Shooting Skills And Brain Patterns

The hunting seasons here in the States are winding down and with spring comes the beginning of our year traveling our continent and South America helping wing and clay shooters alike become better, however they define it. In our off season when we are not chasing sea trout, flounder or red fish, we spend a lot of time reading the most recent research on skill building and performance so we can share it with you in our articles, on our website and in our clinics we give across the country.

We have recently come across a book, Peak by Anders Erickson, that we listened to eight times. Don’t get the book — it’s like reading the tax code. Get the audio version! Through it, we are understanding more about skill, skill building and how the brain stores skills in long-term memory.

This has confirmed many of our observations over the past years as professional coaches, but the idea of skill being seen as a pattern by the brain that creates a picture of the desired out come or action is new to us.  Erickson explains that sequential patterns are stored in your long-term memory, which is limitless with respect to storage capacity.

The brain sees skill as a pattern sequence. A series of skills that have been repeated enough times the same way so that they happen without thought are referred to as being chunked together. It is at this point skill moves to long-term memory to free up more short-term memory. When a skill is performed enough times in long-term memory, a pattern develops that allows for your brain to anticipate ahead of what you are doing. This is how you perform without thinking.  Practice, then, is about creating patterns through repetition while not thinking.

When you are thinking, you are using short-term memory. That is great for writing down a phone number, but does not have enough bandwidth to handle complex movement and reactions. We see shooters all the time trying to think their way through the shot. They never seem to get it, and they will never have a great performance because their practice is about hitting birds and fixing the shot at the end by adjusting the lead.  Long-term memory has an infinite amount of storage and is adapt at doing very complex tasks as long as it is preloaded with a chunked circuit that it recognizes.

We have shooters come to us with a self diagnosed “mental problem” when their problem is not mental at all.  Instead, they are not practicing at all, or they are not practicing the right way to develop their long-term memory.

Though they go to the range and “practice,” while they are practicing they are constantly thinking about what they are doing.  If you are thinking, you are using short-term memory.  As we have said before in this column, we have discovered a direct link between what and how someone practices and how they perform.  Remember, the brain recognizes skill as a pattern or a sequence of events. The more you emphasize the pattern, and fire the circuit in practice knowing what the outcome will be before you call pull, the quicker the brain recognizes the pattern you are asking it to perform.  The more you fire that circuit in exactly the same way each and every time, the more the brain anticipates what you are about to ask it to do and the better you become at doing the skill without thinking.

Sporting clays champion Cory Kruse blasts targets with Blaser’s new F16 over/under shotgun.

The brain recognizes skill as a pattern of sequential firings of certain neurons that create movements and actions based on how often they are fired.  It is the pattern sequence that is most important. To illustrate this we will show you two sentences and we think the pattern will be obvious.

Read the following sentence out loud.

“The lead if brain the you fix will just will it let!”

Do you see how difficult the words are to read?  It’s because this pattern of words does not begin to draw a picture in the brain that allows it to anticipate the next words.  Remember, it is the pattern or sequence of words or actions that allows the brain to say, “Ah yes, I know where this is going.” Then it can anticipate what is going to happen, switch to long term memory and take over allowing you to shoot without thinking.

When the exact same words are put in a different sequence, not only do they develop a picture they are easy to read.

Read both of the following sentences out loud three times each.

“The brain will fix the lead if you will just let it!”

“The lead if brain the you fix will just will it let!”

Both sentences contain the exact same words but one makes sense and is easy to read.  The other one doesn’t make sense and is very difficult to read. The reason it’s difficult to read is that you must look at each word to see what it is, which puts you in short-term memory!  That is what happens when you close the gun, call pull with no plan, and chase the target down and try to fix the shot at the end.

Erickson refers to this chunking phenomenon as a “Mental Representation” (MR) and explains in his book how in the beginning, you are supposed to be confused when trying something new. Failure while learning is not bad. In fact, it is essential for learning.

The conundrum to us is that most shooters try to get better without missing the targets and, when a miss occurs, they get mad at the miss. That masks the cause so they never get good at correcting a miss, and they stagnate and plateau.  Why they do this is not a mystery to us because we have been studying this for 26 years as professional coaches. While the science has evolved due to the MRI research coming online in 2006, most shooters never practice the correct way.

What is the correct way to practice and create these MR’s to use our long-term memory?  First, you must learn to move and mount the gun and what the two sight pictures look like by doing the Three-Bullet Drill and the Flashlight Drill.

Stop trying to break the target. Instead, before you close the gun and call pull, begin visualizing how you want the shot to come together, and what it looks like as you take the shot. Remember, in the beginning you are supposed to be confused. But if you have the courage to persevere through the confusion, there are great things on the other side.

In practice, it is not how many targets you break that matters. It is how many targets you break correctly according to your visualization of how you want the shot to come together that matters.

On our website, we have sequences of ShotKam video on game birds and on all clay games. When shooters watch these videos before they go out and practice or go hunting, it becomes easier for them to visualize or pre-load what they are about to ask the brain to do.  When the pre-load and the shot are the same, the brain begins understanding in greater detail the sequence of events requested. After you do this in practice over and over the same way each time, the better the MRs become because the pre-load is equal to the MR.   It becomes a virtual circle — the better the MR the better the skill and the better the skill the better the MR and the better the MR the better the skill.

It all begins with practicing more deliberately with a detailed plan of the exact sequence of events you want the brain to produce.  The more you practice deliberately in this way, the more the skills are chunked together as one move. It becomes easier for the long-term memory to say, “ah yes, I know where this is going. I’ll take over now.”  It is at that point you can shoot without thinking because, when you are thinking while you are shooting, you are using your short-term memory and we learned today what that feels like!–Gil & Vicki Ash

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