WHAT MAKES A CHAMPION SHOOTER - CPT MERRITT
I started shooting pistol competitively in 1964 at the U. S. Military Academy, West Point, New York. Until then I was totally inexperienced with firearms. After initially making the team at West Point, I was content to merely keep my place on the team. I subconsciously set a low standard--to keep all slow fire shots in the black on the gallery course. As the shooting season progressed, I noticed other teammates excelling; they were shooting better scores than I.
I assumed that they had more ability until one day late in that first season, it dawned on me that I was accepting any slow fire shot so long as it was in the black. So I shot many sevens and did not mind. With this realization came the determination to tighten my slow fire groups. The following season, with higher standards, I became a member of the varsity team, scoring in all team matches for the remaining three years of my cadet career. In retrospect, I am always amazed when I consider how much effect that single negative thought/low standard had on my scores. During my nine years of shooting, I have often seen competitors who were satisfied with marginal performance--it is a common pitfall.
One of the unique aspects of the shooting sport is that the age of the competitor has very little effect on performance. Experience is far more significant--I have seen a fifty-year old man break 2550 for the first time and set open national records. The physical aspects of shooting are apparently only important insofar as they permit the shooter to hold the pistol steady. Looking at a number of champion shooters makes it obvious that unusual strength or size is not a prerequisite for this sport.
If age is unimportant and exceptional physical attributes are unnecessary, then, by elimination, the discriminator which separates champions from losers must be the mental element. A strong will to win, intense concentration, a thorough knowledge of the fundamentals, and self-knowledge… these are some of the noteworthy aspects that comprise the champion's mental attitude.
It has been my privilege to be the Officer- in- Charge of several exceptional pistol teams. Last summer (1973) the U. S. Army Blue Team won all team matches at Camp Perry, Ohio. As a result of this association with some of the best pistol shooters in the country, I have developed several attitudes based upon observation that are perhaps worthy of mention.
Shooting is basically an individual sport, contrasted with a team sport such as football.. Therefore, emphasis must be placed upon the natural development of each individual separately. To stereotype shooters and prescribe the same training program for all is to tend toward mediocrity. That is to say that a good coach will give each of his shooters individual assistance and will be able to accommodate each individual's training needs so far as is practical. One man may not feel that he should practice during a given training session. He should generally be entrusted with this decision; his judgment should be respected. When a man shoots, he should want to shoot. One particularly valid generalization is that all pistol champions enjoy shooting.
Coaching a shooter, especially during an actual team match, can either help or hinder performance. I have seen good, bad, and indifferent coaching. The most important attribute that a good coach has, I believe, is a keen awareness of everything concerning the members of his team. He will observe and know many things about a shooter that are unknown to that shooter. For example, a team member may have better scores on the second relay than on the first; he may shoot much better with one man than with others. The coach must be aware of his personal problems on his team. Any external worries or problems must be excluded from his team as much as possible. Certain words said to one shooter might upset him, while those same words could have no effect on his teammate. That is what I mean by awareness.
An aware coach must then be able to tactfully communicate with his shooters. Animosities among the coach and his team should be minimized. An observant coach can spot potential problems in this area and tactfully correct them. The shooters on a consistently successful team will generally have a rapport among themselves. When one shooter does poorly, causing the team to lose, he should never be told that he dropped the team. If he is embarrassed by the coach, he will feel uncertain in the next match. Also, the other shooters will worry that they might receive the same treatment should they score low. Lf a coach detects something specific which may have caused the law score, he should tactfully inform the shooter. Ideally, I think, a shooter would be more interested in making his coach look good in the team match, than in his own particular accomplishments. In my shooting career, I have had only one coach that instilled this attitude in me.
One final consideration, which may be obvious, is that a shooter must enjoy shooting for its own sake. The satisfaction he derives from willing his mind and body to shoot competitive scores should be sufficient. If he has other purposes, such as policing everybody's brass, trading guns, winning enough awards to pay for his entry, etc., then his chances of becoming a champion approach zero.
Robert L. Merritt
CPT, US Army
Pistol Division, USAMU