Selection for International Teams

Picking a person or a team to represent your country at an international event is a pretty major thing, and as we’ll see in the coming month with the Beijing Games, it’s something that matters even to those not involved in the sport. I got asked recently how this process works for target shooting, and I realised there wasn’t any clear explanation of this written up on the web yet, so I’ve written this one. But before I lay out the steps, let me lay out the thinking behind them.

The philosophy behind the process is not so much simple as fundamental. We want to:

  • be fair
  • send the best shooters to represent their country
  • and not to fall on our collective asses when we do go abroad to represent Ireland.

These principles have implications. For example, the decision of who goes has to be impersonal. If it is based on anything but performance, the process is selecting something other than the best shooters we have. Ugly as it is to say, the ISSF does not award medals for good grooming, personable manners or the ability to party. Highest score wins, that’s the bottom line. How we measure that performance, however, has to be impersonal and objective – if it is determined by a personal judgement of any kind, then we can no longer claim fairness. There is a little room for leeway here in some cases, but it’s the exception, not the norm, and I’ll mention it again in a bit. The easiest way to get an impersonal, objective, fair measure of performance is score; and it carries a benefit in that if there’s one match to qualify, there’s a lot of pressure there. That same pressure which the shooter has to operate under at the international match itself. So if they hit the score in qualiftying, it’s really a good indicator that they’ll hit it in the match as well. In the past, we would look at scores in matches over the course of a year and look at the shooter’s high points; but those might be under relaxed circumstances, and in fact we did always note that shooters “lost” a good few points going from domestic to international because of match stress. With a single qualifying match, we see that drop before they go away – and so if there are asses to fall on, it happens here amongst friends and coaches who can help the shooter get back on their feet and do better the next time by learning from the fall. Before now, it happened in front of the entire international shooting community, usually without the coach present to help, and almost always without support staff or friends to cushion the blow or help the shooter rally back.

There are also some practical considerations to keep in mind here. International matches are expensive. The NTSA does not have a lot of money. In fact, they have very little. The NTSA is the least funded of all olympic NGBs and it’s one of the least funded of all the NGBs (olympic and otherwise). And flights and hotels can’t be booked a day in advance of a match without serious financial penalty (and often not even then). And it takes time for shooters to acclimatise – in general, one day per timezone crossed plus one or two days on top of that. And any shooting team going abroad needs support. A manager at the least, to worry about paperwork, hotel bookings, logistics, all the little bits and pieces. The more shooters, the more you need a manager. By the time you have more than five shooters, you’re starting to need more than one manager in fact. And if you have under-18 shooters in the team, you are required by law to have a children’s officer present as well and that person has to be trained. And if there are both male and female under-18s present, you have to have both make and female children’s officers, again by law. And all these folks have to have seats on flights and rooms and so forth. And traditionally the NTSA does not send shooters abroad if it can’t afford to pay them some percentage of the costs. So the number of people sent abroad each year, and where they are sent to, are by necessity limited.

So, how does it work? Well, the first steps are all planning on the part of the NTSA. At the start of each year, the NTSA committee sits down and determines what matches it wants to send people to in the upcoming year. (It can add to the list during the year as well). It decides on what matches and how many shooters are going. Once this is done, they can either announce at that point what is coming up in the current year or wait until the official invitation is received. Personally, I think the earlier the better, but sometimes it’s not possible (and other times it is). Once that decision has been made, the next step is also the NTSA’s – they must set a date for the qualification match and determine the selection score. The selection match must be set far enough ahead of the international match that the shooter has time to confirm holidays and rest up as required; been given one week’s notice that you’re going to the Olympics would be unconscionable, and it has happened before – and has actually happened this week to three shooters for the Beijing Games, though that’s the fault of the National Olympic Committees in China and Russia rather than the shooting governing bodies.

The selection score must also be set, and here the principle of not falling on our asses comes into play. We don’t want to wait until a shooter can shoot a 600 (or 400) before sending them abroad, but we also don’t want to see an Irish shooter so hopelessly outclassed that they land in last place (landing in last because of unforseeable disasters would be a different matter obviously). Apart from it looking bad, there’s the more serious risk that the shooter will wind up feeling somewhat gut-punched by the experience and that’s something to be avoided at all costs if possible. So a balance has to be struck, and it must be kept in mind that we’re competing well above our weight class at the moment since we have no residential or full-time athletes in shooting in Ireland and most of our shooters started very, very late compared to their competitors who would have started shooting around ages 8 to 10. The current balance is the 66% mark – meaning that the selection score is that which would be required to place the shooter in the top two-thirds of the field in the relevant international match. But since placing is only loosly tied to scores, the 66% score is calculated for the last three years (or whatever interval) and averaged. So, for example, the selection score for the upcoming Intershoot match will be the average of the scores you would have needed to post to finish in the top two-thirds of the field for the last three Intershoot matches. It was hoped when this new selection system was thrashed out, that in years to come, that 66% level could be raised to 50% and maybe then further still.

The thing to remember about the selection score is that it is different for every match. Some matches – the Olympics, the World Championships, the World Cups, the European Championships – will simply always be very high-level, and will always have high selection scores. That’s all there is to it really, there’s no easy loophole to send a beginner to a World Cup in this system. However, the selection scores for other, smaller matches will be much lower – and these matches are a better introductory route for a new shooter to take anyway. Remember, if you cannot hit the selection score here at home, odds are high that you would do badly abroad and that’s a lot more unpleasant.

In some cases, the scores distribution for the international match is wierd. The GB Junior Internationals for example, have normally been won with very high scores in the top few places, but then the scores very rapidly tail off. In those cases, the 66% level is very, very low indeed – to the point where it’s ridiculous. In those cases, a selection score will be either the Olympic MQS for seniors or the Junior MQS (which is a few points off the senior MQS – 560 for AR60Jr, 373 for AR40Jr). It’s set this way because otherwise, standards would fall off as they have before.

For developmental purposes, shooters used to be sent to international matches that they were really not ready for. The idea was that the first trip was always going to be a shock, so what harm? The problem was that it wasn’t the best way. It was akin to dropping someone off the end of a pier into the Irish Sea to teach them to swim. Sure, the ones who made it back to shore might go on to learn properly later, but it leads to a high attrition rate. A better route would be to choose smaller matches and use them as stepping stones. Intershoot was often used for that in the past, but even it is a bit high-end – it’s really the gateway between National championships level matches and European championships level matches. Matches like RIAC, the Hell Open and so on, would seem to be a better choice. Also, the club level matches like the British and Welsh Championships and a few other such matches on the continent, should really be used as developmental steps; but there’s never been sufficient coaching cooperation between the national and club levels to do that properly. No reason that can’t change, mind you.

At any rate, once the team size, the date of the selection match and the selection score have all been set, the NTSA next solicits Expressions of Interest from shooters. The idea is to produce a shortlist of names of people interested in that particular international. It facilitates the following steps, and it also indicates to the NTSA if any further steps should be taken at all (maybe noone wants to go to Milan this year, for example). This would save time, money and manpower, all three of which are very limited resources.

An Expression of Interest, by the way, is not some formal document signed in triplicate. It’s tapping someone on the shoulder at a match or in the pub and saying “yeah, I’d like to try out for that match”. Or it’s an SMS message saying the same thing. Or it’s an email or a phone call or a letter or a carrier pigeon. Well. Maybe not the pigeon, but you get the idea – it’s just a fancy way of saying that you raise your hand when asked if you’re up for it. It’s the very opposite of complicated.

By the way, just because the NTSA wait until this point to look for EoIs is not to say that you can’t hand one in well in advance. Shooters cannot play passive roles in their own shooting after all – if there’s an international match you’re interested in, talk to your coach about it. Get a training plan in gear. Tell the NTSA you want to go to that match, even if they’ve said nothing about it yet.

Anyway, once the EoIs are in (and there’s a deadline that gets announced when the NTSA starts looking for them), the Team Coach and the Team Manager get to work. The Manager starts booking flights and hotels on a provisional basis and talking to the match organisers and so forth, while the Coach starts working on training plans with the interested shooters. These set out what training the shooter will do to get up to the level needed for the match, it’ll set the goals for the match itself, it’ll cover the matches used for training and the goals for those, it’ll cover strengths and weaknesses and training exercises and training times and so on and so forth. Now most people don’t know how to write up a training plan. Thing is, there is no one format for them. What’s right for some is wrong for others. The key here is to work with the Coach. Talk to them. Work with them. You are not expected to be a paperwork whizz. That’d be silly. What you are expected to do is to train in a structured, directed fashion. Not just turn up on your home range every other week and plink. And you have to have a training plan. Not just for some set of rules here, but because it’s a vital and necessary part of preperation for the match itself. Your competitors will have structured training and physiotherapists and biomechanics and gym work and technical training and constant coaching and assessment and analysis and more – you have no hope at all of matching their performance if you don’t train in a structured, focussed fashion. It just won’t happen.

So, for the next few weeks or months, you train. The Team Coach stays in contact with you and helps as you do this. You both assess your progress, correct any problems, and keep on working. Meanwhile the Team Manager is continuing with preperations for the trip and the NTSA, well, they actually have nothing to do in this phase. Then the selection match rolls around. Now this may be a normal Open match and your scores are used for selection from it; or it may be a match held specially for the purpose of selection. Either way, this is it. You shoot , and hopefully you exceed the selection score. Does this mean you’re going? Well, maybe – the thing is, if there are, say, three places, they go to the top three scores over the selection score. So if selection is 580 and you shot 582, but three others shot 585, well, you’re not going. But if you’re the top score, well, congratulations, that seat is now yours, free and clear. Now you go into the terminal preperation phase for the match – whether that be final tuning or just resting up before the trip.

Here, however, is where the little bit of leeway comes in. Let us say that there are three places and two get filled by shooters shooting above the selection score. Let’s also say that in every match up to the selection match you exceeded the selection score easily. But let’s say you had the flu on the day and just missed out. Well, in this case, there is a small amount of leeway – if there is an open slot, and the coach agrees that the shooter’s performance has been consistently above the level required, then the NTSA committee does have the option to send the shooter. But it’s a limited amount of leeway – if there’s no open slot, they can’t add one. And if you’ve also got to remember that this leeway is not there in the interest of the shooter. That’s why it won’t send you if there’s no open seats. The leeway is in the interests of the country, so it can field the best team available in the fairest way possible – but it has to be fair to [i]everyone[/i] (including those in the slots already) and it has to take into account the logistical reality that you can’t turn around and book another slot into a major international match with a day’s notice.

As systems go, it’s not perfect. It’s too simple in some ways, and requires too much work in others. But it’s a damn sight better than the old system because it assures the shooter that hard work is all that’s needed to earn the green jersey – it’s what you can do, not who you know. And it gives the shooters a fighting chance at going abroad and doing well amongst their peers in the big game rather than going abroad without support and suffering a fair amount of mental hardship as a result.

Anyway, in summary, the steps are:

  • The NTSA selects the international matches a team will be sent to and how big that team will be;
  • The NTSA then determines the date of the selection match and the selection score;
  • The NTSA announces this to the shooters and looks for EoIs;
  • The Shooters express interest to the NTSA;
  • The Team Coach then works with the Shooters to formulate training plans and continues to work with them through the training phase;
  • The Team Manager meanwhile goes off and does the logistical arrangements;
  • The NTSA then run the selection match and then announces the teams based on the selection match scores.

Right, now you know how it works, it’s time to go think about what matches you’d like to try out for. The ISSF calendar is here and the European calender is here; go pick something and talk to your coach about it!



edit: Since this was written, there’s been a small change in how the selection procedure works. It’s minor, and has to do with how the selection scores are chosen. 

The procedure is the same from the shooter’s point of view, but admin overhead has been reduced by calculating minimum scores once per Olympic cycle, and per Tier of competition rather than per-competition. Which makes sense and the standards are about the same:

1World Championships and World Cups582
2European Championships, European Cups and other Continental championships577
3Subsidiary competitions such as Grand Prix, Intershoot etc573
4National Championships and other international competitions570