Mental Training > Why Mental Training Tools Work

“I can make you faster, but I can’t make you fast.”
Jerry Baltes, Head Coach, Grand Valley State University Track and Field

In the next few days, I am going to speak to the Central High School Falcons clay target program about the importance of mental training, and I am looking forward to the challenge. The Falcons won the 2016 Scholastic Clay Target Program (SCTP) National Championship High Overall Team title along with the team titles for skeet, double skeet and sporting clays in July of 2016 against 2,200 competitors from 28 states. In doing so, they set a record for most SCTP titles in one event. Their head coach, Al Chickerneo, asked me to speak to them in an effort to make an already accomplished team better. I hope I can help.

It was no fluke this team won several national championships. They have a year-round program with plenty of support, including at least 15 assistant coaches and 85 students in the program. They practice at two gun clubs and coach Chickerneo’s garage where he has a DryFire Shotgun Simulator (see ad on page 15) setup. They have programs for middle school and high school. In other words, this is a serious program.

If you read my column on a regular basis, you know I am a strong advocate for coaches. This is especially true for children and adolescents who are at the most coachable time in their lives. Their brains are much more flexible (we neuroscientists call it “plasticity”) than adults (anyone over 25 or so), and they soak up information like a sponge. Of course, anyone who has teenagers know this is not true of everything, but in this case, there are a large number of students who want to be good shotgunners, and coach Chickerneo has made all the right decisions regarding their training.

We all know in order to become an expert at anything, it takes time and training. Any reasonably talented person can learn to hit a moving target with a shotgun in a matter of a few hours, and youngsters learn even faster. But having this skill for a short period of time does not make you an expert, you have to be able to automate that skill and then reproduce it in times of stress (like a match) and do it consistently. In order to do this, you have to train and train a lot.

Anders Ericsson, Ph.D., who is the godfather of the science of expertise, outlines his seminal discovery, the Deliberate Practice Method (DPM) in his book Peak, and I urge you to get this book if you are at all interested in the scientific aspects of training. His ideas are not new to anyone who has done any training of any kind, but he has done a lot of the work that verifies what we know. Basically, he says practice should focus on improvement and getting things right, and it should challenge the student but not overwhelm them. Teaching skills should be results driven, and while knowledge of a subject is very important (and experts always have more pertinent knowledge than beginners on the subject), it is not the end point — performance is. A good teacher will guide you through this process, set challenges and work through the failures and successes with the goal of continued improvement. They will not only keep you focused but teach you how to evaluate your progress so you can find the right answers yourself as time goes on.

Here is where the science gets interesting. Human brains are very adaptable, even after age 25, so when a person becomes interested in something, remarkable things happen. We all have a capacity called “working memory” which isn’t memory as we know it, but a function that takes long-term memories out of storage in a selective manner as we need it for whatever we are focusing on at the time. For some reason, most of the scientists interested in experts think we all have about the same capacity and that capacity can’t improve. However, I disagree. I think part of becoming an expert is a change in the way working memory works.

What is important, however, is experts are able to bring up knowledge more focused and richer about a subject than a beginner. A good example is a study one scientist did by having baseball fans and non-fans watch a half inning of baseball and then report back. Both cohorts reported the same amount of information, but the non-fans discussed a lot of things not germane to the game, while the fans focused on what was happening and why it happened. While this may not seem unusual, it illustrates the way baseball fans think in that they focus on those issues they are interested in.

This way of thinking is an automatic response, and it is called domain knowledge. The interesting thing about domain knowledge is it is not a random assortment of facts about a subject, but it is highly organized in what scientists call “chunks”, which are patterns of facts and memories called up by the working memory. If you are an expert in American stamps and you see a variation of a 1888 1-cent stamp, you automatically call up all the pertinent knowledge to help you classify or determine what it is. On the other hand, if someone showed you a baseball card, you would have no more knowledge than any other novice in the field.

Dr. Ericsson has a broader interpretation of this event. He thinks it is the main response of an expert, which he calls a “mental representation”, something that occurs after you have engaged in deliberate practice and that grows and improves as you continue. A mental representation is a concept unique to the expert (but often shared by teachers and coaches) that not only is a shorthand for all the knowledge, but also incorporates the non-logical thinking that goes on at the same time. The example he gives is the term “dog.” If you never saw a dog in your life, the term would mean very little even if there was a good description of a furry little companion animal. But those who have owned a dog have a completely different picture in their mind that involves feelings and memories.

This is where mental training comes in.

Mental representations are a product of both working memory and training. Neuroscientists know the working memory improves in a relaxed state and even works while you sleep helping you solve problems. The ability to relax enhances the results of deliberate practice and helps consolidate any gains. Since deliberate practice involves a lot of work, most of which is not a lot of fun, the ability to relax also makes that work tolerable and lets you see the positive results faster. But relaxation is only the first step.

Visualization directly helps not only by shaping the mental representation, but by triggering it as needed. At its absolute best, visualization can trigger a zone effect which is a goal we can all strive for.

As a student goes from being a novice to being an expert, there are significant changes to body and brain. One of the reasons mental training is important is these tools work at every stage, and they develop along with the other skills that an expert needs. In the case of competitive shotgun, they help you become more efficient, they speed up the automation of skills and they set the mental representation needed to be an expert.

While working memory may not seem to be a factor while you are shooting, it is the main reason why you are able to be confident and focused on the target because working memory is where the solution of problems occurs. Working memory is the reason you recognize what is happening and see the details of the event in a very short period of time. This allows the other parts of your brain (and hence your body) to work on the problem automatically and with great efficiency, and all of this happens in a period of milliseconds.

Because working memory is an automatic event for experts, the other mental training tools of planning, self-talk and organization, all contribute to how well and how effectively it works.

The science is there. You can go on YouTube and watch videos of brain scans showing how people think when trying to solve a problem by lighting up various parts of their brains in sequence. Experts’ brains have pathways that are more efficient, more predictable and smaller that show up in these studies as a result of the training and work they put in. One of the things mental training tools do is make the process of expanding and focusing working memory a lot easier. Nothing about becoming a better competitive shooter is easy (or even fun sometimes), but by using your mental tools, you make it less hard. 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 Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. You can e-mail him at

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