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2017: New Year, New Quad

“Strength and growth come only through continuous effort and struggle.” -Napoleon Hill 
 
Recently a good friend asked me what drives me to shoot. Among other things, my response was that it challenges me in multiple ways–balancing all the things that make me feel alive (emotion, adrenaline, expectation, breath)–so that in one instant, I am as still and un-alive as possible. It’s a constant learning process through problem solving and it gives me the freedom to experiment with different solutions. But ultimately, it narrows down to that first part–the challenge.  
 
As much as I’d love to tell you that I’ve always practiced that idea, I’m certainly guilty of shooting for other reasons. The one reason that I hate to admit–but without a doubt has at times rung true–is that shooting can be comfortable. I’m guilty because it was not uncommon for me to walk away from the range satisfied as long as I shot a decent score. Usually “decent score” translated to something would minimally qualify for the finals at a world cup. I could list out all of the ways why that’s a terrible training strategy, but you can probably guess most of them. And obviously it doesn’t work.  
 
My answer to my friend’s question was the exact opposite of how I’ve approached training the past year or longer. I didn’t start shooting competitively in order to feel comfortable or to do something that’s easy; I shoot for the challenge, and to push myself to the next level. That’s why I love it. I have always enjoyed challenging myself in the gym, intellectually, and in the outdoors, but for whatever reason when it came to shooting, I let that desire slip through the cracks. My guess is I became so stressed about the outcome that I forgot how and why I wanted to get to my goal.
 
So in the spirit of New Years’ resolutions, I’m actually making a new Olympic quad resolution. In the next four years, I will never walk away from the range without having challenged myself in some way. I encourage you to do the same, whether it’s with work, school, or relationships. Nothing will frustrate you more, and nothing will satisfy you more. 
 
P.S. Thanks Matt for asking me that question–it’s friends like you that inspire others to become better and happier people!  
Photo cred: @issf_official

When You Don’t Go to the Olympics

How does it feel to fully expect to make the Olympic team for four years, only to fail to qualify at the one selection match for that event? Well, pretty terrible. I’ve run through my head countless times what I could have done to prepare better, different drills I could have tried, who I should have beat up (just kidding…maybe), and the good news is that there’s nothing I would have changed. The bad news is that there’s nothing I would have changed.

Sports really aren’t fair. At least in some regards. It’s not always the person with the most integrity who wins. It’s not even always the best player who wins. And that’s why sports exist, because anything can happen. It’s who scores the most points.

I’ve thought about if the US chose the Olympic team any other way (international ranking, national ranking, who won Olympic quota slots, etc.), then things would have turned out differently. But the honest truth is that everyone was well aware that the team hinged on one match, and that was the only chance. Those people thought they were making the right decision for everyone involved.

Who am I kidding? I’m not saying that let’s all just kiss and make up (hello, mono!). I disagreed with many of the decisions made, but as an athlete that matters very little to the people up top. Many of those decisions impacted me negatively (most people on the team could also say that), and I’m not blindfolded to the politics that shape the river I’m floating in.

OK, sob story over. To be frank, even before the Olympic team thing, I knew I wanted to be better. So any thoughts about how I may have “deserved” the spot (which in sports, there’s really no such thing as deserving something) are pretty nonproductive. If I want anything to change in the next four years, I just need to buck up. As much as I would love to say I’m an Olympian, the truth is that even if I had made the team, I would still be pushing to improve over the next four years.

So why did I say at the beginning of this that the bad news is that there’s nothing I would have changed? Because I have to live with the fact that my best wasn’t good enough, at least this time. Moving forward, there’s plenty of changes to be made (*cough* kneeling). I distinctly remember thinking while preparing for tryouts that my national team status, residency, and even the chance to try out for the Olympics was all just coincidental. That I really wasn’t that great of a shooter and my chances of winning were slim. And now I’m thinking, “Holy granole!” How did I even let myself believe that crap? Lack of confidence is a set-up for failure. Lesson learned: this is definitely a fixer-upper section, and the good news is I have four more years to work on it!

It’s really taken me a long time to work through this process, and will probably take some more time. I took quite a bit of time off to reflect (and travel, hike, camp, fish, read, breathe…) on who I want to be and what really makes me happy. I’ve definitely had a reality check by some of my close friends, who remind me that being a kinder, more selfless, loving (and now confident) person is more important than any chance of a medal I could have. It’s a tough lesson to learn, but I’ve survived so far.

And lastly, I can’t say it enough: thanks to everyone–family, friends, teammates, even the random encouraging strangers on social media–for your support. It means the world, and I truly wouldn’t be anywhere without it.

Why Pressure Isn’t as Good or Bad as You Think it Is

Pressure. I remember being introduced to this concept when my high school physics teacher began the day by blaring the popular Queen melody for the entire classroom. (I honestly think Queen explained the concept better than any textbook.) Since then, as my shooting career has picked up, the meaning of pressure has morphed into something a bit more personal—something emotionally charged, having power to change my entire outlook on success or failure.

Pressure is great! (…sometimes)

At my most recent match, Winter Airgun Championships, I definitely heard pressure talking to me from the passenger seat. Many people talk about how good pressure is, and that you just have to use it to “make you focus more”. I got my first big break in shooting using that method (in fact at this same match several years ago). I had no idea how, but it seemed like I just couldn’t stop shooting well, even when my hold during the finals terrified me (and probably everyone around me who could see my gun moving). While it can work sometimes, I know that method doesn’t always work for me. I’ve learned that I can’t depend on adrenaline to focus; I must simply decide to focus and then do it. (If you don’t believe you can do it, click here for some help.)

Pressure can make every bit of movement, every breath, and every thought—so much more real. My awareness sky-rockets. It’s like I’ve been brought to a cliff and told to walk along the edge of it. Theoretically, it’s simple, even easy, to put each foot where you want it to go.

Dealing with pressure at a national level

Pressure exists, like it or not.

But I don’t agree with people who advise others to just ignore pressure, using the logic that a match is “just like practice”. In a sense, yes—if someone is making up excuses as to why they “can’t” shoot well at a range (for no reason other than they’ve never shot well at that range before), or something of that sort, then there is definitely a healthy dose of reality they could use. Target size, distance, etc. remain the same between (approved) ranges.

However, the fact is that if you put me on the edge of a cliff and tell me to walk on its outline, it’s just not the same as walking along the cracks of a sidewalk when no one’s watching. The task is the same, but the execution is not. Since I’m human (and unfortunately not Force-sensitive), I am quite aware of the risks involved in my situation. One wrong step, and there’s no way to recover from failure. When risk increases, awareness of possible failure also increases. For example, if I have declared that it is my goal to become a more consistent shooter, then it raises the stakes at every match since I now have a reputation to lose.

Lessons learned

As I always say, I learn something at each match. So what did I learn at this past match? During those three days, I was extremely aware of my expectations for myself. But I learned that knowing about pressure doesn’t necessarily have an impact on my performance. Step one: build a solid position and shot plan. Step two: execute. I know of a number of top-ranked shooters (and other athletes, for that matter) who the world expected to win gold, and they did. They’re not ignorant of their goals and expectations; rather, at some point, they decided to face them.

So the pressure of expectations (whether of success or failure) is not your magic potion to make you concentrate on each shot. You make the decision to be focused or distracted. Each shot is a choice. That’s why watching a shooter in a final that continues to place center shots is so exciting—because you know that the shooter is pushing to an invisible limit, an edge that they are so acutely aware of. Every moment, they are making the choice to stay focused on the task at hand—trying to focus more than the shooter next to them, yet without thinking about the shooter next to them. It’s like taking a journey to the center of the earth, except it’s a journey inside your own little bubble. At first, you see everything around you, and you notice the ground, buildings, and people—and then you make a decision to descend (and begin your shot process). Every time you descend, you can only think about continuing your journey. But if you lose focus for just one moment, you’re where you first began–corralling your thoughts back inside your bubble–and the entire process must be repeated.

My ultimate goal in every match is to push my limits; to find that edge I can stand on. Only when I move on to that next place mentally do those initial thoughts of pressure become irrelevant; only then do I stand on the right ground to push myself and test my limits.

Clear and Present Thinking

319. An insignificant number to most people, but to me it means everything. It holds the key to the unknown. There are 319 days until the last day of the 2016 Olympics, which is the day so many questions I now ask myself will be answered. What will happen at Olympic trials? How will I handle what happens? Who will walk away from my events with medals at the Olympics? How accomplished will I feel by that last day? The possibilities of this next year extend endlessly through my mind: I could dominate the field, I could barely make the team, I could get an injury, I could shoot a miss on the last shot, I could fail.

For a while now, the thought of Olympic trials and the Olympics has crossed my mind constantly throughout each day. I wake up in the middle of the night from a dream about it, and stay awake thinking about it. Sitting in the top rankings of my events is new to me this Olympic quad, and I’ve had to brainstorm ways of how I want to handle the anxiety that comes with the unknown. How am I supposed to remain even remotely relaxed or calm during this time of “in-between”?

Last weekend, I had the opportunity to attend a dinner hosted by the US Olympic Committee. It was a lot of fun, but one part really struck me. In the middle, they played a slideshow honoring all of the Olympians and medalists who had passed away this year. (If you’re judging me for being a Debbie Downer, I honestly have no defense this time.) But you know what? Out of all of the athletes they showed, I had heard of maybe two or three of them, and knew the stories of even fewer.

This made me think. Hard. I don’t know about you, but my inspiration comes from people that I’ve met, talked to, and developed a relationship with. Sure, I love hearing stories like Remember the Titans and Miracle and Rudy that give me chills at the intensely emotional ending. But when I meet someone whose story and actions I have witnessed, there’s something much more personal about that. In a small way, I’ve been able to be a part of their story, which makes them a part of mine. Their positive attitude becomes my outlook and my hope for the future.

So as I sat there, watching the names and faces of the athletes appear and disappear from the screen, it hit me: I cannot control what will happen in the future—the distractions, the outcomes, the circumstances. But I can control this thought, this word, this shot.

An Olympic medal is significant because of what it stands for: the struggle of humanity towards excellence. And if I focus on the present, excellence and success will find me. What I am pursuing is more than just a medal around my neck or a making a team. Someday I’ll be gone, but I’ve been blessed to wake up every morning, put air in my lungs, and make a choice each moment of my thoughts and actions. Yes, these next 319 days are filled with enormous significance and yet so many unknowns. But they don’t matter. All that matters is one. This one day. This one practice. This one shot. The rest will take care of itself.

The Power of Self Talk

If there’s one thing I can say about my most recent competition (World Cup Azerbaijan), it’s that there was no lack of drama. In my shooting, that is. On the first day of smallbore (elimination), I fired my lowest score of the year. (Granted, it was the only World Cup I’ve shot smallbore at this year. But still a very low score for me compared to other matches.) I’d love to say that I was completely reasonable about the entire match and that there wasn’t a downpour of tears and that I handled the situation like a professional poker player, with everyone trying to guess my emotions. Unfortunately, there was no guessing of my emotions after the match. Every single person on the range witnessed what must have looked like a waterfall coming out of my eyes after I finished shooting.

But here’s a great thing: I’m not alone! Even Serena Williams, whose mental game I respect very much, had a moment on the court when she lost in the semifinals and ended the possibility of a Serena Slam. If anyone tried to fault her on that, I would probably throw something at them. I might have even cried a little after that last set. Point being, it’s perfectly natural to have a moment after a major disappointment.

But as soon as my post-match “moment” was over, I realized I had lots of work to do that night. Not with the gun, but in my head. I needed to revamp my mental approach, because I had made it through elimination, and there was another match to shoot the next day. So what did I do? I talked to myself. Not in a nervous, schizophrenic sort of way that gave everyone the last bit of evidence they needed to prove that I’m crazy. But in a silent, controlled, thoughtful way; I was practicing self-talk.

If you’re struggling with a positive attitude or accomplishing a goal, self-talk is one of the most valuable pieces of advice I can give. In theory, it’s pretty self-explanatory, but here are a few tips:

  • Make it personalized. You can copy someone’s mental routine all you want, but it won’t work unless it’s personalized to you. For me, this means not making it overly positive (or overly negative). If I believe the words I’m saying are reasonable, then I’m more likely to believe and fulfill those words.
  • Always relate it to your goals. If you’re like me, you can easily get off-topic talking to yourself (especially when thinking about food…and Chipotle…and guac…er, back on topic). Controlled self-talk oriented toward a goal will keep you on track. While an immediate “What the heck were you thinking on that shot, Sarah?” is a normal reaction, a good follow-up would be, “It’s ok. Just squeeze the trigger this shot, and you’re back on track.” This is because my goal for the match might be to squeeze the trigger on this shot. I can still accomplish that goal.
  • Keep your emotions in check. The purpose of self-talk is to maintain control of your state of mind, which means not overreacting—either being too excited or too destructive. You are in control of the words you say to yourself, so instead of using them to fuel panic, use them to keep the thinking side of your brain going.
  • Refer to yourself in the third person. This is something that’s a little new to me, but I tried it after reading The Hunger Games. Every time Katniss needed to do something she didn’t want to, she told herself out loud to do it. While I don’t actually verbally say anything, addressing myself in the third person reduces my present goal into a simple command, which is easier to process.

The next day of competition, I headed to the range with a positive attitude. As my coach told me, I had nothing to lose from the previous day. I started out in kneeling, shooting the best I have shot in a long time, but then suddenly shouldered a 7 out to the left.

“A 7? Really, Sarah?!” is what popped into my head (there may or may not have been a few other colorful words mixed in). But it was quickly followed with, “That’s not you. Shoot some more centered shots, just like you planned.”

And I did. All the way through the rest of the match, and qualified for my first World Cup smallbore final. I ended up 5th—not in the medals, but still higher than I have placed before. It was a great way to end the season, and even better, I learned the value of a mental tool I can use in the near future.

A Fragmented Life

As a girl, nothing motivated my decisions more than the thrill of adventure. From building forts to writing in spy diaries, I was always curious what other types of lives would be like–a secret agent, a dolphin trainer, a professional ninja. I grew up seeing world artifacts on our walls, mostly from my dad’s travels for shooting matches, and since then the possibility of traveling and experiencing the lives of people around the world obsessed me.

I often wish I had three lives: one for shooting, one for exploring and living in other countries, and another for staying in one place in the U.S., with my loved ones nearby. Now that I’m living a life I only dreamed of when I was little, I realize the sacrifice of everything else. I’m not talking about delaying a career or education, the constant search for sponsors, or even the possibility of a steady paycheck. Anyone who is elite at anything has also likely given that up at some point.  

I imagine most elite athletes have also gone through this stage–the Fragmented Stage. I think it’s just a transition state, and who knows when I’ll be on to the next one. But I’ve begun to realize how traveling is a double-edged sword. Going to another country is something new, fresh, and full of things to learn. But after a week or two of constant travel, the longing for home that was in the back of my head becomes much more prominent. Eventually I return home, then after several weeks, I itch to travel again.

But it’s not just the travel itself. Living at a training center surrounded with all kinds of athletes has its disadvantages as well. I may travel a lot, but they do too, if not more. Sometimes I return and none of my close friends are there. I’ll meet someone and have several truly amazing conversations with them, only to realize they are about to leave for the beginning of their season, which means no time to spare for staying in contact. In-depth relationships with people are difficult to maintain here.

On my last trip to Germany, I went on a run in some local gardens. I ran down a half-mile lane with trees evenly lining it, so that the area at the end of the lane, where the trees ended and the light was shining through, was the center of my perspective. But I realized that if I only focused on that, I would miss an awful lot of beauty I was passing–the grass, the birds, the leaves. It’s the same with this traveling business–if you generally know where you’re headed, it’s better to not focus on the future. There are simply too many amazing people and great things happening, no matter how disjointed it all feels.

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The struggle is to always remain in the present. I hate being in one place while wishing I were somewhere else. I like to enjoy where I am, and to milk it for all it’s worth. So now, I strive to remain content living out a life I dreamed about as a child, despite the times of disconnect that I feel. Even though shooting is what caused this struggle in the first place, it is also the glue that holds it together. The challenge, the team, the pursuit, the satisfaction–even the dissatisfaction. This life would be impossible to pursue if I didn’t believe that I belong here and that it’s well worth temporarily living a fragmented life. I don’t doubt either of these, so I continue, having the freedom to live a life I wouldn’t choose over any other.

Sportsmanship Matters (Even in an Individual Sport)

I’m fairly confident that if my middle school class took a vote, I would have won “Least likely to medal at the Olympics”, hands down. When I ran track in middle school, I chose to be in the sprinter group simply because I didn’t need to run as far…efficient, right? My parents witnessed the one time my junior league coach ever put me in the final soccer game, where they spotted me on the field picking bugs off of dandelions (still sounds about right). The only time I was taken off the bench the entire season in middle school basketball was in the last three seconds of the final game to pass the ball from out-of-bounds to the star player. I was smart in school, but a little slow to realize that those sports were never up my alley.

For awhile, there was a rather awkward love triangle between me, team sports, and shooting. I knew shooting treated me well, but I just wanted to be good at the glamorous sports. All the cool kids were doing it, and I was still in the denial stage of being that shy, awkward girl whose most common response to any question was a nervous giggle. But fortunately for everyone, it eventually hit me that awkwardness will always be a part of my personality, and I gave up on the idea of team sports.

Enter shooting. It was the individuality of shooting that first attracted me to it. I’ve found some definite perks: Most problems I encounter within shooting I solve on my own. There’s no negative pressure of a team counting on me. My training is self-paced, so I can allot more or less time to certain skills.

I used to hate running in middle school and high school and chalked it up to simply being terrible at it. But when I picked it up again a few years ago on my own, I suddenly enjoyed it so much more. Before, seeing other people either ahead of me or behind me distracted me from enjoying it as well as pushing myself. I’ve learned that my motivation is intrinsic, so I accomplish way more when my focus is on beating my past times instead of beating another person. And to be honest, I think that’s because it’s more of a challenge.

While I was fortunate enough to experience being on a team through NCAA’s, shooting still ultimately boils down to an individual sport. Whether at a match or in practice, it’s just you and the target. Nobody else is aligning your sights or pulling the trigger for you, and you are responsible for each bad shot and each good shot.

I used to be surprised by the poor sportsmanship exhibited by some of my own teammates–not just in how I’ve been treated, but also in witnessing the damaging drama that unfolds among players representing the same flag. Some people simply become so lost in themselves that they let go of one of the biggest joys ever experienced in this life–fellowship and community.

Few things are more loathsome than a teammate that only smiles at you after they perform well or after you perform poorly (I myself have been guilty of this). But I can also say that ultimately, you determine your attitude. I’ve decided that if a teammate is nice to me, even if it’s not for genuine motives, at least they’re being nice. After all, a teammate can say and do much more hurtful things. Trust me. But that being said, I admire and appreciate pretty much all of my teammates for being encouraging and supportive. I wouldn’t trade the world for them. In fact, many of them are better examples than I am of how to be a great team player.

There’s also the question of just how much to help a teammate that is struggling with a problem that perhaps I myself have already struggled through myself and found a solution. Before the London Olympics, two of the greatest 3-position shooters in the world (Matt Emmons and Nicco Campriani) worked together on position problems one was facing. Nicco’s prone was holding him back from his full potential, and Matt gave him a few pointers he thought would help. Nicco won the gold, and Matt won the bronze. Ask either one of them, and I’m sure they wouldn’t change a thing. It’s just what you do.

Of course, only one person earns the spot on top of the Olympic podium. I fully realize that in order to get there, I must shoot better than my teammates. But if my teammates are also some of the best in the world, then it’s a much more enjoyable challenge to pursue my goal. Besides that, if I’m injured or for whatever reason cannot compete for a medal, you can bet your sweet biscuits I’ll be cheering to hear my anthem played at the end.

I may have not been great at team sports, but as a player of this sport, I am forced to adopt some sort of attitude toward my teammates. I have chosen to try to encourage my teammates at matches, and if I don’t win, it’s because I didn’t shoot a high enough score. To me, winning has much less to do with my competitors than it does with my performance. The more I embrace a positive attitude toward my teammates, the more optimistic I become about my shooting. It’s catching.

After his famous flight around the world, Charles Lindbergh wrote in his memoir about reaching the end:

Within the hour I’ll land, and strangely enough I’m in no hurry to have it pass. I haven’t the slightest desire to sleep. There’s not an ache in my body. The night is cool and safe. I want to sit quietly in this cockpit and let the realization of my completed flight sink in….It’s like struggling up a mountain after a rare flower, and then, when you have it within arm’s reach, realizing that the satisfaction and happiness lie more in the finding than in the having. Plucking the flower and having it wither are inseparable…

When I began shooting, winning a medal was the last thought to enter my mind. I shot simply because I loved the process. Now, I value medals, but that doesn’t mean that loving the journey becomes any less important. The last thing I want is to look back after achieving my goals and suddenly realize all the small joys that I missed out on–the conversations, the laughter, and the shared memories–just because I didn’t take advantage of this time with my teammates. Sportsmanship is a skill that must be developed. And while I’m not the best at it and have made my share of mistakes, it’s another goal I’ve challenged myself to pursue while on this journey.

Spring Update

Training weeks seem to zip by so quickly! Looking over my training plans from the past few weeks, it amazes me how progress can seem so slow day-by-day, but how much I’ve improved after those weeks.

After Rocky Mountain Championships, my mom was able to visit me for a couple of days. We spent some time in Colorado Springs waiting for my car to be fixed, and then headed up to Boulder for a day. Training and competition schedules make it hard to visit home very much (any athlete would tell you that), so it was a wonderful breath of fresh air. I love the chance to occasionally step back and evaluate where I am in life, then be able to come back and plant my feet back in the shooting world. Plus, I’ll never complain about a chance to see my family!
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Right after she left, I headed down to Fort Benning to train for a few weeks before our upcoming smallbore selection match. I’ve been staying at some friends’ houses this time instead of hotels, and it’s SO much nicer! Of course, hanging out with old friends is super fun, not to mention being able to cook whatever/whenever I want. It’s a nice break from the OTC bubble, and I love the chance to be a part of “normal people” life for awhile, where kids and dogs are not a rare sighting. The day before the match, I also had the chance to hang out with some old friends on a beach we found, and it was absolutely perfect weather for it.

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This dog absolutely loved me–one of the cutest puppies ever!

And then there’s the match. This was the second part of smallbore selections for World Cup USA and World Cup Munich, which are two opportunities to get an Olympic quota for the US. After the first day, my 584 wasn’t a bad score, and I ended up third in the final. There were a few things I wanted to tweak for the next day, but overall I was pretty happy about my performance.

On the second day, I still didn’t have my ideal kneeling, which got into my head a little. The wind was tricky, and I shot a couple of 9’s because it caught me. Having a bad last shot in prone added to my frustration, and by the time standing came around, I was running low on time to do reholds. My big mistake was abandoning my process on many of those standing shots, because I thought my frustration would force me to focus. Boy, was I wrong! In reality, experiencing any high emotional state while shooting (nervousness, frustration, excitement) is the exact time to rely on your process. I worked extremely hard at this match, but I could have worked smarter.

Second match day, fog rolled in and delayed our start time.
Second match day, fog rolled in and delayed our start time.

I came in third in the final again, but I definitely got some much-needed experience under my belt. For this match, they take the top three finishers to those two World Cups, and I just so happened to tie my close friend and teammate Hannah for third place. The tiebreaker was X-count, which she won (after shooting a kickass final). Each of the three ladies who took the spot earned it, and my frustration after the match had way more to do with simply not shooting my potential than it did with not making this team.

Disappointment is not unique to any athlete. After an unsatisfying performance, the last thing in the world I wanted to do was face my failure. Leaving the range and not returning sounded so much nicer than having to painfully process what had happened and admit that I just didn’t shoot a good match or finish where I belong. While it’s much easier to wallow in self-pity and make excuses, owning up to failure is the only way to move on and make a better shooter. Not an easy pill to swallow, but it needed to be done. And quickly, I soon realized, since World Cup Korea is just around the corner–about a week away.

On the other hand, I learned a ton from this match that helped point out changes in my training approach for the future. Both mental and technical, these changes should put me right back up there. And even on bad days like this, I still love shooting 3-position. Those days are just fuel to the fire.

Another fantastic thing I learned is one of my favorite pre-match breakfasts: two eggs, half an avocado, plain toast, and OJ! Of course, don’t forget a little Cholula on the eggs. This breakfast kept up my focus and physical/mental endurance, not to mention it being so yummy! I sense an avocado addiction heading my way soon.

Gray is the New Black

When I was a young pup in high school (note: I still am a young pup, just an older young pup), I took a very in-depth personality test that was designed to tell me what to do with the rest of my life. They classified me as a “quintessential introvert”, and I was barely nerdy enough at the time to know what that meant (some might argue that). But I think it was mostly true, and one of the biggest components of this introverted-ness that remains in me today is perfectionism.

You know how when they ask you in a job interview what your weakness is, you’re supposed to answer, “perfectionism”? Well, I’m not actually lying when I say it. Growing up, I always noticed that I could never be happy or take a break until a job was completely finished. If it wasn’t as perfect, I considered it a failure. All my mistakes were gaping holes in whatever I created—a project, a paper, a competition.

One of the worst parts is that I become extremely competitive with people I’m close to, or teams I like. While most people know I have no interest in keeping up with popular sports, the biggest reason is because I am way too competitive and it becomes personal. And not in a healthy way.

Sound familiar?

The relationship between shooting and perfectionism has been an interesting one. Perfectionism is what originally drew me to shooting, along with being able to escape somewhere in my own world. I could pour all of my creativity into fixing problems, and many times it actually worked. I simply wanted to make each shot perfect, and I kept trying until I figured out how.

Thinking about each detail to make a perfect shot happen even while shooting that shot is exhausting, if not impossible. In competition, you simply can’t think about every mechanical necessity, or you will fail. That’s the whole point of practice, after all—to make the process automatic.

I still struggle with perfectionism, and in finding ways to make it my strength. When it rears its ugly head, I always have to take a step back and refocus my perspective. I remember my “smallness” moments—hiking among beautiful mountains, meeting the families of fallen soldiers, or experiencing a joy that seems deeper than my soul. These moments make me remember how small I am, and how small my problems are.

I also force myself to celebrate my mistakes, because they are often the golden opportunity for learning. When my performance is less than stellar at a match, I keep my chin up because I have certainly learned one or two things to put into my “toolbox” for later. No, it wasn’t perfect. But it’s a process, I remind myself, and there’s a goal in sight.

Martha Stewart taught us all long ago that not everyone’s perfect, even when they appear so. People are all kinds of odd, but that’s what makes them likeable (well, interesting at least). Putting together a group of such different people and watching them trying to attain perfection in their own individual way—that’s one of the most beautiful things about the shooting community.

Whether in shooting or in life, most things are not black or white. In fact, it’s near impossible to find something tangible that is mathematically perfect. There’s a permanent gray area of uncertainty and struggle, of fighting for something you can’t always control. It’s hard work for me to embrace that. But I’ve learned that the most beautiful things in life often quietly lie in that gray area, and that’s why they’re perfect.

 

Keeping Goals Positive

I’ll be the first to admit that when I first climbed the ranks among the top shooters in the nation, it wasn’t planned. When I got the phone call of the invitation to the national team, I didn’t even know what the national team was. Yes, I shot well at that match, but outside of shooting itself, I had no idea what was going on except that it was just another match.

Since then, I’ve come a long way in my approach to matches. I can no longer be oblivious to what my results mean, whether good or bad. It’s part of my job to know how points systems work and how to qualify for teams. Every Olympic finalist knows what’s at stake through the very last shot, and the successful ones at some point learned how to deal with that pressure.

When I coach juniors, one of their biggest struggles is facing the pressure of goals. What’s helped me the most is knowing the difference between performance goals and outcome goals. A performance goal is something as simple as squeezing the trigger each shot (something I have complete control over), while an outcome goal is more related to score (shooting a 200 in prone). During the match itself, I focus completely on my performance goal, because it’s in my control. Plus, it keeps the competition fun!

Besides that, here are a few things that keep goals in proper perspective for me:

  1. Realize why you have goals. Goals are there for you to have something positive to look to. If they are more of a stumbling block, then something in your perspective needs to change immediately. Just because you don’t accomplish your outcome goal doesn’t mean you’re a failure. Learn from it!
  2. Own your goals. Sometimes coaches will set score goals with me to keep me growing as a shooter. The important thing to remember is that the goals still belong to me, because I want to accomplish them more than my coach wants me to.
  3. Know why you’re here. You aren’t here to impress a prospective or current coach or because someone paid your way to the match. You are here to compete at something you love doing, and to get better at it!
  4. Keep goals in their place. Don’t let them get the best of you. No matter the outcome, I still value improvement over results, because it means I’m on my way to my long-term goal. Also, improvement doesn’t always show up in the immediate scores—if you know you solidified a skill during a match, be proud of it!

There’s tons more to say about staying positive about goals, but this is a huge part of what I’ve learned on my journey, from a naïve up-and-coming shooter to the competitor I am today. I certainly don’t know everything about dealing with goals, and I think it’s awesome that I have more to learn!