In most athletic endeavors, emotion and passion for the games get to play themselves out on the field. Obvious ones, like football and basketball stand out, where excitement for playing the game can be a key part of the competition. Elevate the game to the national championship level, and the excitement meter registers in the red. However, for WVU and other teams competing this weekend for a title, that part of the competition has to be eliminated. Excitement at reaching the peak of the sport on the collegiate level is rampant, but it can't be a part of the process.
"It's hard," head rifle coach John Hammond said prior to taking his team to Columbus to try for WVU's fifteenth national championship. "We do a lot on the psychology side, and all of the team works with the psychologists here. That's really important."
"Some of our guys went in there after having been pretty relaxed all season, and they got some butterflies and a little bit anxious, and maybe didn't deal with it the best," Hammond related. "We have used that [to learn from]."
Like just about every other coach at West Virginia, Hammond stresses routine and repetitiveness throughout his program. From the small (preparing for each shot attempt in the same way and executing it the same way) to the large (keeping travel routines and pre-match prep the same, he believes it's the key to developing consistency and eliminating nerves.
That approach might be even more important in multi-day competitions like the Great American Rifle Conference (GARC) championships and the NCAAs, which are spread over two days.
"We just try to keep the same routine. The GARCs are great prep because the NCAAs follow the same routine. We'll do the same things the night before the match, then after the first day we'll have a debrief, have a team dinner, and make sure they get their rest. If their parents and families are there we try to limit contact and tell them 'We'll see you after the matches'. We try to keep them in routine and focused and as normal as possible. We're a very repetitive sport, so we try to keep that routine."
Hammond's biggest worry as he gets his team ready for the competition are things he can't control – and most of those are challenges of the mental, rather than of the physical, variety. In that manner, rifle is similar to another sport that he has dabbled in on occasion.
"The worst thing you can do is go in focused on something else, like if you have a test coming up or are flunking a class or have a personal issue. You have to be 100% focused on what you have to do. Golf is pretty similar. It's very similar mentally. There are repetitions, shot by shot, routine, over and over. They might have a few more variables, but I think the mental approach is very similar. In my limited experience playing golf I can see some of the correlations."
Trying to control all of this might drive someone in Hammond's position, to use a term from his home country, mental. However, getting frustrated, just like getting overexcited, would be detrimental to his team, so he projects a calm and even keel, and continues to preach the mantra of preparation and consistency.
"All you can do is be the best prepared as possible and accept that there are going to be nerves and pressure and being under duress. That's part of the preparation. It's hard to prepare for that in practice, but we've talked about it a lot and used the past few matches to try to get used to it."
WVU opens with smallbore competition on Friday and concludes the championships with air rifle on Saturday.