Mental Training > Practice, Practice Practice

“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I would spend the first four sharpening the axe.”

—Attributed to A. Lincoln

Part Two: Skill Building

In the last column I touched on why it is important to use analysis to prepare for practice. This is not an easy task because one of the problems with writing down what is needed for practice, especially in the beginning, is that we don’t know what we know and we don’t know what we need. While this lack of knowledge may seem like a problem, it is part of the process of developing our practice style. Each time we revisit it, our progress continues to get better and we learn more about what we have to do and why.

When you examine the practice diaries of some experts, you will find that, over time, they become more and more detailed to the point that they seem to make no sense at all if looked at randomly. What is written can seem like stream of consciousness (which is just putting down whatever comes into your head) and many times it is exactly that. Instead of having an organized set of thoughts, it seems almost chaotic. But in the case of these experts, this is far from the truth.

At the elite ends of any domain, experts have already automated their skill sets and knowledge and have developed working memories — the capacity to bring up knowledge in chunks as needed — such that a few random seeming words can trigger new ideas, skills and even more analysis. This does not come out of the blue. Those words may seem random but are just shortcuts to a set of ideas.

New ways to look at things are triggered by the environment, especially the environment of practice time. This is why what you do while practicing is so important. Beginners have it easy because it is usually obvious what they have to do: build basic skills until they become automatic. We all know that the basics of shotgun shooting are pretty straightforward. We work with the physics (lead), we try to be consistent (“head on the stock”, footwork, etc.) and we try to repeat these basics in such a way that we are rewarded with a broken target. As time goes on, we graduate to harder targets and eventually to hitting targets one after another in a regular manner. Along the way, a funny thing happens, we get worse for a while.

In the beginning, any broken target is a victory because it means that we have followed the rules, more or less, and are rewarded. As we advance in our skills, the rules change. They get more precise and we have to get more accurate. It's as if we started out with very few rules and then they started to proliferate becoming more and more demanding until we have to get them all just right if we want those perfect runs.

When the rules change we are usually caught off guard. While our knowledge base is not lacking most of the time, we are not skilled enough to put into action the changes we have to make. This causes some stress and we have a tendency to fall back on what we know, which is this case is not going to help us improve. The Catch-22 here is that since we know that the old way is wrong, we don’t get that right either. The result is a performance that is sub-par.

For most people this performance limbo is short-lived either because a change takes place or we revert back to the old style. Going back to the old ways is what happens when people shoot to their talent level and never get better. Change is hard and sometimes it is not the best thing to do but is the only way to improve.

This is why your ability to analyze has to get better. Each time you have a problem to be solved, usually by developing a skill to solve the problem, there should be a clear-cut way to do it. Often there are answers out there from books, mentors or coaches that make it easy to resolve the issue, but sometimes you have to be creative or have some insight into what is going on. You rely on knowledge and existing skills and build off of them. Whatever it is, a better gun fit, back to basics, looking at video to check out your foot placement, etc., it usually comes as a new solution (even if it is old knowledge) and you have to put it into practice. Literally.

Here is where the first principle of practice happens: Keep it simple.

In every practice session, you need to have a goal or goals for that specific practice. The goals should be a product of your analysis, so something like, “let’s do good” is not a goal since very little analysis is needed to come to this conclusion. (“I need to do better” falls in the same category.) Instead the goal should be as specific as possible and measurable because it will render a change if done well and have to be evaluated, analyzed and repeated to make sure that the change sticks.

When you build skills, you have to learn to be consistent to the point of being automatic. This means repetition over a long period of time and it means each skill you learn will be the basis of the next level of skills. Layered skills fold into each other so when you trigger a skill, it is really a set of skills that have become one. Building these skills with no missing parts is what practice is all about.

In addition, you will be building multiple separate skills (determining direction and speed of the target in sporting clays, for example) that are used in conjunction with one another. You have to learn to synchronize them and these skills can't interfere with one another.

As a result, when you are practicing, you should have a clear goal for one skill or part of a skill. You should be able to measure your progress and use that measure to evaluate how you are doing as you repeat it later on. This is the principle of simplicity. You keep it simple so you can repeat the same thing and eventually absorb it.

Second, you have to maintain basics.

Because shotgun shooting appeals to persons with talent, many shooters can do well right off the bat. Not 25/25 but maybe 12/25 the first time they shoot a course. This kind of score will encourage shooters to continue as competitors and with good training a shooter with this level of talent can do well. The problem is the same shooter will do well initially in training and add a few more targets but quickly forget the basics and have inconsistent technique that goes unnoticed due to the score (which is not the same as performance.)

Basic skills are the rock upon which success in skeet, trap and sporting clays are built. Any problems with the foundation means the skill is skewed or unstable. We have all had the experience of raising our head and looking at the target but not realizing it until it was pointed out or we noticed it after a series of misses. When we fail to reinforce the basics, we tend to forget them.

“Forget” is not really the proper term, for the most part we don’t even think about the basics when we shoot. It’s more like we lose them not in the sense that we don’t know where they are, but that they become lost in the shuffle. It seems like common sense to practice the basics, but many don’t.

At the very highest levels of classical music, practice times start out with scales and basic technical skills. This serves two purposes, it reinforces the basics and it helps warm up. This is the third principle of practice: don’t start out cold, you have to warm up.

For shotgun shooters this means getting into a timing groove, mounting the gun and following targets while mentally shooting and easing into an altered state of shooting. Warming up helps focusing and serves as a monitor to see where you are mentally. The latter is important because it may dictate how successful you are in practice or may even change your goals if there are problems.

Not all levels of shooters do the same thing in practice, in fact you should tailor your practice to you and not worry about what others do unless it is to your advantage. Besides, even if your practice routine seems to be the same as the world champion, that person may have entirely different goals than you and while it seems both of you fired at the same 75 targets, you can bet the benefits were entirely different. Practice is about skill building and these skills vary from the basics to very sophisticated multi-skill techniques designed to deal with a specific venue or course of fire.

The three principles — keep it simple and goal oriented, don’t forget the basics and warm up so you are prepared do practice — hold true at all levels. Practicing well is a skill in itself and it will be needed as you learn to compete. If you want to develop skills, you have to not only repeat them time and again, you have to maintain them and you have to perform them in the same way until they become automatic. From that point you can move on to more sophisticated skills.

Next time: Learning to Perform. 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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