Master Sergeant Rob Mango is a long time, national champion-level competition shooter, having shot with the USMC Rifle, USAMU Service Rifle, USAMU International Pistol, US Palma, USA Shooting (pistol), USAMU Service Pistol and all USAR Marksmanship Program teams.

Among his many marksmanship achievements, his most recent is winning the National Trophy Individual at Camp Perry during the 2013 CMP National Trophy Pistol Matches.

Here is what he has to say on “flow” as it pertains to a string of fire.

The Flow of Shooting

by Rob Mango

“Flow” as it pertains to a string of fire.

The 25 yard line (Timed and Rapid fire) stages of the Outdoor Conventional Bull’s-eye course of fire compromise 2/3 of the total points attainable for a match. These stages are referred to as the “short line”. “Top tier” level shooters can be expected to shoot near perfect scores almost every time. Unless a shooter is prepared and trained, this can be a difficult task (cleaning short line) for even the best shooters.

One reason for this is the fact that a “short line” string of fire consists of 5 separate shots in a constrained amount of time. 5 separate shots with 5 separate (individual) shot plans. Ideally, shooters train to shoot 1 perfect shot plan then rinse/repeat until the string of fire is complete. Time will play a challenge to this task. Why? Because, saving a round or shooting a late shot can be disastrous to a score. Because of this threat, shooters want to make sure they train to get 5 good shots off, in the time allotted. IOT do this the consensus is generally “shoot more quality strings in practice”. While practicing like this I’ve found that the quantity of bullets shot in training is not indicative to how you will shoot in a match. A match requires you to be perfect, first time, on demand. It won’t do me any good to have to “warm up” by shooting a bunch of strings. You will never get the chance in an actual match to warm up by shooting short line strings. So, this made me realize that I have to find a way to train that provides me the skill to be perfect on demand.

I’ve been on 10 different pro teams. (USMC Rifle, USAMU Service Rifle, USAMU International Pistol, US Palma, USA Shooting (pistol), USAMU Service Pistol, USAR (all). Almost every team I was ever a member of required their shooters to develop a common basic shot plan breakdown. One common idea was to write down your specific shot plan, from soup to nuts, very descriptively. I did that. This concept was meant to build a shot plan that you can memorize and with practice, repeat as consistently as you can. This is also very good for a shooter who doesn’t get to train regularly. I was shooting ‘all year round’ on pro teams continuously for 14 years however, it was only after I shot irregularly for a reserve team that I noticed something. When jumping back on the gun from a period of time off and practicing my routine, I would be very detailed and specific of my steps in the shot plan. During prep time, I ran the string of fire through my head (visualization) in a very focused and deliberate manner. However, I noticed I was still thinking step-by-step in my head while shooting the string. This wouldn’t be a problem if every single shot in every single string delivered perfectly, “according to plan”. The problem is it doesn’t. Problems creep in. I knew this so I trained to deal with these problems. To me the problems came in the form of what I call indicators. An “indicator” is something (both physical and more commonly mental) that has the potential to interrupt a perfect shot process. They can be many things. The most common one that I found during a string of fire was time.

If the first shot of a string breaks later than planned, it can force the shooter to think about where they are in relation to the total time limit of the string. Good shooters adjust the subsequent shots accordingly. Usually, this can be accomplished by speeding something up for the remaining shots but still allowing them to break cleanly. I have heard this referred to as “damage control”. This is how I have always been taught and trained while competing for my military pistol teams. I think I trained wrong. Let me try to explain.

If you start to train the way I explain later in this article, by concentrating on “flow”, you’ll find a drastic reduction in mental indicators and fewer instances where damage control even comes up. It has also made me realize that I am much more confident going into a string. I admittedly used to have a sense of fear, or nervousness. Phrases like, “just get through this string” or “just point 10’s”. These are negative thoughts and will have a shooter “hoping” to shoot well instead of expecting to. I had these thoughts because I wasn’t sure HOW to shoot 5 perfect shots in a row, on demand. I was still searching. Now I don’t.

I really want to get straight to the concept of flow but I must elaborate on the ‘anxious vs. nervous’ thing. I can explain it best by telling a story of an Olympian. I’m not positive but I think it was Mckayla Maroney. She is the 2X World Champion, and Olympic Silver medalist in women’s vault. During the 2012 Olympics, at the arena, before her vault an interviewer asked her if she was nervous. She said “no just anxious”. I thought B.S. There is no way she isn’t slightly nervous. Then I thought about her anxious statement and after using flow this year, it hit me. She was telling the truth. She was so prepared and had such a solid mental program that she was anxious to perform. She wanted to do her routine and do it confidently. I have since felt this and I get it now. My mental plan wasn’t working because it wasn’t simple and smooth. I couldn’t follow it consistently, on demand, and be confident of the result every time. Now, onto the topic of “Flow”.

“Flow”, in my words, is being in a state of concentration without interruption that is very repeatable and the end state is easily attainable when rehearsed. The best way for me to describe “Flow” is by telling the story that enlightened me and made me research it (hyperlink at bottom of article), a story about LoLo Jones the US Olympic hurdler. A light bulb came on when I heard an interview with her regarding her famous race and after a year of training and shooting matches using my “Flow” shot plan, I am shooting the best scores I ever have.

What was so special about Lolo? She choked, at the Olympics, or so it had seemed. I remember it vividly. She was the favorite. The race started and she broke ahead of the pack. Extending her lead the entire race, she was dominating it. On the second to the last hurdle she hit the hurdle and tripped up. Everyone passed her. She lost her Olympic medal. She ran off the track and camera’s followed her as she held her head in the hands and cried. I cried with her. It was the poster for “the agony of defeat”.

During an interview, (I searched but can’t find the exact interview) she was asked simply “what happened?” She said I was in my routine and it was going perfect and then I realized (indicator) that I wasn’t extending my trail foot as high as I’d liked. So I concentrated on extending it a little more. Not awesome. She literally got in her own way during her mental plan. Instead of recognizing an indicator and ignoring it she focused on it. She was in “flow” then started breaking up her plan into parts. I said “That’s exactly what I was taught to do”, to focus on fundamentals. IOW, if it was a high stress match, I could have been performing well or, just the opposite, folding under pressure, it made no difference; the supposed fix was to concentrate on a fundamental (follow through) for example. This whole time I had a plan and while thinking i was sticking to it, I was actually interrupting my plan. Stupid. This made me think about it more in detail. I was also incorrectly thinking about too many parts of my plan during the string.

With consistency as a goal I would always shoot my shot plan using a mental “ditty” that I recite in my mind. However, this whole time it was wrong. For one thing my ditty was too long. By thinking about the various parts I was chopping up my flow. Also, my ditty was a sentence. I realized after I changed it from a sentence to keywords, that while keywords help you concentrate on an action, sentences only have the shooter “reciting sentences” instead of performing the tasks that the sentence was supposed to help you accomplish. Also, the sentence was too long. It didn’t fit right “timing” wise with a single shot plan. My old ditty was “The trigger is moving to the rear, my sights are aligning and clear”. Upon recognizing this wasn’t working effectively, I came up with a new ditty. It is exactly this;

“Aggressive, patience, reset.” These are key words that I use (recite in my head) to shoot 1 single shot as best as I can, in a short line string of fire. The following is what the words trigger me to do upon reciting them in my head, in order, during the shot. (Pick your own keywords, I’m not telling you mine will work for you)

1. Aggressive; you should always start the string, by moving the trigger, as soon as the target is facing you. Re-read that last sentence. I don’t know anyone who is top tier, who trains to have the first shot “break” on demand while the target faces. That would be stupid. This is a short-cut “tip” happened upon by lower level shooters. If you train this way, change. When concentrating on flow I am not late and time is no longer detrimental to a string.
– So when I say “aggressive” in my mind I am telling myself to start the trigger movement to the rear, as soon as the target faces me. I move it aggressively (increasing speed) and this brings me to my second ditty word.

2. Patience; Regardless of how you move the trigger to the rear, the shot MUST deliver on its own. IOT do this I tell myself to slow the trigger down with “patience” and allow the shot to break. If I didn’t, I could pull through the shot break too quickly and possibly interrupt alignment.

3. Reset; by saying reset I am simply resetting my plan. It incorporates a few things (physically resetting the trigger, forcefully pointing back in my wobble area after recoil, and starting the string over by aggressively moving the trigger to the rear).
– The most important part of reset is what shouldn’t happen, I.e. you cannot “analyze” anything. Nothing. This is a different concept for rifle shooters. Rifle shooters have time even during the shortest rapid fire string to analyze. It is commonly taught that you should analyze everything. However, it is not awesome for pistol. There just isn’t enough time. Wait until the entire string is done to “think about something”. If you do/did then I guarantee you just chopped flow. Don’t try to gauge timing/cadence. Where am I in relation to the time limit? Who cares, just keep the flow going until you are out of ammo. Trying to cleverly gauge where you are will only interrupt flow. Don’t call a shot. Definitely don’t look at the target for confirmation of anything even if you are unsure of your zero, or the cross wind picked up. It doesn’t matter. If you mentally break your short ditty and subsequently interrupt flow (even the slightest bit) you can expect to fire the remaining shots with a damage control plan, outside of flow.

If I had to draw a picture describing my perception of a 5 shot string (5 plans) using flow it is; five tight circles that overlap without interference. (There is no relation to the Olympic rings, mine is linear). Although, now that I typed that I can’t believe I never saw the correlation. Life is funny.

I also want to point out that in addition to my original ditty being too long, it also had me shifting gears between the two most important fundamentals of precision shooting (trigger and sights). I was unintentionally interrupting flow by breaking concentration from trigger to sights. I’ve since noticed that the act of aiming can be done with consistency and exactness while not consciously thinking about it. By eliminating the thought of aiming from my mental process the plan became repeatable and very smooth. Jumping back and forth (mentally) from trigger to sights/dot has always resulted in me breaking flow. Now, I consciously think about trigger by using my simple shot plan, while I simultaneously align sights or center the dot, subconsciously. I now consider myself to be a “trigger” shooter. Understand that other elite shooters are “sights” shooters. “Sights” shooters concentrate on the opposite, obviously. I would recommend a shooter who is “searching”, like I was, to try both.

To sum it up, create a shot plan that is fundamentally correct. Create a ditty that allows you to concentrate your mental focus on as few moving parts as possible. Be careful what you think about during one single shot plan. It shouldn’t include things that are in the “soup to nuts” routine (grip tension is an example). Only consciously think of as few keywords as possible. The fewer amounts of things you have to consciously “think” about during the shot delivery, the better. Then stick to the plan and record your performance. If a keyword isn’t delivering the desired result, change it.

I now had a shot plan that worked. It gave me confidence. I was now confident going into a string.

Confidence coupled with a shot plan that produced good scores resulted in happiness. I was generally happier now, to be competing. If you research what factors are common in elite athletes that perceive flow in their performance you will find those same types of elements i.e. preparedness, anxiousness, confidence, joy, a feeling of having fun, etc.

In closing, this isn’t a concept I made up. Please research on your own.

Please experiment with this and let me know what happens.

– MSG Rob Mango