“We have the opportunity to practice five days a week,” said Kim Coffey, a 22-year-old senior. “It’s up to you, but most people come out four or five times a week.”
The nine members of the women’s team spend their early morning hours at the range at the Patricia C. Lamar Army National Guard Readiness Center. They stretch and exercise, they put on heavy leather and canvas suits and they methodically shoot .22 caliber rifles and air rifles.
“For me, it’s a challenge. It’s a head game for me,” said junior Rena Goodwin, 20. “There are times when it’s been such a struggle that I wanted to put it down, but I went through it. It’s taught me a lot about who I am and how my head works. It’s a challenge, the challenge of perfection.”
In shooting parlance, perfection is “clean.” That means all 10 shots in a round score 10 points for a total of 100. Shooting clean in a match comes down to what the women do at the practice range day after day.
As Head Rifle Coach Valerie Boothe said, “It’s not a hard sport to get good at. It’s a hard sport to master.”
And mastery comes from having the right mindset, according to Assistant Coach Natasha Dinsmore: “You can shoot nine 10s in a row, but the big thing is hitting the tenth 10. It’s not just pulling the trigger. Maybe you’re not physically tired at the end, but you’re mentally exhausted.”
The Ole Miss rifle team will open the 2012-13 season with a No. 6 ranking, just behind the United States Military Academy. The season will begin with a competition in Memphis on Thursday, followed by the Ole Miss Invitational on Friday at the team’s indoor range.
There’s no charge to watch the all-day affair, and fans in the stands stay safe behind two translucent barriers. Video screens give real-time reports of how competitors are scoring.
“When I see people in the stands, especially people I know, it’s a good motivation,” Coffey said. “It’s nice to have them at the beginning of the match, but once you’re shooting, you don’t think about people in the stands.”
During competition, each woman has two hours to fire off 60 shots. For .22 smallbore rifles, two rounds of 10 are fired from a prone position, two rounds
kneeling and two rounds standing. For air rifles, all six rounds are fired while standing. The target is 50 feet away for smallbore rifles and about 33 feet away for air rifles.
Competitors can take bathroom breaks, or just take a few moments to get their heads together by using strategies they’ve learned from Ole Miss sports psychologists.
“If you are not shooting like you want to, you can take a minute and picture yourself on a beach and calm down,” Coffey said. “That helps you stay focused.”
In addition to regular practice at the range, team members prepare themselves for competitions by hooking up to a biofeedback device that teaches how to increase and decrease heart rates.
Concentration is key, but team members can’t neglect their bodies. Goodwin said competing can be particularly tough on backs and rotator cuffs, so there’s a focus on flexibility, along with weekly yoga sessions and workouts with light weights. Running builds stamina and helps keep resting heart rates low.
Picking up, carrying and firing their rifles also provide valuable exercise they can’t get elsewhere.
“You use so many small, fine muscles,” Goodwin said. “It’s hard to target those muscles, other than doing it.”
Stillness matters, and leather and canvas shooting jackets, pants, gloves and shoes help by restricting movement in an admittedly comical way, Coach Dinsmore said.
“When you totally suit up, you can’t walk correctly,” she said. “They kind of waddle like penguins when they’re completely suited up.”
Goodwin has clear and not altogether pleasant memories of her introduction to her official Ole Miss suit.
“At first it was very stiff. I felt like a robot in it. It rubbed me sore in a lot of spots,” she said. “Now it fits like a glove. I couldn’t imagine not having it.”
On the road
The competition season will last until March, and the team will travel to Kentucky, West Virginia, New York and Maryland. The NCAA Championships will be at Ohio State, but Ole Miss has to earn that invitation.
“Recruiting season is all year,” said Boothe, a former rifle team member at the University of Tennessee-Martin who was brought in to start the Ole Miss program 16 years ago.
Boothe has 3.6 scholarships to give out. She and Dinsmore travel to club meets and Junior Olympics events around the country, hoping to entice talented shooters to Oxford.
“A lot of these kids shoot for clubs or Junior ROTC or high school clubs,” Dinsmore said.
Coffey and Goodwin were club shooters from Massachusetts, and other rifle team members were recruited from Mississippi, Alabama, Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky.
“Some of the high school shooters we recruit come with their own equipment, some we provide,” Boothe said. “We provide all the ammunition.”
Goodwin has about $3,000 invested in her modified smallbore rifle. The stock was trimmed and shaped to fit comfortably against her collarbone. Part of the barrel was removed and a “bloob tube” extension was added to get the sites customized just right. Scopes aren’t allowed at the range.
Modified rifles and restrictive suits are necessary, but not primary. Passion for the sport and willingness to improve come first.
“When you first start, you can get better by 20 or 30 points pretty quickly,” Goodwin said. “At this level, jumping 5 points is a huge deal. It’s all about fine adjustments and refinements.”
There are good and bad days. It’s frustratingly common for shooters to hit plateaus, where skills get stuck at one level or drop slightly.
Practice continues at the range, and team members know plateaus don’t last forever. For those who stick it out, the sport offers rewards that go beyond winning and losing, or even shooting clean.
“I love this,” Coffey said. “It takes you away from the real world. The mental game is so strong. When you’re out there on the line, you tune out everything else. It’s like going into another world.”