How to improve your Contest Scores (aside from spending more money)

By Tom Haavisto, VE3CX
Dave VE3SB, on the ve3 reflector wrote regarding the CQWWDX Contest:
“I tried to operate the whole contest with a broken shoulder, but woke up Sunday morning with it hurting badly. I decided to give it a rest even though I was on track for a personal record. Having 10 M open is good for a small fry like me. Obviously, from my score, I needed to get on to 15 M for Sunday. By the way, when are we small fry going to get lessons from the experts? i.e. is CCO ever going to give a course on how to improve your contest scores (aside from spending more money)”?

Tom VE3CX (recipient of our OQP Plaque from the H.A.R.C.) answers:

While I am not a top guy, I sometimes manage to turn in a decent score. Here are a few things that may help.

I have attended Contest University (CTU) at Dayton, and if you are looking for a one day course full of contesting information, it is highly recommended. At the same time, I do understand this may not fit into everyone’s budget.

Contesting boils down to one basic issue: time management. Whether a contest is 8 hours, 12 hours, 24 hours or 48 hours, you need to make all your QSO’s in that period of time. Time spent eating, sleeping, walking the dog, etc. is not making you any points. You may hear variations on this such as “An empty chair makes no QSO’s”. For most people, more time in the chair will result in a better score.

A contest in not won in 48 hours. Rather, it is won minute by minute, hour by hour. Focus on what you need to be doing this minute to maximize your score. When the hour is done, put it behind you, and focus on the next hour’s goal. When the contest is over, all those minutes and hours add up to reveal your final score.

The next thing is to make your time in front of the radio more productive. You should be calling CQ continuously. Your radio has a second VFO – learn to use it to search for more QSO’s between CQ’s. The idea being – find strong stations you can work with one or two calls. To someone listening to you calling CQ, they should not be able to tell your attention was diverted to make a QSO on the second VFO. If you are gone too long, you can lose your run frequency. N1MM supports SO2V.

When you are doing S&P, work the easy ones. For example, you are tuning the band, and hear someone loud. Might only be one point, BUT you can work him with one call. Every QSO helps.

Don’t waste time in pileups. Yes, you need the multipliers, but at the same time, you are not making any QSO’s. It is a tradeoff, but if you do not get through within 3 calls, move on. Yes, it’s hard to not stop and chase DX, but chances are you will work him later…No QSO’s in the log means no points.

Take time to make sure the call/exchange is correct. Most contests will exact a one or two QSO penalty for errors. Taking a few seconds to make sure you have things right pays big dividends. The top guys usually have score reductions under 1 percent.

When you are working the contest, keep a notepad handy. Did something go well? Is there something that is bugging you that you need to fix? Write it down. Also, when the contest is over, sit there for about 5 minutes, collect your thoughts and write yourself a note. What can you do to make your station better? Is your chair too hard? Switch in the wrong place? Sun in your eyes? Arm sore from reaching for something? The idea here is to capture that moment, figure out what you can do better next time, and then fix it. This note is only for you, but the idea is to fix the easy problems (the low hanging fruit). When those get fixed, move on to the next thing to fix. It is a process of continuous improvement, and over time, this should make your station better. What I like to do is look at my note(s) from previous years before a contest. By making note of certain things, I can carry that information forward to next year’s contest.

That said, it all *sounds* easy. What separates the guys with low scores to the middle tier to the top guys is execution. It takes time to master these skills, and it takes practice, practice, practice. Practice your pileup busting techniques between contests. Practice listening to both VFOs (on different frequencies) to see if you can follow two QSO’s by mentally shifting your attention from one ear to the other.

Last but not least: accept reality. While we all aspire to be top guns, precious few actually achieve that level of performance. That is what makes their performance stand out – not all of us can get there. While it is fun to dream of having a huge amount of aluminum at your fingertips, top notch radios, amps, etc., we need to be happy with what we have, and not worry so much about the other guy. Take time to enjoy the magic of radio, have fun with it, and set realistic goals that you can achieve. Take pride in reaching your goals (whatever they may be). It is after all a hobby. Have fun with it. Smile a lot. That too will improve your scores 🙂

You worked through the contest with a broken shoulder. Take pride in your accomplishment – others may have just sat this one out, but you chose to participate. Be happy with your score, and figure out what you need to do better next time around.

Good luck with the next one!

Tom – VE3CX