The Journey of a Competitive Shooter
THE JOURNEY OF A COMPETITIVE SHOOTER
I just recently returned to shooting after a long (6 year) lay off, due to medical issues. I’m in a new area of my life and I chose a new club that has an excellent calendar schedule. I probably should have just laid down my guns and quit, but I just love shooting too much and couldn’t make myself walk away. I just wanted to be somewhere new, with no previous relationships, no previous baggage, so that I could enjoy the sport as I pass into old age. We signed up at the match and placed ourselves on a squad. I could see the usual players, as the local club “God Squad” sorted itself out. All the personalities were there, and the testosterone was so thick in the air, you could have cut it with a knife. The scene was so familiar to me, but this time, I could watch it from afar. It brought back memories of better days and the realizations of a lifetime of competition.
Once upon a time I was a Grand Master Shooter in USPSA and shot a lot of 3-Gun, Outlaw, and Steel Challenge type matches. It was the second generation of USPSA and Todd, Robby and Barnhart ruled the world. With the passing of the Brady Bill and the war against black guns, we thought we would be the last generation. Time and events have passed, and I can no longer compete on that level. I’ve worked in this industry for thirty years, wearing lots of hats; Competitor, Contractor, Instructor, Range Master, Manufacturer, GunSmith and did the corporate thing working for one of the biggest names in our industry. I thought I would take my experiences and try to give them to you so that you may be more successful and more importantly, happy in your pursuits.
I didn’t start this type of shooting until I was in my early thirties. When I found it, it took me back to the days of high school sports and my competitive nature took over. I am guilty of being one of those same testosterone-filled, obnoxious asses we all see at every match. Fighting for every point, arguing those rules and looking for every edge. That competitive nature can bring out the best and the worst in us. Recalling an age-old adage..
“RECOGNITION; BABIES CRY FOR IT AND GROWN MEN DIE FOR IT.”
I heard that phrase somewhere and it describes that type of behavior perfectly. But, competitive nature can also bring out the best in us. It forces us to strive to get better. And in the end, isn’t that why we chose to do this in the first place.
You may or may not have what it takes to rise to the top. I was a youth when the first Rocky movie came out and it left an undaunted impression with me. If you train hard enough, you will succeed. But, the reality is, drive and determination are only one of the components necessary to be successful. Natural hand and eye coordination, vision, fast-twitch muscle response, and the right physical build and conditioning are all key components. You need to take stock in what those necessary traits are and make a list of them. Find where you will fall short. Learn to hammer them with your strengths and hide your weaknesses. In my case, I’m slow-twitch and no matter how hard I trained, I couldn’t pull a split faster than .17-.18. I wasted an ungodly amount of time and ammo trying to conquer that skill. That effort would have been better spent working on other aspects of the game. But, at my natural pace, I could control every shot and my transitions often were as close as my splits. I was able to develop a rhythmic style that could compensate for my weakness in most places. Be realistic in your self-evaluation and realize not every characteristic will be totally mastered.
Commitment and dedication: I had a very successful business when I reached Master Class. I was lucky I could afford to buy the best equipment, get the best instruction, shoot large quantities of ammo and travel wherever I needed to go. The problem was that I could only dedicate so much time to the sport. After all, a business takes a lot of effort. I held the erroneous belief that if I did it once, I could do it again. There’s a lot of luck involved in building a great business. It’s not as easy as it used to be, between government regulations, taxes, and corporations, there’s not much left over for the little guy.
I jumped into the sport with both feet. I’d always fought to make my dreams come true, this would prove to be no different. I decided to go for it with both barrels. I sold my business, my home, and bought an RV. I thought I had a solid income for a decade, that would be enough time to succeed in my plan. My wife and I would travel the country and shoot full time, my dream would come true. Our motto was, “A life less ordinary.” (Here is a strong piece of advice. When you go to sell your business, all that matters is the money you get up front. Most corporations will go into a deal planning to never pay you out in full. Even a reversion clause won’t help you when your equipment has been sold or worn out, your employees thrown to the winds and your business' name dragged through the mud. I’ve seen it happen a lot and to people much more successful than I ever was.) But, back to the main point. Be realistic about how much, time, money and energy you can put into the shooting sports. There should be a pro and amateur status, but there isn’t. If you're balancing a job, family, and financial restraints, it’s going to be hard to compete with those who aren’t. If you're serious, lay out a schedule for training and matches. See how far you can get, you might surprise yourself. If you can even get close to those at the top, you’ve accomplished something to be proud of.
Take instruction: Stand on the shoulders of others. I would never have gotten as far as I did without professional instruction. I was too old when I started and didn’t have the time to figure it out myself. I was able to get to Master in my first year because of instruction. It took me four more to get my GM card.
Determine how good an instructor is by how well his students grow. The best shooter is not always the best instructor and if someone has never been to the top, how can they teach you how to get there. That’s why some serious research is necessary. Even worse, a bad instructor can destroy your growth and development. I would suggest taking a class from a new instructor at the end of a season. This will allow you to apply what you learn through practice, during your off-season and approach the next season with better skills. If the instruction is helping, try to take another at the beginning of the season to reinforce those new techniques and remove any flaws under the watchful eye of your instructor. I would stay with an instructor for a year or two, then move on. You will probably learn what they can teach you in that time frame. My first instructor was great, but I stayed with him for too long. I needed a fresh point of view to reach the next level.
As an instructor myself, I will tell you that most students don’t train what you teach them. When they leave the class, they have already moved on. The magic is supposed to have already taken place. What I can do as an instructor is to teach you how techniques are supposed to be done, give you drills to perfect them and a standard to test a given skill. But, it’s up to you the shooter to perfect the skills and techniques through practice. Few students ever put in the effort to perfect what they have spent good money to learn.
Sports Psychology: This may be the most important area. I had a difficult childhood. I overcame it and moved forward, stronger for it, right? “What does not kill you, makes you stronger.” Or, it scars you forever. I had a lot of self-sabotaging subconscious issues. I could only fix these things through the help of a sports therapist. It was late coming for me, look here early on in your development.
Your mama told you, “You’ll be like the people you hang around”: She was right. The better the shooters that you shoot with on a regular basis, the better shooter you will be. Early on, I wanted to be the best shooter in my little pond, that was before I decided to make the big jump. When I had been out in the big world for a time, shooting the majors with the big boys, I had a chance to come home. That little pond wasn’t even worth the time to shoot in anymore. No one there was going to make me any better, it was great to see my friends, but the challenge was there no more.
Seriously, training for majors is the key. That doesn’t mean you can’t shoot a local, but you’ll get better out there at the serious competitions. And you will work harder to do well, after all, you spent good money to go you better put your best foot forward.
Fix your own gun: If you're going to shoot it you need to learn how to work on it. You need to be able to completely disassemble, do your own trigger work, install and adjust sights, fix extraction/ejection issues and tune your own mags. Once again, some classes can help. Maybe your local GunSmith will teach you some things. There was no You-Tube when I started, what a great resource for you young shooters. I learned on my own, the hard way. Later on, that experience helped me stay employed. I’d shot many guns from their birth, through a few barrels, and into their death. It gave me an understanding; most local gunsmiths didn’t have. They built them but never run them through their whole life expectancy.
I’ve honestly laughed at a lot of serious operators who can’t fix even the most minimal issues. Part of getting that bullet on target is maintaining the gun that puts it there. If you’re not strong in this area, my advice, stay away from the 1911/2011s until you get some basic working knowledge. But, you need to know how to make the plastic ones work too, they all fail if you shoot them long enough. It's just another skill you need, like being able to change your truck tire.
Make your own ammo: The ability to make your own ammo is absolutely critical. It is the most important aspect in looking for a competitive edge. It’s not just cost efficiency, it’s the ability to make a tailored load for years on end. To be certain that the round will feel the exact same as those in the last string and at the last match. And most importantly, that they will be utterly reliable. Ammo and components haven’t changed that much over the years. I shoot the same load in limited today that I shot ten years ago. At the end, I built my STI style guns around the load, not the other way. The knowledge gained in truly understanding how to make and maintain your ammo is a tremendous competitive advantage.
For a time, we had a bullet manufacturing company, it made a little money, but nothing like my first business. Then, I was able to parlay my knowledge into an excellent position with a class 6 manufacturer as an expert. It paid the bills for a couple of years. None of these would have happened had I not had that experience of loading at such a high level.
Cheaters: Yeah, it’s the bane of the sport. You’ve got to have a personal code of ethics. What I mean is, you need to know who you are. Because to win, you’re probably going to have to cheat a little. Why, because everybody does, and the competition is too tight to succeed without it. If you think your above reproach, try keeping your mouth shut the next time that RO is trying to determine if that’s a double and await the outcome. If you can do that, then maybe you are.
Everyone I’d met up to the point of getting my GM left me with the solemn advice of playing it straight. But, later when I had learned enough, I could tell they all did it. Whether it was setting up a gamble to win a match and placing a method for a reshoot if it failed, to shooting minor and keeping major ammo on hand for those sneaky Chrono guys. When I found the instructor that got me to that GM card, he was the first one that was honest with me. “Yeah, we all do it, we all vie for the best advantage.”
It was a thing that always rubbed me wrong. I could never get comfortable with it. Did I do it? Yes, a little here and there. I told myself, it was just to even out the playing field. After a couple of seasons. I’d had enough of it. “You’re the RO, call it as you see it!” That became my mantra. My honor wasn’t worth the reward. I felt a lot better about myself once I made that decision. There came times and places it hurt, but I was happier about it. One of the shooters I always looked up to, left the sport for that reason. All I can tell you is to figure out what your code is and live by it.
Enjoy the journey, it’s the trip, not the destination: This is the most important thing I can impart to you. I so desperately wanted to succeed as a professional shooter, it was all I lived for. In many ways, I let it eat me up inside. After one match I had dinner with Todd Jarret in New Mexico and something he told me never has left me. “When I’m in an airport, no one knows who I am.” That said volumes, but I wasn’t ready to hear it. We all want to achieve that golden podium, and not consider it will not be all we think it will.
Honestly, I feel I failed as a shooter. I never achieved those things I set out to do. My goals and expectations were set too high. I can’t tell you how disheartening it is to place second or third at a major match and feel as if your whole life is a failure. It can be a heavy burden if you let it. I recently cleaned out a storage unit and all those second, and third place trophies hit the dumpster. I would only keep the wins. It lifted a weight off me and then those few first place ones that I had coveted so much followed shortly behind.
Now, when I think back on all those wonderful places and great matches, what I remember most is the shooters I have met and the friendships we made. Shooters are a different breed, we look at life differently. We take responsibility for our actions, our failures, and our successes. We stand on our own two feet. I made a lot of friends, (and many enemies) but I think I failed worse by not taking full advantage of those relationships and the joy they offered in our shared passion for shooting. I was always wrapped up in my own narcissism, striving to be the best. My sage advice is to enjoy the journey and not worry about the destination. Take advantage of the friendships offered and the time away from work. Give each match your best, if you give it your best and fall short of the win, the fact you were there was a win. Learn, share your experiences, and help others. In the end, all of us are brothers and sisters with the warrior mindset, striving for perfection is never wrong, just stop and smell the gunpowder along the way.