We all know as shooters develop competition skills, things begin to get harder when they go up the class ladder. Shotgun matches reward perfection, not performance, but performance is the key to gaining perfection. Improvement invariably involves change and the closer you get to perfection, the harder it is to change.
According to one source, there are over 8,000 competitive sports defined as activities that require physical activity and are competitive. Of these, a number have players that don’t directly oppose one another but they all play at the same time to the same set of rules. Among those sports are golf, archery, equestrian sports and shooting.
“Now here’s something we hope you’ll really like!”
—Rocky the Flying Squirrel
I’ve written about squirrels in the past, mostly to point out they tend to make poor decisions when subjected to extreme stress, but this time it is different.
“A coach is someone who gives correction without causing resentment.” —John Wooden
My friend Dave is a rabid Buffalo Bills fan. By rabid, I mean he never listens to logic or accepts that the Packers are the greatest team in the history of the NFL. Maybe I am prejudiced, but I think logic should prevail.
“Actions have consequences.” —Stephen Dobyns
My friend Dave and I were engaged in our usual Wednesday sporting clays shoot when we came upon a station I immediately disliked. “I’m not going to shoot this one,” I told Dave. “I can’t ever do well, so I’ll just let you shoot.”
“Eye on the rock, head on the stock.”
I started out as a competitive pistol shooter before I decided to dip my toe into shooting clay targets with a shotgun. I hunted most of my life, usually with a shotgun, but when I tried to shoot moving targets, I initially tried to shoot them the way I shot a pistol.
“Practice makes Perfect.”
I am writing this in mid-April in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, so I have a lot of time on my hands being stuck at home. I’m not able to go to the YMCA (where I usually meet my friend Dave) and our local gun club is closed due to being “non-essential”, so I have to figure out what to do about my shooting.
There is some respite. I just started out working as a physician for the local VA clinic. This gives me some time away from home, but that is only for a few hours a week. I still needed to shoot.
The way I decided to deal with the problem was to go back to the basics. In the most basic way.
“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”
“The greater the ignorance, the greater the dogmatism.”
—Sir William Osler
Now that I have started shooting sporting clays again, I’ve noticed that while I am getting better, I continue to make many of the same mistakes. My friend Dave has pointed them out to me, and we discuss the “right way” to take a shot afterwards. However, in the heat of things, I don’t seem to listen to my own advice.
“Mauves ovriers ne trovera ja bon hostill”
(A bad workman never finds a good tool.)
—13th Century French Saying
“Fun, fun, fun (now that daddy took the T-Bird away).”
—Beach Boys, 1964
My wife and I recently moved to Victor, New York, a town south of Rochester near several gun clubs. This is very important to me because as most of you know, New York state is not particularly gun friendly — it takes a year to get a pistol permit. But in this part of New York, there are a lot of shotgun shooters and I feel very welcome.
“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.” —H.L. Mencken
One of the most frustrating things to me about discussing performance is the thought that all anyone has to do to get to the top of anything is to work harder than the next person. The next most annoying thing is to have people tell me the reason why this happens is the person in question has “talent” that can’t be duplicated by the speaker and there is no need to work hard because it won’t help.
“We are all products of our past, but we don’t have to be prisoners of it.” —Pastor Rick Warren
When I was in college, I was exposed to a math problem called the “Birthday Paradox” which showed if you randomly selected 23 people there would be a 50% chance two of them would have the same birthday. If you chose 70 people, the chances were almost 100%.
“In my opinion the only way to conquer stage fright is to get up on the stage and play.” —Taylor Swift
Recently I asked a friend of mine, a well-known bluegrass musician, if he ever suffered from stage fright. His answer surprised me when he told me early in his career he was unable to get on stage without having a near panic attack. Eventually, he overcame this problem and what helped him most was the advice of a mentor. He has stuck to it ever since.
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I would spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
—Attributed to A. Lincoln
Part Two: Skill Building
“By adopting a certain physical posture, a resonant chord is struck in spirit.” —Bruce Lee
By now, many of you have figured out I am a musician. I have used this experience to illustrate some of the principles of mental training since not only has a lot of the research into performance been done with musicians, but it is a good way to explain issues as most of you are familiar with what musicians do.
“See one, do one, teach one.” —Surgeon William S. Halstead
“I've never gone wrong trusting my gut.”
Do you remember in high school when you took those multiple choice tests and managed to eliminate two of the four answers and then picked the one that sounded best to you? And then you changed your mind only to find the first one was the right answer? Even though your teachers all said to go with the first thing that came to your mind?
“We have met the enemy, and he is us.”
—Pogo creator Walt Kelly
My younger son, Roy, lives in Texas with his family. Those of you from Texas know there are only two seasons there, Football and Spring Football, and anything in between doesn’t count unless you win the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Right now my sports intake on TV seems to be in that gray area of in-between. As a result, I have been watching a lot of basketball and golf.
Many years ago I wrote about match preparation in what turns out to be a vague and general manner. That’s because 20 years ago I hadn’t read much about that aspect of competition preparation in any sport. Now we have much more information, and the science for this comes from a number of fields including sports, business and music. While the sources are diverse, the principles are pretty much the same and seem to apply across the board.
Recently I had a friend, a musician, who asked me how he could reach “The Zone” on a regular basis. If you have ever had this experience, you know The Zone is a real thing, an altered state in which everything seems to go on automatic. You are more or less an observer of the action, and there is a feeling of calm not normally felt. You are totally focused on the task, and things seem perfect.
“I’ve failed over and over again and that’s why I succeed.”
These days I go to the YMCA on a regular basis — I’m not getting any younger — and I notice there seems to be a perpetual basketball game which involves the same 30-something-year-old participants who clearly are either college-level players or high school stars. I mention these players because I noticed one thing about them: they seemed to be stuck at their ability levels, and the games were very predictable, at least as far as each player goes.
As people become experts at anything, a number of changes occur. These changes are both physical and mental, resulting in the automation of skills and changes in the way we view our area of interest or domain. This process occurs in every field of expertise, including learning how to be a good shotgun competitor.
“What you see is what you get.”
The vast majority of competition shooters are, well, old. By old, I mean 40 or older, and this is important because one of the problems that occurs at this time in our lives is that our vision starts to fade.
“The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.”
While doing research for a book I am writing, I came across a number of papers that studied how people prepare for projects or develop business plans. There were a lot of good ideas offered, but one of the most interesting things I found out is a lot of businesses are failures in spite of good plans and good execution of those plans.
“All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.”
—Karl Marx (among a whole host of others)
Recently I spoke to a high school shotgun team and their parents about the value of mental training. During that speech I mentioned practice should not be fun because it is supposed to be hard work. I used the example I mention a lot in this column, that shooting a round of skeet is not practice unless you are trying to learn how to shoot a round of skeet.
“I can make you faster, but I can’t make you fast.”
—Jerry Baltes, Head Coach, Grand Valley State University Track and Field
If you have been competing for any time, you probably have a pre-shot ritual. For most shooters, it consists of lining up your feet, choosing the start and end point for the shot, visualizing the path of the target, making a pass along the line of flight with an unloaded gun, loading and taking a deep breath just before calling for the shot — just like your coach taught you.
“I never hit a shot, even in practice, without having a sharp in-focus picture of it in my head.” —Jack Nicklaus
We all know competition shooting consists of the good, the bad and the ugly. And, if you are having one of those days in which everything seems to go wrong, the good is not very obvious. Match stress messes everything up, and it will do it every time if we don’t prepare for it. But even if we do, there is the potential for disaster.