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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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!”