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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Hard Work – Pushing The Envelope

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How is your shooting going these days? Getting any better? Are your competition scores improving? Or are they stagnant? Are your competition scores a lot lower than your practice scores?

Many athletes “try” hard to improve and certainly want to improve. Yet, their progress slows and they spend lots of time on a score plateau. Lots of practice seems to have little effect.

Topic 1: Practice vs. Training

There is a time and a place in your training program for “just shoot” without evaluation, judgement, or “fixing” of problems. This is how you should shoot in a competition. Yet, most practice sessions are constant evaluation, judgment, or “fixing” of problems. Remember, we will do what we are most used to doing when we are under pressure in competition. If we are constantly “fixing” things, we will find ourselves in that mode in a match. And our scores drop.

Training is not just shooting or just fixing. Training is focused activity. Yes, sometimes we do need to evaluate and adjust. Other times, we need to “just shoot” without care or concern for outcome (score) yet with intensity and focus on allowing the shot to unfold – properly. (No controlling!!!)

Topic 2: Staying in our Comfort Zone vs. Stepping outside our Comfort Zone

One of the most important aspects of training is forcing ourselves out of our comfort zone.

We only improve when we force ourselves (or our coaches force us) out of our comfort zone. Our sport is not about shooting at targets. No sport is about doing the actual sport. All sports, and indeed all performance activities (dance, singing, acting, public speaking, etc.), are about learning to thrive and excel under pressure in the spotlight and in the heat of the moment. Sport is about learning about ourselves, growing, and learning how to compete well.

We like to stay in our comfort zone. After all, it is comfortable! Outside that area, it is uncomfortable; who want’s that? However, staying in our comfort zone does not allow us to stretch or grow our capabilities.

Intensity training – that is, training where the athlete cares about the outcome – is required in order to 1) learn how to thrive under pressure, 2) prevent choking, and 3) set the stage for entering flow state (the so-called “zone”).

The more time an athlete spends in intensity training, the faster they learn to thrive and the more confident they become in their abilities. This allows them to trust their training and “just shoot” without control. The results are amazing.

Topic 3: Putting The Concept To Work

A little over a week ago, I ran an advanced weekend training camp for a group of pistol athletes. Their ages were 19, two were 16, two were 14, three were 13, and two were 12. Their experience in target shooting ranged from a few months to a few years. We had six athletes from the Blocton (AL) Bullets and four girls from Georgia, including three from the Paulding County team. Both are excellent programs with great coaches and very motivated athletes.

We spent very little time in the mode to “tweak” or “fix” details about their position (angle to target, shoulder up or down, free arm position, etc.), area of aim (center, six, thin white, down in the white), trigger technique (lots of variations possible, though only some are helpful), or other physical and technical aspects of their shooting, since they and their coaches can work on these items at their own training sessions. We did talk about a few concepts, but left it at that for this camp.

Yes, those items are critical to success and there is a time and place to make adjustments. (But not constant tweaking and fixing. That destroys performance.) However, for this camp, we did not want to change the athletes’ setup, unless absolutely required, because we wanted them shooting the way they are currently familiar with. This is very important for what was to follow.

Instead, we focused on the mental and emotional aspects of high performance under pressure.

What holds us back from top scores? Once we handle the physical and technical topics (which is, paradoxically, where we spend most of our time and effort!), the entire rest of the game is mental and emotional.

It starts with ego. We want to be in control. We want to be inside our comfort zone. We want to “guarantee” the outcome. We want, we want, we want. And we look outside ourselves for the answers – and the excuses.

The very best performances come from deep inside ourselves. They come to us when we “let go” of control, trust ourselves and our training, and allow the shot process – or the dance, or the song, or the acting – to unfold, seemingly on its own. How do we learn to do this?

First, we must understand the concepts.

Understanding the dynamic of outcome (results, score, place rank, not finishing last, looking good, not messing up, etc.) vs. doing (just doing the activity, experiencing the moment, etc.) is the single most critical element in learning how to thrive and excel under pressure. Make the move about the move, not about the outcome. Make the shot about just doing the shot, not about the outcome – or about the last outcome. Not controlling the shot; just doing the shot.

Outcome, in its many forms, is in the past and the future. We have no control over the past and future! None! That’s right, it is critical to understand that we have no DIRECT control over our own score! We wish we did! If someone claims otherwise, ask them why they don’t shoot perfect scores. Is it because they are lazy or incompetent? Of course not! We do NOT have direct control of the outcome. We just wish we did.

The only thing we can control is ourselves. What we do, what we think, how we approach the doing. When we learn to manage ourselves properly – that is, in a manner that is conducive to top performance – then the desired outcome is much more likely. When we focus on the outcome itself, or control the doing, the desired outcome is much more unlikely. Yes, it is a paradox. Overcoming that seemingly “illogical” concept is paramount. Funny thing is, once it is understood, it is perfectly logical!

We have been training our deeper mind to shoot. We just don’t realize that. Have you ever had the gun come down on target, arrive on the area of aim and instantly the shot is released, seemingly by itself, and get a really deep 10? And you were surprised or scared because you were not ready? The surprise is because the active thought part of the mind was distracted allowing the deeper part to shoot. The active part of the mind, and our visual system, are too slow for this sport, as they are for many other activities. The deeper mind, when trained and then ALLOWED to just “run the program” without interference, can produce stunningly good results on an otherwise unbelievably consistent basis.

Second, we must spend time in training to experience different modes and then do a lot of intensity training. Forget about the comfort zone!

After an initial discussion, we started the camp’s shooting activities with some shooting on black paper. (For air pistol, we use 9×12 inch black construction paper.) The athletes were not used to this “target” so they were introduced to shooting with no aiming reference and no outcome. Disoriented at first, they soon discovered that they could “let go” and “just shoot” each shot. Thus, they could experience the “mysterious” mode of letting go and just shooting the shot that we so often hear about yet do not fully grasp. Experiential learning is the best form of learning, so we like to do training exercises that maximize the experiential aspect of learning.

The idea is to set up a properly optimized combination of position, balance, and natural point of aim. Then trust and recreate that feel for each shot. In essence, one’s body becomes the sights. This is very disorienting at first, and eventually the ego has to “let go” of attempted control. And the athlete shoots freely. One of the 13 year old athletes, when first introduced to the black card several months ago at the age of 12, at that time described the feeling as “unconstrained” shooting.

Then we did some “traditional” shooting to let them feel comfortable about their baseline shooting. They were reminded of the “black card feel” and encouraged to dare to “let go” of their desire to control the shot and instead allow it to unfold. Shooting without “taking control” did get them a bit out of their comfort zone, but not very much. That was fine since this was a warm-up for what was to follow.

Then the real “fun” can begin! We use many different intensity drills or games. Some coaches and athletes see or hear of us doing these “games” and dismiss them as frivolous. Yet they are the key to high performance.

With a group of athletes of varying skill and experience levels, we chose to use a modified version of a classic drill called “First to Five Tens” which is a race to see who can be first get five shots that score 10 points. Go too slowly, in order to control the outcome or make it perfect, and you lose. Go too quickly, thus shooting sloppily, and you lose. The athlete must go quickly, with trust and no “controlling” of the shot, in order to win. This favors athletes who have a robust shot process, who trust it, and who allow it to run without interference or checking.

To run the drill, after a prep and sighting period, athletes are instructed to load, have guns down, and then “Go!” on command. After that, they shoot at their own pace. Each time they shoot a shot resulting in 10 points, they loudly call out how many tens they have: “One!” and so forth. It is interesting to see someone get all the way to “Four!” and then lose to someone who later catches them because they couldn’t get that fifth 10 point result.

This drill allows us to “handicap” different athletes so that mixed groups may participate together. Some of the athletes only could count tens, others tens and nines, and still others (the two 12 year old athletes who had limited experience in the standing position) tens, nines, and eights. This allows us to balance their perception of the difficulty of the challenge with their perception of their capabilities to meet the challenge. (This is also a critical component of high level performance and of entering the flow state, so we are already setting the stage for greater things later in their development.)

We ran this drill for four hours! Not continuously, of course; rest breaks are critical for health, injury prevention, and to allow mental recovery so they are fresh and “hungry” to go again. All afternoon the kids, including the youngest ones, asked “Can we do it again?” So we did!

With such a long dose of intensity, the athletes felt all the usual competition emotions. Joy, sadness, elation, despair, frustration, you name it. Emotions ran high at times. We validated the normalcy of those emotions under pressure and explained how to work through the feelings. They really challenged themselves and kept coming back for more.

As we kept going, the athletes improved. They realized they could shoot well when they found an optimal rhythm (not too slow and controlling, not too fast and sloppy), gave up the perceived “control” they craved, and just shot. They were able to do this because their deeper mind was completely familiar with everything (position, balance, grip, trigger, sights, process, etc.) and the athletes could take advantage of that deeper knowledge, which they had not previously understood. Note that if we had changed many of these variables, the deeper familiarity would have been upset and they would not have been able to benefit from the intensity training until several training sessions later.

As the day went on, many of the athletes wanted to raise their handicap level to make the drill harder. When the 12 year old athletes started consistently beating everyone, they asked me to raise their lower limit from eight to nine. Eventually, those same two wanted their limit raised to ten, to match where we eventually had all the older kids. The very next round after giving everyone no handicap advantage, one of the 12 year old athletes won the drill in short order against all the more experienced and older athletes. I’m not sure who was more surprised; her or the others. You should have seen the smile on her face! (And the belief in herself that it indicated!!!)

On that same note, two of the more experienced athletes, including a medalist from the recent PPP national championship, decided to have a one-on-one challenge. They raised their lower limit to 10.4 in order to count. It took them awhile, but they got their five count!

Another famous intensity drill is called 5 and 0 or 3 and 0. This is a pairs game for two evenly matched athletes. The score starts tied at 0-0 and someone is always at 0. After prep and sighters, the two athletes each shoot a shot. Whoever earns the higher score wins the shot and gets a point. (You can score by whole numbers, or by tenths if on electronic targets. You can also set a rule that in order to count at all, the shot must be at least a certain value.) The score is now 1-0. They each shoot again. If the person with the lead again earns the higher score on that shot, the game score now goes to 2-0. Conversely if the person in the lead has the lower score on the second shot, they lose their point and the game score goes back to 0-0. Remember, someone must always be at zero! First one to reach 5 (or 3) wins.

When Jamie (Beyerle) Gray and Matt Emmons were in college, they would play this game together. Frequently. Sometimes, they would have to interrupt one game – which had already been going on for 2 or 3 hours – to go have dinner, and then come back to finish. That is how evenly matched they were. Imagine that: hours of intensity training where EVERY shot counts in a big way. This is just one of the many reasons those two are such great competitors.

This is training – not practice.

Games like these almost make competitions sound easy. Almost.

Feel Center!

 

Educational Notes

When the younger and/or less experienced athletes saw that we believed they could shoot well, and that we believed they were already good shooting athletes, they rose quite a bit. It has been proven that individuals and groups often can and will rise to the levels expected of them, as long as the expectations are fairly realistic and if the athletes know it is OK to make mistakes. We encourage all athletes, regardless of level, to think of themselves as better than they think they currently are and to believe that they will improve. After all, that is where they are striving to be, and we want them looking in that direction.

Throughout the entire weekend, we alternated between active shooting and round-table discussion. I asked lots of questions to get the athletes thinking and sharing experiences. Again, this maximizes their learning. Explain, experience, reflect together and share. It is a powerful teaching/learning methodology. It doesn’t matter what the coaches know; it matters what the athlete learns, experiences, understands, and internalizes.

Teenagers, even young middle school athletes, when treated as young adults, when effectively trained, and when positively inspired, are capable of far more then they and many adults think possible. As coaches and parents, we must be careful to be sure expectations are set appropriately, not too high or too low, be realistic, make the learning and sport about the journey of learning and self-discovery, not about the outcome, demonstrate that mistakes are a positive part of the learning experience, not bad things to be avoided, and keep the atmosphere positive, supportive, and friendly. Then step back and prepare to be amazed!

Top: Blocton Bullets and Paulding County pistol girls

Above, Katelyn Abeln training at the University of North Georgia

Below: OK, now to blow off a little steam. They have earned it!

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Feeding the Wolves

Feeding the Wolves

An athlete posted this classic story of the two wolves while thinking of our discussions about thriving under pressure. “This reminds me of what we talk about!”

In competition or a tough training drill, we are happy when things go as we expect. We are unhappy when they do not. We often become some combination of angry, hurt, upset, fearful, disappointed, and who knows what else. Some athletes have learned how to shed those feelings and keep living in the Present Moment while others are debilitated and shut down or give up. How you respond is entirely up to you and you can learn to change your response in ways that are positive and beneficial to your performance (what you do) and ultimately in the outcome (score, winning).

Many of the articles in the “On The Firing Line” series address this topic, either directly or indirectly. Examples include #5 “Eights Are Your Friend” and #8 “Mental And Emotional Skills” among numerous others.

Which wolf are you feeding?