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Learning How To Practice

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

No matter how much talent you have or how good you are at shotgun shooting, there is one thing all shooters have to do in order to keep improving: practice. You can have the best coaches, the best videos, the best magazines, but unless you practice, it is all for nought.

In past columns I’ve talked about how the brain develops and changes when a shooter improves. The science is very clear. Your brain develops new pathways and grows new cells when you concentrate on learning a skill. It is a longterm process that requires much repetition and nudging from the outside if it is going to be successful, which means unless you go about it properly, you can end up with a different result than you hoped would occur.

I had a revelation the other day when I talked with some pre–med students at a local university. As you might imagine, being a pre–med is a tough road; in fact, it is often a grind, as you are studying all the time. In order to get the grades needed for admission, you have to study several hours a day on a regular basis to know the subjects. This studying does result in good grades for most, but I realized it hardly makes the students experts at the subjects being studied. Some students become experts at studying.

As it turns out, that is exactly what they need to be when they get to medical school. If pre–med is a grind, medical school is a total immersion. Medical school teaches students to become professionals, and it is designed to transform a student into a physician. If you enter medical school with no study skills, you will fail because you don’t have the student skills. A similar thing happens as you learn to shoot.

Our hypothetical pre–med student entered college with a few skills and a lot of potential. Most very bright students don’t have to work that hard in high school, but they succeed in college because a teacher showed them how to study and challenged them before they entered the university scene. Once in college, they have to adapt to the new environment and new demands that define upper–level schooling. If they are able to succeed there, they move on to the next level.

Beginning shooters are in the same boat. They have to learn basic skills before they move on to shooting consistently and then shooting in matches. If they succeed in progressing from basics to more sophisticated skills, their scores improve and they learn how to shoot in matches at the highest levels.

Not everyone has the talent, desire or time to do this, but those who do have to make sure they are able to improve. This is where practice comes in. The basics of shotgun shooting are simple: “Head on the stock, eye on the rock” is axiomatic shorthand that tells it all, as long as you know what ”all” is. In the very beginning, a shooter is shown how to mount the gun, how to place his feet, where the target breaks and something about lead and the physics of shotgunning. From then on, each skill is built on the last.

A good coach can have a shooter hitting targets on the first day. And that lesson becomes the first day of practice. But in order for the brain to take this information and make it automatic, a process has to happen in which the rational brain transfers the step–by–step information into the not–so–rational parts of the brain until the skill learned becomes second nature. This takes time, and in that time not only does the brain change but continuous information has to be fed into the brain to remind it to change. Thus, the first principle of practice is: Repetition.

Learning how to practice.

Photo by Johnny Cantu

Learning basic skills or more advanced skills all take repetition. If you don’t consistently repeat the skill you are trying to learn, you will not push the brain into change that is beneficial to your shooting. One of the problems training weekends with great shooters have is too much information is passed on in a short period of time and the student doesn’t have enough time to practice the skills and assimilate them. This is especially true of beginners, who don’t have a good model to learn with and are not used to rapid–fire ideas that fit a predetermined style more experienced shooters have.

Beginners need a lot of repetition in order to incorporate the basic information given to them, and they need to break down the techniques into basic parts to be put together later on. As a beginner learns to use repetition more efficiently, they also learn to learn.

As a shooter becomes more proficient, the number of repetitions needed to acquire a skill drops, but if a shooter fails to continue repeating the basics, future skills become harder to attain because basic mistakes will creep in over time, and basic skills define how well you perform at all levels.

So, at any place in your training, you not only have to repeat the skill to make it your own, you have to make sure you don’t lose the earlier skills you acquired. This accumulation of work is one reason the better you get, the more improvement comes in smaller increments.

The second principle is: Rest. Your body and brain need time to recover, assimilate and develop new brain pathways and cells. Too much repetition can cause other problems, including injury and even brain glitches such as flinches. When you practice, you should not only limit the time you practice each skill, you should literally “sleep on it” in order to let your brain and body recover and develop.

Assuming you are repeating the correct skill, your brain will take the information into the non–rational part and work on it in mysterious ways. Rest time gives your brain the freedom to assimilate and even improve the skill later as you get better. Varying what you do in a practice session has been shown to speed up the improvement process over just doing one thing. By changing from one skill to another in a single practice session, you allow part of your brain and body to rest. In other words, it is possible to both practice and rest at the same time, as long as there is a distinct difference in the skills you are learning.

Rest is not just doing nothing. The rest period is really a lot of work going on without outside interference. That work is behind the scenes, but it is crucial to improvement.

The third principle is: Planning. Every practice session has to have a goal. This is why just shooting a round of skeet is not a good way to practice skeet.

If you are trying to work on making sure your first high–house target gets hit, a round of skeet only gives you one or two chances to work on that problem. On the other hand, if you have an hour a week to shoot before the match and know you are losing that first target 60% of the time, it only makes sense to focus that hour on that target.

Goals in practice should be simple and easily quantified. The goal might be to have a consistent mount every time or it may be to learn how to deal with the stress of the first target. It depends on your level of skill, but setting goals is not that hard most of the time. Set your goals for the immediate future. As you progress, you will find your intermediate goals will often change, so you really don’t have to plan months ahead, a week is sufficient.

Which leads us to the next principle: Analysis. No matter what level we are at, there are always things we can do to improve. In fact, one of the greatest skills high–level shooters have is the objective ability to spot problems and find solutions that work even if those solutions mean a significant change in technique, a change in equipment or a change in attitude. Beginners have it a little easier; they just have to learn basic shooting techniques and become consistent with them.

Deciding what you need to do in practice is becoming easier, thanks to technology. If you have a smart phone, you probably have as many tools as you need to find out where the difficulties are and how to improve. Smart phones have video capabilities (including slo–mo with the right apps), can help you communicate with others for ideas, do mathematical analysis as needed and even keep a diary with analysis capabilities. All you have to do is spot the mistakes and decide how to fix them.

Of course, that is often not as easy as it sounds, but objective information makes it more possible. If you don’t analyze what is good and bad about your shooting, you will not improve very quickly.

I am not one who thinks you always need a coach, but for practice purposes, coaches are very helpful. We all know “self–taught” shooters who consistently win matches and constantly improve, but a coach can make your practice more efficient and give you a direction to go in. In order to improve, even coached shooters have to be more like that self–taught shooter who improves by sticking to a practice regimen, constantly looking for improvements, able to give up bad habits and learning to improve from a variety of sources.

A weekend with a good shooter can help you develop future goals, especially if you record what happened and play it back at a later date. If you record the good ideas, you can use them later as you find out what you need to do.

Getting to Carnegie Hall requires practice, practice, practice. In the end, only you can make sure you improve, and only you have the time and can do the analysis and hard work needed to make your brain and body deal with the challenges of competition shooting.

“How do I get to Carnegie Hall?”

First line of an old joke

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 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.