Educating Myself

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The blog has been dormant for too long. My job has grown considerably busier and more complex over the last six months, thereby limiting my ability to bike commute. Weekday evenings are now dedicated to cooking and third graders’ homework. As a result, I’ve fallen a little out of shape because my weekends are predominantly occupied by the chores that used to get done during the work week. The weekends are also occupied by a new sport.

Since Father’s Day, I’ve taken a new recreational path: sporting clays or, as some refer to it, golf with a shotgun. Those who know me or have read the blog know that I’ve never mentioned guns and have never had any particular interest in them. Both of those statements have been true up until this past summer when a co-worker mentioned that I should “check out” sporting clays. And so I did.

My first encounter was during a lesson at Sandanona in upstate New York, one of the oldest shooting preserves in the country. The lesson began with a review of firearm safety and instruction on how to operate an over & under shotgun. I shot rifles in high school as part of an intramural squad and a I vaguely recall firing a shotgun at scout camp and, as such, I understood the basic rules of handling a gun. The instructor then taught me how to align the gun with my eye so I’d be shooting where I was looking and, voila, I broke my first clay target (the orange discs in the picture above). The first time you break one you are hooked and want to keep doing it over and over!

From the lesson, we set out on the course. A sporting clays course is similar to a golf course but, instead of greens and holes, you have stands and traps. The picture at the top of this post is a stand and trap at an event I completed this morning. You stand in the wooden frame, call “Pull” and a clay launches off the trap into the air (or onto the ground), you point your gun at it and fire. You may do this several times at a station, shooting different presentations of the clays; sometimes one at a time, and other times in pairs. You move from station to station around the course until you’ve shot at 100 targets.

I practiced on my own for  several weekends before taking another lesson and eventually committing to regular participation in the sport. I’m on the proverbial journey of novice to expert. Each station is a complex and complicated physics problem that you have to solve almost instantaneously in order to break the clay. On stations with pairs, that means two different sets of physics problems. Part of the allure of the sport, to me at least, is just that: It’s a problem that requires deliberate practice in order to solve. You may break a clay every now and then by sheer luck but you must work hard to break them consistently. When you break them…..that’s joy and accomplishment.

I reached the stage–back in September or October– that practicing on my own was not good enough. If you want to educate yourself at anything worthwhile you need help. You need a coach and you need to hang around people who are better than you. I contacted a not-so-local club and asked to join them as a guest but an early winter storm ruined that plan. So I did the next best thing and registered for a competition. I figured I’d be assured of meeting people better than me at a competition and could pick up a few pointers while also getting some experience “in the box.”

This morning I completed that first competition at an exceptional course in New Jersey, M&M Hunting Preserve and Sporting Clays.  The facility is owned by a national champion shooter, and he runs monthly competitions that attract sportspeople from the entire country. I had the extremely good fortune to squad with two shooters from Maine, and they were gracious enough to offer some pointers. I’m not exaggerating when I say I was shooting better by the end of the course as a result of meeting Kim and Earle.

Make no mistake, my score was awful and that’s to be expected at this stage of learning. But at least I did not earn lowest score!

The experience of traveling to a world class facility to compete with others who are further along the learning curve was very rewarding and empowering. I’m hooked more than ever and understand what my next steps should be toward improving.

Lessons Learned (it’s not learning if you don’t reflect afterward)

  1. Get to the course early. I did. Get to the course early enough to practice. That I didn’t do.
  2. Don’t leave your gloves and hearing protection in the car overnight. They’ll freeze.
  3. Poly-pro fleece underwear and insulated shoes are essential gear in January.
  4. Find pleasant people and ask if you can join them.
  5. Listen carefully to advice but also understand that some of it might be wrong. Vet the advice based on what you already know and the person’s performance.
  6. Practice requires a competent coach. Find one who specializes in your sport/discipline and set up a coaching plan.

Needless to say, I’ll be shopping for a coach who is an expert in sporting clays and thinking more deeply about how I practice. Educating yourself should be exciting and challenging. After today’s event I’m more excited than ever about getting better at this sport.

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About robertkerner

Educator, registered nurse, attorney, inquisitive mind
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