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The following was written by Karla Herdzik and is reproduced with permission.

Last Sunday I had a practice day to get ready for the upcoming 3-Gun Nation Pro Series qualifier match. (Because I sucked juuuuuussstttt enough last year that I missed the cut and have to requalify. But that’s beside the point.) It was a rough day. I shot a match the day before and spent the night in a hotel next to some very…ahem, noisy…neighbors, so I started the day pretty much physically exhausted and just plain angry that I couldn’t sleep and had to listen to their ruckus all night long. But I pulled it together. Thanks to the graces of hot tea, bacon, and a very patient boyfriend, I got my head in the right place and we got to practicing . . .

I practiced shooting my shotgun on the move, shotgun reloading, transitions between guns, and just plain fast pistol shooting. The sun came out, there was a nice breeze, and I was in my happy place, because I was caffeinated and I was shooting AWESOME!

Then, my rifle died on me. Well, not my rifle because my SCAR always runs…but some of the modifications I had done to it caused some pretty catastrophic failures. My day that started out rough, but I had mentally managed to salvage, was suddenly all shot to pieces (pun intended).

So I took a breath — or maybe 7 — and got out my tools. I knew I could fix it by just switching things back to the way they were before. Half an hour later, things were back to functional. Everything, that is, except my attitude. That was still down the tubes.

THE GAMBLER

Everyone who’s a fan of country music has at some point in their life heard Kenny Rogers’ famous song The Gambler. As the song goes, this young guy who’s down on his luck winds up next to an experienced old gambler on a night train to somewhere. After staring out the window, they start to talk to each other out of sheer boredom. The Gambler shares some pretty sage advice with the young guy:

  • You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em
  • Know when to fold ‘em
  • Know when to walk away
  • And know when to run
  • You never count your money
  • When you’re sittin’ at the table
  • Cuz there’ll be time enough for counting
  • When the dealin’s done

The Gambler then dies in his sleep on the train, which makes the song kinda creepy, but the old man’s dying advice is still sound! Part of life is knowing when to cut your losses and walk away.

KNOWING WHEN TO QUIT

I put my rifle back together and got back to shooting. But I was shooting angry. I couldn’t find the plate rack, even though it was only 50 yards away. I couldn’t get smooth splits between my shots on close targets. Nothing felt right. So after burning through a couple of magazines, I tossed my rifle in the truck, and we packed up and went home.

Like the Gambler said, you gotta know when to fold ‘em. In that moment, physically and mentally spent, I knew it was time to walk away. I’m not advocating quitting as a matter of practice; I don’t think you should ever quit on something that you’ve made a goal. What I am advocating, however, is understanding yourself well enough to know when you can push through some frustrations, or when it’s best to reattack on another day.

Here are a few suggestions of when I think it’s best to step aside for now and readdress the issue later:

  • When you are not 100% focused on the task at hand. That may mean you’re angry (like I was), or you’re tired, or you’re distracted by something going on at home or at work. If your head is not in it, you won’t get the most out of your practice, and there’s also potential for you or somebody else to get hurt.
  • When you are unable to complete the movement or do the drill safely anymore. This applies equally as much to fitness as it does to shooting practice. If you’re too tired to do that deadlift with a tight, flat back, either lower the weight or stop deadlifting today. If you didn’t get much sleep last night and your head is a little spacey, put the guns down and go take a nap in the car. Continuing to push through at a time like that is not worth compromising your safety.
  • When things just don’t seem to be going right. This one’s a little harder to define, but we’ve all had those days where everything just feels “off”. Our reloads are ugly; our pistol draws are slow; we are shooting without seeing our sights. On those days, it may be better to pack up and head home rather than reinforcing bad habits instead of building good ones.
  • When you have lost your joy. Whatever it is — whether it’s shooting, running, baking, weightlifting, or knitting — if the activity you love doesn’t excite you anymore, it may be time for a break. I took a 3-month break from shooting over the winter because I was burned out and had lost my joy. Take some time to refresh your spirit and remember why you started that activity in the first place. Remember why it makes you happy. Then, when you start to miss it, get back out there!

Do you need to take a break from something right now? How can you regain your joy? Maybe not; maybe you’ve been dealt a great hand and it’s time to hold ‘em. Just make sure you know when to fold ‘em.

46 Responses to You Gotta Know When to Fold ‘Em

  1. I don’t know. I think there’s some merit in the mindset that it is exactly working through those times that train us what we need to know in The Real Test ™.

    If it is JUST a game or a hobby or whatever, that’s one thing. But if one is prepping the mind (and body) for survival, I wonder about training yourself to give up just because there’s no joy or things are not going the way you want.

    • Excellent point, but it depends entirely on what you’re trying to train. If you’re trying to develop the mental toughness to win when it counts, you’re exactly right. If you’re trying to train a specific physical skill, then several hundred incorrect repetitions will take several thousand correct ones to repair the damage. And that’s not even looking at the safety aspect.

      Sometimes, training under harsh conditions can be a good thing. Sometimes it isn’t. Making an honest assessment about it is very important.

    • Thanks for your thoughts. I absolutely agree — you need a completely different mindset when shooting for a game vs. when shooting for your life (or the lives of others).

      • Miss K? Don’t let the tone of some comments throw you. Some shooters, especially former troops, we tend to be a less than polite group, a bit profane and direct on issues like, well, shooting. In the majority of cases it is meant to help.

        As I said below, you need those sh*tty training days. They are often far more rewarding than the perfect runs people always aim for. I myself love shooting in rain and snow. When others are packing up their toys and heading to the barn I am dropping into the zone and shutting out everything else. Cold, wet, miserable and on, in a sick way they always seem to go together.

    • The other point is that, in a survival situation, often knowing when to quit is the difference between life and death. Living to fight another day is the point of survival. We’re not soldiers trying to win a war. We shoot to end the situation. That might mean the bad guys die. It might mean we put 17 rounds downrange as we slip out the back door. I carry to protect me and mine. Everyone else should have brought their own gun. If I can help, great, but if my family is there… sorry.

      And if you’re talking about a true SHTF survival situation, then knowing your limits and when to pack it up for the day is most assuredly the most important thing to survival.

      • This is something I learned in SERE and in BNCOC. Got to have the judgement to know when you are doing more harm than good in a situation. Yet another aspect of Situational Awareness, a skill set no few people need to work on. A lot.

    • I would simply take a good sound recorder and some decent speakers. Record the noise they make during the night, and during the day (while they are trying to sleep off the night before) turn up the volume to 11 and leave the recording on ‘loop’. The best part is you can do this while you are out and about.

      • I’ve done almost that, but better.

        Record for fifteen seconds, then play. Rinse and repeat. After two or three minutes they realize that they’re being mocked and STFU.

    • I once thought the same thing after a particular stay at a Silly Valley hotel in San Jose. Looked like a pretty nice room – suite with a desk in what appeared to be an upscale property. We’re not talking Econo-lodge here. This was a $150/night rate back in ’99.

      Just before 0100, the domestic noises next door started. OK, I thought, this property isn’t as swank as I thought, because I can hear everything – the walls must be little more than cardboard and wallpaper.

      By 0200, I was impressed by their stamina.

      And they kept going.

      About 0300, just as I was thinking “That can’t be real, they must be watching porn…” their baby woke up. They didn’t feed it, diaper it or whatever the baby wanted… no, they just kept going at it, like a pair of crack-smoking weasels in heat. Baby finally quieted down after about a half hour.

      Then they got vigorous enough that they started making their bed come off the wall. That’s when I was pretty certain it wasn’t a movie.

      They finally quit at about 0530. The baby started up again at 0600.

      I was thinking at that point that I should either travel with a Siberian Husky or take up the war pipes. I now favor the Husky approach, because Huskies are nice doggies.

      • I had a similar experience in a Motel 6. Their new remodel includes wood floors and this particular motel 6 had adjoined rooms with the doors in between them. I discovered that night that if you’re going to have doors between the rooms then carpeting is a must as it absorbs the sound where hardwood floors transmit it far too well.

        I will always regret not knocking on the wall and shouting “if you’re going to make me listen, at least let me watch!” Of course, that could backfire, I suppose.

        I know way more about their sex life than I ever wanted to. I didn’t want to know about her desire to experiment with alternative ports of entry, his careless vigor, or the emergency drive to find a drug store to get some neosporin anti-bacterial cream.

        • Sound asleep in a Holiday Inn somewhere when I was awakened by the wall mounted head board of my bed rythmically hitting me in the head. I sat up with a WTF. Then I realised it was just the F next door. Lol

      • $150 a night?

        When I was with IBM Groupware Services in ’00, once I was put up in Cupertino at “Courtyard by Marriott” at $299 a night for like 90 square feet.

        Further, that is where I used my Thinkpad and speakers as a weapon o’ war.

        For room rates, you were a lucky schnook! For the rest, you’ve my unalloyed sympathy.

    • I’m an “eye for an eye” kind of guy. You’re not going to feel avenged unless you return the favor tonight.

    • When I was in grad school the next door neighbors were having an all night blowout. I placed my huge Advent One speakers against the adjoining wall and blasted Wagner’s Ring Cycle back at them. The walls were vibrating. The party was over in 10 minutes. I kept it going for an hour.

  2. Was this geared towards Olympic shooters?

    I compete for fun, but I shoot for real. I’ve done it tired, angry, happy, bored, excited, and even in the rain. Every time I shoot I’m competing against me and the guy that’s coming to hurt me and my loved ones.

    Adapt, improvise, overcome.

    They’re will be time enough for counting when the dealin’s done.

    • I was thinking that. If you are fighting for your life or your loved ones, you only quit when you’re dead or the threat is down.

    • I appreciate your perspective. There are definitely times when it’s better to push through — certainly those times when the life and safety of yourself and loved ones are on the line. But this was written BY a competitive shooter FOR competitive shooters. I absolutely understand the perspective would be different in other situations.

  3. For me, if it’s questionable to go shooting/work out that day I go and do one or two mags or work up to my first working set and then decide. 9 times out of 10 it’s good and I keep going.

    There’s of course automatic conditions that mean I won’t go workout or shoot; if I’m fevered, puking or have the runs I’m just NOT doing them.

  4. Well Ms. K, gamblers work with what they get. Can’t bluff when your banging nails. At your level, it’s not about shooting…wouldn’t be there if you couldn’t. Your relying on routine to get you through. Pants, shoes, bags, loads, sleep, food….routine gets where your at….learning to accept distractions without losing focus may be the next thing to work on.

  5. Well, if something done for fun ain’t delivering the goods, sure.

    For practice, though, a rough day only helps.

  6. I’m going to disagree with most of the comment-ers and agree with the writer. Sometimes I need to be aware that it just isn’t working and it might be best to hang it up for the day. Safety is paramount. Thinking back over times when i’ve been injured or had scary near misses when working with horses or when driving, or even when in the kitchen in a rush chopping veges before company arrived with a not-sharp-enough knife (which was certainly sharp enough to cut halfway thru my finger) and it has been those times when I was overly tired, rushed, or my head just wasn’t anywhere tuned into what I was doing and I made a mistake. It’s one thing to hurt myself but totally another to hurt someone else because I was not “in the game” and too proud or too unaware that I was dangerously exceeding my limitations. All life is not war and it’s okay to take a break and be safe.

  7. Great piece!!

    “….Half an hour later, things were back to functional. Everything, that is, except my attitude. That was still down the tubes….”

    Back in the 90’s I was shooting Sporting Clays competitively. And competitively is the key word here – more on that in a sec. As with everyone that starts out in Sporting Clays I shot my first tourney in class C. I won it by such a margin that I had to shoot in A class from thereon. I reloaded nights, shot 100 rounds of skeet for practice every Wednesday and Friday, then two clay courses each Saturday and Sunday. That was just practice. Not counting at least two rounds of 5-stand per day, etc.

    I was shooting up to 30,000 targets a year.But back to the competitiveness. The field was so competitive that I NEVER won the A class outright. It was always on a post match shootout, and a lot of times I came in second.

    The point of the quote at the beginning is that attitude is everything! And like in the game of golf, which I also partaked in, attitude is incredibly hard to control during a match. I don’t know how many matches I shot where my attitude went to crap on the second day of the tourney, after leading the first day.

    Bottom line, I never figured out how to get the winning attitude back once I lost it during competition. When my attitude went south, I could never recover and I lost – sometimes miserably.

  8. I am hearing two (actually 3) different conversations here. One has to do with competition and the other has to do with survival & they are so very different things! The thread they share is a “warrior mindset” of course. The third is fairly unrelated as I see it personally….

    A Warrior can “survive/win” by using a grenade instead of a sidearm. Annihilation is key there, Destroy as much as possible, as quickly as possible, and at least once, regardless of how one is feeling. Cuz if ya let your feelings come to the surface and you hesitate, and then you promptly die.

    With competition, one does have the luxury of evaluating factors affecting performance, and if those factors are pushing one to be unsafe, or to practice bad habits (which doesn’t help anything at all), then evaluate away, and fold ’em for the day. That’s my military side coming out. And I totally agree that if competition is too much of a mental or emotional strain, then one is getting burned out or even more likely broke, then one needs to just come back at a different time when your Warrior Spirit is cleaned back up

    As for “home/public” survival, I’ve thought about it so very much, and trained so very much, that my mind is preset to deal with a lethal threat. And I mean absolutely lethal without question–NO OTHER OPTIONS –>Draw, fire until threat ceases or mag is empty, in which case – drop the mag, reload, and keep shooting the SOB. If I by God have to pull my pistol and have NO CHOICE but to fire it, someone…they or I….is going to just have to die, and I really do not care how many rounds I must fire to take care of business. God forbid one shoots to wound out of “kindness” and then gets themselves killed as a result, ya know? Or an ugly alternative is that they survive with a permanent disability and drill your butt in a civil suit.

    Matter of fact, in close quarters situations, if I’m going to use my sidearm, I’m certainly ready, willing & capable of putting a triple tap to the head. Dammit. WTH is the difference? Dead is dead. 3+ headshots or heartshots = same result!
    Me or them? Them.

    The coroner and cops can deal with the friggin mess. I am not attempting arrogance – please do not misunderstand. I’m simply declaring that in a defensive shooting situation, it is, IMO, just fine to empty the first mag and reload. I mean, hell, you’re going to jail regardless. You’re going to criminal trial regardless, and 99.9% of the time you’re going to a civil suit hearing as well. Hell with it, that guy that made me use my lethal force against my will in order to survive just pulled the pin on my variant of a grenade, and well, he’s just one less lying ass witness to deal with.

    Just my personal thoughts. Not advice. Not trigger happy. Not looking for trouble. Have never killed a civilian and have totally NO desire to do so…..yada yada yada.

    Oh, forgot that third topic…the hotel room thing….personally, I’m a pretty good sized “good ole boy” that some folks in the south would call “Big ‘Un”, and wouldn’t hesitate to simply walk out my door, in whatever I’m wearing (or not wearing), go to their entry door, knock, and demand they either quiet it down or face the police or the manager for disturbing my dang peace.

    Of course, if traveling with my wife, there is certainly the “get even” option, which would work for all involved I think rofl.

    • Love this. Thank you for calling out the difference!

      And for the record, after about an hour, I marched myself next door, pounded on the door, and demanded they keep it down. I was asleep 15 minutes later.

  9. Training for competition you definitely need to work on over coming distraction, mental, equipment and physical. But training is where you can say “stop, this ain’t working”. In competition you can also say stop, its often best for safety sake if you are really, monumentally not “on” or are having equipment issues.

    Got to say, though, you do need those sh*tty practices, where EVERYTHING is crap, in order to learn to adapt/improvise/overcome. Just don’t compromise safety in that process. You need to have every move not work, rds not fire, empties jam in the port, the mud slop on everything and the dust blow into everything and the sun glare down on everything in a paroxysm of absolute crapitude. The young troops today say “embrace the suck” when everything goes straight to hell and ain’t gonna get any better in the foreseeable future. My generation of troop said you just have to keep on humping, cause crying about it don’t make it any better.

    Keep on working, and work on that mental toughness as well. Powering through the really crappy days is rarely, at the moment, as rewarding as those golden runs seem. Just remember, the best canoe trip you ever go on is the one where it starts raining an hour after getting on the river and don’t stop for three days. Once you are thoroughly wet you just say the hell with it and start having fun anyway. Life is funny like that.

  10. Once I start a competition I finish it. You might have a bad run during one stage but there are others which you can compensate for.

    On Saturday I shot a 200 metre sitting match with a very sore back. I did okay with 7/8 on the deliberate on the Figure 11. I called the miss. The second stage was 4 double taps on the Fig11 with the 5 ring being the inner and the rest the outer zone. I had 3 inners and 5 outers. The final stage was 3 triple taps on a Figure 12, which is a lot smaller than the fig11. I was able to get 8/9 for a total of 87/100. A bad day at the range is better than a good day at work. But I still had a good day.

  11. I shot a Marine corps national match once. In a field of 65 teams we landed 13th. Keep in mind this was with no training. Just pull service records, who’s the good shooters and dump us on the line. The ones above us trained specifically but also able to control their minds while blocking out everything around them, in essence delete random thoughts and get extremely focused. Interesting to watch them..

  12. Well… we used to have a rule in flying, if the aircraft broke three times ( or you had three break in succession trying to get out on a mission), call it a day and hit the bar because the powers that be are telling you it ain’t your day.

    The point of training is to improve. Therefore it should be directed towards that goal, yes there is a benefit to learning to power through the bad days, but if you’re in such a place that the training just ain’t giving you any benefits- it’s better to pack it up. You may find yourself actually reinforcing negative habit patterns instead of good ones that you’re striving for.

    If you strive to always be consistent, to always be precise and always push your student/partner to be consistent and precise it becomes very easy to figure out that you’re or they’re tired. Because you find yourself/them ‘settling’ for performance that normally wouldn’t be acceptable, being sloppy- fatigue makes one care less and figure- that’s good enough. Now- when you are at that point you do need to decide- can I continue to train or attempt to train to the acceptable precision or not. If I push, will I be training myself (or worse a student) to accept sub-par performance? And in shooting, as in other high risk activities, there are certain procedures which do have to be adhered to every time, where we can’t get sloppy, where we can’t lower the standard.

    The advantage to training is that we can in fact control the conditions we can’t in real life. Training when you are tired can be beneficial in teaching you to deal with it. But, it can be dangerous as well. I do agree with the author that you do have to be willing to cancel training when the conditions aren’t supportive of achieving the training objective.

  13. As someone who drag raced motorcycles for 8yrs I can tell you the best lesson I learned and thankfully early on. Machines don’t care how much you yell at them or throw tools at them they will never fix themselves and you still have 1hr between rounds to get it going again or your on the trailer, so shut up and work!

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