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

Visualization is probably the easiest of the basic mental training tools to understand and perform, especially in the beginning. It is, after all, just using your imagination to replay what you know.

In the last column I talked about the importance of sight to shooting and how visualization can be the mental equivalent of sight. Because shooting is a sight–oriented performance task, it’s very important shooters develop visualization and use it on a regular basis. Visualization is used throughout the shooting cycle, in practice and as a way to change your brain on the way to becoming an expert.

You need this tool at every level of development from raw beginner to world champion. Each step uses visualization in a different way, and sometimes it is hard to recognize as it is incorporated into other mental tools or techniques.

The multiple uses of visualization also bring with it a plethora of names. Mental rehearsal, imagery, mental imagery, imagination, motor imagery, and mental simulation are just a few of the names used by coaches, researchers, authors, psychologists and others who talk about this technique. In addition, the term is used to describe using other senses than just sight. As you progress, you will use hearing, smell and kinesthetic sense in addition to sight, but in the beginning, sight is the easiest sense to duplicate mentally.

While this can be confusing to the beginner (or a lot of others), multiple names for this technique exist because, like any other skill, visualization develops over time, and as you get better at it, it serves more purposes.


So a beginner, who is focused on learning the motor skills and proper sequences of shooting, will use the tool to replay what was being taught and use that memory to focus on the details of what should happen when they shoot. As a shooter progresses and the brain subsumes the motoric skills, he or she begins to focus on other aspects of the skills needed to shoot well. As the focus of visualization (and other skills) changes when the shooter changes and improves, the one factor that remains the same is the attention to detail.

Over the years, observers have made a consistent observation about visualization practices: the more detail used in the visualization itself, the more effective the technique. As our scientific tools became more sensitive and sophisticated, this conclusion continued to hold water. Today we can watch the brain light up in real time with functional magnetic resonance (FMR) and correlate these studies with the effectiveness of visualization. When a subject reports more and more detail and greater results, this is reflected in FMR images that show activity in the parts of the brain related to the motor skills, even when there is no perceptible muscle movement.

A recent paper showed subjects who were trained to mentally contract muscles restricted in a cast had 50% less loss of strength than the control group that had no training in mental imaging after four weeks of being in a cast. This kind of result has been consistent over the years in a wide variety of studies.

The main lesson here is visualization works and it works surprisingly well. In order for visualization to be effective, it has to be related to the task at hand. Using your imagination to recreate a task or stimulate an action works much better if you already have experience with that task. There are multiple studies showing this to be true at all levels of competence, so it is best to tailor your visualization practice to what you know while testing the edges of your knowledge in order to advance.

For example, the training task of a beginner is to learn how to shoot. Beginners should start out with standard technique because it is usually the most efficient way to shoot and is universally understood (even if not agreed with) by coaches and most experts. This is important because standard technique has the greatest body of knowledge attached to it and, therefore, is the most detailed of the techniques that abound. This is not to say standard techniques suit every shooter, but they are the basis of all development. A beginner with a good coach has all the details they need to learn to shoot well, and this plays into the strength of visualization. Visualization and relaxation are the two mental training tools there from the very beginning, and it helps that a shooter can use the visualization tool with complete detail right from the start.

Most shooters and a lot of coaches don’t realize the importance of detail in visualization. The main failures of this technique come from the lack of detail or from a mistaken use of the method. Like any other technique, it requires regular application and practice. You can’t just go out there and say, “I think I will visualize today” and expect it to work. You need to practice visualization and work with it in the expectation it will evolve as a technique along with the rest of the shooting skills. Like any other skill, it will eventually become second nature (meaning it becomes subconscious), allowing it to be used in more sophisticated ways. Fortunately, for most people, this skill is already imbedded and may be the most advanced skill of any kind that a beginner has.

If you have ever tried to memorize anything, you have used a type of visualization. Most people memorize by picturing the text, etc. in their minds, and then somehow the brain puts it into the memory to be recalled in specific situations such as a test. Recall is then triggered by a specific stimulus, usually another type of visualization, and the memories return. Of course, if this is something that has to be done in a stress situation, it is harder to do, but if you are following this discourse by remembering your own experiences in school, you may be getting a good idea about how visualization works even in stress situations. We all have had extensive experience with this technique, we just don’t realize it.

Visualization reinforces what we already know and it helps with analysis, planning and development. Each time we use the tool we change the way the brain deals with the situation being addressed. Each time we add more detail, the technique becomes that much more effective. Each time we visualize, we make the technique more powerful and get that much closer to our goals.

This is not an automatic process. By that, I mean you can’t just go visualizing around and expect miracles to happen. This is not magic, instead it is a well–documented, tried–and–true way to enhance brain changes that requires hard work and direction — just like the rest of life. It is a normal brain function used in a specific way.

I’ve already mentioned how beginners can use visualization to bolster their basic shooting techniques. There are numerous other uses, many of which readers are familiar, such as the shooting cycle.

“I visualize things in my mind before I have to do them. It’s like having a mental workshop.”

– Jack Youngblood

The competitive shooting cycle is a set of techniques that start with relaxation and move quickly into visualization, after which the shot is taken. We all do this because it primes the body for the shot, ensures consistency and helps focus on the target. It’s another standard technique proven useful for shooters over the years that also has strong scientific verification.

Another use of visualization is learning to deal with match stress. While is it impossible to recreate the total effect of match stress outside of a match, it is possible to recreate the response to that match stress and try to evaluate and practice methods of dealing with it. Most of us would rather forget what happened in a match, especially if it went bad. But if we don’t learn from our mistakes or errors, we will never be able to advance. Using visualization as a tool of analysis is invaluable, especially (surprise) if you use every detail you can conjure up.

There are many other uses — learning to enhance your vision by imagining a target and then testing that image against the real thing and recycling the visualization, for example. It’s up to you as to how you will continue to use the technique. Once you have reached a certain level of visualization skill, you will find it will automatically be there when you need it. One of the hallmarks of a skilled performer is they are constantly visualizing. This is not intrusive obsession, rather it is the development of a point of view that colors much of what you do. The skills learned for competition often translate into the rest of your life. You start to notice details you had not even known existed before. You might go into a store and find uses for some product not intended by the manufacturer but beneficial to you as a competitor. You start noticing mistakes in movies that portray shotgun shooting. All of these are products of automatic subconscious visualization, a sign you have done your job well and changed your brain.

Visualization is not a mysterious force generated by unknown entities designed to change your future. Visualization is a normal brain function that can be developed and trained just like every other tool you can use to make you a better competitive shooter. We all have the capacity to use it, and for the most part, it is already well–developed, even with beginners, because it is a normal part of learning. By increasing the attention to detail, practicing using it in specific ways and by being aware of the changes you can make using visualization, you can be a better shooter and expand the limits of your abilities.

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.