I began volunteering 31 years ago. I don’t get paid. I get a kick out of the sport, and I flat-out love these kids. Good kids are good kids. Technology — video games, cellphones, handshakes — that all changes, but these kids are still the reason I do it. I get to see them grow up, become big, grown-up people, physically and intellectually. They’re like big puppies when they start, with big paws, just trying to stay on their feet and stay straight.
The biggest surprise for laypeople is that we’re not in the gun business. A target rifle is just a device you use to get a score to win an athletic letter to be offered a scholarship. It’s the same as a tennis racket, hockey stick, a pompom. So all that mystique about firearms goes away. They just want the thing to work mechanically to put a hole where they’re aiming — safely.
Believe it or not, this is a thinking activity. It takes a long time to be good at it. We don’t have a [Tim] Tebow who just comes out and does it by natural athleticism. It’s persistence, it’s patience, it’s listening. Females are really good at this because they’re listeners, and they follow instructions. Several of our girls went on to win national championships in college. Teenage boys, with all their testosterone, they got to be themselves and say, “That won’t work with me.” Sometimes I just have to say, “Well, it may not work with you, but it works for a whole lot of Olympic champions.”
Lanny Bassham, an Olympic Gold Medalist shooter in the ’70s, really got this. He had a friend on the gymnastics team, and when they watched the American gymnasts practice all they heard was, “No, no, no, you did it wrong again!” Then they went over to the Bulgarian team, where Béla Károlyi was the coach. When the girls would fall off the bar, he wouldn’t say a word, just motion to get back on it. When she got it, he’d jump up and yell, “Good! Good! Good!” That’s the name of the game. Teenagers are particularly sensitive to criticism. There’s no profit from that — for the kid or for the team. These are just super lessons for life. Put a failure behind you. Learn from it and forget it.
The relationships keep going. I have a boy — he’s an Army major now, been deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan several times. He e-mails me about once or twice a month for sort of like fatherly advice. He’ll ask me about some dumb commander or a problem, and while he’s not asking for advice, there’s a solid invitation there. I tell him: “What goes out through your lips can’t come back — you can’t take it back — just like a bullet out of a gun.” Twenty years on, and he’s still coming to me for encouragement, for advice. That’s payment enough.