NCAA Rifle Paves the Road to Rio

Ginny Thrasher
USA Shooting

Rifle | 8/22/2016 4:12:00 PM

The following article was written by the NCAA Rifle Committee and appears special to
Rio 2016's first gold medal went to USA's (and WVU's) Ginny Thrasher for women's 10M air rifle.  As the rifle events concluded, attention began to focus on a little reported fact of Olympic success-  four of the five Olympic golds in rifle went to current or former NCAA athletes- WVU's Thrasher in women's air rifle,  UKy's Henri Junghanel in 50m prone, and WVU's Nicco Campriani in both men's air and men's 50m 3-position.   In addition, the overwhelming majority of American rifle Olympians have had or are in the midst of very successful athletic careers in NCAA Rifle.  Thrasher is a prime example, having just completed her freshman year at West Virginia University, leading her team to an NCAA team championship and winning NCAA individual champion titles in both air rifle and small bore.
The line from Rio's Deodoro Olympic Shooting Center is drawn directly to the rifle ranges of NCAA institutions.  Six of the seven members of the US Olympic Rifle Team are current or graduates of NCAA programs.  Three are either current or just graduated- all of their training having been done while they are full-time students.  At this year's Olympic Trials in air rifle, 22 of the 24 competitors were current athletes or alumni of NCAA rifle programs.
NCAA Rifle Athletes and Alumni competing in Rio:
North Carolina State University-  Lucas Kozeniesky  (USA)
Texas Christian University-  Sarah Scherer  (USA)
United States Air Force Academy-  David Higgins  (USA)
University of Alaska, Fairbanks- Matt Emmons (USA)
University of Kentucky-  Henri Junghanel  (GER)
University of Wisconsin, Oshkosh-  Michael McPhail  (USA)
West Virginia University- Ginny Thrasher (USA), Nicco Campriani (ITL), Petra Zublasing (ITL), Ziva Dvorsak (SVK)
In order to foster a better understanding of importance of NCAA Rifle (and NCAA athletics, in general) as a "farm team" for US Olympic success, the NCAA Rifle Committee has undertaken a series of interviews with the athletes' coaches.
Here are some thoughts from WVU's Jon Hammond, himself an NCAA athlete (WVU) and a 2012 Olympian for the Great Britain rifle team:
Your team members are the epitome of NCAA student/athletes.  How did they balance the training, studying, etc?  
Balancing training and studying as well as having a personal life is a big challenge of being a student athlete, especially at a non-academy where there is less structure.  The students have to be very dedicated to managing their time, using every part of the day to be productive, but also finding time to relax and get rest. 
At WVU, like many school, there are wonderful resources to assist them.  Our student center and staff really help them with the academic side, organizing tutors, managing travel or missed classes and any other academic issues that may arise.  As a coach I work with their schedule as well, we try to have team practices, but we are flexible at the same time, in order for them to have the best class schedule and take the classes they need to take.  Ultimately its on them, and they have to be motivated to be the best they can be, whether that is in school, on the range, or just as themselves in all other aspects.
How did your personal Olympic experiences impact their training, etc?  Any other thoughts about the process?
I think my personal experience at the Olympics helps me assist the team members.  I know when they need or should have some rest, but also when they can train a little more.  Also what aspects of the sport they are working on at different stages of the season, to best prepare them for larger competitions.  For Ginny and getting her ready to compete in Rio, hopefully I can offer her advice of what to expect, what things to prepare the most for, and how to get the most out of the experience, which will for sure be an incredible one.
What's it like to see your athletes shooting against each other for other teams? 
Being that I am from Great Britain, and have team members from different countries including the USA competing internationally and at the Olympics, I really don't think of them competing against each other!  They obviously are, but I am supporting them all and I know they support each other as well.  Even the USA team members are competing for a different country than myself, so there is no difference with the international students.  They are all my team members, past and present, and I'm supporting them whatever country they represent.
I have been in the interesting position of shooting against a team member when both myself and Nicco shot in the London Olympics.  We had both competed for many years together on the international circuit, and even before he was a team member, so to us it didn't seem strange.  While my performances were mixed, in our last event while I struggled, Nicco won the gold medal!  Despite a bad day on the range myself, it was an unbelievable feeling to watch him become an Olympic Champion and something I will always remember.
This year I will just be a coach and spectator, but I will be looking forward to watching not only my team members from WVU, but also the other NCAA athletes.  Seeing the success that the NCAA athletes, past and present, are able to have on a world stage is great to see, and it shows what an amazing opportunity it is to be a student athlete in the USA at different schools.  It's a unique experience, and something you cannot do in almost every other country, and a huge credit to the athletes and the schools to have such a strong representation.
University of Kentucky's Harry Mullins coached Germany's Henri Junghanel as a UK undergrad.  Some of Harry's thoughts regarding the experience of being his coach and watching him in Rio...
Since I only have one shooter (Henri Junghanel) My input may not be that big. I think that shooting at the NCAA level helps the current athletes more than it ever has. The competition has gotten stronger each year. It is the only time that they truly shoot for a team the entire season. Bundesliga is close but here they go to school together sometimes room together, and train together. The fact that the team successes depends on having the top performance from everyone on the team makes it unique in our sport. I feel just being part of the NCAA model helps these athletes due to the pride that each school has for they programs and the  pride of the overall athletics departments and how that is seen nationally. This in turn places a lot of importance on the team concept in the NCAA model.
Having Henri Shoot for his national team is very exciting. He is a very hard working athlete who has put tremendous effort into becoming one of the best. I feel the bond that these athletes develop with each other in college will last a lifetime and is a separate feeling than the pride of competing for your county. In most cases college is a progress or a stepping stone, because at the end of the day it is about who is the best against the course, the elements and the target. No one is stopping anyone else from being great.
Keith Miller from North Carolina State University regarding his experiences with his Olympic athlete, Lucas Kozeniesky:
My background with NCAA and International shooting

When I was on NC State's team, I competed in a couple of NCAA Championships.  Unlike some of my fellow coaches, however, I had no international shooting experience.  During one of the training camps I attended at the OTC, I did discuss the possibility of becoming a resident athlete and working towards the next Olympics - Seoul in 1988.  Given that this was 1985 and I was just finishing my electrical engineering degree, the time commitment required would have put off my professional life for too long, and I decided to go straight into the semiconductor industry.  I would not pursue an Olympic Dream as a shooter, but I was OK with that since shooting was not my entire life, only a part of it.  My international shooting experience would come years later, as I coached my alma mater's team.

On Balance

Personally, I'm convinced that a proper balance can be the key to success.  The point of this balance can be different for each athlete, but nonetheless some balance must be achieved and maintained.  Frankly I think the inherent structure that NCAA shooters must operate within today provides an excellent starting point for a balanced approach.  They must allocate an appropriate amount of time for academics, for range training, for physical training, for rest, and even a bit for their social life away from the team.  They must be excellent time managers.  An inherent benefit of this modular schedule is that they have to learn to focus on the task at hand and put other distractions aside.  Clearly as a shooter this is a critical skill on both a micro and macro level.  An NCAA Rifle shooter on top of his game is operating in a great default mode when approaching many of life's challenges.

On Team
Given that ISSF shooting emphasizes individual performance, there is little done in a true team fashion.  Most NCAA Rifle athletes, however, spend much of their training and competition time in a supportive team environment.  If they do well individually, that's great - but the big picture is how the team does.  If you are a bit off but your team has a great day, then you've still had a great day.  The next match may be one that you make the great team contribution.  Every great shooter has a slightly off performance now and then. When you have an off day within the structure of a team environment, it lessens the negative impact.  When training as an individual, it can be a bit harder to properly take an off day in stride.  Again, the NCAA team member has balance in this aspect as well.

Shooting a lot of matches in NCAA competition is another great preparation.  You'll shoot between 12 and 16 matches through the course of a season.  Given the current team ranking methodology, all matches have the potential to contribute a ranking score, so every match could be an important one for your team.  Sure, the NCAA Championships and your Conference Championships are big matches that you train for, but they are still just matches.  You get in match mode and if things are working out, you become the proverbial "well-oiled machine" as the season progresses. Few other environments are such a good crucible for developing the ability to handle match pressure - day in and day out.

Team training is great as well.  If you shoot well, but your teammate shoots even better, then you both had a good experience and your team is that much stronger.  You truly get used to wanting everyone to do well, and yet can maintain the desire to be the best you can be.  It can be a very positive environment where success builds more success.  Sometimes you'll learn different or better techniques from our teammate as you train, so there are many opportunities for cross training. There are lots of little experiments to share, to learn from, and to pass on.  That's hard to duplicate outside of a good, open, supportive team environment.

On Lucas' preparation for Trials

Leading up to Trials, Lucas did not over train.  He had an academic internship that kept him busy 8-5 daily and even some on weekends, so most of his training was after dinner on weekdays and bit here and there on weekends.  When he did shoot it was often with one of his other teammates who were on campus for summer school.  Many nights it would just be Lucas and Lauren Phillips there.  Lauren may be the perfect training partner for Lucas.  They are both strong and confident shooters, but their approaches are quite different. I think that's a strength since they often approach things from opposite sides, allowing the other to see an aspect that supplements or complements their own.  That perspective can be good when you are trying to fine tune your process or find a new approach for a problem area.

So Lucas and Lauren would shoot air rifle together - and they were both shooting very well.  They created some friendly competition between themselves, and kept pushing each other.  While the training was at our home range, relaxed, and low key, it was quality training and the results were good.  Lucas experimented a bit with focus points on his position and execution, but the biggest contributor to the strong and consistent shooting was the work he was putting into his mental game.  Lauren and Lucas would talk about mental management approaches and how they helped them.  In particular they spent a lot of time working with some approaches Lanny Bassham provides in his Mental Management system.  Some of these were perfect for Lucas and really helped him keep a proper outlook and perspective, and maintain a proper focus during training and matches.

On Olympic Trials

As an observer at Olympic Trials, one thing jumped out at me at the beginning of Day Three.  Of the thirteen shooters on the line, all of whom were great shooters who had to earn an invitation to the event, the top four after two days of intense competition were not full time shooters, and the top three were all still in college. (There was a similar situation in the Women's competition, with four of the top five being students.)  Not only were the top three still students, but they were some of the most relaxed shooters on the line.  Yes, they were there to compete, but competing was only a part of their overall lives, not the center of it.  When you are a resident athlete at the OTC or on the Army Marksmanship Unit, you do have a tremendous amount of training time and resources available.  Yet the other side of that is a tremendous amount of expectations to deal with.  You are there to produce.  Going into Trials, Lucas made it clear that his goal was to go there and have a good performance that he could build on.  His focus was on using his mental approach to get a routine going, have his shots all make sense to him, shoot some deep tens, and have the net result be a good performance that he could be happy with and learn from.  His focus was not on going there to make the Olympic team, or win the match, or shoot any specific score.  He was there to work his plan and that's all.  I frankly think that this was one of the reasons he shot so well and had such a lead on the others.  He wasn't trying to win, he was just there to work his plan as perfectly as possible, and to learn from the process.  He kept that focus, worked his plan, and therefore he excelled.

Someone asked me if watching Lucas at trials was a magical experience.  My response was that it would have been magical had it not been so by the book.  As a coach, we try to instill this methodical, process oriented approach in our athletes.  In this case, it was very rewarding for me that Lucas bought into the approach, and extremely rewarding for him in the results that it produced. 

The crucible of competition which is NCAA Rifle is a refiner's fire, turning talent, commitment, and sacrifice into gold.  The athletes, coaches, and administrators of every NCAA rifle institution had a part in our sport's success- and the success of the young people we have all been privileged to know.  NCAA Rifle has witnessed their success for many years.  This year, in Rio, it was the world's turn.

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