25 October 2012

Cramming for a Major

I'm getting ready for a sanctioned IDPA match. I haven't made it to many majors this year and we're getting to the end of the season, so this is probably it for me until spring. While my club runs year round, many large matches happen in warmer weather and not when major snows are threatening (Frozen Penguin and Arctic Blast aside...). As I've been coming down to the wire on this one, I've been thinking a lot about how match prep is like getting ready for an exam or a performance. The athletic part is pretty far down the list at this late date.

I recently read some great advice about mental preparation for a match. In addition to working on internalizing those concepts, I'm also trying to draw on a lifetime of test taking, auditions and recitals as I prepare for tomorrow. The tactics I used for staying calm and collected, and to ensure my best possible performance, on in my 3-degree career of exams and over a decade of playing a musical instrument are the same ones that are helping me focus tonight. In my case, that means reviewing and visualizing the rules and techniques I know trip me up the most. There's been quite a bit of under-the-breath muttering of 1-1-2-1-1 around here today, along with the all-important front sight front sight front sight mantra.

Less shooting-focused, but still important, are eating a good meal of foods I enjoy (mmm, pizza) and hydrating now while planning my food and water for the day of the match. For ranges you aren't familiar with, it's a good idea to check the shooter brief to see what food will be available and make sure that it's something that will work for you. Being hungry is not just a recipe for crankiness and sub-par performance; searching for food can add unneeded stress to your day. As long as I'm packing my snacks, I'm also double checking that my range bag has everything I'll need. From the obvious like gunmagazinesholster, mag pouches, and belt, to spare fibers for my front sight and blister tape...I'm making sure it's all there along with my standard requirements. Getting geared up to step on the line is not the time to find out that you didn't bring the shooting vest you've been training with all week.

During all of this, I'm also relaxing and clearing my mind. Before big exams, I used to listen to upbeat music on repeat. While waiting my turn for auditions and recitals, I'd often find a quiet corner or mentally create a little bubble so that I could gather my focus only on the few minutes I'd be judged by (not so different from handful of seconds that make up most stages, really, although the guns are louder). Tomorrow, I'll probably be using a safe handling area for a few last practice draws and to get my head in the game. And of course, I'll do my best to get a good night's sleep tonight.

In the end, the same tools you use to get ready for any sort of major performance are the same ones that you need to set yourself up for success on the range. Whether it's a big exam, an important interview or audition, a meeting with your boss's boss's boss, or prepping for a major, going through the steps that make you feel relaxed and prepared is the best recipe for success.

Now here's to hoping it works for me tomorrow!

17 October 2012

The Memory Game

Shooting is a physical skill, but there is a mental component that is as or more important than the ability to hold a gun and pull the trigger. One of the hardest for me to get in line is remembering what I need to remember, when I need to remember it. Just as important is remembering what I need to forget, at least for the moment. Since I have a sanctioned IDPA match coming up, I'll talk about this in the context of shooting for score, but many of the same principles apply no matter what the context of your shooting.

Two of my earliest posts talked about the muscle memory required for safety and gun handling. Those are, of course, the things that need to stick in your mind no matter what. For a match, it's important to add to those basics in a couple of ways. First, you need to remember those safety rules that may be specific to your sport or range - things like the 180 degree rule. You'll want to make sure that your gun handling skills include not just basic loading, unloading, and firing, but also malfunction clearing and similar manipulations. Add to that another long-term memory item: the rules of the particular game you are shooting. For me over the next few weeks, that means reviewing the IDPA rule book [pdf] and not letting myself forget pesky rules like not being permitted to drop a magazine if there are any rounds in my gun (pages 41-42). Keeping these things in the back of your head means not having to waste brainpower remembering them actively, making shooting a course of fire less stressful and allowing you to focus on the actual shooting part.

Another area where longer term, more subconscious memory is helpful is learning whatever course of fire you will be required to perform. While you won't always get a month to study up on stage diagrams, like you may be able to for large matches like USPSA Nationals, even just paying attention during stage briefs and taking full advantage of any stage walk through time that you get (but be careful about limits like the rule against personal walk throughs in IDPA). Again, this is an area where not having to stop and think about what you're supposed to be doing will pay off in letting you focus on your shooting...especially important when the course of fire is a "memory stage" or otherwise unusually complex. Tactical sequence, I'm looking at you!

Now that you've filled your brain up with all the things you need to remember, there are also things you need to forget, sometimes very quickly and sometimes only temporarily. A major challenge I've been working hard to overcome is to not think about a bad performance any longer than I have to while I am still at a match. It's important to consider what needs to be fixed to improve performance later in the day; it's not productive to  keep repeating the same mistake for an entire match. However, it's equally important to not beat yourself up over a past flub that you can't fix now. Whether it's a single pulled shot when you are shooting limited rounds at a target or a stage you flailed your way through, you can't take that bullet back. It's best at that point to pull out the lessons that you can quickly, then move on rather than let an early point of failure ruin your performance for the rest of the day. The time to dwell on your mistakes is after last shots, not while you are trying to rock your last few stages to make up for lost time and lost points. Similarly, the time to relive your triumph over an awesome course of fire is not while you are approaching the next challenge you're shooting for score. That's what photos, video, and shooting journals are for.

One of my themes that is probably starting to become clear is that to be a successful shooter, you need to remove as many distractions as you can so that you can concentrate on what matters - whether that is the act of shooting itself or the problem you are trying to solve that just happens to involve your gun as a tool.

05 October 2012


I once knew a woman who was so reputed for having so much stuff in her purse that she tossed in a Barbie kitchen sink, just to say that she really did carry everything and the kitchen sink. Some days, I feel like I should do the same for my range bag, except maybe something a little bigger because sometimes, you really need to scrub under your nails. While you don't need to (and probably shouldn't) go overboard, there are a several things you should  pack when you go to the range that shouldn't be skipped:

Range nutrition and hydration has become an increasingly important part of my routine over the past year. Before, I found it easy to forget that a day spent shooting was a day spent outside and exercising, with all that implies. I often wondered why I got cranky and my performance suffered by the time I got to the last stage in a match until someone reminded me that I hadn't eaten anything since my crack-of-dawn breakfast and it was now well past noon. The easiest fix for me was to keep some protein bars in my bag, or to remember to pack a full lunch if I knew I'd be pulling pit duty. Making sure to eat a complete breakfast is also helpful - a sugary donut isn't enough. I've seen people snack on everything from fruit and nuts to fancy sport goos, so it's worth experimenting to find what works to keep your head focused and body running. In addition to, and often more important than, food is hydration. Liquids are obviously vital when temperatures run high but often forgotten when the weather starts to turn cooler. While you might not need the liter of water per hour I've gone through mid-summer, it's possible to get dangerously dehydrated even in the middle of winter. You may also find, as I did, that staying on top of your fluid intake will help increase your performance since dehydration can show up with symptoms like weakness and confusion. I like plain water in a hydration pack that is part of my range bag to reduce the number of things I'm carrying around, and have started adding electrolyte tabs (in about twice the amount of water as recommended) for longer days on the range. My shooting partner lives on low/no-calorie sports drinks.

Range safety includes personal protective gear, but doesn't stop at just your regular eye protection and ear muffs/plugs. I always keep spare lenses or an extra set of eye pro around in case lighting conditions change or if my regular pair breaks. Extra plugs live in my bag for similar reasons; muffs can get uncomfortable in hot weather conditions or on a long day, and I've had earplugs fail completely while taking them in and out during breaks. They're also small and cheap enough that I can give them out to guests or shooters who need extra hearing protection without wasting a lot of room in my bag. Beyond that, I also stash sunscreen and work gloves in side pockets. Sunscreen isn't only for protecting yourself from burns - including during winter - it can also be an element of protecting yourself from heat exhaustion and its big brother, heat stroke. Work gloves don't take up a lot of room and can prevent a lot of scrapes and splinters when helping set up or break down a match. Even, and sometimes especially, the "light" tasks like painting steel, collecting targets for the dumpster, or corralling the stakes used to hold down temporary walls can benefit from having a sturdy set of gloves. I picked a pair that fit well enough that I also can shoot in them in a pinch if I've been surprised by the cold. One final thing that's important and that I'm working on being better at bringing to the range with me: waterless hand cleaners. In addition to lowering lead exposure, wet wipes (whether of the deleading variety or not) can be refreshing on a hot day and a heavy duty gel/cream cleaner can be more effective than regular alcohol-free sanitizers when you've gotten especially grimy during set-up/re-set/tear-down (sticky paint on steel targets, I'm looking at you!).

You'll notice I haven't mentioned things like pens/markers, notepads, shot timers, mag loaders, knives, tools, spare parts, membership cards, and the litany of other things that crowd range bags. To me, most of those are relatively obvious or are things I can live without for one trip to the range (except when I forget the right magazines to go with the guns I actually brought with me...), but the items I've concentrated on in this post are a necessary part of my kit every time I head out to a match or class or even just a day of plinking.