NATCHEZ — With Jack Withers around, you can be assured your child is safe with a rifle in his or her hand.
Withers, a former Olympic shooting coach and a volunteer coach for the Adams County 4-H Club, know a thing or two about shooting and gun safety.
“I coach rifle and pistol shooting, mainly,” Withers said. “I’ve been doing that for a long time. Before that I started out with b-b guns and pellet guns, and I was one of the founders of 4-H in Mississippi about 20 years ago.”
Withers teaches young children and adults how to safely shoot guns, both for competition and for hunting safety and success.
The St. Francisville, La., High School physics teacher also runs and participates in a series of summer shooting camps across the country.
“I enjoy young folks, and I especially enjoy being able to offer a sport where it does not matter how big they are or how tall or how fast they are,” Withers said. “What matters is your willingness to do the training and the work that it takes to be good at something.
“I think that’s what’s so good about shooting; it gives a life lesson. If you’re willing to work, you can see the progress.”
Withers said he enjoys watching young children start out in shooting sports — when they’re too small to support a a big gun — and watching them progress and grow until it’s second nature.
“When they’re real young, the sand bag holds the gun still so they can concentrate on how to align the sights and pull the trigger,” he said. “When they get older, they only have their elbows for support — they have to develop some muscle control. Then they’ll stand up and shoot with either one or two hands — by then you have to have the strength to support the gun.”
Withers said often the girls are better shots than the boys, especially by the time they’re standing to shoot. This is partially because their upper bodies are shorter so their elbows can rest on their hips more easily.
And he’s also coached handicapped children.
The idea to teach shooting sports came to Withers when he was explaining to some of his students the safety and ethics of hunting.
“I was teaching up in Jackson, and I had some kids that were hunters,” he said. “I was showing them some things about shooting — trigger control and all that.”
The ethics of hunting, he said, carry over into shooting sports.
It’s one of the most honest sports you can play, Withers said, because there is very little room to cheat, and when there is, most people don’t anyway.
“One of our big problems today in our society is that kids don’t have good role models anymore,” Withers said. “That’s one of the things I enjoy about teaching kids. They learn there’s an ethical way of doing things.
“I always really make a point to tell those kids how much I admire their sportsmanship. There is such a thing in the world as truth and honesty — somebody’s just got to teach it to them.”
Withers was an assistant coach for the U.S. national team and has worked with individuals from across the country. He’s coached and worked the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, as well as several world cups held there.
“There is a fascination and a great feeling when you are standing there in the stadium ,and the guy that you helped coach is standing there in the center of the platform, and the flag is going up, and he’s wearing that medal,” he said.
But as strong as that feeling is, Withers said he enjoys coaching youth more.
“The most priceless thing is when you take one of those young kids that has never shot before and they shoot the center,” he said.
Withers was a competitive shooter in his prime, mostly with high-power rifles. He said eventually he learned not to think about hitting the target — it became automatic.
Success in shooting is 95 percent mental, Withers said.
“You’re teaching the subconscious mind,” he said. “All of a sudden you get to where you don’t have to think about it anymore. You just do it. The subconscious doesn’t make a mistake.”
The Adams County 4-H shooting team recently competed at the state championships, where the team won several medals, including a first place finish by Pepper Taylor.
The national meet will be in Grand Isle, Neb., later this year and hile Adams County does not have any participants this year, Withers expects to be singing a different tune in 2010.
The 14-and-up age limit also hindered Adams County from sending participants.
“We’re so green right now; we just got started. This program has been derelict for five years,” he said. “But those kids have come a long way, and I’m truly impressed with a lot of them. Next year we’re going to have some serious shooters.”