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