As the head coach of Michigan State’s rifle team, Jim Stewart spends a ton of time at Lansing’s Demmer Center working with the athletes from the Michigan State Shooting Sports Club to prepare them for competition.
Because shooting is a club sport at MSU, Stewart prepares his shooters for events like the NRA Intercollegiate Rifle Club Championships – an event at which the Spartans won the national championship in 2012 – as opposed to the NCAA-sanctioned championships. In keeping with the club theme, he also works with several student-athletes that are less interested in the competitive aspects of shooting, and more focused on development and social interaction.
Regardless as to the level of an athlete’s dedication to the sport, if shooters truly wish to get better, there are some basic things they need to do if they want do well in competitions.
1. Don’t blame your equipment
In an sport that relies so heavily on equipment, there can be a temptation to purchase the latest and greatest rifle in the hopes that it will automatically improve the quality of a shooter’s performance. However, Jim says this method of “buying points” doesn’t always work out the way the athlete intends.
“Usually kids won’t put the time and effort into practicing and getting better simply because they bought some high-dollar equipment,” Jim explained. “So I’ve seen kids with expensive equipment that can’t shoot for anything, and I see kids with mediocre equipment that are really pushing the limits of the equipment because they’re so good.”
2. Get a coach
If you want to get better at anything, it’s logical to find someone better than you and learn from them. In the case of shooting sports, Jim says that finding someone to coach you may be the first step toward ultimately landing a scholarship to join the team of a top college or university.
“If you start working with a coach, and you show any skill at all, your name will get passed around to a lot of coaches,” Jim said. “These coaches will pass you on to a state association coach. They have coaches that will coach the kids up and take them to different shoots and competitions around the country, and from there the kids will get noticed by coaches from some of the big schools. Coaches are good about moving shooters’ careers along.”
3. Figure out how dedicated you are
Like most activities, the more time someone spends practicing with a rifle, the better they get at shooting. As Jim pointed out, someone deciding between competing at a school with a club program or a varsity program can come down to how much time they are willing to dedicate to mastering their craft and improving on several levels.
“At Michigan State, rifle is a club sport, so we have one organized practice each week, and the kids are encouraged to come in and practice on other days as much as possible,” Jim said. “If this were a club sport, it would become more of a job; we would shoot three times a week minimum and do other strength and conditioning drills on other days. Students have educational and social lives that are competing for their attention, and they need to decide how much time they are willing to part with to get better at a sport.”
4. Get in shape
To a casual observer, marksmanship relies exclusively on the sharpness of the shooter’s eye, coupled with basic hand-eye coordination. However, over the course of a shooting competition that can last well beyond an hour, Jim says the physical stamina of a competitor can come into play, and that can result in them being off target with shots that they would otherwise make.
“You need to be able to stabilize your body to maintain the same position with a calm demeanor and a low heart rate for a long period of time,” Jim said. “All of these things can be worked on with strength training and conditioning. And you don’t really see any big, out-of-shape shooters at the highest levels. So, it’s an athletic sport in a different sense; the most athletic are those that can stay the most still.”
5. Compete regularly
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how well someone shoots on the practice range if they can’t repeat the performance during a competition. When the pressure mounts, Jim says a lot of competitors get a bad case of nerves, and this wreaks havoc on their shooting. Unfortunately, the pressure that comes with a tournament will never go away, so shooters simply need to get used to it.
“Typically, the athletes that win are those that control their nerves and emotions better than anyone else,” Jim explained. “The way you overcome the pressure of the situation is simply by doing it. Eventually, you get to the point where you don’t even see or hear the crowds because you’re so comfortable in your environment. You’ll just realize you’ve done it lots of times and you can relax.”
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