February 3, 2016 // By Michael Lester
When I was a midshipman in Annapolis, I was a member of the U.S. Naval Academy Pistol Team.
The most important match of the season was against Army…and it was today. I was nervous.
I knew that Army was good and that I would need to shoot my best in order to win. I was determined! I was going to shoot the best I had ever shot, and I was going to “Beat Army!”
Our coach came into the ready room and in a slow measured tone said, “Today you are going to fire against Army.” He paused, and then as though he knew what we were thinking he slowly continued, "I don’t want you to try to shoot your best today. I want you to shoot your average.”
We all looked at him in disbelief, wondering if we had really heard what we thought we just heard!
His wry smile turned into a smile of knowledge and understanding as he slowly walked around the room, making eye contact with each one of us.
“If you try to shoot ‘your best’, you will tense up. You will make mistakes. You are trying to do something that you haven’t trained to do. Be honest. What are the odds of you actually having the best score you’ve ever shot in your life…today…right here…right now?”
That made sense. We probably wouldn’t have our best score ever…but surely we should try to!
“If you trust me…” Again, he paused. “You will shoot your average. I will tell you that the other team will try to shoot their best, and at the end of the match, they will be disappointed that they didn’t shoot better. If you just relax, and shoot your average, you will win. And if you don’t win, it means that your average wasn’t high enough and you need to practice to raise your average. There should be no stress today. There should be no butterflies. This is just another day doing exactly what you have trained to do every other day.”
He let that sink in for a while and then smiled his most fatherly, wise smile, and calmly told us “Now go out there, relax, shoot your average, and beat Army.”
We went into the range that day and shot our average, and we did win.
Virtually every one of our opponents was disappointed in their performance and mumbled something like “I usually do better. I don’t know what happened…”
I’ve reflected on my coach’s advice that day many times in my life. Our coach wasn’t telling us to BE average when he told us to “shoot our average”. What he was really saying was “When it matters, don’t try to do something different than what you’ve trained to do.”
The Marine Corps embodies this concept with the mantra “Train like you fight. Fight like you train.”
It works. Do what you have prepared to do, do it like you practiced and trained, and you will achieve the exact outcome for which you trained. Trying to do things different, something you haven’t trained for or something you haven’t tried before, is a recipe for failure.
Years later as a software development project manager, I read the book Rapid Development by Steve McConnell. In it, he highlights the most common reasons for failure. The wording was different, but there it was…my coach’s advice all over again. My coach proactively told us to “shoot your average.” Steve McConnell identified one of the most common reasons for project failure as “Abandonment of process under pressure.”
No matter how you want to say it, the idea is the same. When the time comes and performance matters, do what you have trained to do the way you trained to do it.
“Shoot your average.”
“Train like you fight. Fight like you train.”
And don’t “Abandon process under pressure.”
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