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Eye On The Rock

“Mental Training” by Michael J. Keyes, M.D.

The human mind is a wondrous thing. That business about our only using 10% of our brain has been around for a long time, and it is true, in a sense, because we are unaware of what our brains are doing most of the time.

There is a good body of knowledge about that subject these days. We know, for instance, we are not pure logic. A purely logical human brain is paralyzed by logic alone; the non–logical parts of the brain make things happen. Logic is not efficient much of the time, especially in times of danger when you have to act and not think.

Stressful situations come when outside pressures impinge on your goal–oriented, logical life. Tornados, for example, have a way of doing this. When one comes, the instinctive thing to do is to find shelter.

One way to deal with these stresses is to train yourself to respond, and the human brain is especially adapted to do so. I’ve discussed the science and practical aspects of training and mental toughness many times in this column. Now I’d like to look at one interesting aspect — the epiphany — that sudden realization that seems not only to give you more perspective but appears to be a leap of understanding from your previous insights.

Eye on the rock

We all have insights. As a physician, I am trained to have insight into disease and the disease process in order to help my patients. For the most part, it is a simple application of knowledge and logic. On the other hand, an epiphany is a non–logical event. It uses the whole brain, not just the logical 10%.

Many years ago, my dad took me, my brother–in–law and a few assorted relatives quail hunting on a farm he had just bought in Leiper’s Fork, Tennessee, just outside of my hometown of Franklin. I had a Stevens side–by–side 16–gauge shotgun choked Full and Modified, with double triggers. It was the perfect rabbit gun, and I had used it successfully for that purpose but never shot at birds before.

I’ll never forget that day because I shot my first bird in flight. We were walking the fence line (we didn’t have a dog) when I heard the flap of wings. A small, dark shape flew up in front of me, and I instinctively shouldered my shotgun, tracked the bird, pulled both triggers and vaporized a meadowlark.

That was my introduction to wingshooting. And to the idea of keeping my eye on the target.

I bring this up because I am embarking on a journey to learn to shoot all over again. I have decided to get formal training in skeet and sporting clays and will be taking lessons while trying to remain open–minded about what I should be doing in order to be a successful competitor. In my competition days, I shot a lot of pistol, with a little rifle thrown in. I was good enough to be invited to the Olympic and Pan–American trials but never made the team as a competitor. (I did make it as an official — if you can’t beat ‘em, become an official.)

In the process, I learned to compete and have kept on learning about competing and mental training ever since. This little project is important to me because I want to learn all I can about the shotgun sports.

Of course I have shot a lot of shotgun in the past. I love it more than any other shooting sport, probably because my first gun was that Stevens 16 gauge and I still have it (well, my son has it, but it is mine). I’ve been reviewing a number of DVDs from well–known shooters and have talked to my friends who are serious shooters to get an idea of what to do.

Naturally, I get a lot of information. Much of it seems to be contradictory, but the very basics seem to be “head on the stock and eye on the rock.” I first heard those words many years ago from my sons’ coach, and they stuck with me ever since. What I didn’t realize at the time was this straightforward wisdom had many layers and I would keep coming back to them.

When I sent my first bird to meadowlark heaven, I had no idea what I was doing. I had shot rabbits on the run in an instinctive manner. They ran, I shot them. Much later, I realized that when the rabbit ran, I just shot automatically and very quickly. The sequence seemed to be RABBIT!! BANG!! and (usually) dead rabbit. No thought involved. Occasionally no rabbits, either, but I was just having fun and not keeping score.

The next step in my journey occurred when I bought my second shotgun, a Browning Citori 20 gauge, in 1973. I was stationed at the Jacksonville Naval Air Station and bought it at the BX for what is now a bargain price. The clerk told me the base had a skeet range and a range master who would be glad to give me a few pointers, if I asked. I did and was given the same advice as always — to watch the target and apply some lead — and I was able to hit 18 out of 25 on a regular basis, enough to have fun and prepare to hunt.

When I watched my two young sons learn how to shoot skeet and trap, I realized there was a lot more to the sport. Hunting is not competing, but since I was deeply into competition pistol, I knew that. I just didn’t apply the information. Again, the bottom line was “watch the target.”

It isn’t until now that I finally realize this advice about “seeing the target” is the key to shooting moving targets. I’d always done it but usually not as the total focus of my shooting. Actually, I shouldn’t say that “finally” I learned. I have always known “eye on the rock” was right; it just has had different meanings depending on what I was trying to accomplish. I had insight.

What recently happened to me is the kind of epiphany all shooters go through at some time. It is a hallmark of training and marks a significant step in training. Coaches would be glad to tell you this will happen if they thought you might listen, but they have learned the hard way teaching a method (and giving insight) is often ignored until their pupil comes back from a weekend with a famous shooter and asks, “Why didn’t you show me this?” when that was the focus of the training for months. The epiphanic event hadn’t happened to the pupil until it was triggered by the other teacher.

I chose “eye on the rock” as my focus in this column because I have found meaning in that phrase over the years. Every time it happened, it seems like a whole new world opened up. I remember each of the incidents very clearly, an effect my insights have never done, and I remember the lesson learned. Each time was a result of my looking (and training) and suddenly seeing. Epiphanies are fun and enlightening and rewarding all at once. That’s why they are so important.

One of the reasons epiphanies occur is the brain/body combination almost always strives for efficiency. Most of the time, if the task is not stress–inducing, efficiency can be reached with a small amount of effort and surprisingly little awareness. A lot of this depends on what our goals are. If a toddler sees that walking is a much better way of getting around, he or she usually gets the job done as soon as the neuromuscular system allows it to happen. If an older sibling is present, it is often even faster. A lot of things we take for granted should be hard to do but are not because they happen so automatically.

Put a bunch of rules, outside goals and expectations and peer pressure into the mix, and things get harder. Learning to talk comes naturally; learning to talk in front of a crowd, not so much. While the basics of talking remain the same and are automatic for most of us, it’s the application that messes us up.

“And when he had opened the seventh seal, there was a silence in heaven about the space of half an hour.”

Revalations 8:1, King James Bible

This is why measured, layered training and a coach are so important to learn competition shooting. What comes naturally becomes un–natural in the context of outside scrutiny. While there are those who can skip the first 25 steps in learning how to shoot, most of us have to be reminded again and again what the basics are. Most great shooters continually have some way to study and practice their basics in order to keep them available when the pressure is on. Many athletes do this by having coaches and trainers working with them all the time.

The brain is remarkable when it comes to learning to be better. It not only physically changes how it is connected and structured, it becomes more efficient and lets you know by making you feel better about it. One of the ways the brain does this is the epiphany experience in which you suddenly seem to have found the answer, even if you don’t really know the question. You just know that you are better.

The mechanism for this is unclear. It is not a rational thing, because it involves feelings. You may have known you are improving by watching your moving average (an average of your last, say, 10 scores plotted out by time), but there will be one intense experience that shows you, in an emotional sense, you are improved. It might be a new personal record, it might be a newfound confidence, but it is always a slightly altered state akin to the “flow experience” we sometimes trigger as things are going well. It is hard to explain, but if you have had it, you will know what it feels like.

When I was recently out shooting a few skeet targets with a friend coaching me, I had this experience. I realized I had been looking somewhere in between the barrel and target trying to see all of the above. Once he told me to “just look at the target and realize the lead in my peripheral vision,” I did much better. Bingo, an epiphany!

Yet, I knew this already. I’ve known it for decades and have had the same revelation numerous times. But each time it was different, because I was different and I got more and more out of this bit of information every time it happened. This is the way you train, and this is the way the brain works. I am sure it will happen again.

Dr. Keyes has written over 200 articles on mental training for Shotgun Sports and is author of the book Mental Training For The Shotgun Sports. He is a former physician for the U.S. Shooting Team, retired Colonel from the Army Reserve and a veteran of Viet Nam and Desert Storm. A Tennessee state pistol champion and coach of several national championship teams, he currently practices in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. You can e-mail him at mikeyes@charter.net.