Change of Venue
“Mental Training” by Michael J. Keyes, M.D.
Two recent epiphanies got me thinking about the venue problem. The venue problem causes added–on stress that occurs when you go to a new shooting venue (called “the geographic venue problem”) or when the stakes of the event are raised, such as a state championship (“the competition–level venue problem”).
The first epiphany came when I read the remarks of high school athletes complaining of “nerves” at the regional championships. The second came when we went on vacation.
My wife and I like to go to Grand Cayman when we can find the time and money to do so. Usually, we go with friends who have a time share, but this year we couldn’t do that, so we went as a couple. Normally, Joyce and I will snorkel and look at the sights, but I got to wondering if there was a way to shoot some shotgun while there.
After a bit of searching, I found the Cayman Islands Sport Shooting Association (CISSA) in a list of International Shooting Sports Foundation (ISSF) member clubs and sent Kevin Schirn, the Secretary General, an e–mail. The result was a warm note inviting me to see their facilities and shoot with some of the club members, if I wished.
The Cayman Islands is a British Overseas Territory 150 miles south of Cuba, so it is firmly under the control of Great Britain. In spite of that, you can own a gun, hunt, shoot targets and even use a gun to defend your home. The British government just makes it hard to do all that.
The average income is over $50,000 U.S., and the population of Grand Cayman is about 50,000 people, the size of my hometown in Wisconsin. The CISSA is part of the Cayman Islands Olympic Committee, which also represents the nation in the Commonwealth Games. CISSA also takes part in the Pan–American Games.
It’s not easy to shoot shotgun sports in the Caymans. Every firearm has a set of taxes and tariffs that cost $1,375 before you even factor in the price of the gun. Every ammunition purchase has a $375 tariff added on at the border, and there is endless paperwork. Individuals can buy 2,000 rounds of ammunition at a time, and you can’t shoot until you are 18 years of age.
Kevin picked me up in the morning. He brought with him his son Andrew and Edison McLean, the president of CISSA. “Fast Eddie” represents the nation in International Skeet, and Andrew Schirn, who is 17 and the equivalent of a junior in high school, has carried his nation’s flag in Junior events.
I got an earful about the conditions they have to shoot in — Andrew has to train out of the country due to the age restriction, for example — and how they cope with the restrictions. In spite of the rules and regulations, they are building a new venue in the East End of the island that will be able to host international events in the future. Included are a sporting clays range, trap, skeet and archery fields and a clubhouse. The idea is to get more tourists and international events to the island.
One of the rules allows clubs to import 50,000 rounds of ammunition for the same $375 tax. As a result, I was able to fire club ammunition with a borrowed club gun at their present site next to the Owen Roberts International Airport. The shooting was fun, but the most interesting part of the trip was getting to talk to dedicated shooters who represented their country and wanted to promote the sport in spite of the obstacles placed in their way.
We had a long talk about mental training that focused on one of their biggest problems — shooting a match outside of their home field. Just imagine if you had their problem — one field for skeet or trap in the entire country, and the closest other venues are in Cuba, a 150–mile trip by boat or plane. You don’t get much chance to practice in other venues.
I had shot skeet once before under international rules back in the early 1980s at Ft. Benning. I did poorly then and even worse this second time. After we shot, Kevin told me the ISSF had just changed the rules regarding the speed at which the target flies, bringing it close to light speed, as far as I was concerned. I suffered from the venue change, too. The CISSA field is very bright, with a background of low trees. I was used to shooting slower targets with a different light and background. I won’t mention my score, but I hit one of the three by accident.
I’ve written about change of venue in the past, but here we have an extreme example of the problem. Eddie told me it was not unusual for a very good shooter from the Caymans to consistently shoot well below his average at a new venue, even in friendly competitions (not an international championship), much less at the Pan–Am games.
So, how do you cope with this extreme example of venue change? It’s not simple, and it’s probably like everything else shooting–related in the Caymans, expensive. For Kevin, Eddie and Andrew (especially Andrew), the only answer is to take every opportunity to shoot in other countries. This solves the problem of finding other venues to shoot in, but the situation for each of them is different.
Eddie is a national–level shooter who has plenty of experience representing his country. This means he will face a variety of stress situations depending on the level of competition and the importance of the match. Change of venue is not just geographic, it is also related to the stress level the match imposes. Differing levels of competition, even at the same geographic location, require different approaches because the level of match stress is much higher if the psychological stakes are higher.
Anyone who has entered a state championship for the first time will feel this effect, especially if they feel they have a chance to do well. Many will go into such a situation unprepared for the level of stress and will do poorly as a result.
Eddie seems to have dealt with most of these problems well. He told me he is able to shoot his average in matches but has to work more on consistency and to increase his average performance if he wants to meet the World and Olympic qualification standards. For him, the work that has to be put in requires building his skills and then reapplying them to the same venues, but with a different attitude. This will take a lot of work and an understanding coach.
Andrew, on the other hand, is still developing as a shooter. He has a talent for shooting skeet and is capable of shooting a 25–straight. He still has a ways to go, especially in learning to be consistent, but he is still a Junior. The fact he can’t shoot in his own country is a handicap, but he and his family are willing to make the sacrifices needed for him to succeed.
In one sense, Andrew has dealt with the geographic venue problem because of the laws in the Caymans. By necessity, he has to train elsewhere, and this automatically gives him access to other shooting sites. Andrew is a very bright kid with a good overall plan that includes going to college in the States at someplace like Lindenwood University where he can shoot against good competition and have access to world–class coaches. Since he has already represented his country in Junior events, his mindset is perfect for dealing with the complexities of the venue problem. He just needs more experience and guidance.
In order to be a successful shooter, you can’t just rely on good technique or good practice scores. Everyone is comfortable in their home field — that’s usually where you practice and where you shoot your local matches. For some, there may be a selection of places to shoot, but for the most part, these fields are local and the competition familiar. As a result, we tend to adapt specifically to the peculiarities of our favorite venues and learn to tweak our games to those localities. But too much of a good thing is bad in this case. Because we are comfortable shooting locally, we don’t train for the stressors or situations that can occur when we go outside of our experience range.
That’s where the problems occur. It’s not that we are technically unprepared to shoot an average score, it’s that we get blindsided by the multitude of problems we have to solve when we get outside of our comfort zone. Too many problems lead to lack of focus and concentration.
All trap and skeet ranges are supposed to be the same. And they are, if you measure the distances, angles and speed of the targets. But each geographic location is unique in some way, and those differences cause an unconscious effect on you that takes away your ability to focus and shoot in a relaxed and consistent manner. Most of the time, you are not even aware of this happening. If you add in a different level of competition, you add even more stressors, which in turn causes greater match stress for which you may not have an answer.
Every time you go out of your safe local–club environment, you learn to anticipate the differences and minimize the effects they may have. It’s a good idea to do this from the start of your career so the change–of–venue problem never becomes an issue. The more complacent you are about your shooting and where you shoot, the more vulnerable you become to this issue.
One answer is not to shoot all the time at the same venue. This is important for all shooters, but especially for Junior shooters. If you can learn to be less specific about venue and more focused on targets and consistency, you will be able to immunize yourself from the venue–change problem more effectively. The same is true of the competition–level problem. The more you shoot against the best shooters (something that is more likely if you shoot a variety of venues), the more confidence you will have in your own abilities in these more important matches.
Like all other aspects of mental training, dealing with varying venues is a process that takes time and work. If you are interested in advancing your abilities and winning matches, you have to face this problem at some time. Now is as good a time as any.
Dr. Keyes has written over 200 articles on mental training for Shotgun Sports and is author of the book Mental Training For The Shotgun Sports. He is a former physician for the U.S. Shooting Team, retired Colonel from the Army Reserve and a veteran of Viet Nam and Desert Storm. A Tennessee state pistol champion and coach of several national championship teams, he currently practices in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. You can e-mail him at email@example.com.