Staff Sgt. Michael McPhail trains for the Olympics at Fort Benning, Ga. (Jon R. Anderson / Staff)
The U.S. military is dispatching an elite squad of supershooters to London this summer, each member gunning for Olympic gold. Indeed, more than half of the 22-strong U.S. shooting team claim connections to the military.
OFFduty turned the final round of Olympic qualifiers at Fort Benning, Ga., into a target of opportunity to zero in on the best shooting secrets.
Not a shooter? Not a problem. Read on and you'll find plenty of advice that's just as applicable to whatever you compete in.
Get tuned in
Army Sgt. Vincent Hancock remembers "shaking like a leaf" as he readied his .12-gauge shotgun in the sudden death shoot-off to determine who would take home the gold medal in men's skeet at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.
Despite the jitters, he wasn't worried. "I just knew it was going to happen," he says. He dispatched the two clay targets with the same rapid-fire efficiency that earned him a spot on the team at age 19.
His secret? Hard-driving "It's Not My Time," by 3 Doors Down
Before every shoot, Hancock has at least one song looping on his mental playlist.
"That's what helps keep everything else out of my head," says Hancock, now a full-time shooter with the Army Marksmanship Unit. "The conscious mind can only really think about one true thing at a time. Having that run through my head, saying all the words, listening to the music roll, when I'm back there on the pad [getting ready to shoot], that's what keeps everything cool."
The songs have varied over the years — these days, it's "Amarillo Sky" by country singer Jason Aldean — but they all share a "certain rhythm" that resonates on some internal level that Hancock says is indispensible.
Army Sgt. 1st Class Jason Parker uses a similar technique to help focus. On his way to his fourth summer games — competing in the men's 10-meter air rifle and 50-meter three-position rifle competitions — Parker is reluctant to name his go-to song, but finally relents.
"It's kind of cheesy, but I sing ‘You are My Sunshine' to my kids every night. When I feel a little bit overwhelmed or whatever, I think about singing that song to my kids and the smiles it brings to their faces, and that relaxes me."
‘Touch the bird'
Double trap shotgun shooter Army Sgt. Glenn Eller is the defending Olympic gold medalist. Beijing was his third games, and he readily admits he came close to flubbing.
"If I had shot the way I had the day before, I think I would have come in last place," he says. Instead, he used the training time on the range to adjust his mental fire.
He came up with a mantra that seemed to do the trick — dropping his head before each shot and quietly telling himself, "See the bird. Touch the bird."
"It was the only thing I could tell myself the day before to get myself to hit them," Eller says.
The next day, he shattered 190 of 200 targets, breaking two Olympic records in the process.
These days, he's still bowing his head before every shot — and is also just as quick to change things up at the last minute.
"I change stuff every day," says the 30-year-old Texan. During a recent practice session at Fort Benning, Ga., he was testing a newly lengthened buttstock, stretching it out to 17 inches, more than 3 inches past a typical shooter's, to better match the reach of his long arms.
He's pretty happy with the results — he hit 58 of 60 targets — but may keep tinkering into the final days before London. While coaches may cringe at such major changes before stepping onto sport's biggest stage, Eller says it's all part of his ever-evolving quest to better touch the bird.
"You've got to keep finding what works," he says. "In our sport, once you get the ability, it's all about confidence — and when you do struggle, being able to bounce back. We're all going to miss. But how do you bounce back, and how do you limit your misses?"
Build your stash
Army Staff Sgt. Joshua Richmond will face off against Eller in double trap. Until a few months ago, he shared the world record for highest score in their event, besting Eller's Olympic high by six points in 2010.
He keeps his secret to winning stashed away in his iPad in the form of a few dozen video clips.
"I think about wins that I've had and watch videos of myself when I'm shooting my best. When I'm sitting watching that, I try to put myself back in that situation, smell what I was smelling, breathe what I was breathing, feel what I was feeling."
It's about internalizing what "right" looks like. And you don't need videos to do it.
"When you are doing your best, try to sit down and realize why — whether it's in training or competition — and then try to duplicate that over and over."
After a dose from his video stash, Richmond says, "I instantly have this feeling come over me of confidence and I can go out there right now and duplicate that."
Pick a spot
Army Staff Sgt. Michael McPhail learned early on to pick apart his targets.
Shooting in the men's prone event, for which he has to put .22 bullets into the center ring of a targetno bigger than a dime 50 meters away, McPhail has little room for error. Not much more than a hair's breadth can mean the difference between gold and going home empty-handed.
His advice: "Pick a spot. Aim small, miss small." For a hunter, for instance, "instead of shooting an entire animal, pick a small tuft of hair or something. On a silhouette target, aim for the forehead."
Of course, that kind of accuracy takes focus.
"If I lose focus, I typically just take a minute beside myself and try to remember what I'm out here for and what my goals are," he says. "That usually gets me back into a rhythm."
Army Sgt. 1st Class Joshua Olson learned a lot about patience while rebooting his life after losing his right leg to a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq. His two tours downrange as an infantryman in the 101st Airborne Division had already provided plenty of primer.
"When you're in a firefight, you don't make a lot of rash decisions when the first rounds kick off. You let the situation develop. Don't get excited, don't rush into things."
Those lessons found new meaning through his 18-month recovery and the grueling process of learning how to walk again with his new prosthesis. He's tapping that same practiced perseverance as the first active-duty member on the U.S. shooting team's Paralympic squad.
His trick for perfecting patience on the range: "A lot of mental checklists. It's almost like sending up a situation report — there's steps and a process for everything."
If at any point the wind changes or something else isn't right, "you just have to be patient and wait for the conditions," he says. "It's a waiting game a lot of the time."
When Jamie Gray's husband deployed to Afghanistan in 2010, he wove her a paracord necklace.
"I never take it off," she says. No doubt it will serve as a reassuring reminder when she deploys to London as a double threat on the women's team, competing in both rifle and air gun events.
But she knows the necklace won't be enough of a calming presence to keep her blood from pumping a mile a minute.
"Shooting is a lot about calming your heart rate down," she says. "Of course, when you get nervous, your heart rate goes up, and you can feel that when you're holding the gun."
To calm down, she's learned to rely on what she calls "belly breathing."
"I breathe through my stomach instead of my chest. It relaxes you a little more. ... I do it every shot throughout the match."
In the final rounds, she says, "I belly-breathe two or three times before I even turn my head to look through the sights."
How to do it: Use your stomach to push most, but not all, of the air out your lungs. "That's actually when I'm taking my shot — with the air exhaled," she says.
How long you have to make the shot depends on your own capacity. "A lot of it is on the eyes. They say you have about seven to 12 seconds to take a shot after you've let your air out because your eyes actually lose oxygen faster than anything else."
She's known as a long holder, sometimes taking as long as 15 seconds to pull the trigger.
Channel nervous energy
Army Sgt. 1st Class Eric Uptagrafft, heading to London for his second Olympic tour in the men's prone event, prefers a more rhythmic approach. "Breathe in, hold your breath, count to seven, breathe out, count to eight," he says, maintaining that steady flow in between each shot.
"That's my thing for how to stay calm," he says.
But not too calm.
Rather than trying to overpower the jitters, Uptagrafft has learned to tap what he calls his "nervous energy" to improve his shooting.
"I've learned to shoot well with it. It helps me focus a little bit better," he says. "I see better. I pull the trigger better. So a little bit of nerves is OK. A lot is bad."
His wife, Sandra, has learned her own way to deal with nerves.
A rare double-tap at the Olympics, the husband-wife team are both bound for London.
A first class petty officer in the Navy Reserve, Sandra Uptagrafft has been an alternate in the pistol event for the past four games. This year, she made the team by redoubling her efforts — and getting some help.
"The biggest difference this time around was that I buckled down and really worked hard at getting technically better. I had more support all the way around." That included working with a physical therapist on injury prevention as well as regular sessions with the team's sports psychologist "to get mentally tough."
The biggest difference, though, was finding a mentor in two-time Olympian Ruby Fox, who earned a silver in pistol during the 1984 games.
"She guided me through this process. She'd been there, done that before. She knew what it felt like to make the team and compete at this high a level and go for a medal."
During one qualifying competition, Uptagrafft bombed with a score that "even on my worst day, I didn't think I would do that bad," she says. "I was feeling really down and thinking I just ruined it and, again, come close but not made it. But she was right there giving me encouragement, saying ‘it's not over, do what you do, I have faith in you.‘"
The pep talk was enough for Uptagrafft to regain her composure and "just focus on the process of shooting and not worry about the distractions."