Mental Training > Making Changes

“See one, do one, teach one.” —Surgeon William S. Halstead

The other day, I read an interesting paper by Martin Levy, M.D. of Albert Einstein College of Medicine on how orthopedic surgeons are being trained to do some of the basics of their professions, such as tying knots and drilling at precise angles ( if you want to look it up). These skills are essential and they are a lot like carpentry. But unlike carpentry, there is only one chance to make that hole properly, and if you screw up the knot, the whole thing may come apart.

The technique used to teach was a form of operant conditioning called “clicker training”, which is best known to dog trainers. In dogs, the clicker (which is a child’s toy also called a “cricket”) is initially associated with a reward and then used to convey approval of an action the trainer is trying to get the dog to do.

The clicker is what is called a “bridging stimulus” which is used to quickly add praise to a correct movement because it is related to a reward but is very immediate. This rapid response has been shown to be much more effective than other methods of praise and reward since it is precise and accurate, creating the kind of cognitive connections needed for learning. This system was used on animals since 1947 but only in the last ten years has it been shown to work with people. Once the clicker is introduced, the dog receives a treat for the first few clicks, but after a while, the click is the reward in the dog’s mind and the treat no longer given.

There are several aspects to this kind of training. The first is the rapidity of the response. In this case, trainers will click when they see a dog just start to commit to whatever the trainer wants them to do. By clicking early in the action, the dog learns to relate the click to the action.

The second is called “luring” or using the click to get a dog into position to act. When a dog does so, it gets a reward through the click.

The third is called “shaping” or breaking a skill into sub-skills. We know this is the basis of learning sophisticated skills. There is a lot of research showing what most of us already know, that by breaking a skill into its basic parts, we can practice the parts and put them together as a whole. When done correctly, we end up with an “emergence” or the whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts.

Dog trainers gradually teach a dog new behaviors with the final goal of a sophisticated behavior. If the dog does not act in the way the trainer wants, no click is given, but when the dog moves in the right direction, there is a click and then a reward. Sometimes a click is all that is needed and (ideally) there is no punishment given for a wrong choice.

The way this all works is due to the rapidity of the bridging stimulus, which is an intermediate notice to the dog that is faster than approval on the part of the trainer. It has been shown that any reward may come too late for the dog to make the connection even though it is a delay of seconds. Once the dog learns what the clicker means, treats are no longer needed for the dog to be satisfied, and the chances of improvement rise considerably.

People are not dogs, of course. But it turns out the same kind of training helped the orthopedic residents learn some of the basic skills needed much faster than videos/diagrams or pushing and stressing the young doctors. The trainers would demonstrate and then talk through the process of tying a knot for the first few times. After that, they would only click when the student did each step correctly. The knot-tying skill was six parts, each one simple to understand but had to be done in sequence and done precisely. The average time it took to create a skill was significantly less than the time it took to mentor the student using praise or criticism. In the clicker scenario, the teachers rarely talked to the residents after they gave the initial demonstration except to use a script. The trainers were emotionally neutral throughout the whole time, but they used words the student would remember. When the students finally did the sub-skill properly (called a tag point), they got a click and then repeated the sub-skill five times using the clicker each time they did it correctly. When the six sub-skills were learned, they put them together.

The control group was taught in the traditional manner with demonstrations, videos and diagrams. After each group practiced for 15 minutes (enough time to tie 100 knots), they were tested by having them tie ten knots in a row under scrutiny. The clicker group passed with flying colors, but the control group had a lot of difficulty tying ten good knots. Remember, that business about scrutiny, it was what made things so difficult for the control group.

An interesting finding was the click group took longer to finish the six sub-skills than the control group. In the end, however, they learned them more thoroughly and retained the knowledge better. Plus the overall time to acquire the skill was less because the entire test group retained the information while only a third of the control group was able to perform the task under pressure.

This was a simple skill, comparable to learning to shoot a going-away target, and those who learned it were not as efficient as any of the teachers who could tie the knot much faster than the students. If the students wanted to engrain this skill, they would have to practice it in a precise deliberate manner until it was automatic. The 15 minutes of practice they had before the test would have to be repeated many times before this would happen, but if they continued to practice, it would come.

Operant conditioning — which means there is an immediate reward or punishment that reinforces a learning task — is one style of teaching that is successful and also has relevance in learning to shoot a shotgun. Not everyone likes to shoot, but of those who do, we like to shoot and blow things up. This is the essence of clay target shooting. Destroy it and there is a rush of dopamine similar to what happens when a trained dog hears the clicker. The problem is we don’t always hit the target.

This brings us back to the subject of sub-skills. Shooting a moving target involves a number of steps familiar to us all. We call it the “basics”, which include good footwork, a solid mount, tracking the target, lead and follow-through. Each step is crucial, and each step has to be in order. If you miss a step or are not precise, you will miss the target. If a person is consistently missing the target because they are shooting behind, one or more of the steps is faulty. If it is a consistent miss, one or more of the steps was learned wrong and then automated. As many master weekend coaches will tell you, this is not an easy thing to change.

When a person automates a skill, their brain changes in subtle ways. They learn the overall skill will result in a reward that has been conditioned, in the case of a clay target shooter, a hit. If that reward is anticipated and there is a miss, the anticipation does not go away unless there is always a miss. The motivation for change is not triggered if there is a 70% chance of a hit but will be there if the expectation is considerably less than “normal” for the shooter or there are other factors present, including better insight into how and why a shooter is successful.

One of those motivations is failure under stress. In medical school we used to joke that when we had to learn a skill, we would “see one, do one and teach one” in order to make sure we understood and incorporated a skill. The idea was if you looked at the skill from different perspectives, you would learn it more thoroughly and perhaps quicker. We were always under stress and that was a factor figured into the equation. Learning skills became second nature, but only the skills we used a lot would be retained.

If you have to rewire your shooting skills — and most shooters have to as they improve — then this meme will help. It is always good to have a coach or mentor along while trying to change. They provide motivation and, if done well, the reward factor may otherwise go missing. As skills advance, they have to be more precise and more efficient. The margin of error in shotgunning (pattern, some automatic catching and throwing skills brought in, etc.) allows for a shooter to have a better score than performance, but at some time, things have to tighten up or there will be stagnation.

By changing perspectives and expecting a different outcome, you change the nature of the reward factor in learning skills and sub-skills. The value of the clicker training is it is scripted to a specific action, and the subject is led down a very narrow path while learning sub-skills. You don’t need a clicker to do this, but an outside encouraging voice (which may just be new observations on your part, but a coach is better) can strip the old sub-skill of its noise and improve the overall skill set.

It takes a lot of work to change a skill, especially if it has been automated and is not serving you well. If you are going to be successful, you have to change perspectives, and that change has to have enough reward to overcome the status quo. The only way to do this is to have both a logical and a non-logical reason to change. In other words, you know you have to shoot in front of the target, but doing it takes a more precise and accurate change in sub-skills if you want that final reward of breaking a target more consistently. Change occurs when the new way is more rewarding than the old. By changing the way you look at the basics, you can change the way your brain works if you also have more reward from the change. Coaches, teaching others, enjoying the changes and observing others all have a place.

It will be a lot of focused deliberate work, and if you don’t do it, you won’t change. 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

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