This country’s international rifle and pistol teams need a swift kick in the shooting pants, a gold medalist believes.
I am constantly asked what is wrong with the U.S. Olympic shooting program, with the question usually being posed like this: Why is the United States not winning more medals? This is a legitimate question, and there certainly is no easy answer. In my opinion, which is based on 47 years of competitive shooting experience, there are several reasons why the United States is not as internationally competitive as it was in the 1960s and 1970s. Here’s my take on what needs to be fixed in our current international shooting program—and why those changes probably won’t be made.
The Way We Were
In the 1960s and 1970s, nearly all of this country’s medal-winning athletes were trained by the military. Trained shooters from the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit (U.S.A.M.U.)and to a lesser degree the Air Force Marksmanship Unit (which produced some outstanding pistol shooters) accounted for most of the medals. Many of the most talented young shooters in the country chose to enter the army, some to avoid the draft and others to take advantage of the opportunity, and were assigned to the U.S.A.M.U. at Fort Benning, Georgia. There they were able to devote almost all their time to training, shooting, and accomplishing their goals, which was winning medals for the United States. Most of the outstanding international shooters who represented the United States and won medals during this time period were a result of this program. Gary Anderson, Dan Puckel, Verle Wright, Tommy Pool, Jack Writer, Lanny Bassham, Jack Horner, Margaret Murdock, Bill Krilling, Jack Foster, and I were a few of these early athletes. We dominated international shooting competitions in the world, especially in the rifle events.
About 1972, the United States discontinued the draft, and many of the top collegiate shooters bypassed the military, choosing instead to pursue a shooting career on their own. As a result, there was about an eight-year span when many of our most talented young shooters did not have the time or means to train adequately. Nearly all of our former medal-winning athletes retired sometime in the 1970s, and they were replaced by shooters who largely didn’t realize their potential. This was evident at the 1978 World Shooting Championships in Seoul, Korea. Although we were able to win the major rifle team events, our margin of victory was slight. Fortunately for the United States the major shooting powers from the Eastern European countries, including the Soviet Union, did not attend. The United States has not won a major smallbore rifle men’s team event since 1978.
To be fair, though, world-level competition is at a much higher level now than when I was active. There are many more countries which have developed well-funded, competitive programs, especially Eastern European countries and former Soviet Union states. The improved programs and glut of Soviet-trained athletes have made it extremely difficult to win a major international medal.
U.S. Shooting Bureaucracy
In 1978 Congress passed the National Amateur Sports Act, and it was this legislation that may have inadvertently driven the quality of U.S. shooting programs down at the same time other countries were improving their shooting talent.
The act’s most problematic section stated that active athletes must make up at least 20 percent of all policy-making boards of directors or committees responsible for Olympic sports. The National Rifle Association was reinstated under the act as the sports federation which would govern international shooting in the United States. Since NRA was considered a political organization, it was forced to form the International Competitions Committee (ICC) to provide leadership in rebuilding and developing international shooting. Among the actions the ICC took were the following:
• The ICC formed the national-team to fill the void in the military programs.
• The International Shooter Development Fund (ISDF) was also formed to raise funds to support the national-team athletes, primarily those who were not already in the military. It later became the U.S. Shooting Team Foundation.
• The NRA and the U.S. Olympic Committee became much more involved in international-shooting programs and eventually provided a good share of in-kind (noncash) support as well as funding.
• As funding increased, the national team program continued to grow, developing many positive programs and facilities for the athletes.These included the hiring of a full-time staff with national coaches, the resident-athlete program, and the Olympic Training Center ranges, all at Colorado Springs. Others included the Junior Olympic program, the NCAA Rifle Championships, coaching courses and accreditation, increased junior promotion as well as support for the training and competitive needs of the national team and U.S. Shooting Team.
All of these accomplishments helped shooting establish a base, but they did little for the bottom line: Medal counts at the world level, especially the World Shooting Championships and the Olympic Games.
Where Things Went Wrong
As the program grew, athletes, and in some cases shooting-sports leaders, tried to please everyone, in my view. They lost sight of longrange goals and devoted too much time and effort bickering over petty differences and individual agendas. The “what’s in it for me” attitude prevailed in many of our so-called “elite” athletes and stymied real progress.
I found this out firsthand in 1987, when I retired from international shooting and the U.S. Army and was hired by the NRA to oversee the international training-shooting program at Colorado Springs. I had 37 years of competitive shooting experience, 23 at the world-class level, which included about 12 years as the chief administrator of the U.S. Army international-rifle program. Also, I had been in charge of the successful Fort Benning Junior Rifle Club. My shooting career had been very successful, and I knew what it took to win. I was sure I could get the U.S. international shooting program back to its previous level.
Wrong! I found out in short order that I was not in charge. I had responsibility but very little authority. The ICC was in charge, and it was controlled by athletes who had their own agendas and committee members who lacked experience and knowledge of what it took to win. Many committee members supported the athletes on important policy decisions concerning the training program—and in my view, they made decisions that maximized participation—not winning—at the world level. Though it pains me to say it, many athletes milked the system to cover their personal travel and equipment needs while expending as little effort as possible. In sum, it was great if we won, but winning became secondary when it came to the comfort or wants of many of the athletes.
I administered and tried to improve the system until 1994, when I was eased out after the NRA/U.S. Shooting Team split. I was not asked to return when the new governing body was formed. I can’t say that I miss the frustration. I worked long and hard to instill the policies that I thought were needed, but I was largely unsuccessful. Foremost among these systems I failed to install was a selection process that actually chose our best shooters.
Do What Works
Unlike the rifle and pistol disciplines, in 1990 the ICC adopted a U.S. Shooting Team shotgun tryout policy similar to one I had advocated for all disciplines. This tryout system incorporated three competitions at different times of the shooting season to select the United States team that would compete in the major international competition conducted that year. The first selection match was the National Championships held during the summer, followed by a second match in the fall and a third the following spring. Team members were selected based on total scores of the three matches. Their selection was made early enough in the shooting season to allow the coach to send the team to most of the world cups and other needed matches to prepare for the major competition of the year such as the Olympic Games, Pan American Games, or World Shooting Championships.
This selection method accomplished several goals: First, it forced athletes to train by providing incentives. If a shooter wanted to make the United States team, he/she had damn well better be prepared for the selection matches. Those matches counted for everything.
Second, this method provided at least three pressure competitions for the athletes. This is extremely important in the United States because our athletes don’t have the opportunity to participate in enough pressure competitions like European shooters do. All athletes have to compete in pressure competitions to learn how to cope with and win in pressure situations. In most of our domestic matches there is little or no accountability for performance by our athletes.
Third, this system eliminates the lucky shooter who has one good match. It allows better shooters to overcome a below-average performance in one of the matches and still be selected to the team.
Last, the three-match selection system ensures that those athletes selected are the best trained, most confident, and usually best performing shooters at that time. It also ensures they will be better prepared and have the best chance to medal during major competitions.
That this system succeeds can be seen in the performance of shotgun shooters since 1990, when new selection rules went into effect. The shotgun team has been our most productive discipline, winning more medals in the World Cups, World Championships, and Olympics than all of the other disciplines put together. Their recent outstanding performance during the Atlanta Olympic Games was no accident.
On the other hand our rifle shooters, while competitive, seem to consistently come up short in big matches, and rifle shooters have continually and consistently rejected a staggered-time, three-match team-selection system. They say they don’t need a multiple-match tryout system because the same shooters make the team anyway, that the process can’t force athletes to train, and that it costs too much and is too difficult for civilians and nonsupported shooters to attend three competitions.
These are all valid criticisms, but they miss the point. I agree that the same shooters do make the team, but they are not as well prepared as they could be and have problems with pressure when they participate in the major competitions. I disagree that most shooters are dedicated enough to do what is necessary to win. Winning is not a high enough priority, in my view, and getting on the team is the major goal of many shooters. On the third point, nonsupported athletes who have their priorities in order and the right attitude will find a way to attend and become supported. I don’t buy the excuse that cost will keep a competitor from competing.
Shooting is a full-time endeavor and has to be the number-one priority in an athlete’s life. Shooters who have full-time jobs and other commitments need to take a serious look at the time available, their goals, and priorities if they want to become world-class athletes. That’s just the way it has to be if there is to be a winning U.S. shooting program. There are enough talented rifle shooters in this country to dominate the world if the system would allow it to happen. Our junior and collegiate programs are as good as any in existence. All it would take is an adjustment in priorities, hard work, and dedication.
Cutting The Teams
One other policy I tried to implement while I was the team director involved establishing performance standards (cut scores) based on scores necessary to qualify for finals at world-level shooting events. These scores had to be achieved in U.S. competitions annually by every athlete before they could compete outside the United States. Although I was able to get this policy adopted by the committee, the athletes watered it down enough to make it ineffective. This is an excellent training tool because it promotes incentive to train, enhances performance under pressure, and effectively raises scores of the athletes who want to make the traveling squad. Shooters want to travel, so they will train as much as necessary to raise their scores so they can qualify. However, most of our better rifle and pistol shooters do not want to expend the extra effort and are vehemently opposed to performance standards.
The running-target discipline was the only group that actually proved performance standards work effectively. Shortly after the Seoul Olympic Games, running target converted almost exclusively to air gun. The base of shooters in running target was very small, and none were competitive at the world level. Performance standards were established, which none of the shooters had previously achieved. Before long several of the shooters reached the level, so the standards were raised. This happened four or five times with the same result. Within several years the running target discipline had shooter athletes who could compete at the world level. Unfortunately, the running-target discipline doesn’t have a large enough base of shooters to develop into a power.
What’s wrong with international pistol shooting? The major problem is a lack of a good grassroots program. There are very few young pistol shooters in the country. Our best pistol shooters are too old and past their prime before they become interested in international pistol shooting. They are simply behind the curve. We don’t have the junior clubs like we have in rifle, and our collegiate pistol program is primarily conducted at the military academies. Unfortunately, nearly all the academy shooters quit shooting as soon as they enter the military. Other than an occasional medal by U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit athletes and several others, our pistol shooters are not competitive at the world level. There are a handful who could be competitive if viable performance standards were required and winning was a high enough priority in their lives. For most, the only goal is to make the travel team. Winning is something they only hope for.
Most shooters rebut the performance-standard argument by stating they need the foreign competition to gain experience and learn how to handle pressure. I agree, these points are extremely important for those shooters already capable of world-level scores. I think it takes nearly five years of experience to learn how to win after you are shooting the scores capable of winning. However, most of our shooters do not perform at this level. If shooters cannot shoot world class scores at home or in small matches, they will not miraculously shoot those scores in big international competitions.
What Needs To Be Done?
For the United States to be competitive in rifle and pistol shooting again, several items need to adressed:
(1) There needs to be a competent, experienced training director hired whose job is to recruit and supervise national coaches who are on the same wavelength. This person should be a tough, no-nonsense official who has the responsibility and authority to make decisions and get the training program moving in the right direction, without interference from the committee and athletes. They should have input and be able to make recommendations, but the final decisions concerning training should be made by the training director and the national coaches. Part of this recommendation has already been achieved. Bob Mitchell, the former national rifle coach, has recently been hired as the new Director of Operations. Part of his job will be to administrate the training program. It will remain to be seen if he will actually be allowed to make the right decisions concerning training.
(2) Available funds in the running target and pistol disciplines could be used better if half their training budgets were designated to establish and promote grassroots programs throughout the country. The remaining funds should be used to conduct training sessions and competitions for the national team members.
(3) Support for national team members to compete outside the United States should be limited to those shooters who post world-level scores and earn the right to travel.
(4) The USA Shooting Federation should establish and then expand a fully accredited coaching program nationwide.
(5) A team tryout system similar to the one used by the shotgun team should be established for other shooting disciplines.
In my view, several million dollars have been wasted on marginal athletes who have never won an international medal and never will because of our system. They think they have the right to represent the U.S. because they are the best shooters in their respective disciplines. But they cannot compete at the world level—and they never will until we change our training policy.