Zen and clay shooting

It’s bet­ter not to over­think your tech­nique; some­times you just need to feel it hap­pen

Clay Shooting - - Contents -

Ihave made a life­time study of shooting tech­nique. I’ve a vast col­lec­tion of books on the sub­ject, I’ve taught thou­sands to shoot, and I’ve put much ef­fort into a more sci­en­tific study of our sport. It is al­ways in­ter­est­ing, though, to come up with a new per­spec­tive. Some­times it emerges from a les­son, or just watch­ing oth­ers break­ing clays; some­times it just comes to you.

One thing I’ve noted that is com­mon to most great per­form­ers is that they don’t look as if they are putting much ef­fort into it. They achieve econ­omy of move­ment (partly a func­tion of prepa­ra­tion and prac­tice), and have mas­tered the art of re­laxed fo­cus. They rarely force it. I have one friend who came to me years ago for in­struc­tion and is now on a na­tional sport­ing squad. We are shooting bud­dies now. His shooting al­ways ap­pears to be ef­fort­less, nat­u­ral, yet you’d be hard pressed to iden­tify any spe­cific tech­nique within it. There is noth­ing showy or ex­ag­ger­ated. He has mas­tered the ba­sics, and the proof is rou­tine mid-90 Sport­ing scores and even a 100 straight. He has gone be­yond the book.

Shooting is full of con­tra­dic­tions, but once you have be­come a con­sis­tent per­former with sound foun­da­tions, it’s time to con­sider how to fa­cil­i­tate a su­per per­for­mance. We take it as a given that you have sorted your vi­sion and ba­sic tech­nique, that your gun fits and that you are con­fi­dent with your choke and car­tridge per­for­mance. How do you take the next steps? In at­tempt­ing to at­tain the next level of per­for­mance, it is all too easy to over­think, or, to be­come too de­lib­er­ate. There will al­ways be qual­i­fi­ca­tions. Good shots do think about tar­get pre­sen­ta­tions and recog­nise the sub­tleties of line and lead that the less ex­pe­ri­enced miss. More­over, to win con­sis­tently re­quires a de­gree of de­lib­er­a­tion. But you can def­i­nitely be­come too de­lib­er­ate at the wrong mo­ment, no­tably when you are ex­e­cut­ing an ac­tion. Nearly all of us fall into the trap of over-think­ing some­times.

All of this is most el­e­gantly con­sid­ered in Eu­gen Her­rigel’s fa­mous book ‘Zen in the Art of Archery’. Her­rigel was a German aca­demic work­ing in Ja­pan be­fore World War II. Fas­ci­nated by Ja­panese cul­ture and Zen Bud­dhism, he seeks out a master to teach him Zen Archery. He is in­trigued by the way this ‘Kyudo’ archery is taught as a ve­hi­cle for self-en­light­en­ment. Per­haps the most mem­o­rable pas­sage in the book is when he scolded by his sen­sei, Kenzo, not for miss­ing his mark, but for hit­ting it the wrong way. The su­per aware Yoda-like teacher loses his tem­per and nearly throws Her­rigel out of his class for cheat­ing – for forc­ing the shot de­lib­er­ately and not al­low­ing the un­con­scious self to con­trol the process of re­leas­ing the ar­row rather than his con­scious, ego, mind.

This ex­tra­or­di­nary book (read it if you haven’t yet) presents ideas about mo­tor con­trol and learn­ing that have much wider ap­pli­ca­tion than rit­ual Ja­panese archery. In the words of one com­men­ta­tor: “a cen­tral idea ... is that through years of prac­tice, a phys­i­cal ac­tiv­ity be­comes ef­fort­less both men­tally and phys­i­cally, as if the body

ex­e­cutes com­plex and dif­fi­cult move­ments with­out con­scious con­trol from the mind.”

Her­rigel him­self com­ments: “The archer ceases to be con­scious of him­self as the one who is en­gaged in hit­ting the bull’s-eye which con­fronts him. This state of un­con­scious is re­al­ized only when, com­pletely empty and rid of the self, he be­comes one with the per­fect­ing of his tech­ni­cal skill, though there is in it some­thing of a quite dif­fer­ent or­der which can­not be at­tained by any pro­gres­sive study of the art...”

Prac­ti­cally, for us as shoot­ers, I would say the vi­tal thing to take on board is that you can be too de­lib­er­ate and that this may im­pede your per­for­mance, all the more when you are try­ing to over think your mo­tor func­tion mid ac­tion when you should be to­tally en­gaged in the ac­tion it­self. I see this a lot in some lessons, with peo­ple who ‘drive’ com­put­ers by day try­ing to ap­ply a sim­i­lar mod­ern-day thought process to what is in essence a more pri­mal ac­tiv­ity.

Shoot­ers gen­er­ally tend to fall into two camps in my ex­pe­ri­ence – ‘thinkers’, who may be prone to over-think­ing on oc­ca­sion as men­tioned, and ‘feel­ers’ who just get on with it with­out much in­tel­lec­tual idea of what they are do­ing. The ‘feeler’ ap­proach can work, but it’s not much fun when the wheels fall off and you don’t know what to do next. Sim­plis­ti­cally, I would say my usual ob­ser­va­tion is that the thinkers need to learn to feel a bit more, and the feel­ers may often ben­e­fit from an im­proved un­der­stand­ing of what they are do­ing and should be do­ing, thus cre­at­ing a fall-back and po­ten­tial train­ing plan.

Many peo­ple think about the wrong stuff when they shoot. They don’t trust their in­ner self, they have never de­vel­oped its ca­pa­bil­i­ties, so never progress be­yond a cer­tain point as a re­sult. Some very good shots never progress into bril­liant ones be­cause they fail to de­velop these abil­i­ties. In over­think­ing, which psy­chol­o­gists like me might de­scribe as ‘neu­rotic’, we may dis­con­nect not just from the tar­get but from our­selves. This was once amus­ingly summed up by my pal, Paul Roberts, in the con­text of choke se­lec­tion as “bal­lis­tic throm­bo­sis.”

My ob­ser­va­tion is that some of us don’t use the power of feel­ing nearly as much as we might, es­sen­tially through fear. We block our feel­ings and ca­pac­ity to feel. Many just don’t like let­ting go. They be­lieve they can think their way to a good re­sult, when in truth mis­placed thought, at the wrong time, dis­rupts and di­min­ishes per­for­mance.

Some­times you hear this de­scribed in terms of the right and left halves of the brain. The idea is that we are dom­i­nated by ei­ther the left hemi­sphere or the right. Ac­cord­ing to this, ra­tio­nal­ists and lo­gi­cians are left brain­ers, while cre­atives and artists are right brain­ers. Less con­tentiously, the left brain usu­ally con­trols the right of the body, and the right con­trols the left.

An­other per­spec­tive comes from Kines­thetic Learn­ing Tech­nique – learn­ing by feel and mus­cle sense more than in­tel­lec­tual un­der­stand­ing. There is quite an in­dus­try which re­lates to this now, as you will dis­cover if you search on­line. It is also the fo­cus (pun in­tended) of the once very pop­u­lar books: The In­ner Game of Ten­nis and The In­ner Game of Golf, both by W Ti­mothy Gall­wey. They are all about im­prov­ing hand to eye co-or­di­na­tion and fa­cil­i­tat­ing ‘ef­fort­less’ ac­tion by un­der­stand­ing and im­prov­ing vis­ual dis­ci­pline. I ex­plore this in some de­tail in my book ‘The Shot­gun: An In­struc­tor’s Hand­book’, which is out of print and sadly be­com­ing some­thing of a col­lec­tor’s item. I re­alise that vis­ual dis­ci­pline is all-im­por­tant to good shooting, the sin­gle most im­por­tant thing bar safety.

Con­tin­u­ing our quest for per­fec­tion, one often hears ex­pres­sions like ‘mus­cle mem­ory’ and ‘feel the lead,’ but what do these things ac­tu­ally mean? The an­swer, I sus­pect, is that they re­late to sev­eral things – all of them po­ten­tially im­por­tant, but not es­pe­cially well ar­tic­u­lated. Let’s take a real world ex­am­ple. It is usu­ally a mis­take to be too de­lib­er­ate when ap­ply­ing for­ward al­lowance. If you try to ap­ply lead too pre­cisely, if you mea­sure in inches or mil­lime­tres, there is a real risk that your con­scious mind will take con­trol mid ex­e­cu­tion of the ac­tion. It will lead al­most cer­tainly to stop­ping, hes­i­ta­tion, and a con­se­quent lack of flu­ency and con­fi­dence. It will also cause your fo­cus to be dis­rupted as you over-cal­cu­late and be­come too cau­tious. Once you have called for the bird, you have two tasks: to re­fine fo­cus upon it and keep star­ing it to death; and to keep the gun mov­ing.

‘Feel­ing the shot’ and ‘be­ing flu­ent’ are al­most the same thing. I be­lieve that this is what in­struc­tors and writ­ers are try­ing to pro­mote when they talk about feel. Feel­ing the shot does not mean tak­ing a wild ap­proach to it, how­ever. It means learn­ing what the right move­ment feels like, to and through the tar­get, just as one learns to feel the ac­tion of the rod when fly fish­ing or the right sen­sa­tion of the bat or rac­quet in ball games as you hit the ball and it sings. There is more to it than mere me­chan­i­cal tech­nique, though that is of course im­por­tant; you grad­u­ally come to learn and know in­tu­itively when it feels ‘right’ – when it all comes to­gether to­wards the in­evitable end of a bro­ken tar­get. When it’s right, you know the re­sult be­fore it hap­pens. The ac­tion is usu­ally un­hur­ried, con­trolled – and that magic word, flu­ent. You can see flu­ency just as you can feel and en­joy it.

It is not just about see­ing a par­tic­u­lar lead pic­ture ei­ther – it is also about a rhythm and tim­ing. In Sport­ing shooting, from a gun-down po­si­tion, we would nor­mally ex­e­cute ac­tions to three beats as we fo­cus on the bird. What­ever spe­cific method you may be us­ing to ap­ply for­ward al­lowance – Swing-through, Main­tained-lead, Pull-away or my own Pos­i­tive Shooting sys­tem – you will – with prac­tice – de­velop tim­ing that is ap­pro­pri­ate to a va­ri­ety of sit­u­a­tions.

You will learn to feel your way through as well as hav­ing an in­tel­lec­tual un­der­stand­ing of what you should be do­ing. This is not some­thing that you con­sciously think about much, save per­haps the oc­ca­sional thought “I must speed up/slow down a bit here.” It is some­thing that you pri­mar­ily feel. Three beat time feels good – ‘One, Two, Threee’ as you mount and swing the gun, the tempo de­pend­ing on the speed and an­gle of the shot. It is sat­is­fy­ing to shoot a bird with good rhythm, and you will de­velop a height­ened sense for it. The more you do it, its ab­sence in your­self and oth­ers will be­come ever more ap­par­ent.

So, when we talk about feel, we are talk­ing about de­vel­op­ing shooting senses. It does not just ap­ply to for­ward al­lowance. You can feel when you are stand­ing in­cor­rectly, when you mis-mount, when you lose bal­ance, when you hes­i­tate or rush. Just as one knows when it feels right, you can im­me­di­ately feel when it’s wrong, al­though iden­ti­fy­ing the cause may re­quire ex­pert di­ag­no­sis. The ex­cit­ing thing is not just when it feels right, but when it all ‘sings’ – when ev­ery­thing comes to­gether to­wards the per­fect shot and you have lost your con­scious self in per­form­ing it.

“If you try to mea­sure lead, it’s likely to cause hes­i­ta­tion and a lack of flu­ency”

Mike Yard­ley is one of Bri­tain’s best known shooting in­struc­tors and writ­ers. A clay shot for 50 years, he is a found­ing fel­low of APSI and a for­mer Bri­tish sideby-side cham­pion.

TOP The top shots make it look easy, with a re­laxed fo­cus and econ­omy of move­ment

RIGHT Shoot­ers tend to be ‘feel­ers’ or ’thinkers’, but you need some­thing of both

ABOVE Rhythm and tim­ing are im­por­tant when shooting from a gun-down po­si­tion, as in Sport­ing

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