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Yogi, About That 90%

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

Perhaps the greatest guru of competition is not a doctor with fancy titles but a genius with a grade–school education who mastered the art of baseball, Yogi Berra. He has left a font of wisdom that can guide you as you are trying to reach the pinnacle in your sport. All you have to do is listen to what he has to say, and then listen again.

If you are reading this column, you possess a rare skill: the ability to hit a flying object with a shotgun load. While among your friends this is probably not a rare skill, in the context of the world population, it is. The vast majority of people are either not able to or have no interest in trying. As for the rest, those who can, do.

Yogi, about that 90%.

An even smaller portion of us go on to compete with this skill in a variety of shotgun games, and it is that percentage I am addressing in this article. As long as I can remember, there has been a meme (one that has been attributed to Albert Einstein, among others) that says: “We only use 10% of our brain” regarding almost every endeavor. This is a patently false statement. The brain may only weigh 3 pounds, but it uses 20% of the body’s energy, so something is happening. But it does illustrate an observation that has been made for centuries regarding focused tasks such as sports, including shotgun shooting.

The truth is, unless you have brain damage, you use all of your brain for most tasks. There are times when small portions of the brain are activated for specific reasons (reading, talking, etc.), but for the most part, the brain is active. There are no unused parts. What is true is, with proper training, a person can change the way the brain works and can not only make you more efficient but can automate the process you seek to improve.

We have known this for centuries on some level or other. The interesting thing is, most of the time the methods of improving the brain — the well–known 10,000 hours — came into being before we knew anything about the brain, even before we knew what the brain did. The concept of mental training really didn’t come into fruition until the latter half of the twentieth century, and proof of how it works and why had only begun being realized in the last ten years.

One of the great nonscientific sources for understanding this is Yogi Berra. His observations on baseball reveal an intuitive knowledge of the mental side of the game that is succinct and precise. He once was quoted as saying, “Think! How the hell are you gonna think and hit at the same time?” Anyone who has experience trying to hit a fastball knows a decision has to be made in milliseconds, not enough time to do anything but react. Training and repetition are needed to prepare the hitter to react when the time comes to hit the ball. All the thinking has to take place earlier (baseball is a game of strategy, and most hitters have to rely on coaches to help outthink the pitcher). At the moment of truth, the hitter just reacts.

Very few persons can hit a 90–m.p.h. fastball, and virtually no untrained person can. That athletes have been able to do so for over a century should tell you something about how effective training is.

Learning any task involves making changes, and those changes are both mental and physical if the task is to be learned successfully. The basics of shotgun shooting can be learned in an afternoon and the theory in much less time. A good coach will have a student hitting going–away targets consistently in one lesson and can show the shooter how to calculate lead on crossing targets. But, as most of us know, being shown how to do something and learning how to do it are two different things. Tasks, even simple tasks, need repetition in order to make them part of us, and we need a way of knowing our repetitions are consistent and accurate.

Shotgun shooting is a series of relatively easy tasks, all of which are related. In theory, no target out to 40 yards or so should be missed, assuming you know the speed of the target and the angle/lead and have basic “head on the stock, eye on the rock” skills. But that is not competing.

In past columns I’ve often divided the skills needed to shoot in a match into three categories: technical skills, physical skills and mental skills. I’ve done this for convenience mostly and to distinguish some of the common methods used in mental training, such as relaxation and visualization. But the bottom line is, these are just skills to be learned if you want to compete; they are not the same as competing. If you want to compete, these skills have to be melded together in order to advance. That’s because competition is not shotgun shooting; it is a separate entity that has to be mastered.

It doesn’t make any difference what competition you are in, the principles are all the same. The basic skills have to be mastered, you have to learn to be absolutely consistent (which may take some level of general and specific physical training), and you have to learn how to deal with the competition itself. The latter — developing competition skills — is often overlooked until an athlete reaches an intermediate level of technical skill, because that is the time when results start improving but there are wide ranges of scores/evaluations due to lack of consistency. In other words, there are opportunities for good results if the athlete can improve skills other than basic technique.

Very simply put, an athlete will transition in three phases: an early technical stage, an intermediate stage in which there is a consolidation of the skills needed to compete, and a master stage in which competition skills predominate. These phases take time, repetition, layered development, analysis and focused drive if the athlete is to be successful.

Yogi Berra spent his entire career trying to improve and being very successful at his game. But what he is best known for are his “Yogi–isms” — witty sayings that seem redundant but have a much deeper meaning when you stop to think about them. “You can observe a lot by watching” is a good example. Yogi, who didn’t finish high school because he was drafted by the Yankees at 17, had a very sharp mind. His whole life was baseball, and he never stopped learning because he wanted to be the best player on his team. He learned from coaches and other players but also by making sure he saw and analyzed everything he could.

One of the toughest things a competitor has to do is to go from being technically good to being a tough competitor. Part of this has to do with match pressure, but another part has to do with the competition itself. In shotgun shooting, the best way to win is to hit every target. In skeet and trap, this is a common occurrence at large competitions, but it often does not win the match because a separate competition then takes place, the shoot off. All of a sudden, a shooter who has mastered the art of shooting every target in the match is faced with a new situation for which he or she is not prepared. The best thing to do is to shoot the match and learn from it. And then learn from it again. (Yogi–ism: “There are some people who, if they don’t already know, you can’t tell ‘em.”)

“You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going, because you might not get there.”

Yogi Berra

This is where Yogi often shone. Take the issue of how to deal with defeat — “I tell the kids, somebody’s got to win, somebody’s got to lose. Just try to get better.” Also, “You wouldn’t have won if we’d beaten you.”

Those quotes may seem simple, but they point out one of the mental techniques used to deal with defeat — putting it in the past and learning a positive lesson from the experience. If you don’t, “It’s like deja–vu all over again” (another Yogi–ism).

Learning to be a great competitor is a long process, and the third step — competition skills — is often the hardest because we don’t have a lot of information or guidance on the subject unless we look for it. While each competitor has to learn how he or she will react to the stresses of competition and individualize the response in a positive manner, it is important to find out how others deal with the same problems and use their experience to help yourself. For example, every level of competition offers different challenges, and at the highest level, a different game.

You can observe a lot by watching. It is important to find ways to win that maximize your strengths while making sure your weaknesses are not magnified. (“I never blame myself when I’m not hitting. I just blame the bat and, if it keeps up, I change bats. After all, if I know it isn’t my fault I’m not hitting, how can I get mad at myself?” — Yogi).

Learning to be a competitor means using all your skills, putting in the time and making sure you learn to compete. In the words of Yogi: “Baseball is 90% mental, and the other half is physical.”

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.