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Vision & Aging by Todd Bender, Photos by Johnny Cantu

ver my three decades of coaching, I have been privileged to work with shooters from the ages of 8 to 85. I have seen shooters with all range of abilities and disabilities and have never run into anyone who didn’t have the eyes, reflexes and physical capabilities to shoot American skeet successfully. But things do change as we age; most important to the shooting sports, our vision. These changes are a natural thing, but they can have an effect on our scores and enjoyment of the game. As long as we recognize and address the issues, that effect can be minimal.

My coach at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, Col. Tom Hanzel (USAF Ret.), was, and still is, arguably the best skeet coach in the history of the game. Col. Hanzel coached more world champions and more hall–of–famers than almost all the other coaches in the sport put together. “Colonel,” as his “kids” affectionately called him, routinely bested his students in competition, even into his eighties.

During my many conversations with the Colonel, he often spoke of changing his game as his physical abilities, eyes and reflexes changed or, in some cases, deteriorated. During our long conversations in his office when I was in college, we spoke many times of how shooters have to change their approach to the game as they age. The key to maintaining your game as you grow older is to understand what is happening to your body and make the appropriate adjustments.

Diminishing Vision

Obviously, as we age, our visual acuity diminishes. Even though tremendous vision is an asset in shotgunning, it is not a requirement. What is more important is how you use your vision.

One of my good friends is Al Magyar. Al is a past world champion, past–president of the NSSA, many time All–American and owner of a number of world–record 400x400s. He was close to legally blind without his glasses until a recent surgery gave him new and improved vision. We may all be in trouble now that Al can see well again! Al’s previous visual limitations did not deter him. Through dedication, practice and desire, he achieved what few do.

Even good vision deteriorates with age, but approaches can be modified to allow you to succeed. The key is to understand the deficiencies and accurately assess and devise a path to overcome any roadblocks. As an observer of this sport for a long time, I have never seen any physical condition that could not be overcome.

Visual

Every shooter must base the visual aspects of their game on their visual capabilities. Some shooters focus on the window of the house before they call. I do not, but that doesn't make them “wrong” or me “right.” It’s individual.

Even if you’ve had good vision all your life, you need to be wary of changing vision. Take my good friend Hank Schmidt. A few years ago, Hank had an unusual amount of difficulty breaking doubles on a skeet field, especially at Station Four. Then, during a trip to his internist for a physical, the doctor asked how long it had been since Hank had his eyes checked. He responded, “So long ago I couldn’t honestly remember.” So, he made an appointment and found that, for the first time in 64 years, he needed distance correction. “It happened so gradually, I honestly had no idea I needed help with my vision,” Hank said. He never realized his eyes were not working like they used to. Now, with glasses his eyes are picking up the targets clear and sharp.

Eye Placement

Eye placement — where you look as the target is called for — becomes more critical with age. As I near the milestone of 50 years of age, I have seen a change in my vision in recent years and have made slight adaptations to my game with reasonable success. Unfortunately, eye placement is strictly individual, so it would be impossible to lay out a definitive plan for any individual without first understanding the specific circumstances. It’s best for each person to seek out the advice of a professional who understands vision issues.

Ask the average shooter where their hold point is — the starting point for the gun on any shot — and many can, with impressive accuracy, tell you exactly. Ask the same shooter where they look for a particular target, and you may only get a puzzled look. Eye placement, or eye position, is key. It is important that the eyes be focused in an area that allows immediate recognition of the target and the quickest focus possible.

You cannot hit what you cannot see, and where and how you look for a target as it is called for dictates how well you’ll see it. Eye placement is more important than the hold point, because the best hold point in the world is useless if the target is not acquired immediately by the eyes and then immediately acted upon.

Everyone’s eyes are different, as are their reflexes. Some focus their eyes on the window of the house before they call for every target. I do not, but that does not make me “right” and those who choose to look elsewhere “wrong.” Quite the contrary. Many see targets very well by looking “in the window.” Everyone is different and must base the visual aspects of their game on this individuality.

How you see the target is significant. What is important is that you see the target clearly and immediately. And once you have found your eye position, wherever that may be, it is important that your application of that “look point” be consistent.

If you are experiencing visual problems and not acquiring targets immediately as they emerge from the house, try looking in different places for the target — in the window, 4 feet out from the window, 10 feet out — experiment. The acceptable area for eye placement can be wide–ranging. That is because we all see differently and have different reflexes. While one shooter can safely look in the window, another may have to look out away from the window. Find what works for you.

Once you find the right place to look on each particular shot, be consistent in your setup and your use of that focal point. Continually changing where you look for a target from shot to shot will make every shot a brand–new and different adventure. There is no right or wrong when looking for places to set your eyes for a particular target, just what is “right for you.” There are good and bad places for all of us, and you must find where you can look so you acquire the target properly and react to it in a timely fashion.

Just like hold points, there are certain parameters that must be maintained. Generally, successful look points fall within the areas mentioned earlier — in the window to 4 or 10 feet out.

Settle In

If there is a secret to good vision and seeing targets well, it is letting your eyes “settle.” As we age, our eyes do not refocus to distance as quickly as they used to because the elasticity of the lens in our eye changes. It becomes more necessary to let your eyes settle once what I call a “directional look point” is achieved.

Let’s say you are shooting a Low Three. I tend to look 3 feet off the window on this shot, so once I have mounted the gun to my hold point and shifted my eyes to the directional look point of 3 feet off the window, I let my eyes settle for two seconds. It takes the human eye a good second to settle and focus at a particular spot, so my “two–second rule” assures my eyes are focused and ready to respond to a target leaving the window at 50 m.p.h. This is important to all shooters but increasingly critical in advanced years.

Changes In Dominance

Not only can visual acuity change over the years, over time eye dominance can change, or at least conditions can occur where an eye that has been dominant for years starts to lose its dominancy. As your eyes change, they can strengthen or weaken, and when one eye loses strength, the stronger eye can become dominant. Gradual loss of your sight pictures or a decline in scores over time can be indicative of this problem.

There is one rule to eye dominance, and that is that there are no rules. Each situation you encounter is different, so it is best to consult a professional who understands these issues. Generally, the solution is the use of an “occluder.”

A very misunderstood aspect of the shooting sports is the use of occluders to restrict vision so clearer sight pictures may be obtained. The reasons for using occluders revolve around one thing: eye dominance.

Much like being right or left–handed, we also have dominant eyes. Our brain favors one eye over the other, in most cases. Determining eye dominance is not as easy or clear–cut as some would believe. The old tried–and–true method of pointing at an object and closing either eye can be flawed. That method will show your eye dominance at that point in time and under those conditions, but when an object is placed directly in front of the eye — like a shotgun — or when fatigue or stress are introduced into the equation, eye dominance can change.

If a shooter is right–handed and right–eye dominant, there is no problem. With the gun mounted on the right shoulder, allowing the right eye to look down the barrel, the brain can see exactly where the gun is pointing, and accurate leads can generally be attained. If there is cross–dominance (i.e., right–handed and left–eye dominance), the dominant eye would be looking down the side of the barrel and have a distorted or off–center view of where the gun is pointing. This can be best explained by imagining you are trying to drive a car from the passenger seat. You can see where you are going but with the skewed perspective of not sitting directly behind the wheel, so the job becomes much more difficult.

Cross-dominance

If you have a cross–dominance problem, one solution is to tape over the offending eye on your shooting lens. Position the tape or Magic Eye Dot so only the end of the barrel is blocked from view.

Do you shoot better in the morning than in the afternoon? Shoot better the first 50 as opposed to the back 50? Do you shoot well and then all of a sudden lose your sight pictures? Have you blamed all that on your lack of ability to concentrate? These scenarios are indications of fatigue that can cause crossfiring. Although fatigue may not actually change eye dominance, fatigue can cause a breakdown of your fundamentals that can lead to crossfiring, tracking or “riding” targets later than usual or loss of hard focus on the target (i.e., “looking at the barrel”).

Eye dominance has many faces. It has been my experience over the past 25 years of working with shooters that about 80% of the male population has common dominance — right–handed, right–eye dominant, or left–left. About 80% of women are cross–dominant — right–handed, left–eye dominant. And we have found a small portion of the population — about 15% — are equal–dominant — dominance centers between the right and left eye and shifts at will.

The answer to any opposing dominant eye is to either switch shoulders to mount the gun on the dominant–eye side or shut down the more–dominant eye in some manner. This can be achieved a number of ways. One is to just close the offending eye. This should be adopted only in extreme cases, as closing an eye reduces your visual field and eliminates depth perception. But in severe dominant cases, the dominant eye can only be dealt with by completely taking it out of the game. Occluding — blocking or covering — an extremely dominant eye can lead to frustration, confusion and sometimes headaches, because, no matter what, the brain wants to point with and get its sight bearings with the dominant eye.

During my teaching career, I changed a shooter from shooting right–handed to left–handed because of opposite–eye dominance only once, and that was with a teen–aged shooter who was relatively new to the sport, so he had little or no muscle memory and was extremely opposite–eye dominant. Switching shoulders should be done only with a considerable amount of forethought and with the help of an experienced coach.

Shooting with one eye closed is not a death sentence. Yes, peripheral vision is limited, and yes, depth perception is diminished, but in American skeet there are few variables. You know where the target is coming from, where it is going and the speed, distance and angle. Although desirable, peripheral vision and depth perception are not absolutely necessary in this game. Nevertheless, closing the eye would be a last choice.

Magic-Dots

One type of occluder to consider is the Magic Eye Dot.

Enter the occluder. Taping over the lens of your shooting glasses or placing an occluder on the lens in the line of sight between the opposite–dominant eye and the barrel can help solve the problem of eye dominance. Let’s assume we have a right–handed shooter who is left–eye dominant. A piece of tape is placed over the left lens, blocking vision of the end of the barrel from the left eye. This is an acceptable solution because the tape is placed in such a position that only the end of the barrel is obscured. That means only the right eye can see down the barrel, giving the singularity of vision of having one eye closed but the positioning of the tape allows vision around the tape and to the sides, so you have the peripheral vision of a two–eyed shooter. This is key for right–handed shooters at shots like High Two and High Three, or Low Five and Low Six for left–handers.

There are differing degrees of eye dominance which affect how solutions can be achieved. In most cases, a piece of strategically placed tape about the size of a dime will do the trick. Some shooters try to reduce the size of the tape for better vision around it, but they are playing with fire. Depending upon the degree of eye dominance, the more the brain will try to look around the tape. This can lead to head–raising, trying to look under the tape or rolling the head sideways on the stock in an attempt to look around the tape.

Generally, when I “tape” somebody, I use ¾″ semi–transparent tape. I use semi–transparent because too much transparency in the tape defeats the purpose. Be careful, because the adhesives on some tapes will lift the color or dye off a lens, effectively ruining it if you ever remove the tape. Scotch® makes a tape with less adhesive. [Editor’s Note: You can also purchase kits like the Magic Eye Dots, which provide “dots” of varying color and transparency that won’t mar your lens.]

I like to run the tape vertically on the lens, as this does not affect peripheral vision and eliminates seeing under the tape, even if the head is raised. Try hitting a target while out of the gun and crossfiring!

Tape placement is relatively simple. The tape should be placed in front of the opposing dominant eye on the lens of the shooting glasses in a direct line between the pupil and the front bead of the shotgun. The goal here is to remove the barrel from the sight of the dominant eye.

Some shooters have a strong enough opposing eye that confusion occurs as a target goes behind the tape. An example is a right–handed shooter at Station Two High House. In this situation, the shooter may see the target emerge from the window peripherally with the left eye but, as the target goes behind the tape, vision of the target is lost. Now the right eye, unencumbered, can still see the target, but the brain doesn’t care; it’s looking out of the left eye. As far as the brain is concerned, High Two just disappeared. Sound screwy? Welcome to the wonderful world of eye dominance!

To combat this, I draw the tape horizontally across the lens. The shooter in the example I cited will lose peripheral vision to the left, but this adjustment makes the right eye work harder and vision is maintained on the target with the right eye throughout the shot, from start to finish.

Some shooters are so opposite–eye dominant, adding tape can actually worsen the situation. All they see is tape. As mentioned earlier, you could just close the eye, but there is another option — black tape.

Average

Ask the average shooter where their hold point is and many can tell you precisely. Ask the same shooter where they look for a target and you might only get a puzzled look.

With extremely strong opposing dominant eyes, any light coming into the dominant eye will make the brain want to use it, so we shut down the light source. By limiting the light coming into the opposite eye, we can make the other eye do the work.

This is a better solution than just closing one eye because some peripheral vision is still permitted. After some time, a shooter may eliminate the black tape and use a more conventional occluder, such as a frosted or semi–transparent tape, once the brain adapts to using the tape, but this is strictly situational.

Easily 50% of the clients I deal with in clinics have some type of eye–dominance issue. Do any of the previously mentioned scenarios apply to you? Do you not see leads or sight pictures clearly or are they somewhat nebulous? Do you get leads just by feel? If you are right–handed, do you see longer leads on the high–house targets and shoot right at the low–house targets? If your answer to any of these questions is “yes,” eye dominance may be affecting your scores.

I have had a number of shooters who came to my clinics say they were ready to quit the game unless I could help them. They had come to the end of the line, as they were making no progress. In every case, eye dominance was the culprit. And in every case, after introducing an occluder into the mix, the problems that brought those students to me went away.

Understand that, should you choose to try tape, your sight pictures will change. And the more your sight pictures or leads change, the more you will complain about the tape obstructing your vision from the opposing eye. But that just means you need the tape. Finding the tape objectionable is just the offending eye being argumentative because it cannot see. Be strong and wait it out.

Eye dominance or any visual issue is strictly individual and must be dealt with on a case–by–case basis. There are no easy categorizations or across–the–board fixes to visual issues. If you are experiencing some of the visual problems I mentioned, my best advice is to seek out a professional who understands vision problems and can assist you in the appropriate actions. It’s worth the effort when you see your scores soar and the fun come back into your game.

Todd Bender has maintained a position on top of the skeet world for three decades. He has compiled 18 World Championships and been named to 28 consecutive Men’s First All–American Teams, the longest consecutive run in history. Todd was the first shooter to record three back–to–back 400x400s and the only shooter to record three perfect seasons — 1200x1200 with the 20 gauge in 1987, 1550x1550 in 12 gauge in 1991 and 1600x1600 with the 20 gauge in 2000. He holds the highest average in skeet history — 0.9972 HOA Average on 5,750 targets in 1991. Todd was named the first Master Instructor for the National Skeet Shooting Association and is an Honorary Fellow in England’s Institute of Clay Shooting Instructors. He has produced several training videos. You can get Todd’s clinic schedule at www.bendershima.com.