Mental Training > Eye on the Rock
“Eye on the rock, head on the stock.”
I started out as a competitive pistol shooter before I decided to dip my toe into shooting clay targets with a shotgun. I hunted most of my life, usually with a shotgun, but when I tried to shoot moving targets, I initially tried to shoot them the way I shot a pistol.
I quickly learned from my children’s coach this was the wrong thing to do and, that instead of looking at the front sight, I should look at the target if I wanted to hit it consistently. In fact, their coach was of the opinion the only thing a front sight was good for was for mounting the shotgun consistently, and after that it should be eliminated.
Practical experience has shown this to be true, but my biggest mistake is still looking at the front sight and trying to “rifle” the target.
In retrospect, when I started hunting as a teen, my best days were always more or less extemporaneous. In other words, I just looked at a rabbit or bird and shot it without thinking about what I was going to do. Of course, I did not keep score then, but I did have one day when I shot a dozen doves with a dozen shells. I’ve never done that again, but I was in the Zone and had no recollection of ever seeing the front sight of my 20-gauge Citori.
The other day my friend Dave and I were discussing this very thing when it struck me that there must be some scientific explanation for why you should look at the target and not the gun. It turns out there is a lot of research around the perception of moving objects and much of it is directly applicable to shotgun shooting.
For example, the Aubert-Fleischl Phenomenon (AFP)
The Aubert-Fleischl Phenomenon is the observation that if a moving object comes across your vision while your eyes are stationary, the object appears to be traveling faster than if you followed it with your eyes. The reason for this has to do with retinal motion. If you follow an object with your eyes, the movement of your retina in relation to the object is basically zero, which means the retina stimulation (and subsequent brain calculation) is different than if the object sped across your stationary retina causing an entirely different set of signals to the brain. The end result is if a lot of the retina is stimulated, the object appears to be moving faster. The angle of the moving object seems to make some difference, too.
I noticed this most recently when Dave and I were shooting sporting clays at our local club. It was my turn to go first, and when the targets appeared, they seemed to be going like gangbusters. I missed both because I was not ready to shoot such fast targets. When I watched Dave shoot them, they seemed much slower, and I noticed he was doing what he was taught, picking up the target at a specific point where he could see it clearly and then keeping his eye on it until it was shot while following through.
I did none of those things the first time I shot those targets. (We don’t shoot for score as much as we work on basics and technique. Evidently, I need more work.) After we discussed what was going on, the targets appeared to be much slower the second time around.
My research revealed there are a number of sophisticated issues that occur when you don’t adhere to basic technique. In a low-gun situation, the method I use to follow the target is by using my body, not my neck, to follow the target and mount the gun to my cheek in the same manner each time without changing the angle of my head. According to the research, extra-retinal stimuli have a great effect on how you perceive the speed and direction of a target. Most of the time this has to do with the inner ear which gives conflicting signals to the brain if there is movement, such as unexpected yawing (basically rotating left and right). If the two sets of signals are not in sync, it slows down the brain’s reaction to the target. Rolling and pitching the head will have similar effects.
So taking your head off the stock, even a little, can introduce a motion that is both inconsistent and detrimental to the motion calculator in your brain. This can cause a miss. If you combine them with a stationary eye, you miss behind.
Coaches will tell you the best practice for shooting moving targets involves a steady mount and seeing the target. This keeps the vestibular effects of your inner ear consistent and the unwanted effects out of the picture.
Of course, it is not as easy as that.
Another issue related to the AFP is the presence of your shotgun. Obviously, we can’t shoot a moving target without it, but the fact you have this metal tube flashing in front of you while you are trying to see the target is also a complication. The idea of seeing the target — a lot of coaches want you to see just a part of the target — is to make sure that relative retinal movement is zero. This gives you a better chance at experiencing the target in such a way that your brain will make the right choices.
But we also have an object in our visual field that interferes with those calculations, the barrel of our shotgun. A natural tendency for anyone who has shot a pistol or rifle is to look at the front sight, which interferes with the fixation on the target. By looking at the front sight at the same time you are trying to look at your target, you send mixed signals to the brain causing time delays and miscalculations.
Another part of this is that the gun is relatively stable in your field of vision while the target continues to move a little. This sets up a dissonance between the apparent motions of the two objects, which results in misreading where the target is. Objectively, the position of the target should be independent of you and your gun, but that’s not how the eye and brain see things. In other words, trying to look at your gun and the target at the same time is a problem.
Studies show you can compensate better if you use both eyes on a moving object. The science behind this is complex having to do with the brightness of the object (especially if you are looking at more than one target) and the fact you can pick up a target as a discrete object more quickly with binocular vision.
When we first see a target come out of the trap, it seems to be a blur. Most coaches will tell you to pick up the target visually at the point at which it appears distinct. The blurring occurs because the eye has to ramp up retinal activity before it can see a moving object clearly, and initially the target is moving quickly. An important part of this is how much contrast the target shows. The higher the contrast, the faster the peak response occurs. Two eyes are better than one in this case. A blurred target sends a different set of signals to the brain than a distinct one would, and that signal is different every time.
Most of this information has been observed over the years by shotgun shooters as anecdotes. Modern target shooters know that glasses that have filters for high contrast are helpful, consistent mounting is paramount and seeing the target with as much detail as possible is better. The science pretty much backs this up and knowing the science helps you plan and develop your shooting style through practice.
People who are talented at shotgun shooting have brains that can calculate the intersection of shot and target. When you combine this with good technique, focused training and repetition, you allow your brain to work automatically when it comes time to shoot. While the eyes have it, it is not just the eyes that make a difference. Proper gun fit, good equipment, solid technique and an understanding about how all of this fits in is crucial to good performance.
Shooting a moving target takes input from many senses, but the eyes are the leader in this endeavor. Most of the information we get while shooting comes from visually tracking the target, and it is processed in a short amount of time using the brain structures developed by training. Good consistent technique keeps the noise to a minimum in this process and makes it as efficient as possible. Shooters can enhance this by the use of good glasses, minimizing the distraction of a barrel by using a rib designed for target shooting and especially by practicing with the knowledge of how vision works.
Shooters and coaches have known all of this stuff for a long time. It’s good to know that science has verified it. It’s up to the individual shooter to take this information and run with it if they want to improve their performance. SS
Dr. Keyes has written over 250 articles on mental training for Shotgun Sports and is author of the book Mental Training For The Shotgun Sports available on page 50. 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 is retired from his practice in Victor, New York. You can e-mail him at email@example.com.