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What You See Is What You Get

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

The purpose of mental training is to change the way the brain works with the environment. The idea is to automate most of the actions we use when we deal with a specific set of circumstances and to be able to take cues that trigger that automatic reaction. Because this is “training,” it takes a lot of work and practice to make the changes occur, and you have to reinforce that training on a regular basis.

The “cues” part is very interesting because, as we progress in our mental training, we both designate what cues we want and our brain also picks others in a process of feedback and automation that usually goes unnoticed at first.

The classic experiment for setting cues was Pavlov’s dogs, where a bell was rung every time the dogs were fed which, in turn, started the process of eating/digesting. Pavlov noticed after a period of training, his dogs would automatically salivate when the bell was rung before the food arrived.

A lot of people interpret this study as a way to turn the dogs into automatons, but I look at it as making the process of feeding the dogs more efficient. Efficiency is one of the goals of mental training for competitors.

Pavlov took a natural process (eating/feeding), which is normally triggered by the presence of food or hunger – a process that is conscious on the dog’s part much of the time – and short–circuited the usual chain of events by adding a bell. That bell is what I am referring to when I mention a “cue” because it is a very specific environmental input that quickly triggered a whole sequence of bodily events. Once the training took effect, the dogs didn’t have to consciously trigger the process on their own.

In past columns I’ve talked about some of the neuroscience involved and pointed out that, while there is still a lot more to learn, we have known for centuries how to apply the principles of mental training — the so–called “10,000 hours.”

One of the things that has been noticed is, as we progress in training, we seem to become more “detail–oriented.” I put that in quotes because the process appears to be much more than just noticing details. Instead, it is that complex process the brain goes through with training or any repetitive action.

The brain is hard–wired to make shortcuts. In fact, unless there is a specific reason not to, the brain ignores all sorts of details when you do things because, for the most part, these details are irrelevant. Eye–witness accounts of crimes are notoriously inaccurate, for example, and there is reason to believe the brain fills in the gaps when a witness is asked specifics. Most witnesses are incidental bystanders who are not expecting a crime to occur until too late. They are usually in a stressed state and are focusing on safety.

But, if you take a trained observer who has a system to rely on for reporting, you will find comparing that person’s account to a video of the incident shows a high level of correlation. Observing an unusual event triggers the training of that person, so details fall into categories, there is an expectation of immediate events (i.e. no surprises), and the person deals with the anxiety and stress these sorts of situations can bring. EMTs come to mind.

If this sounds familiar, it should. The same process occurs when you shoot in a match. The brain always works on cues. As I mentioned earlier, it often skips the details and fills in the gaps in order to make the process seem to be seamless. For most things, this is an acceptable process. Some people are better at filling in the gaps than others – I think that is probably what talent is all about – but most of the time, things get done without much damage.

This doesn’t work in all circumstances, of course. If you have never flown a plane, it is unlikely you will be able to land a passenger plane in an emergency, movies aside. The attention to details and immediate reactions to cues needed are simply not there. In order to do that job well requires a lot of training and practice. Becoming an expert at shotgun shooting requires the same type of brain change as a pilot (but the stakes are not as high).

Perhaps the most important cue in competition is vision. We deliberately shut off hearing when shooting. Smell and taste are not important and, as time goes on, our ability to feel, sense of balance and proprioception are integrated into our automatic response. The only unrestricted sense is sight.

As a beginner, we are usually being helped by a teacher or mentor who shows us the proper stance, how to develop a solid mount and how to follow through. The one variable is looking for and finding the target, and a good coach will make that easy in the beginning.

My first teacher used the meme “head on the stock, eye on the rock,” emphasizing looking at the target. While this sounds simple, it is not, as sight has many facets, and they are all used as you progress in training. The occipital lobe of the cerebrum is found in the back of the brain. By volume it takes up 18% of the brain and, in simple terms, is devoted to eyesight (although that is a huge simplification). Our eyes have a very direct (and short) connection to the brain and, for most of us, it is the sense we are most aware of.

In shotgun shooting, all our actions are determined by where we are looking. At almost every level of skill, the appearance of the target sets off a cascade of actions whose purpose is to break the target. If we don’t see the target, we don’t shoot it. If we see it late, we shoot late. You get the picture.

An interesting thing about the occipital lobe is it is connected to the rest of the brain by large neural pathways. In other words, what you see can affect the way the brain responds.

A good example is the automatic way most of us determine lead on a target. You can calculate the actual lead by determining the speed of the target, the distance and speed of the shot, but most of us don’t do that, we just look, decide and shoot all in a period of milliseconds. We can say the lead is “two feet,” but for most of us that is a subjective assessment. What really happens is we feel the lead is “right,” and we shoot. If we are wrong, we reassess and get it right the next time.

This ability is the product of training and practice, and it is solely dependent on sight. In the process of learning to shoot and compete, we will go from seeing a blur to seeing a target, to seeing aspects of the target. We focus and concentrate more as we progress, and this is a natural product of training.

This is not a one–way street, however, as we can enhance the process by sight training, visualization and relaxation, all of which allow us to concentrate more quickly and also give us goals to reach in practice. We go from watching a blur (and our front sight and passing friends, etc.) to concentrating on the target, which in turn causes time to slow down a little and occasionally puts us in the “Zone.”

“Know yourself and you will win all battles.”

– Sun Tzu

So, you can give the brain the cues you want by specific training, such as sight exercises. But wait, there’s more. Early on, especially with children, there is a process called “modeling.”

Modeling is the capacity of the brain to see something and then copy it, often in every detail — sort of a “see one, do one” phenomenon. Children are capable of doing this for unknown reasons (probably related to brain plasticity) and getting the action perfectly. Adults can also use modeling, but it often takes several attempts and, without coaching, we can have a much harder time getting it right, possibly because adults have so many similar experiences that interfere with the modeling chain of events.

Related to modeling is the “mirror cell” experience. There are certain cells in the front part of the brain that light up on MR scans when experts watch another expert in the same field. These cells are thought to be related to empathy, but more likely they do a lot more. There are older studies that show performers fire off very small neural charges when they watch someone doing their sport and the same thing occurs when visualization is used as a training method, probably because the same mechanisms are stimulated by the visualization.

Another aspect of sight is the ability to instantly analyze when something is not quite right. If it looks right, it is probably right, and the reverse is true. Part of the whole training experience is observing then incorporating the little details until they are not consciously available but jump out when a pattern is wrong, timing is off or other very small clues strike a discord. Your brain has built up a model of what is supposed to happen, and it takes the visual cue and compares what you see with what is supposed to be happening.

Lastly, when the cue is not discordant, your brain gives the signal to act. At the upper levels of skill, especially when “in the Zone,” things just happen. The whole process is automated, and vision is the cue that makes it work.

It’s for these reasons coaches over the years have emphasized vision in shotgun shooting. Vision plays a primary role throughout the process of training and is the main trigger for the automatic events that should occur when you are shooting at the top of your game. It starts with good eyesight but becomes much more than just 20/20 vision. It extends into visualization, relaxation, planning, analysis, pre–shot routine, the shot and post–shot routine. In other words, almost everything involved in shooting and competing.

You can help the training process by making sure you have good vision, you practice seeing the target and have a consistent technique that puts the emphasis on seeing the target. By understanding vision works both ways, you train to improve your vision and improve your vision to train.

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. 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.