Finding the Shooting Coach

Coaching, like teaching, is an art.

I know some High Masters who cannot coach. They can shoot Xs all day long but really have no idea how they’re doing it.

“Just line up the sights, kid, and move the trigger straight back. Here, I’ll show you.” And he shoots an X. And another. And another.

“Here, you try it.”

But when the kid shoots and it goes down and left, the only answer some High Masters can give is, “Nope, try again.”

Whether that’s a failing in communication or an over-blown ego doesn’t matter. That’s not coaching, that’s scoring. The guy next to me on the firing line can do that.

I want more from a coach. I expect more from a coach.

I know because that’s what I do for a living. What I do is “coach” (train) engineers in high-level embedded systems programming. I teach them the basics of what they need to know to program drones, whether they fly through the air or swim through the ocean, medical equipment that keep patients alive during open heart surgery, or that manage fuel and spark under the hood of your car.

I teach them the basics upon which they build their own skills and, ultimately, those products.

I know that when I’m teaching, it’s about them, not the subject. Each person is different and, as a teacher or coach, I have to figure out how to reach them, to see inside their head and to figure out what will work for them.

I usually succeed. Not always, mind you. But “usually.” So I know what it is to teach, and I know what it is to fail.

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“Coach” Butler of the USAMU presents his case in a scoring dispute in Arizona in 2010. He would later coach me at SAFS at Camp Perry Ohio in 2013.

At the Small Arms school at Camp Perry this year, the coach assigned to me and three others by the U. S. Army Marksmanship Unit (USAMU) caught on to one of my human failings. In a mixed group of comparative newbies and Bullseye shooters, I was over-confident of my Bullseye ability and trapped by my ego into humiliating myself.

Handed an M9 for the first time, I moved to the firing line and took my traditional, one-handed Bullseye stance. In my mind I’m sure I silently said something to myself to the effect that I would show them how it’s done.

And then I butchered the performance.

Down and left.

My mind screamed “jerk!” but that didn’t help because, shot after jerked shot, my ego became more and more wrapped up in the show. It simply would not admit defeat.

USAMU’s coach Butler made a couple of suggestions but, since he and I had shot Bullseye side by side in the past, he knew I wasn’t normally the total klutz he was seeing today. I dare say he was probably amused at my failure.

He watched me shoot and, when I wouldn’t heed his advice, he also knew he had to let me make a fool of myself.

At the end of my ten rounds through the M9, I made the gun safe and turned away from the line. I’m sure I was looking down at the ground. I probably mumbled something incoherent.

He handed me another ten rounds and gently said, “Try both hands.”

Since I had already humiliated myself and couldn’t do much worse, I resigned myself to his suggestion. I capitulated and did what he said. I used both hands.

And I stopped jerking the shots.

Coach Butler knew human nature and understood not just how to shoot, but also how, and when, to teach.

There’s a saying. “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”

We usually think of this as being about the student but it is also about the teacher watching and knowing that to intercede too soon will be useless. The skilled teacher waits for the student to demonstrate his readiness.

Mine was ten jerked shots, a downcast and red face, and a mumbled admission of bewilderment.

Only then would I be ready to learn.

My coach understood my human failing, and he knew how to deal with it. He waited.

He wasn’t coaching me how to shoot. He was coaching the inner me. His focus was on the student, the person, the human being, not the skill.

The USAMU, to their great credit, recognizes that the coach needs human skills as well as shooting ability. They had chosen someone to teach at SAFS who could do both. I was lucky to receive this man’s very capable, very personal, very compassionate instruction.

Thank you, Coach.

Choosing a teacher for yourself, you need to do the same. You need to find someone who can shoot, yes, but you also need someone who can teach, who understands people, and who can teach you.

If they’re good, they will teach you, coach you. And sometimes that will mean they will have wait for you to be ready.

Start the search at least one or two NRA classifications better than yours but then look to see if they communicate their observations and can make concrete suggestions. Can they observe you and make specific corrections that make sense? Do those suggestions work for you? Can you do what they suggest?

And do they have a passion for teaching, not shooting but teaching, and seeing others improve? My SAFS instructor demonstrated his heart. He not only cared, but he also – intuitively or consciously – understood what to allow me (to do to myself) so that I would then be ready to learn a valuable lesson.

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Coach Pat Dolan in 2005 when I first started shooting Bullseye.

My first shooting coach charged twenty bucks. This was in 2005 and dirt cheap. He said the coaching session would last until one of us got tired or pissed off.

He coached not for the money but because he loved seeing someone get better.

That is the joy of teaching or coaching. Seeing a positive result. Seeing someone suddenly start doing something they couldn’t do before.

Let there be no doubt, for the teacher it is all about nurturing and seeing it work.

So, choose someone who cares but also someone whose ability to shoot, whether now or in the past, will inspire you. You need to be impressed by their ability. You must believe they have something to teach you.

But don’t start too high. We learn arithmetic before quantum mechanics and a college physics professor may not make the best teacher when you are still counting on fingers and toes if they are unwilling to sit on the floor and count with you.

Some teachers will do whatever it takes to get through.

Some won’t.

If the teacher is unable to bring himself down to what the student needs to learn, the Marksman or Sharpshooter Bullseye “student” may find that 95% of what a High Master says is meaningless. They just don’t have the basic skills needed as a foundation for the most advanced skills. If the teacher cannot adjust to what the student needs, it will be a frustrating waste of time for both.

Someone one or two levels better than yours in the NRA classification of shooters is ideal. And as you move up, you’ll probably need to find new coaches.

At the high end, it has to be different.

Finding a coach for a Master or High Master “student” is difficult because the skills of teacher and student are already very much alike. But we all have gaps in our understanding and someone who has successfully bridged those gaps can help someone else over.

So, the issues in choosing a coach at this level really are the same. Look for someone who can observe and then communicate specific changes.

“Do like I do,” is helpful if, after you try it, they tell you what you didn’t do and then say, “Try again.” It’s that middle communication, the fact that they were watching, that they saw what went wrong, and that they can then communicate it that matters.

Here’s another tip, this time for the would-be coaches and teachers.

Remember what they say: “You learn more teaching a class than taking it.”

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