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MIT student blogger Anna H. '14

Life Lessons From Pistol Class by Anna H. '14

But they don't buy pajamas / For pistol packin' mamas!

Technically, there isn’t much to shooting a pistol.

Load rounds into magazine. Insert magazine. Release the bolt. Grip as in a firm handshake. Inhale, raise arm. Exhale a little, press gently on the trigger until you meet resistance, lower arm to target. Focus on the front sight. Without taking your focus off that front sight, gently press harder, ignore the BANG!, pull the trigger all the way back and keep sight on target even though the bullet is already long gone.

Technically, the hardest part is keeping your arm steady, if you’re like me and have almost no muscles above your hips.

It’s no surprise, then, that Mike Conti (the MIT PE pistol instructor) tells his classes that shooting is 90% mental and 10% technical.

Here are four life lessons from pistol class, typed up (ironically) while I skip pistol class to fly to Los Angeles (don’t worry, Mike is cool with it) —

1. ReMOVE the magazine. RePLACE the magazine.

Each class, Mike verbally directs our warm-up routine: “Remove the magazine. Replace the magazine.” He uses the same intonation and inflection patterns every time (“ReMOVE the magazine. RePLACE the magazine”). I can hear his voice in my head, as I type this. It’s soothing to step through a routine with a very familiar soundtrack: my brain knows what’s coming up, it has no reason to panic about what to do next, and my heartbeat slows down.

One afternoon during high school, I had a bad break-up during lunch period and couldn’t bear the thought of going to class. So, unable to face the world (or my stand partner) and feeling very sorry for myself, I skipped band. Terrified at the prospect of my school calling my parents to report an unexcused absence, I e-mailed my mom explaining the circumstances. The essence of her response was: it’s fine, do what you need to do, but realize that you will probably feel better if you just go to class, even though that’s the last thing you feel like doing.

At MIT, there are inevitably periods when the semester gets out of control: the work pile overflows, I sleep through my alarm, I run out of cereal, etc. When all hell breaks loose, an alter-ego PANIC MODE version of my brain steps in. “Don’t worry!” it says. “I’ll save you! Stop going to class so that you can do more of your work; otherwise you won’t get everything done! Sleep three hours later than usual, because sleeping is great!” PANIC MODE alter-ego brain is good at its job, which is to make emergency short-term decisions. Feeling exhausted? Sleep. Don’t have enough free time to finish that pset today? Skip class to work on the pset instead. This is great on timescales of a single day or even a couple of days. But then the rough period passes (as rough periods inevitably do) and my usual brain takes over again and says HOW COULD YOU BE SO SHORT-SIGHTED?? LOOK WHAT YOU DID:

(image courtesy of xkcd)

Don’t listen to PANIC MODE brain. It doesn’t make good long-term decisions. Resist dropping rank, resist dropping your usual routines with reckless abandon in a desperate attempt to hold too many things together.

2. Don’t forget to bring your glasses

My classmate forgot to bring her glasses for our end-of-semester shooting competition. She was pretty bummed out. Fortunately, my eyesight is so bad that it is physically impossible for me to travel more than a few feet without noticing that I’ve left my glasses somewhere.

But really — bring your glasses.

3. Don’t be distracted by others’ gunshots

When you hear a gunshot, it’s tempting to sneak a glance across the range and see how well your classmate is doing. The goal, of course, is to compare his or her performance to yours, because we’re all obsessed with knowing in real-time how we measure up to others.

This is a bad idea, regardless of what you see:
1) If your classmate is doing better than you are, you might get nervous and anxious. Pressure mounts. Your pulse goes from a stroll to a speedwalk, or a jog, which is destructive to your steady shooting. PANIC MODE brain might step in to make some rash change-of-tactics decisions.
2) If your classmate is doing worse than you are, you might get over-confident and lose your focus.

Essentially, if you’re looking at someone else’s target, it means you’re not focused on your own shooting. During a round, keep your eye on your own target. Fire each shot with as much focus as you can. After you’re all done, look around if you really can’t help yourself.

4. Every shot counts

“I can’t tell you,” Mike told us, “how many times I’ve seen this happen.” The goal is to fire six rounds. The competitor fires five perfect rounds, gets cocky, and the sixth goes totally haywire, ruining his score and essentially rendering all five previous successes meaningless.

If things are going well, don’t get complacent, because in the end the last shot is just as important as the first. Similarly, if your first shot is no good, don’t give up and say “TO HELL WITH IT I DON’T CARE ABOUT THIS STUPID COMPETITION ANYWAY”. Get over it, and shift your focus to making five perfect shots.

For all you know, the person you’re competing against might not have taken Mike Conti’s pistol class: he might have watched you mess up, gotten complacent, lost focus, and misplaced his last shot.