Two of a kind
WHEN things are not going well on the range, it always helps to have someone to talk through the problems with. When American Matt Emmons, one of the world's top competitors, finished eighth in the 2004 Athens Olympics Three-Position final after firing at the wrong target, he was was consoled by Czech shooter Katerina Kurkova. Just a few months later Ms Kurkova became Mrs Emmons so clearly that was one kind of couples therapy that worked out in the end - but how do our own home-grown shooting couples get on in Scotland?
Jen McIntosh and Andrew Ross, Sarah Bates and James Henderson and plus Shirley and Donald McIntosh are just three examples of couples who have a mutual interest in target shooting. And the way that that manifests itself when it comes to training, preparation, choosing events and choosing kit as well as all-important moral support varies widely.... Jen, from Falkirk but now based in Aberdeen as a full-time athlete and whose career goes from strength to strength with a string of records and the latest news that she has been selected for the ISSF World Championships in Munich in August, is in the Scotland A squad while Andrew, from Edinburgh and who can claim creative woodturning amongst his other talents, is in the Under-25 squad.
One question that is often asked is whether couples decide to train together or whether is was suggested by friends, coaches or other squad members. "Training together was kind of unavoidable as one of us is on the 'A' Squad and the other on the U25 Squad which train together during the season," said Jen and Andrew, pictured left training at Denwood. "Training together outside of these squad camps was just a logical step. But when we do train together, it's not as a couple as such, we're more just like training partners (albeit very close training partners) which is great because training on your own a lot can be pretty soul destroying."
For Sarah and James, however, there was an entirely different driving force: We live at opposite ends of Scotland [James in Caithness & Sarah in Edinburgh] and we actually met at B squad training. So romantically enough, training has always been our default date! Shooting is the major thing that we have in common so for us, I suppose, training together has always been a logical step."
Moving from Scotland's next generation of target shooting stars to the veterans who now play a pivotal role in the sport brings us to Shirley and Donald McIntosh. Shirley is a Commonwealth Games medallist and Donald is currently the British rifle coach working with the likes of Neil Stirton towards the 2012 London Olympics.
"We probably trained more together before we were a couple. Kids, babysitter problems etc," says Shirley.
"Even then, we were moving in different circles quite early on," Donald goes on. "Shirley first got involved with GBR in late 1980s, me not until mid 1990s. We were both in CG squads after 1990, so did some training together, but we didn’t work together that much. Shirley was much better than me when she was competing, it took me a long time to catch her up."
Ah, but is it a good thing to encourage 'animated' discussions or push each other to reach greater heights? Jen and Andrew think so. "Yes it works very well. We push each other to work harder and shoot better everyday. There are some... discussions, but they are actually very constructive. We both have different opinions on things, some stronger than others. This pushes us to try other things - usually to try and show the other that they're option doesn't work. But it always helps to get another person's perspective and sometimes it can be very productive."
"'Animated' would be one word for the discussions we have about shooting," laughed Sarah and James. "Both coming from 'non-shooting families' it is great to have the extra motivation from someone on the same programme - regularly enquiring about your training and understanding the trials and tribulations."
Shirley doesn't recall that approach not working but she admits to being far more analytical about what happened. "I just shoot, but when it goes wrong I don't always know how to fix it," she says. "Yeah, very different approaches – Shirley’s pretty well summed it up," says Donald. "We always talked a bit, but not always in great depth about the detail because of this. Probably more general moral support at times, and encouragement through the tough times – but sometimes difficult for the one shooting well when the other is struggling. We shared a hotel room at the CSF Championships in 1997 and I think if I was the coach in that situation I would have discouraged that…"
One thing's for sure, if the idea of people in a relationship interfered with their progress in the sport, there would not so many good examples where the positives outweighed the negatives. "There are a lot of positives," said Jen and Andrew. "It's difficult for someone who isn't a shooter to fully understand the level of commitment to the sport, so it's great to have that understanding. There is definitely a competitive edge between us, but it does mostly come from Jen. It's never anything serious but she doesn't take getting beaten by someone with less experience lightly, although despite this, we are extremely supportive of each other - in training, in competition and in every day life. We take just as much pride in the other's successes as we do in our own."
Support is essential of course and even more so if one half had a shoot they are unhappy with, unless you have a coach to turn to - or in the McIntoshes' case, are married to one... "I think that competing at the same level has been important as each of us understands what is required to compete at the high level," explained Shirley. "There’s a degree of support, probably more from Shirley to me than the other way around at times," said Donald. "It makes it easier to cope with the demands placed on your time – probably even more relevant given my jobs now and the time I spend travelling as a coach."
And for Sarah and James, pictured right, the sense of competitiveness between the two of them is a welcome positive in itself...
"James mostly has the edge in prone, and Sarah slightly has the edge in 3P - however, there is definitely an underlying edge of competitiveness. At the Bisley last Autumn, we spent most of the week on the 50m range shooting the 3P re-entry. We kept the range officers amused as we bet dinner every day on the outcome of our day's scores," they said.
"Shooting is extremely time-consuming: attendance of training weekends over the winter and competitions over the summer in addition to in-week training commitments all year round. The major advantage to us both being squad, is that we both have the same constraints on our time, so our shooting commitments tend to bring us together.
"There is no doubt that our relationship is an advantage when we go away to competitions: we support each other emotionally, tactically (e.g. sharing experiences from shooting at a particular venue the previous year), and practically: last year when James' temporary FAC didn't come through in time for the CSF(ED) in the Isle of Man, Sarah leant him "Betty" (her rifle). Much to Sarah's indignation, "Betty" performed better for James, and he ended up winning the Men's individual!
"Then there is always the time that Sarah brought saltire pin badges for the team to wear to the prize giving dinner: James appreciated this gesture much more than any of the other squad members as he showed by bartering his badge to keep the bar open at the end of the evening!"
Humour undoubtedly plays a part in target shooting - sometimes, when everything else is going wrong, it's the one faculty that can be relied upon to lighten the mood.
"We're both as serious as each other, especially when it comes to training and competition," say Jen and Andrew. "This actually makes things easier when we're training/competing because we understand (even encourage) that the focus has to be on the shooting and nothing else. The only time our difference in character really shows is in the fact that Jen is a bit lazier, which means that sometimes she has to be dragged to the range and reminded that she needs to do some training. Even when she doesn't want to, she knows that she needs the... encouragement."
Down to the nitty-gritty now. The ever-changing technological advances in rifle kit and clothing etc along with near-constant changes in the international rules mean that for the top shooters, choosing kit is an important process especially when items like barrels, jackets and so on are past their sell-by dates. Do the partners seek each other's advice in choosing or testing equipment?
"I always seek your opinion, cos I am fundamentally clueless," says Shirley of Donald, to which he confesses: "I’m the kit geek, I do my own thing."
"First reaction would be no - but thinking about it we both shoot Bleiker, and we even both bought the same batch of Tenex when we last went batch testing ... ahem ... enough said?" admitted Sarah and James.
And as for Jen and Andrew, co-operation is paramount. "Yes, all the time and in all aspects of shooting, whether that be technical, psychological or tactical," they revealed. "We have different ideas about most things, from what the best rifle stock available is to what a good prone position should look like. We are often trying each other's kit (although most of the time it's Andrew playing with Jen's when she's not looking) and we like to bounce ideas off each other. Our shooting backgrounds are quite different so we've learned in different ways. This means that our combined knowledge base is fairly wide. For example Jen has had a lot of input right from the start, from a range of coaches, whereas Andrew spent a lot of time trying different things on his own, outside of his squad training, to find ways of refining his position and technique. So we'll often ask the other for advice that they may have picked up one way or another."
Everyone who agreed to talk to SSRA.co.uk for this interview is a Scotland international, but do they think that when people are starting out in the sport it could pay dividends for one partner to feed off the other and be brought on?
"Yes, it's nice to have someone that takes an interest in it, as it would with any sport/hobby etc, but it's not an essential factor to enjoying or even progressing in the sport," say Jen and Andrew. "It doesn't have to be about being a couple either, just having someone you can talk to about it makes a huge difference. Be that family, friends or a partner."
Sarah and James said: "Shooting is a sociable sport, and the guys don't necessarily have an advantage - so from a competition point of view, it can be ideal for couples. We were both motivated to train for shooting before we met, and would, most likely, still be training as we are today even if we weren't a couple. But any added factor that inspires your competitive edge, motivates you to train harder, and supports you during competition, must be a positive thing for your performance."
"I think it depends very much on the couple," says Shirley. "In some cases it will work, but in other cases it won't. if the relationship is very much a partnership then it should work."
"I think our strength often was more that each accepted that the other had things to do that frequently meant we were apart," Donald explains. "Wasn’t always easy – still isn’t – but we cope. We’ll never know, but I’m not sure that shooting and training together all the time would have been any easier though!"
It wouldn't be right to finish this look at couples in target shooting without a word from the man who gained the most headlines from it, Matt Emmons, pictured right with his wife: "Well, for Katy and me, it's challenging to manage training and taking care of [their daughter] Julie," he says. "When we're home, it usually feels like we're working all the time, but not too much ever gets done! A typical day goes like this: we get up and I get ready to go train. If it's airgun, I train at home, if it's smallbore, I go to the range. Katy takes care of the little one and does some stuff around the house while I'm training. I come home around lunchtime and we have lunch together (usually if I don't get home too late). We might relax for just a few minutes and then switch gears. Katy goes to train and then I take care of the little one. If everything goes right, I go for a run with the little one with her running stroller.
"When we travel, we take Julie with us and thankfully, she travels very well. At competitions in the US, my mom will come and help take care of Julie while we're competing. When we travel overseas, it just depends. In Australia, Katy's mom took care of the little one while we were training and competing, and she'll do the same this summer in Europe. "
My thanks to all who took part and to Neil Stirton for his help.