Take Advantage of Professional Coaching

One of the things I have learned in my years of skeet shooting is if I ever take up another sport, the first thing I’m going to do is find someone who knows exactly what is going on and start from there. I know in the end I will save myself time, money and lots of frustration. Whether you’re a recreational or competitive shooter, you can improve your game through better information by deciding to take a clinic or seek professional help. Let’s talk about how you should approach such training to maximize the experience.

Choose The Right Coach
When it comes to selecting someone to further your game, be selective and careful. The ability to shoot has nothing to do with the ability to coach. Much of my business comes from the fact I am still winning in the sport, but knowing a coach is “winning” in a sport conveys nothing about that person’s ability to communicate and impart to you the necessary knowledge to advance your shooting. That belief is as far from the truth as you are from the bird when shooting a 90-yard Springing Teal.

Obviously, having a coach who has years of tournament experience would be of a great value, but he or she must also have a firm grasp on proper fundamentals and how they apply to you. More importantly, they need the skills and knowledge to know how to get that information across to you.

How do you know if a coach is right for you? First, take a look at their experience and longevity. Coaching experience, different from shooting experience, is generally what separates a good coach. Fortunately, the market has a tendency to weed out the weak ones. But don’t make this your ruling factor. There are some great coaches who are just starting out.

How do you find a good coach? Ask those who would know, those with experience. Search websites like the National Skeet Shooting Association (NSSA) at www.mynssa.com. They have a list of instructors on their website, listed by level of ability. The whole idea behind the NSSA’s program is to promote shooting, so they shouldn’t steer you wrong. But don’t just be satisfied to trust these certifications. Ask higher-ranked instructors about lower-level instructors in your area.

Get your own information, too. Ask for references and question the coach directly, just as you would a doctor about to take your life into his or her hands. If you don’t get the answers you’re looking for, look elsewhere.

If a coach you are interested in has a DVD out, it is the best review of his coaching technique and style you will find. If what you see and hear makes sense, there may be something there for you. If it doesn’t make sense, it probably won’t get any better after you have given them a big check. Use your common sense.

Evaluate The Coach
When accepting help with your game, you need to be sure the answer and suggested change are correct as they relate to your problems. Your first thought should be: Is the analysis correct? The “expert” at the club may be right that you are shooting behind High Four, but can he tell you why? It is usually not just because you are using a short lead. There may be some physical factor that does not allow you to obtain the lead you desire. This is where an experienced professional coach can help. We see many problems in our clinics as a result of wrong or incomplete advice received from some well-meaning shooter.

As a shooter, you need to ask yourself: Is the information I am receiving based on factual analysis? And, even if the speculation is correct, are you receiving the right cause of the problem and solution? You need to know the cause, the correction and how to implement the correction.

No matter what information you receive, ask why. When you get advice from a squadmate about a particular problem, no matter how well-intentioned the advice, ask why. If you are brave enough to seek advice on the Internet (I’m not sure “brave” is the right word), you’ll most likely get 15 different responses. If you find one that sounds credible, still ask “why” before you jump in with both feet. Do the same with any coach you choose.

Ask these questions: Why would you do this? Why is what I am doing wrong? What are the benefits of what you are telling me to do? If the responses make sense and you think the advice is reasonable, great. Give it a try. If there is no logical basis for the information or it sounds goofy, it probably is.

Empty Your Cup
After you’ve chosen a coach and the day of your first class arrives, how do you approach it? One of the best stories about learning is the one about a Zen master who met with a university professor who had traveled to the Orient to inquire about Zen. Immediately, the master realized from their conversation the professor was not as interested in learning about Zen as he was in impressing the master with his own opinions and knowledge. The master listened patiently and finally suggested they have tea. The master poured the professor’s cup full and then continued pouring. The professor watched the cup overflowing until he could no longer restrain himself.

“The cup is overfull, no more will go in!” he exclaimed.

“Like this cup,” the master said, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

You would be surprised how often we see this same attitude in our clinics. If you are going to make the investment in professional advice, by all means, have an open mind and be willing to change and try the proven methods offered.

Taking The Clinic
One thing you can do when taking a clinic that will really pay off in the future is take notes. I am shocked that less than 5% of my students take notes. During one of my full-day clinics, shooters are exposed to an awful lot of information, more than most people can retain in one day. It has been my experience the average shooter will retain less than 50% of what they learned the previous day. And, that may be a more-than-generous estimate.

Writing down key components of your game helps reinforce what you are trying to teach the conscious and subconscious parts of your brain. Not only will note-taking aid your learning and retention, it will allow you to go back and review the information. We have been asked if a shooter can video a clinic and, for the same reasons, I am greatly in favor of this. One client I had last year actually hired a professional videographer to tape the whole day’s session so he could completely focus on the coaching and, at the end of the day, had a high-quality account of everything that had transpired for future reference.

A mistake some shooters make at clinics is shooting their targets on a particular station then walking off the field or going to the clubhouse until it is their turn again to shoot. It is not easy to stand on a field all day (I speak from experience), but if you leave while others are shooting, you miss a lot of information that may not be touched upon again for the remainder of the day. Paying attention to other shooters and seeing their mistakes, as well as their successful executions, is a wonderful visual tool that may help you identify and correct your own problems more easily. At the end of a day, almost all my students can identify shooters making fundamental mistakes as fast as I can because they have witnessed the mistakes made by others over and over all day.

Although it may be cost prohibitive for some, taking multiple sessions at a clinic will increase the effectiveness of your time with the coach. When someone is out for the first time, the first day can be information overload. Taking back-to-back days allows time to rest between sessions and to digest the information presented, and you return the next day able to refine issues from the previous day. What you get back from multiple sessions comes back on an exponential curve.

Come Prepared
If you are taking a clinic that is an all-day affair, bring whatever you may need. Ask your coach if there will be a lunch break. I pride myself on never leaving the field all day during a clinic. I want to make sure my students get their money’s worth. That doesn’t mean you get no breaks — that’s up to my clients — but I’m there to work. You’ll need some nutrition, so bring food and water. Some clubs have no food concessions. Imagine spending several hundred dollars an hour on instruction and spending an hour and a half during the day looking for food. Bring some notebooks, a voice recorder or video recorder. And, bring sunscreen!

This may not make you happy, but we heavily suggest factory ammunition be used at our clinics. Here is the reason: You spend a lot of money to attend a clinic with a professional coach, and if half your shots can’t be assessed because your shells are inadequate, not only are you wasting your time and the coach’s, you’re wasting the time of your fellow participants. The coach isn’t happy and your fellow shooters aren’t, either. Even though it is an added expense, get the most out of your clinic by splurging on some new ammunition.

After-Clinic Training
Finally, if you have made the commitment to seek professional advice, give it time. I figure at least half of my students go back to doing what they were doing before the clinic within two to three weeks after the clinic. Many shooters are looking for a “quick fix”, a shortcut to advancing their game. Taking the clinic was the easy part; sticking with it afterwards is where the work comes in.

You must understand that, after changing your approach to any endeavor, you must be ready to accept a downturn in your scores for a few weeks. It is difficult at times to have confidence in a new or unproven method, but you must have faith in the knowledge that practice and persistence will pay off.

This doesn’t mean you aren’t making progress at all during the period of recession. You are acclimating to the new approach. This requires some time, and you must focus on the process of shooting instead of the outcome. Once your execution is perfected, your scores will take care of themselves, and your patience will be rewarded with a potential you never dreamed of. Once your execution and fundamentals are solid, you can soar!

Ask your coach what is a reasonable time to wait for positive changes in your game. Rome was not built in a day, and neither were the careers of the great shooters you look up to. Most of the greats in any sport have spent decades perfecting their games. Don’t be fooled into thinking you will be any different.

Keep Records
One of the most important things you can do, whether you take a clinic or not, is to keep a record of your practice sessions. This simple act, while it may be time-consuming, can pay off in spades.

I had known about the benefits of writing down everything that happens to you in each practice session, but I resisted. Then my best friend, Lanny Bassham, got me to start keeping a journal of my shooting. The impact it had on my game was immense. I was going to say “incalculable”, but my last year of shooting can be easily calculated. This was a direct result of logging my performances from the start of practice in January to the season’s end at the World Championships in October. I took my journal every time I picked up a shotgun to shoot skeet.

It’s not difficult to keep a record. I do my journal entries within five minutes of finishing a practice session, and it takes only a few minutes to complete. How did the session go? What were the positive outcomes of the session? What needs to be worked on?

Not only are you positively reinforcing what went right by writing it down, you also have a record of your progress for you and/or your coach to review. Imagine wishing you knew what was going so well and what you were feeling that day you shot so great six months ago! Being able to return to your journal for that day means you will know exactly what went right. What a wealth of information! For a ready-made journal developed by Olympic Gold Medalist Lanny Bassham, and the one I use, go to www.mentalmanagement.com, where you can order a journal like mine.

Continuing Education
You should realize over time you may slowly change your fundamentals (i.e., foot position, hold points and so on) without knowing it. Several years ago at the World Championships, I shot a practice round with a student I had worked with about six months earlier. He stepped up to Station Three and used a foot position that was completely foreign to what we had worked on. I asked him who told him to stand like that, and he replied, “You did.” He wasn’t even close! Because it is natural to change without being aware of it, you must always be conscious of your fundamentals and police yourself. Another good reason for taking notes!

It is my intention that after a full day with a client, I have given him/her all the information needed to be successful in their sport. When students return for a refresher six months or a year later, however, I sometimes hear, “You did not tell me that last time.” Quite probably I did cover the item in question, but because they were focused on other fundamentals at the time, the student did not process that information, or possibly the student was not ready to receive the information at his/her current level of understanding.

As a shooter progresses, his or her level of competency and understanding increases, so they can comprehend more-detailed components of the game and the way in which those components apply to their approach to the game. Because of this learning curve, which increases to infinity as participation continues, a consistent exposure to good coaching will greatly enhance performance.

You must also realize over time you will slowly change your execution without realizing it on a conscious level. In one case, this may mean over the course of a few months a shooter will slowly change his/her hold point on a particular target as they gain confidence in that shot. As they gain confidence, they may stop doing what they would normally do(setting up for all contingencies — good target, bad target, bad pull, flat target, etc.) and begin “cheating.” They unwittingly position themselves in a situation where they will not break that target as well and confidently as they had previously or, even worse, may start missing it. If they are lucky, an outside observer will intervene before they reach that point. If there is no internal or external intervention, they will start missing that target and, without proper direction and proper understanding of the fundamentals, will most likely not be able to rectify the situation.

I have a client who comes to see me every year. One winter when he came for a “tune-up”, he came up to me at the end of the session and said, “This is the same stuff you have been telling me for the past five years, but somehow I forgot it all.” Over time, he had gotten away from what he knew to be right and just needed to be reminded. He progressed well during our session and probably got more out of that lesson because he was further into his personal learning curve. He was also able to recognize he had a problem, acted to correct it and increased his performance and enjoyment of his sport. You can always learn something from every lesson!

In closing, remember, no matter how proficient you may be, basic and advanced instruction is good. Roger Federer still has a coach. Even Tiger Woods has a coach. Whether you are just starting out or you are an accomplished shooter, you can increase your potential with good instruction. I have never seen a shooter I couldn’t help in some way. We see a good many AA and AAA shooters, and I may not have to tell them much, but I can usually always tell them something, and it is that little something they were looking for.

When you decide to seek help, come prepared, empty your cup and enjoy the learning experience! SS


Todd Bender has been performing at the highest levels of the skeet game for over 40 years. Here are a few of his achievements: Highest HOA in the history of the sport .9972; 24 Open NSSA World Championships; NSSA World Championships (2007, 2008, 2009) shot perfect scores of 550x550. In 1987 Todd was the first shooter ever to shoot three consecutive 400x400s and the only shooter to do it twice- 400x400, 400x400, 550x550 (1991) and the NSSA Men’s All-American First Team 35 consecutive times. Todd maintains a hectic travel schedule around the world with his shooting clinics and tournament schedule. He has been writing for Shotgun Sports since 2005. Todd’s instructional DVDs are available on page 39 in this issue. For information about Todd Bender Performance and for Todd’s 2020 Clinic Schedule, go to the Clinic Schedule Page at toddbenderintl.com or contact Todd Bender at toddbenderintl@gmail.com. For Todd’s newest videos on skeet shooting, contact Sunrise Productions at sunrisevideo.com. Any use or reproduction of this article or any content without the written consent of Todd Bender is prohibited.

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