Success and Hard Work
“Mental Training” by Michael J. Keyes, M.D.
One of the most overlooked mental–training techniques is learning to analyze how well you are shooting and how much work you still need to do to achieve your goals. Most of us know if we train well, our performance will improve and we should expect to score better. The whole idea of training is to improve our accuracy and consistency to the point we are able to reach a goal and do well in matches.
But the fact is most of us don’t really do much analysis on the subject of improvement. If we did, we’d do a lot more technical training when we go out to practice instead of just running a course of our favorite shotgun sport. The reason we practice in this manner and have some success has to do with something called the “Pareto Principle.”
The Pareto Principle is also called the “80–20 rule” and is named after an Italian economist named Vilfredo Pareto who noted in 1906 that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by 20% of the people. It turns out the 80–20 principle has universal application in a lot of endeavors. For example, a common saying in business is “Eighty percent of your sales come from twenty percent of your clients.” A corollary reads “Eighty percent of your problems in business come from twenty percent of your customers.” In other words, the most efficient way of doing business is to focus on that 20% that contributes to your profitability (including eliminating that 20% that holds you back) and not worry about the rest. This principle is also known as “optimization” and is a truism in many fields, including medicine, criminal justice, software development and occupational safety, to name a few.
So, how is this germane to competitive shooting? Think about it in these terms: What does it take to reach the eightieth percentile of shooting in your sport? By this I don’t mean an average of 80/100 but the performance percentile that puts you in a position to beat 80% of competitors in the entire sport.
Most of the governing bodies use a classification system to divide shooters into competitive groups, and some of these systems use average as the deciding factor. Classification systems are great for match directors because they provide a crude way of doling out the money at the end. What they don’t tell you is how well your competitors are performing (anyone who has been to a national championship of any kind will tell you that) or how well you are doing.
Overall, classification averages are not sensitive enough to see small (but vital) changes and can’t spot trends until it is too late. A running average — taking an average of the last ten performances after each match or practice and charting them over time — is much more sensitive in that regard. (You do this by averaging your first ten matches, then numbers 2 to 11, then 3 to 12, etc. Plot them over time, and you can see if there is an upward or downward trend. It’s a great tool. You can read more about it in my book Mental Training for the Shotgun Sports.
The reason you want to know how you are doing in regard to the rest of the shooters in your sport is this number gives you a good idea of where you are in your training. It can also tell you how much effort you have to put out in order to reach your ultimate goal.
The effort it takes to reach the eightieth percentile is usually about 20% of the effort needed to reach the ninety–ninth percentile the very best inhabit. While 80–20 sounds a little arbitrary, it really isn’t. What it does is define the point at which the effort needed to continue to improve becomes harder on a logarithmic basis.
The first 20% of effort is really fairly easy when you think about it. It requires learning the basics of shooting, having the right technology and learning the rules of thumb about competition. You begin to gain experience and, after a while, become more accurate and consistent. Most importantly, you can begin to predict what your performance will be like in competition. A lot of shooters can reach this point by simply putting in the time while shooting courses of fire and not focusing on specifics. Getting to the eightieth percentile is not easy, but it isn’t that hard, either. All it takes is dedication, a coach is very helpful and working within a system that lets you have a good basis for training.
At some point, you can become better than all but 20% of the shooters in your sport and a good, solid shooter. What you aren’t at that point is a master shooter. Being at a master level might not be that important, especially if you are a club shooter. An eightieth–percentile shooter in skeet might average 90–95/100 (or even higher; I don’t know the real statistics) because skeet is the most predictable of the shotgun sports, and it is easier to focus on the right things to do in a match. You may do very well in your local match because there are not that many shooters capable of shooting 100x100 on any given day.
The difficulty, as we will see, comes later when you have to shoot at a higher level because being the best means going well beyond the optimum. Once the eightieth percentile point is reached, the effort needed to improve becomes a matter of diminishing returns. Because there is a scoring ceiling in shotgun shooting, average really becomes a moot point at the highest levels.
By the time you reach a 40%–60% effort, you should be able to score 50/50 on the skeet field with good predictability. In order to reach that level, however you have to put in a lot of effort for only a few more targets. This is why relying on average fails the dedicated shooter at these higher levels — it is not an indicator of either effort or performance. Once a shooter is able to reach those levels, consistency becomes much more important.
I like to use skeet as an example because it is the most predictable of the shotgun sports. It probably has the most shooters capable of shooting perfect scores (although trap is not far behind). It also is the best shotgun sport to illustrate another aspect of the Pareto Principle — what happens when the water rises.
Say you are one of the eightieth percentile shooters and are doing well at your local matches. The main reason you are there is no one else is able to compete with you. If your club has 100 shooters at the local match, you can guarantee 90 of them are not going to beat you, and maybe your only competition is from one or two others who show regularly. “But wait,” you say, “shouldn’t there be 20 shooters in competition with me?” The answer is “It depends.”
You are a big fish in a small pond. A small sample of shooters can range in ability from beginner to expert. In some clubs, there may be 40 of the 100 who are capable of beating you every time you shoot. The big test comes when you shoot at a regional or national level and the sample is skewed towards better shooters. All of a sudden, you are no longer shooting in a known environment (known as a “small pond”), and the chances of someone there having greater performance abilities is pretty high. You are no longer able to predict your place (although you should be able to predict your performance), and the odds of being in the money change for the worse (thank the powers that be for the Lewis Class).
Not only is the competition harder, the effort needed to compete at a higher level is much higher and has a different nature than the first 20%. Suddenly things are less predictable, and you have to find a way to make it predictable again.
“The reason a lot of people do not recognize opportunity is because it usually goes around wearing overalls and looking like hard work.”
Thomas A. Edison
[Yes, I know I’ve used that one before, but it’s a good one that bears repeating.]
The answer, as in most of life, lies in hard work. That work has to be focused on maintaining what you already have and making sure you become more accurate and more consistent. In trap and skeet, the idea is to learn not so much how to hit targets, but how to not miss them. Sporting clays is the least predictable of the three sports, so the premium, even at the highest levels, is learning to hit the targets consistently because a perfect score is a rarity. This means learning to be mentally tougher and able to perform in any conditions.
For every target, the amount of work increases by a factor of two or three, which means you have to have the time and dedication to reach that level. The work involved is qualitatively different than earlier on in your career, and you have to learn how to improve and how to do the work needed to go beyond the optimal point. This work is hard, and many shooters are not able or willing to put in the time and effort. Many shooters don’t even realize they need a new paradigm for practice and matches if they want to compete at the highest levels.
The nice thing about shotgun competition is, with a relatively small amount of effort, you can get pretty good. Not great, but pretty good. The lowest 16–yard classification in American trap (for four classes) requires the shooter to shoot less than 88% average. While there are plenty of shooters who can’t reach that mark, it is telling that many can shoot well over half the targets after they put in some time. The implication is almost all shooters should be capable of hitting nine out of ten targets. That, in itself, is a pretty good accomplishment.
But to reach the highest levels takes a lot of work, almost an impossible amount for most. Once you reach the 80–20 point, things change. That’s why so few make it to the top. It is not unusual for a local skeet or trap match to be won with a perfect score and a good shoot off, but being able to do this in an environment loaded with great shooters is a lot harder.
The more effort you put into your shooting, the more predictable you will be when you compete. Winning is not just about hitting every target, it is about the amount of work you put in in order to become both consistent and accurate all the time. Recognize hard work is necessary to shoot at a higher level. Don’t be afraid of hard work — it will help you move to the top.
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 email@example.com.