Like many shooters, my passion began for competing in high school, but unlike many, I had the opportunity to join the rifle team and was introduced into small bore and high power competition rather early.
Years later, after some competitive shooting in the Marine Corps, I found my true competitive love while watching a shooting video of the top United States Practical Shooting Association shooters.
Practical shooting began decades before in the form of leatherslap competitions, where the shooters focused on fast drawing defensive firearms from their holsters. The original informal competitions became governed by the USPSA and the International Practical Shooting Confederation. The sports became known as "practical shooting," and the shooting and gear evolved at a very fast rate.
Practical shooting has been in my blood for over 20 years now, and I have competed in both USPSA and IDPA, as well as other variations of steel or practical type competitions. This experience has led me to figure out some stuff along the way, things that would make life for a new shooter much easier.
Lets keep the list short for this article, so you can focus and absorb each one, and in future articles I will expand on all the other things you will need to know to shoot competitively. While my focus (and background) is in practical shooting, this list addresses things that can be applied across the board.
Don't Make Assumptions
I am surprised each time I hear someone in conversation or from a distance talk about competitive shooting. Oftentimes they are misinformed by other 'target ' shooters on what competition is really all about, what gear to use or specific rules. I have students who are avid competitors show up to classes with a lack of knowledge about the rules of their sport. So, one of my first recommendations is to read the rulebook of the sport they are shooting. If you are a new shooter, don't make assumptions until you attend a match and watch and speak to the shooters. After that, you will have a much broader understanding of the sport and what your next steps should be.
You Don't Need a Predetermined Skill Set
Many new shooters may actually be required to attend a class or group session before being allowed to compete. That being said, you don't need to be a great shooter (or even a good one) to compete. Almost every shooting sport out there has different classes of shooters ranging from beginner to expert. Most often, you will be competing against others with similar abilities. I have heard shooters say they are going to practice a bit before getting into competition, and my response is always to encourage these folks to get to a level of training where they are safe, then jump in with both feet. Competing with good shooters will probably help you more than practicing on your own.
Don't Be Too Quick to Buy All Your Gear
Please follow my advice on this one: Do not go out and buy guns and gear until you have watched a match. I can't possibly express how often I see shooters with guns that are completely wrong for their division. While there is a wide range of gear that may work, there are probably more effective (and most of time less expensive) gun/holster/magazine combinations available. Please take the time to watch a match, and take a notebook with you. Ask the best shooter you see what guns he or she is using and why. This insight will save you time, headaches and hopefully some cash.
Match Nerves Never Go Away; Learn to Control Them
This is one that prevents many people from shooting a match, or even considering it. Just think of the inevitable nervousness as an adrenaline rush. Even the top shooters in the world get the shakes when they step up to the plate, but one thing they all know is there is no secret potion that will get rid of that performance anxiety. If your nerves are really bothering you, find a good instructor/coach that can break down your issues.
Don't Expect to Win Right Away
When I was still in law enforcement I routinely brought other officers with me to handgun matches. Most of them shot well, but seemed to be surprised when they were out-shot by civilians or first timers. Since then, I've met many people who shot their first match and were so humbled that they chose not to go back. Even if you're a good shooter at your local range and you can beat your buddies, you're probably not going to win your first match. You can't let a slow start bother you, though, my personal suggestion is to look at it as a challenge!
If You Need Help, Simply Ask Someone
When you are at your first match, it's pretty likely that you will have a question or need some help. Don't be afraid to ask someone. Most shooting communities that I have been a part of are extremely helpful to all involved and more often than not will go to extreme lengths to help fellow competitors. I have seen more guns, gear and ammunition loans than I can count.
Your Ability in Practice Will Probably Never Translate to the Match
I wish this weren't true, but it is. Practice makes perfect, so hopefully you will spend some time training on the range to improve your match scores. Surprisingly, you may not be able to perform to the same level in a real competition as you do in practice. Don't let this discourage you, though, as long as your skill is improving in practice it will carry over to competition. If there is a huge difference in your ability in practice and a match, then consider this an indication that you might not be as strong mentally as you need to be. Likely, the failure during competitions is a result of a lack of confidence, or high anxiety, which brings us to my final tip...
Have a Strong Mental Preparation Program
Shooting is a physical skill that is strongly influenced by visual input and mental control. That is why it's so important to understand what the 'mental game ' is, and how to improve in that area. The reason I bring this up is that new shooters always tend to react to a poor performance by going to the range and simply shooting more. While this may be an effective solution, it is much less effective than adding some mental training to the equation. In my book, Your Competition Handgun Training Program, I include a mental section that helps shooters build solid mental skills that translate to better performance in competitions. A key point in that section covers utilizing the mental tools I give them, such as a 'focus breath ' and 'performance statement ' during their training.
Mike Seeklander is the owner of Shooting-Performance LLC, as well as the president of the U.S. Shooting Academy in Tulsa, Okla. Mike has extensive formal training and experience as a full-time professional instructor, and has authored numerous pieces of curriculum. In 2010, Mike published the incredibly popular book Your Competition Handgun Training Program, as well as a logbook and two DVDs ("Competition Handgun Training Skills and Drills," volumes 1 and 2), to complete the Shooting-Performance training system. Mike teaches a wide variety of programs through USSA and his company Shooting-Performance, including defensive firearm and competition classes.