“Practice makes Perfect.” — Ben Franklin

Mental Training > Let Me Repeat That

“Practice makes Perfect.”

—Ben Franklin

I am writing this in mid-April in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic, so I have a lot of time on my hands being stuck at home. I’m not able to go to the YMCA (where I usually meet my friend Dave) and our local gun club is closed due to being “non-essential”, so I have to figure out what to do about my shooting.

There is some respite. I just started out working as a physician for the local VA clinic. This gives me some time away from home, but that is only for a few hours a week. I still needed to shoot.

The way I decided to deal with the problem was to go back to the basics. In the most basic way.

One of my trapshooting mentors told me his “secret” about how he improved to where he is today. “You have to practice in front of the mirror,” he said. I listened to him and promptly filed the information away in my memory. It was still there when this drastic change occurred in all of our lives. Unused. It was time to do something about it.

In theory, I knew his advice was golden, but it sounded very boring. After I tried it a few times, I figured I had it down even though I knew, theoretically, just paying lip service to the idea was not correct. Many of my issues on the field were due to lack of consistency, especially with my mount.

So, with all this time on my hands, I decided to do something about it. I read the scientific literature.

It turns out learning is not a unitary system. While you must have both skill and knowledge to become an expert in any domain, these factors don’t always advance in a parallel manner. They very commonly have very little to do with one another as far as the brain is concerned.

We have always known this in a practical sense. There are multiple observations of people who learn in different ways, who have an encyclopedic knowledge of a subject but no skills or who are just the opposite.

But these instances are only anecdotal, the science is even more interesting.

Since the early 1990s there have been numerous studies of brain function using magnetic resonance and other imaging techniques. How memory works has been a major topic of these papers. It is now recognized there are multiple memory systems available, each of which emanate from different parts of the brain and are different in how they work.

Two of these systems are called the “declarative” and “procedural” memories. Basically, declarative memory is involved with the ability to specifically remember events and facts while the procedural memory functions include skill learning, “repetition priming” and classical conditioning, which is the Pavlov response seen in dogs.

Both of these types of memories are important in shotgun competition, and they are also crucial for good mental preparation. I’m going to focus on procedural memory, but first a little about declarative memory.

Declarative memory is not just about learning stuff. It also involves recall and analysis. With experience and layered learning, people go from learning by rote and using algorithms to what is called ‘euristic thinking’ or using “gut feelings” to make decisions. This doesn’t mean you throw all logic out the window when faced with decisions. It just means with experience, most of us react quickly in familiar situations and make the right decisions without having to go through a checklist before acting. In competition shooting we set our physical position, use visualization to prime our skills and then let the rest occur automatically. In shotgun sports where there is considerable variation or when something goes awry, we have to make split-second decisions. With practice and experience, we recognize what is wrong and bring in a different set of skills to handle it almost instantaneously.

More commonly what happens is, while we can see when something is wrong, we don’t have the immediate skills to deal with the problem. For most of us, skill building is more difficult than domain knowledge.

For example, it is common knowledge if you say, “you missed behind the target” you will be correct a majority of the time. Doing something about it is more of a problem because we continue to do so in spite of this knowledge.

One of the early findings using brain-imaging techniques is skill learning appears to be different than remembering things. When patients with amnesia were taught simple skills, they retained them—up to a year in one study—which suggested different parts of the brain were involved in procedural memory. It appears the brain walls off one memory system from the other.

When patients with neurological impairments were studied in the same manner, the opposite occurred. Skills were not retained, but memory and learning domain knowledge were. This gave a number of clues as to where in the brain these activities take place.

Another set of studies compared well-known tasks to novel tasks in the same general classification. A famous study in this regard compared how normal reading and mirror reading lit up the brain. In the beginning, reading normally showed relatively little activity compared to mirror reading, which caused a cascade of brain areas to activate. After extensive practice, those areas of the brain involved in mirror reading calmed down considerably. The subjects were learning how to read using a mirror.

In some respects, this was expected. After all, we have been learning this way for as long as we have recorded history.

These and other studies show that skill learning is separate from book learning, and the brain pathways that facilitate these are also different. In addition, there are time and repetition-related changes that can occur in the brain that make the response more efficient with continued practice, assuming that training continues. Brain activity decreases with continued skill repetition. While this may sound bad, it is a good thing. It makes responses to stimuli, especially under stress, more efficient than if you had to think through the problem, and it makes the skill more ingrained. It also helps with the subsets of skill learning, repetition priming and classical conditioning.

Skill learning is pretty obvious. Any skill not part of a normal set prior to being coached or taught is going to take a finite amount of time to develop. Talented persons are capable of automating skills quickly, but most of us can learn a skill with enough time and proper training. Whether or not those skills are available under stress is a different thing.

The other two aspects of skill learning—repetition priming and classical conditioning—are the keys to how a person acts under stress. Repetition priming refers to how a person improves their skill sets when those sets are repeated. It involves the suppression of activities related to the initial skill learning, and it appears to have both immediate and long-term effects. The idea of deliberate, focused practice uses this brain function to increase skills in an efficient manner. As long as the repetition is close in orientation, size and position, little variations don’t make a difference. In shotgun shooting, a good example of this is consistency in mount.

This is one reason why we should focus on parts of our game while we practice and not just shoot a round. While shooting a round does add repetitions, it does so in an inefficient way that slows progress.

In the short term, repetition priming is used to bring up a skill set to its most efficient right before it is used. That’s why top-level athletes “get into the groove” by warming up before competition. Usually it takes around seven or so repetitions to get to the point they are ready to go. Most of these athletes are warming up several skills and priming for the game in the process which may take hours before they are ready.

I’ll just say a short word about classical conditioning. The Pavlov response, in which Pavlov trained dogs to salivate when they heard a bell (by feeding them at the same time and then stopped the feeding), is what happens when a shooter “just shoots” without thinking. Most of the time we don’t shoot like that. We try more to get into the Zone, which is a product of repetition priming, but on occasion we are caught by surprise and make the shot anyway. I did this all the time when I hunted as a youth.

Now that I have the time, I have started to bring my shotgun to a mirror and practice my mount. I find I enjoy doing this, perhaps because I am a geek when it comes to these things. But I am really noticing I make micro-adjustments to my technique as I progress, and many times am not even aware of it until it happens. In my reading, this is a common finding—that improvements occur without a person being aware—and that these improvements appear to stick.

I am changing my brain by repetition. I find I am enjoying myself because I can pay attention to the changes as they happen using my other brain systems that track and note the changes.

I just wish I could shoot for real. 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 36. 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 michaelkeyes12@gmail.com.

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