Mental Training > Ninja Squirrels

“Now here’s something we hope you’ll really like!”

—Rocky the Flying Squirrel

I’ve written about squirrels in the past, mostly to point out they tend to make poor decisions when subjected to extreme stress, but this time it is different.

My friend Dave and I have not been able to shoot much due to his taking care of his new grandson, Gavin, so my grandson Ryan decided I needed a new way of looking at performance. He steered me towards Mark Rober, a former NASA engineer who has his own YouTube channel where he demonstrates all sorts of engineering and physics discoveries for kids and others. He loves to film firearms in slow motion as part of his demonstrations which makes him a genius, as far as I am concerned.

Earlier this year, Rober filmed his attempt at thwarting a group of squirrels who were stealing food from his bird feeders. After many tries, he set up an eight-station obstacle course he hoped would protect the feeders by making it too hard for them to reach the feeder. He wanted to see if the squirrels could solve the challenges he set out. (You can see it by Googling: Rober squirrel YouTube.)

It turned out squirrels are fully capable of solving problems set before them if given the time and ability to experiment a little.

When I saw this video, it struck me that what these rodents did was basically how shooters learn to master their games. There are several principles that can be derived from watching them and a few ideas that might help shooters organize their practices in order to improve.

For those of you who don’t want to watch the 21-minute video (although you should), Rober was inspired to set this up after he watched four neighborhood squirrels defeat every “squirrel-proof” bird feeder he bought. He and a friend built a daunting eight-station obstacle course for the animals to traverse to the food. Two of them had connections to the next platform that have been shown to be impossible for humans to travel on, and several others were mazes or moving obstacles that knocked them off the platforms.

He also included a solenoid-operated trapdoor and a catapult. An important aspect of this trial was he loaded the end with walnuts which he earlier determined were the most attractive reward for squirrels.

The platforms were about eight feet apart and protected in such a way as only the first one was easily available to the squirrels.

It took four days, but all four squirrels solved the puzzles and were able to finish the course in a few minutes. This seemed to surprise Rober who had put a lot of thought and time into the course. But it also pleased him to find out more about his sciurine neighbors. (I had to look that one up.)

Initially these rodents made a lot of mistakes, which they repeated a few times in different ways but then abandoned. Eventually, one of them would find an answer and the others would mimic him after it was clear a solution had been found.

The squirrels knew the end of the course held a lot of walnuts. They were seen sniffing around the last platform and initially tried to access it without success. They were also able to link the platforms to the final goal very quickly, and they were clearly motivated to get to that end point using the method set out by Rober.

To Rober’s surprise, the squirrels used successful methods that differed from what he expected and planned for. When confronted with a bridge from one platform to the other that was impossible to cross, they simply jumped the distance. It turns out squirrels can accurately jump to a point that is over ten feet away without a problem.

At one point, one of the animals jumped 12 feet from a nearby fence to the penultimate platform. He went back to platform number one after that, presumably because he was having too much fun.

The second thing Rober saw was these animals were relentless when it came to getting food. His final reward was about a pound of walnuts. The bird feeder he was protecting was on top of the nut container. All of that food was eaten as fast as the animals could get to it.

So how does this help us improve our shooting games?

It turns out what the squirrels did is very similar to how competition shooters learn to improve. I’ll go over a few of the principles I gathered from this video.

Nobody succeeds in a skill without using and developing talent. Squirrels survive because they are able to leap from tree to tree and survive falls. They have very good noses for food, and they are very flexible and nimble.

They have a lot of inborn talents that allow them to live their lifestyle in the trees and on the ground. These talents are developed as they grow from kits to adulthood. By the time Roper’s squirrels were adults, they had developed all of the skills they needed to solve his challenges.

The same is true of shooters. If you don’t develop your skills to a more mature form, you will not be able to use them to your advantage. This is why one of the pillars of practice is to reinforce the basics of the game.

For the squirrels, getting food is a life-and-death situation. It is not “I’d love to get to that point some day”, rather it is a basic need. Being so highly motivated drove them to find solutions quickly. When one attempt failed, they persistently moved on instead of repeating their failures. They also learned from the others in their cohort and were able to translate the success of their peers to themselves without much experimentation.

The lesson here is clear, you need strong motivation to succeed in a difficult situation. Shooting a match is not life and death, but the kind of motivation a specific achievable goal brings can help you step outside of the box when it is needed.

Elite-level shooters do this all the time. When they are confronted with a difficult-to-solve problem, they start looking for answers that work. This often means getting some help with a coach or looking at their own biases and seeing if they are hindering the process. As perfection grows closer, the means needed to reach it has to be perfect, too. Sometimes this means changing a fundamental assumption.

When Rober set up his course, he apparently was thinking in terms of human obstacle courses. One of his platforms was linked to the next one with a pair of weak coiled springs that would not support the squirrels. This would be impossible for a human to deal with, but they just jumped to the next platform after a few attempts at walking on the springs. It was a much simpler answer than what was apparent initially.

Part of simplification for shooters is being able to compact a number of actions into a singular skill. Elite-level shooters know where the target is, and it takes milliseconds for their brains to calculate the distances, lead and gun speed in order to hit the target. It appears as if they “just shoot” and usually the same perception is true to the shooter. Once the shot is made, these shooters critique it in their minds, but not during the shot.

Use Your Strengths
We all have strong points to our game and weak points. If possible, strong points should be at the forefront of your game. There is a phenomenon called Prince Rupert’s drops which are what molten glass forms when dropped into a bucket of cold water. The interaction of the cold water and the very hot glass forms a tadpole-like structure that has some peculiar properties. If you shoot the nose of the tadpole with a rimfire cartridge, the bullet will bounce off. If you snip the tail, the entire thing will explode into tiny parts. (Rober does a video on this, by the way.)

This is a good analogy of why you should feature your strengths when trying to solve problems in shooting. It is also a good reason why you should strengthen your weaknesses, as you may be confronted with a situation in which you have to use those aspects of your game.

In the squirrel’s situation, their strengths not only got them over certain obstacles, but they allowed them to act outside the box that was set by the course designer.

When you simplify your game, you set aside the concerns that an individual part of your game may bring and, if you use your strengths, it is easier to accept the simplification.

Take Advantage of Experience
Squirrels are not very good at sudden unknown stress. They tend to run around in circles and make a poor squirrel decision. But new stressful situations in their experience is a different thing. In the beginning of the video, the four squirrels are shown solving the problem of a squirrel-proof bird feeder using their innate skills and what appears to be a history of experience with this kind of problem.

They use failure to eliminate what does not work and take pleasure in finding the right solutions to the problem. Mostly it involves overwhelming the protective mechanism of the bird feeder and reaping the rewards. Often this is done by brute force, as they knock the feeder off its perch and let it fall to the ground.

There is a reason why shooting in many competitions is helpful if you are a competitor. At some point you will have seen or experienced every permutation a match can throw at you. By eliminating the novelty of these experiences and finding some sort of solution to them, you can store for future use, you will have made it much easier to shoot in matches. Each time something happens, the novelty and stress lessens.

Another thing the squirrels did was learn from the mistakes of their peers. Shooters have a huge bonanza of experience to draw from if they just look for it. This includes articles in magazines, coaches, mentors and friends who have been there and done that. It is a very good way to eliminate a lot of experimentation.

Squirrels are not very smart animals, but they can teach a much-smarter person some lessons. I urge you to watch the video and see if there are other lessons to be learned. Squirrels don’t overthink; they barely think, and they get results.

The ideal situation is to just shoot and not have to think. The whole purpose of training is to get you to that point. 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

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