorly at a major competition. Think about that for a moment. Feel it. Imagine the hurt and pain. Ready to quit?

The other athlete discussed in this blog entry is not a quitter either. She provides what may be one of the ultimate never-give-up stories in our sport.

The evening after that devastating performance, she called me. (We had worked closely together all through her high school years and first year of college, so we knew each other quite well.) Would I work with her again? Of course I would. What did she want? Perform well at the upcoming USA Shooting Nationals (USASNC). Because she focused on academics first, by plan and prior agreement, we only had about two months between the end of her semester and the competition. No hurry!

We spent those two months rebuilding her game – specifically, rebuilding her confidence in and belief in herself. She is among the very small group of “hardest working athletes” I have known and focused on her goal. (I knew the sharp pain of that last competition was inside her, but she never let it affect her work.)

Knowing that I could not be there for her competition, and seeing how well she was shooting, we sat down at the end of our last session and had a talk about what might happen and how she could approach it in her mind. During that conversation I scared her so badly – twice – that I could see her visibly react. Funny thing is, that talk was exactly the final piece she needed to pull off her amazing feat.

What happened at the USASNC? You won’t believe it. People who saw it were blown away. (After the last finals shot, the crowd converged on her as if she were a huge music star and my cell phone lit up.) If I told you she shot a 5 in the final and didn’t give up, would you believe me? Oh, it’s even better than that!

How about an 8, then a 5, then another 8 all right in a row in the middle of the final? Yup! And, as a junior, she still won the Open gold medal in women’s air pistol. She had gone into the final with such a large lead that only after the second 8 did she drop from first to second. (Scores were retained for the final in those days.) Then she shot very well to the end – instead of giving up – and retook first for the gold.

She is pictured above, shooting sport pistol at a PTO I was running a couple of years later.

For the full story and more details, including what we talked about that last day, see the “Rebuild my Confidence” section of article #25 “Believe” in my “On The Firing Line” series. While you are there, read the entire article for perspective on the impact of confidence from a future Olympic champion and see the “Believe In Me” section of the article for another very dramatic story about not giving up and about believing in oneself.

The latter story also illustrates, through the first hand words of the athlete, the power of a coach’s beliefs on an athlete. Coaches, we need to be aware of that at all times!

When you give up, you are saying to yourself “I cannot.” That is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Many a match that could have been won was lost with that thought. When you give up, it hurts. You hurt yourself most of all.

When you say I can or I will, you just might surprise yourself and everyone else. It is really fun to watch when an athlete does that!

It is NEVER over until the range officer says “Stop, Unload.”

“I can! I will!”