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Shotgun 101 – Getting Past The Obvious

By Gil and Vicki Ash

As you can imagine, we have witnessed a lot of successes and failures in shooters of all ages and experience levels. Last issue, we talked about a few mistakes that shooters make and their perceptions of the origin of those mistakes. 

This issue, we decided to delve into three areas that might not be on many shooters’ radar but are essential for higher and higher levels of performance.  We have said on these pages that skill building in any arena is about repetition in the beginning.  Structured repetition at the edges of your ability forces the brain to build new neuro-circuits that allow for higher and higher levels of performance with less and less input. 

Most shooters plateau at certain levels, due to time constrains or financial reasons because shooting a shotgun at moving targets, painted or feathered, ain’t cheap and that’s fine with us!  The one thing that keeps us pushing the envelope in our coaching is the desire to better understand how shooters come up with the explanations they have about why they hit or miss targets. 

While we see, in some instances, how they could come up with the conclusions they do, rarely are the conclusions based in fact and are more often based on what the shooter perceives they are doing, rather than the real reason behind their misses.  We see these misconceptions more often in the youth shooting sports because the volunteer coaches don’t really understand the dynamics of hitting a moving target with a shotgun.  While we do hear simple explanations of why things happen, the real reasons they happen are rooted in some other missing fundamental. 

Let’s take a shooter stopping the swing.  It seems on the surface that simply remembering to keep the gun moving as the shot is taken would solve the problem of stopping the gun. If stopping the gun was the problem, then it would be the correct answer. But, stopping the swing mid-shot is the result, not the problem. 

Our good friend Stevie Ray Brown in East Texas has a saying about shooters stopping their swing, “There’s only two ways a shooter will stop their swing; One, the gun runs into a cedar post and two, the shooter looks at the end of the barrel!”  We could not agree more. Muzzle awareness is the number one cause of shooters stopping or slowing down their swing or “not following through” during or just after the shot is taken. 

We have heard of coaches telling shooters to follow a piece of the broken target to the ground with their gun after the target breaks, which is what we call a positive sound alike.  It sounds like following a piece of the broken target or a missed target to the ground would tend to help keep the gun moving, but the reality is that doing this creates a much more debilitating problem of looking at the target down the barrel. 

If the shooter is looking at the moving target and down the barrel at the same time, then the shooter is behind the target and the shooter will stop their swing almost every time, because they are looking at the bead on the end of the barrel.  So, you can see how the root causes of perceived problems with shooting a moving target with a shotgun can masquerade as something else.  You can also see how simple it isn’t and add to that, you can be in front and behind a moving target at the same time by not being far enough in front to hit the target in the first place!

Another common problem shooters eventually experience is lifting their head as the shot is coming together, which raises the point of impact such that targets are missed over.  Shooters lifting their face off the stock as the shot comes together is a common problem, especially in trap and skeet, but the reason they lift their head is obscured to almost all shooters. 

The reason raising your head as the shot comes together is so common in trap and skeet is that both of these games are shot with the gun mounted and the face on the stock.  You would think if shooters were lifting their heads, that simply concentrating on keeping their heads down would solve the problem.

But for most it doesn’t seem to work because lifting your head is not the problem, it is however, a manifestation of another problem.  When you track a target visually, the brain sees it where it is, but knows where it will be in the future because of where it has been in the past. Let us explain. 

After you have seen a target move about 20 feet, the brain says it’s there, it’s there, it’s there and like points in a graph, it automatically begins to track the target with the target in our center vision.  Although our brains see the target where it is, there is a circuit in our brains that operates a minimum of 80MLS ahead of where we are. But it must have an uninterrupted view of where the target is and where it will be in the future. 

This happens much like points in a graph depicting where the target has been, where it is and, based on the spacing of the points, the brain knows where it will be in the future.  Smooth pursuit tracking will continue as long as the brain has an uninterrupted view of where the target is and the next point in the graph, which is where it will be. 

The lead on the target is the distance between the points and as the target slows, the distance between the points gets smaller because the points arrive in the motor center at the same timing interval.  When the target gets too close to the barrel, the brain can no longer see where the target will be and because it’s the brains job to know, it raises the head to get the muzzle out of the way of seeing where the target is going to be in the future. 

We call this getting jammed by the target and when it occurs it leads to the shooters lifting their heads, flinching and missing the target over.  So, you see how lifting the head at the end of the shot is not really the problem. The shooter let the target get too close to the barrel and the barrel got in the way of the brain doing what it is supposed to do, so the brain eliminated the problem by lifting the head.  

So, if you are lifting your head during the shot or as the shot is taken, you are letting the target get too close to the barrel and the barrel occludes the brain from seeing where the target will be so it raises the head to get it out of the way so it can know where the target will be in the future.

Another little-known fact is that shooters notoriously make poor nutritional choices while shooting an event or even the night before they are going to shoot.  Staying hydrated by drinking enough fluids while performing is a reoccurring problem for shooters, especially when traveling to an arid or hot climate they are not used to. 

There are different reasons shooters do not drink enough fluids. They don’t want to be bothered going to the bathroom, don’t realize what hydration does to your ability to focus on targets, not practicing good nutritional choices first in practice to see what your metabolism reacts to best.  Energy drinks, electrolyte drinks, just plain water all have a place in practice and performance.

The time to see what your body likes as far as liquid intake is concerned is in practice.  The cycling/running industry has hundreds of easily stored and used drinks and bars designed for quick bursts of energy as well as sustained energy for a long period of time, but you need to try these in practice in simulated situations to see what your metabolism reacts to best. How often, how much and when to begin ingesting them. 

Hydration is most critical in sports where vision and tracking an object is necessary. Staying hydrated is the simplest thing shooters can do to keep their eyes seeing and tracking clearly and efficiently.  From a nutritional standpoint, slow release of glucose while competing is necessary for longer periods of sustained performance.  The quickest and simplest form of glucose that your body can ingest is from grapes, apples and dried apricots, with grapes being the quickest injection because the apples and apricots must be digested a little to be turned into glucose. 

When you feel yourself becoming a little sluggish, eat about 4-8 grapes and you will quickly feel less tired and sluggish. Then, every other stand, pop a couple of grapes through the end of a competition.  As in anything from a performance standpoint, always experiment when practicing with frequency and amounts to know what, when and how much your metabolism best performs when you are at the tournament!

Most shooters think when they are at the range shooting a round with their friends that they are practicing, but our research shows that nothing could be further from the truth.  Just simply going through the motions and shooting a round will not optimize your range time and, in fact, will leave you with a false sense of accomplishment. 

There are two types of practice: blocked and random. Of the two, random practice far outweighs blocked practice in any arena. Blocked practice occurs when your plan is to go shoot the same teal target, long crosser or quartering target that you had trouble with at the last tournament. Practice over and over and over in the same break point from the same shooting position until you “get it!” 

Research shows that while you might gain some skill in breaking a single target over and over, it will be short lived. Had you instead taken a five-gallon bucket with you and shot the same target from a variety of shooting positions and in a variety of break points, forcing your brain to assemble different circuits due to changing your shooting positions and break points, then you would have been doing random practice.  

The results of random practice are much more effective and long lasting, especially when coupled with a detailed visual prediction of where and how you want each different shot to come together.  Random practice with prediction and execution based on it is how best to build skill in your long-term memory. 

Practice without prediction and execution based on your prediction never makes it to your long-term memory and all your skill is stored in your long-term memory. Another big mistake we see shooters make is not practicing enough singles in different break points, thinking that it is a game of pairs, so only practice pairs.  While it is a game of pairs and you will need to shoot pairs to practice the transition from the first broken target to the second target of a pair, our almost 40 years of shooting and 31 years of coaching on three continents has shown us a bit of a different look at the game. 

While it is a game of pairs, we see it as a game of first birds of pairs, because if you can break the first bird of the pair in a break point where the second target is easily seen and moved to with minimum eye and gun movement, then the pairs become easier.  Spend more time randomly practicing single targets in different break points with a detailed visual prediction and execution based on that prediction, forcing your brain to put different parts of different circuits together on the fly and without doubt, break the target where and how you want it broken.  When you practice this way, consistency and confidence are the result, not something you keep looking or hoping for.

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