Here are some basic thoughts and ideas that might help you improve your IPSC shooting, refocus your training, or enjoy competition more.
Identifying What's Wrong
Basically there are two areas to look at: points and time. After your next match sit down and look at your scores. Where are the people who are beating you getting ahead? The easy answer is 'time', because the typical thing is for people to get fixated on going fast and forget that the scoring has two components. Before you look at the times, look at the points. It's important to understand the relationship between the high hit factor on a stage and how many seconds a point is worth.
It's very common for the high hit factor at a major match to in the 7-12 range. No matter what the high factor is, one over that factor is how many seconds one point is worth. In other words, if the high factor is a 7, one point is worth 1/7 of a second; for a 12 factor stage, one point is worth 1/12 of a second. If you are only a 50% shooter, multiply those numbers by 2: for you one point is worth 1/6 of a second, if you are running a 6 factor on a stage where the winner shoots a 12 factor.
A lot of people don't understand that a miss doesn't cost you 10 points -- it costs you 15, because you aren't getting the 5 points for that missing A. That means on a 10 factor stage, where each point is worth 1/10 of a second, a miss is equal to 1.5 seconds. That means if you can make up that miss in less than 1.5 seconds your factor will be higher than if you leave it. This also means that in certain cases you are better off to leave a small steel plate after engaging it once or twice, than taking up 10 seconds banging away at it. Obviously you can't do that if the whole course is small steel plates, but there are times when taking the miss is better than eating a lot of time. If you have a jam after firing one shot at the last target on a stage, you have already engaged the target. If it takes you longer than 2 seconds to clear the jam or reload, you are probably better off stopping and taking the miss -- especially if the stage has a high factor (over 10).
Here's a key to mastering any physical skill: before you try to perform the skill at any significant speed you need to spend some quality time getting the form right. There are a million subtle details in your grip, stance, draw, reload, and target acquisition. Part of learning to go faster is to break down what you are doing and analyze it. Compare your form to someone else's, preferably someone who is a lot better than you are. When you practice, concentrate on smooth, relaxed motion, and correctness of form. You are far better off with a 1.4 second reload, for example, than a tense, jerky reload that is 1.0 second one of ten times, 1.8 most of the time, and two of ten times you botch the load completely.
There is no substitute for diligent practice. The hard truth is that unless you are willing to spend some time dry firing or on the range, you won't see any dramatic improvements in speed. Worse than that, it really takes 3-4 sessions a week to show significant improvement. Otherwise you are only maintaining or inching forward. If you can spend 10 minutes a day dry-firing you will probably be better off than making one trip to the range and shooting 500 rounds in one session. Of course, there is also no substitute for going to the range and setting up field courses and shooting a lot, but as you'll see I've come to believe that how you practice is as important as how much you practice.
Attitude is the most important factor, in my opinion. First and foremost, you should be excited about shooting the match, and waiting your turn to shoot a stage should be like standing in line for your favorite rollercoaster. The electric jolt that should hit you as the start buzzer goes off is what makes IPSC so much fun. Think back to the first few IPSC matches that you shot. You didn't know much about the scoring rules or how to game a stage, but if you are like most competitors you had a great time, because it gave you an adrenaline rush. Unless you are one of the lucky few who are making a living shooting matches, don't ever lose your perspective. The day after the match no one but you, and maybe a few friends, will remember how you did on stage 5. If it stops being fun, take a break and regroup. For most people, IPSC stops being fun because of frustration with gun problems, erratic performance, or burnout from ending up being match director, course designer and head RO at too many matches. All of those things can be fixed.
Everybody's been there, or will be there someday. When you least expect it, usually at a major match, your gun will break. It will probably break after running flawlessly in practice for months. If this happens, remember that there is always another match. Find a gunsmith that you trust, and who can repair your gun in a timely fashion, especially during match season. If you can afford, get a backup gun. If you intend to shoot more than 3 major matches each year, a backup gun is a wise investment. If the main gun breaks the day before the match, having an identical spare that you can pull out of the safe and use is a wonderful thing. By the time you start shooting multiple major matches per year you've made a significant investment in equipment, ammo, travel, and match fees. The backup gun may seem like overkill but once you have one you wonder what you ever did without it. The bad news about fixing gun problems is that it always costs money. Unfortunately, IPSC is an equipment intensive sport, and keeping the guns running is a big part of it. For some shooters tinkering with the guns, and trying to squeeze every ounce of maximum performance from them, is almost more fun than shooting them!
If you go to the USPSA WWW page and use
the search feature to look at how an average shooter performs at matches, you'll
see an interesting trend. Except for the people who finish in the top 10 at
major matches, almost everyone has a wide variation in their percentage. Those
that win their classes are almost always the people who do the following:
- the gun runs on every stage
- shoot 90% or better of the possible points on every stage
- fire a minimum of makeup/extra shots
- no misses, no-shoots, or procedurals
- figures out an efficient plan to run each stage and sticks to it
For most people, meeting these goals is much harder than learning to go faster, but eventually no matter how fast you go if you fail to meet these goals on match day, someone will beat you -- maybe someone who is a lot slower.
Most stages at major US matches these days have high hit factors in the 7-12 range, which means that shooting a miss is like taking an extra 1-2 seconds. The difference between an 85% run and a 70% run, for example, is usually one miss and a couple of D's. When you practice,shoot as if every run is the last stage of a match, and all you have to do is shoot your speed and get all the hits to win the match. If you allow yourself to get D's in practice, you will get misses and no-shoots on match day. Under stress, you will do what you have trained yourself to do. It is the first 50 rounds that you fire in a practice session that reflect what you will do on match day, not the last 50.
Here's where attitude comes back into the picture. The way I see it there are
two basic attitudes on match day: Fun and Serious. If you are in 'Serious' mode,
you spend some time before the match chamber checking match ammo, cleaning magazines,
and generally doing everything you can to make your gun work. The night before
the match you eat healthy food and get a good night's sleep. You get up early
enough that you are awake and alert by your first stage, and you stretch and
warm up your muscles before it is your turn to shoot. You have looking at the
stages and put together a plan on how you intend to shoot the stage, and you
have run through it in your mind enough times that you can turn your back on
the props and describe to someone else, in detail, exactly what you are going
to do. The more detail you have in your mental plan, the less you have to think
when the buzzer goes off. At each stage, you tell yourself:
- This is going to be the best stage of the match - because you are excited to be there and you intend to shoot 100% of your potential. If you allow yourself to be intimidated by a course of fire you have already lost! Visualize yourself shooting the stage perfectly.
- No matter what it takes, I will get the hits. - you will pay attention to your dot or your sights, and do your best to call every shot as it breaks. If you see your sights move off the target as you shoot, fire a makeup before your gun leaves the target. Calling your misses and not having to go back to targets, or leaving misses and no-shoots, is a major problem for most shooters. In order to achieve this you have to teach yourself to stop blinking as the gun goes off. Videotape or a practice partner will help with this.
- I am ready to shoot right now. - because you could be the first shooter in your squad. Because you have taken the time before you walked up to the stage to prepare yourself and your equipment, and because IPSC is so much fun that you can't wait to do some shooting!
The other option is to get into 'Fun' mode, where you go have fun the night before the match, and throw your stuff in the car the morning of the match and hope that your gun is clean, that you have enough ammo to shoot the match, and that you have a holster and magazines. If you go in this mode, don't get upset when things go wrong. After all, you didn't make the effort to prepare for a 'serious' match. If you go in 'Fun' mode you have already decided that whatever your score is - good or bad - is secondary to the activity of shooting and socializing. Training hard and trying to achieve your personal best is a great thing, and when you succeed it is extremely rewarding -- but unless you keep things in perspective you can easily get on the road to burnout when things get tough.
If you get serious, eventually you will get to a point where you are facing burnout. This is true whether you are shooting 2000 rounds a week trying to make Master class, or running your local club singlehandedly, or both at the same time. The best solution is to take a break, or change something. Switch from Limited to Open, or vice versa. Shoot a match with a revolver, or your carry gun from concealment. If you are one of the backbone workers of your club, travel to another club where you are only expected to be a shooter, and not a match director. It may be sacrilege to say it, but you could (gasp) just skip the match completely and go see a movie or sleep in.
This little essay isn't intended to give you all answers, and is just a collection of things that I've learned from many years of trying to continually improve my scores and win matches. Some of it may be wrong, but it's what has worked for me. If this information helps you, or if you find that it doesn't help, let me know. I'm always learning something new, and you never know, what you figure out may be the thing that helps me get a little closer to that GM card...