October 1997 // Volume 35 // Number 5 // Feature Articles // 5FEA3

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4-H Shooting Sports Hits the Mark with Youth-At-Risk

The 4-H shooting sports program provides a dynamic way to involve hard-to-reach youth as demonstrated through long term programming and summative evaluation results. Four-H shooting sports is an under-used hook for involving youth in 4-H. Involvement in shooting sports can provide the skills that lead to many other 4-H opportunities, in many cases, changing the lives of youth in positive ways and opening doors to vocational or avocational opportunities. Four-H shooting sports is truly an activity for a lifetime. The 4-H shooting sports program has the potential to attract a new audience of 4-H members and adult volunteers.

Kenneth E. Sabo
Professor, Agriculture and Extension Education

Wendy V. Hamilton
4-H Youth Development Specialist
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico
Internet Address: whamilto@nmsu.edu.

The New Mexico 4-H shooting sports program provides a dynamic way to involve new members. The program is versatile enough to take place in a variety of settings and can be adapted easily to children of all economic levels. It's a program that can target a broad range of ages, maximize the potential to access hard-to-reach youth, and offer fast action fun, holding their interest for an extended period of time.

To find out if 4-H shooting sports projects could serve as a viable conduit to reach under-served, hard-to-reach youth, we initiated a 4-H shooting sports project in a low-income housing project in southern New Mexico in summer 1996.

Four-H was part of a larger, public housing program coordinated by the Truth or Consequences (T or C) Public Housing Authority. The program targeted low-income youth residents of the 75-home facility. Twenty-five youth participated in the program.

The goal of the Housing Authority was to provide a multifaceted recreational/educational program to teach sports and recreation skills in a non-threatening environment. Emphasis was on developing mentorships, skill education and self-development in an environment where youth could experience positive learning while having fun.

The Housing Authority program (and the 4-H shooting sports program) was carried out over an eight-week period. The program was a collaborative effort among 14 community sports, recreational, and educational organizations. The 4-H contribution, in addition to the shooting sports program, included crafts, cooking, sewing, gardening and animal projects, involving the county 4-H agent, state specialists, parents, and adult, teen and junior volunteer leaders.

The youth met three times a week for two hours each day during the camp to learn about archery. The meeting place, a local elementary school's outdoor playground, was within walking distance of the housing project. Collecting and gathering equipment for the project was challenging because of physical differences among the youth, including the physically challenged as well as a variety of ages.

Equipment use, care, and handling were covered at the outset, individually and in group settings. It was important to help youth learn to respect equipment early, both because it was borrowed and for personal safety reasons.

The next step included picking out individual equipment with help from junior leaders (bows, arrows, arm guards and finger tabs). When youth required specialized size or equipment needs, leaders were quick to find the piece needed due to their broad range of shooting sports contacts within the community. A real plus for the program was adequate volunteer staff to take care of any need that arose.

One significant issue was that participants became very possessive of the equipment they were offered. Children wanted to hold on to their equipment and use the same tools each day. Because of this, we made every effort to have more than enough equipment available and frequently talked about the different types and qualities of equipment using the opportunity to teach some consumer issues related to archery purchases. This helped youth to resist the need to scramble over equipment and, instead, test sizes and comfort of various pieces.

Once youth found equipment that they felt suited their height, weight and skill levels, we labeled the pieces with a name tag. This helped the youth to begin caring for the equipment and feel there was a place for them each day. This seemed to influence the high daily return rate of the youth.

Next, we taught fundamental shooting skills for the bow and arrow, namely stance, pre-draw, draw, anchor, aim, release, and follow through. We made no effort or particular mention of score keeping even though youth were interested in learning how to score their hits. They were quick to share scores with their peers, which promoted math skills, neighborly self-directed fun, and a rousing cheer for any youth who hit the bull's eye. The kids began to feel proud.

A firing line was designated. Styrofoam blocks served as backstops and targets were provided by the local 4-H office. Youth received one-on-one coaching. They were taught how to nock an arrow with emphasis on pointing the bow and arrow down range. They also learned how to draw, aim, and release an arrow. The important thing was to teach safety while increasing the success rate of target hits. One of the beauties of archery is that success can come quickly with big targets, short-range distance, and lots of coaching. This especially helps younger youth who tend to get frustrated.

Although the 4-H shooting sports project is not unlike other 4-H projects, it has a lot of unique characteristics. It is action-oriented and an activity that youth do not regularly experience. Youth do not associate it with traditional education strategies although there is a large amount of cognitive development as youth focus greater attention on fundamentals and strategies to hit a target. Youth are attracted to archery (and other shooting sports programs - rifle, air pistol, shotgun, muzzleloading and hunting) because they simply think shooting sports are cool, fun, and something to brag about.

We are teaching for success; we want youth to experience a measure of accomplishment and be encouraged to continue in the activity. We want them to be involved in long range activities to gain important life skills such as self-esteem, self- responsibility, character building, managing feelings and self- discipline on a personal level. On the social level, we want these youth to develop life skills in the areas of empathy, sharing, concern for others, accepting differences, and cooperation.

Hard-to-reach youth probably have had more experience with successive failures compared to other children in the educational arena. Therefore, a 4-H shooting sports program offers a lot of positive opportunities. The advantage, no matter which of the six sports are offered, is that project goals do not focus solely on developing marksmanship skills. They encourage developing life skills such as confidence, decisionmaking, respect for equipment, positive peer/adult partnerships and safety. Shooting sports programs also bring out messages of personal pride that come with mastery, personal discipline, responsibility and sportmanship. These skills and messages are life builders.

Youth learn the strategies of working with others in a disciplined environment. They learn about competition with themselves and others. They learn that they can become someone else's resource. They learn to choose involvement levels in self- determined activities. They learn that being cool doesn't require senseless actions that put themselves and others in danger. They learn through commitment and interest that they can become part of a much bigger family of shooting sports enthusiasts and have the opportunity to carry on positive activities in life.

Four-H is the lead youth organization filling the gap in firearm safety education. Fast on 4-H's footsteps are the National Rifle Association, International Hunter Education Association, Boy Scouts of America, and other organizations that are recognizing the need for organized skill training in hunter education, firearm safety, and shooting sports. All these programs are beginning to recognize the double advantage of involving hard-to-reach youth with mainstream audiences.

When youth complete 4-H shooting sports programs they walk away with a thorough instruction of gun safety, training in responsible shooting practices and firearm use, a developing self -confidence, personal discipline, responsibility and sportsmanship, an appreciation and understanding of natural resources, a skill to use for life, a value for working with others in a disciplined environment, understanding about how to save and raise money for their own equipment, the opportunity to enroll in other 4-H projects and an opportunity to learn about competition with themselves and others.

Follow-up activities after completing summer camp include an array of events and activities sponsored by local shooting sports groups that are often eager to keep youth involved. Many local groups offer hunting and fishing events and special workshops.

Yearly evaluations from the New Mexico shooting sports program demonstrate that the program has hit the mark, meeting the needs of many of today's youth as demonstrated by summative evaluation examples obtained from program participates. Youth have reported to us many important aspects about the program. For example:

"For me, shooting was exciting and fun to do. I was always interested in the outdoors and had been hunting for awhile. I was interested in finding a program that would give me more experience in these things."

"The program was not only fun, but I liked the competition aspect of it. I found myself working harder because I wanted to do well for the leaders that were helping me."

"The volunteers are very important to the program's success. I think that we all realized that without them, we would have no help. Someday, I would like to possibly volunteer and coach in the shooting sports program."

"I'd like to go to college and continue shooting and I'm looking for a school that offers a scholarship in shooting sports."

"I personally practice at least 2-3 hours a day throughout the year. Our club also holds a fund raiser shoot to raise money for our team at least once a month for six months."

"I've learned to be a better sportsman. We all work towards the same goal which is to improve our individual skills and knowledge. I think we remember more because 4-H shooting sports is hands-on and we get to experience shooting in a safe environment. Because we want to do well in competition, we read the manuals more and study harder."

If youth choose to become involved in competitive shooting events, they can contact any of the 50 state 4-H programs, the National Rifle Association or state and local shooting sports associations. Some events cost money, some do not. Often groups offer discounts and sponsorships to those who express need. Sports sections in newspapers are good sources for tracking shooting sports organizations and events. For example, during hunting and fishing days, there are groups sponsoring activities so young people may become acquainted with the different disciplines.

Many people argue that shooting sports are not a recommended or appropriate project for high-risk youth because of trends toward violent behaviors with guns and gang activity today. However, shooting sports projects teach the safe and respectful use of these tools. Safe handling practices are constantly stressed. Shooting sports equipment is used and handled with respect.

We are helping prevent home and field accidents by teaching and emphasizing safe storage, cleaning, handling, and use. Four-H shooting sports have an outstanding safety rating compared to some other 4-H projects and activities due to the heavy emphasis on respect and safety.

Shooting sports tend to attract hard-to-reach youth who would otherwise not seek out 4-H as a viable opportunity. Shooting sports also attract adult leaders who would not normally think of themselves as potential 4-H leaders. Shooting sports is the hook for involving youth in 4-H. This can lead to involvement in many important youth development skill paths. In many cases, changing the lives of youth in positive ways and often opening doors to vocational or avocational opportunities.

The shooting sports program attracts youth who would not normally come in contact with 4-H. The program offers a set of skills that, in the 1980s, had seen a decline in participation. Because of changes in families and an increasingly urban population, there is now at least one generation of youth who have not been taught hunting and shooting sports skills at home. The trend is reversing with 4-H taking the leadership. Today, the shooting sports project is one of the fastest-growing 4-H projects with an equal number of boys and girls involved.

New Mexico is using the shooting sports program in unique and innovative ways. Several New Mexico 4-H specialists, agents and volunteers have been trained in 4-H shooting sports at regional workshops sponsored by the National 4-H Shooting Sports Committee. Approximately 8,000 youth have been reached since the program began in 1983, reflecting a 600% increase in participation. An increasing come from non-traditional audiences such as youth-at-risk and older teens.

Other state 4-H programs are seeing increased enrollment figures in shooting sports projects. In 4-H's never-ending challenge to be more inclusive, shooting sports projects offer an excellent opportunity to open new doors to youth who are at risk.