19 March 2016

Why Women Shoot Slow - A Response

Over at Women Carry yesterday, my friend Tammy posted some theories about why women shoot slow...or at least slower than men. Women and their relative ability behind a gun is a topic I've been thinking about quite a bit as I work through my own journey to understand the craft of shooting. Many of the points Tammy brings up are correct in my experience, but I want to discuss them a bit from my perspective, which is as a competitive shooter in action shooting sports, namely USPSA.

Body mass and strength, particularly upper body strength, are undeniably an issue for most women. The ability to muscle down on recoil saves a lot of male shooters from terrible technique, such as yanking the trigger twice on a single sight picture. Generally speaking, smaller and weaker shooters (and sorry gals, as a genericized whole, we are) will pull that second shot right off even a close target but larger and stronger shooters will usually find that second shot somewhere on paper. With correct sight management technique and trigger control, taking two aimed shots is no slower and can even be faster while resulting in two hits in the A-zone or down-zero circle, but certainly much more finesse is required and the temptation to aim too hard is difficult to overcome. A two-fold problem for women getting faster then: the inability to muscle through bad technique and a greater need for a good technique that can lead to the temptation of slowing down.

As my mentor Bruce Gray reminds us, though, accuracy is not a necessary victim of speed. And I know from my own experience in learning how to more efficiently use the strength I do have and to trust in the development of superior technical skills, I can shoot very well from an accuracy perspective at splits that most any man would be happy with - down even into the sub-.20 range. As I've opened myself to truly observing as I shoot rather than trying to muscle or control my way through, I've been able to watch my sights staying within an A-zone through the entire recoil cycle from seven yards. And along with starting as an excruciatingly slow and not even all that accurate shooter, I'm still far (for now) from a top woman shooter. So it's possible for a not naturally talented, not large woman to learn how to shoot quickly and accurately with excellent recoil management. But it can take more thought and effort to get there.

What then? Are we women not pushers, not competitive enough? If so, why?

I have to admit, I find it difficult to identify the idea of not pushing and not being competitive, and most of my women friends inside and outside of shooting are the same. As a child, I went through stints of a string of sports including gymnastics, and was a classical musician for over ten years. Even when I drifted through more solitary athletic pursuits, I always chased better form, more difficult exercises. And in school, let's just say it wasn't just parental pressure that drove my course selections and grades. I was as guilty as anyone of choosing the occasional "Easy A" classes, but the A alone was never enough. Perhaps like attracts like, but I'm part of a large community of similarly high-performing women whether or not they are shooters.

In fact, I posit that some women are too competitive to enter the competition arena. Much like men who are unwilling to go to a match until they're "good enough" to not "embarrass themselves" (whatever that means to them), women also fall victim to the same fallacy. They just seem to find it harder to take the leap. When they do, I posit that they are then met with a confluence of factors that make it difficult for them to excel as shooters as opposed to as women shooters.

Women are welcomed with open arms into the competitive shooting community, which is no bad thing except when it becomes smothering. Kathy Jackson has written about The Parade of the Dancing Bears, and women can so easily become part of that parade at many ranges, as the welcoming committee is so impressed by a GIRL! Shooting a GUN! that any level of performance is praised as a job well done. I believe strongly that we rise to the level of our expectations, and if our expectations are influenced to accepting bare minimums…well, then, perhaps we as a shooting community, men and women, have created a class of shooters who believe that they’re good enough as they are. And perhaps that’s true, that how far they get is good enough and perhaps, even likely, is already better than many average gun owners. But if we’re talking about why women shoot slow, why they aren’t ‘as good as’ men, then we’ve done ourselves a disservice by not setting a higher level of expectation. Instead of “great job!” maybe the better approach is “great start!”

There’s another problem with overly warm welcomes and dancing bears: too much attention. When the entire squad and half of the one next door stops what they’re doing to watch the GIRL! Shooting a GUN! Guys, you know how you’re nervous sometimes shooting on the clock, let alone in front of an audience? Yeah, don’t make it worse by making the audience bigger and more obvious. That really doesn’t help a shooter’s development. And if they are overly accuracy-focused or overly concerned about ‘not making dumb mistakes’, a very natural result is to slow down enough to guarantee perfect hits and no missteps. That can be very slow indeed.

Too much attention manifests itself in other ways, including piles of helpful advice. Some of it is indeed important and even necessary to improvement, but some of it, forgive me, is utter crap. Even the best advice can be unclearly conveyed or poorly timed, whether because it’s during a match or because it’s not the right moment in that shooter’s development to add that particular factor to their journey. It’s also very confusing to receive hints and tips on too many issues at once, leaving a shooter trying to integrate sometimes conflicting ideas and juggle changes in multiple parts of her technique at once. Doing that while shooting also means the shooter has too much to think about, which will also slow her down while her brain runs through all of these things instead of just allowing her subconscious to drive the gun.

Another important factor that limits women shooters today is that there are few role models for new shooters to follow. Related to the expectations problem I described earlier, seeing someone who “looks like you” in a certain setting is a big part of understanding that you, yourself can belong in that setting too. While some of us are wired to be pioneers, trailblazers play an undeniable role in showing those that follow just how far they can go. We’ve seen it as a positive driver of increasing the number of women going into and staying in STEM fields and it’s one that will be key in the shooting community too. We need women making it to the higher classes, finishing higher in matches, and yes, shooting faster. The numbers of women who are doing that are growing daily and once we make a critical mass so that all women stepping onto the range are aware of those women at the top, I think we’ll see change.

There are more, but I suspect these are some of the major drivers. Some of them can't really be fixed from the outside, but I do think that there are two areas where immediate strides can be made. First, we must treat all women shooters on the range like all other shooters on the range. That goes both ways: coddling, head-patting, and giving excessive attention should be reduced, but we should also ensure that we extend kindness and courtesy to all shooters. It's okay to nicely tell a shooter, "hey, that was kinda stinky. What happened there?", but it's also okay to follow that up with "I was really impressed with how you recovered and finished the stage though...and your reloads were rockin'!"

The actual fixing part is really up to the individual shooter to best navigate their own training journey. There is some value to genderized training communities, but they should not be pursued to the exclusion of other training communities and opportunities particular when, as now, the women’s-only and women’s-led training structure simply does not yet have the capacity to produce top shooters consistently. For now, women wanting to get to the top must seek training opportunities that may leave them as the only woman in a class. As women shooters drive to the top, that will change and we’ll take over “advanced” classes on our own. And we’re getting there – we’re now beginning to see a breakthrough in top women shooters breaking through into the ranks of top shooters overall. Solving for the problem of women role models, top women who new shooters can see and think “I can be like her!” is a big step in the right direction to solve for the problem of why there aren’t more good and fast women shooters both purely as shooters and as instructors. It's not that women can't, it's that we're still working our way there as a larger group.