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Practice Habits

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

If you have been reading this column, you know about the concept of 10,000 hours. For those of you who are new, this is an idea put forth by psychologist Anders Ericsson which postulates that it takes 10,000 hours of practice to make an expert in any field. As a result of this theory, there have been a huge number of experiments and inquiries into the subject of expertise and how experts are made.

The problem with the simple idea of 10,000 hours is no one seems to read the fine print. You canít just put in the time and expect to be an expert. A lot of shooters have done just that with no visible results, mostly because they were either not practicing or what they did was not helpful in developing that ability to become an expert.

If you do the math, 10,000 hours is a lot of time. For instance, if you practice three hours a week (not an unusual amount of practice time for an adult), it would take over 60 years to achieve that goal. If you practiced 40 hours a week, you could put in 10,000 hours in about five years. It helps to start out trying to be an expert early on in life.

The good news is the 10,000 hour mark is only a mean amount of time. There are some who only need a fraction of that time to become an expert, and some who basically never will no matter how much time is put in. The bad news is this is a bell-shaped curve, and most of us are somewhere in the 7,000 to 11,000 hour range. If you look at the vast majority of the masters of any skill, you will find they a) started out early, meaning they have probably put in far more than the 10,000 hours, b) are often insanely talented and started out on a higher level than most beginners, c) live and breathe their skill, often to the exclusion of ďnormalĒ lifestyle activities and d) are very particular and specific in what they do and, as a result, are always looking for that extra little way to improve.

Iím talking about the very few who reach the pinnacle of their chosen field of performance. Most of us will never reach that position, but that doesnít mean we canít get really good at what we do.

While talent is an amorphous concept some donít think exists, in a practical sense we all know it does. We are just not able to define it very well, because we want to think in linear terms, and talent seems to be a more global phenomenon that requires a lot more explanation than we are able to give. We just know it exists in varying levels. I want to quickly dispose of the idea you need a lot of talent to be an expert. You donít. You can become a competent shooter with that talent God gave most of us, it is just unlikely you will become an Olympic Champion because of the time constraints needed to achieve the workload needed to get to that level. Besides, most people who have no aptitude for competition shooting donít stick with it very long, so I am not writing for them.

Another aspect of competition is it is an artificially limited use of the skills needed to shoot a shotgun. Each of the shotgun sports has a set of rules with the purpose to make the competition as fair as possible and to set a predictable challenge for the shooter. The rules vary in how predictable the target can be, and this is one of the challenges of learning to practice well.

American Skeet has the most restrictive rules of the common shotgun sports. By rule, the target has to fly in a specific manner and speed on command. As a result, perfect rounds are common at almost every level of competition (i.e. local to national championship), and teaching to shoot skeet often relies on the fact we always know where the target is.

On the other hand, Sporting Clays provides the shooter with a different look every time, and courses are set up to fool the competition. Shooters have to learn to analyze each shot on the fly and sometimes while in the midst of a shot. Each sport is distinct but there are commonalities, such as basic technique, that make them seem similar for novices. The knowledge base of shotgun shooting is not huge. You donít need to know that much to be able to break a target, and the basics can be taught in an afternoon to a modestly talented student. The trick is to turn that knowledge into a skill. And, that is what takes all those hours.

The time it takes for a coach to work with you is only a small fraction of the time needed to become an expert. The time spent with a coach is probably less than 1% of your total shooting time. For most, that is all the time needed to learn the basics.

This is important because the studies that compare expert and non-expert performers show both classes have about the same knowledge of the basics in their field. In 2001, a study was done comparing the practice habits of free-throw shooters. One group had a 55% (or less) success rate while the other was above 70%. When questioned about their knowledge of free-throw shooting technique, there was no discernible difference. What was different was how experts used the knowledge in practice and what they did in order to become experts.

We all know if we practice, the skill will eventually become second nature. Coaches like to teach standard technique in order to have a base from which to tweak the individual and optimize his or her performance. Standard technique is the consensus of the knowledge of a skill. By teaching it, coaches bypass all the wasted time that occurs when someone has to re-discover what to do. Once standard technique becomes natural to the student, then critical learning and practice can occur.

Studies have shown experts take this information and use it to expand their knowledge of the skill. In addition, they develop the ability to self-regulate as part of their practice routine. The result is a set of habits that enhance their skill set, which in turn are reflected in the qualities I mentioned above.

Another thing experts do is practice a lot. But when they practice, they do it in a very specific manner that involves a cycle of planning, setting specific goals for each practice session, changing the tempo of the practice when problems arise and attributing specific causes for their failures.

When experts find a problem, they fix it in a specific way, which assures it does not appear again in the future. Another study compared the practice routines of successful performers with others who were not and found the length of practice, number of repetitions and number of correctly done skills were not important. What was important was the number of times incorrect skills were performed and the ratio of correct to incorrect actions.

It turns out experts realize more quickly when a mistake or error has been made, and they fix it as soon as they can. Sometimes this means setting up a different practice goal at a later date, and sometimes the fix is clear and can be done on the spot. Experts were aware of when a mistake might occur in practice, and if something might occur, they would rest or slow down to make sure a mistake would not happen. If one did happen, it was addressed immediately. Experts had a much lower number of incorrect skills performed in practice. As a result, they practiced more correct skills in relation to the incorrect ones.

Experts will take the time to analyze the error and find out exactly what is wrong. This means specific whys and wherefores, not a general comment on how bad they were. The more specific, the more likely a solution would come and the less likely a person becomes discouraged. If you think you are bad, you will not have the motivation to change. If you are aware of a specific problem, then the solution is more viable. Once an error is analyzed, the solution, which usually involves slowly dissecting the action and rebuilding it, becomes much easier to implement. As you develop the skill of analysis and problem solving and become more precise, then little things start to make more sense. One study of tennis players showed the experts not only looked at the ball but were able to translate the hand and body movements of the opponent into a prediction of where the ball was going. That way, they could efficiently counter the opponentís move in spite of what seems to be incredible ball speed to an observer. This is a result of learning as much as possible about how opponents act when they return the ball by observing and analyzing every detail.

Another advantage experts had is a sense of confidence. This is a direct result of the ability to analyze and perfect their skills. Experts have confidence in their skills, because they are the ones responsible for them and they have a deep understanding as to why they have them. This translates into mental toughness in match situations.

So it is important to practice, to practice with precision and very important to solve problems that occur in practice or matches in a way that is quick, efficient and keeps those errors from cropping up again. Every time you practice, you have to have a set of goals, be aware of errors or problems and answer the challenges they bring. Every time you do that well, you improve. If you let errors linger or ignore them, then you inhibit the changes that will make you an expert. Itís up to you.

Dr. Keyes has written over 220 articles on mental training for Shotgun Sports and is author of the book Mental Training For The Shotgun Sports available on page 50. 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