Game shooting psychology
In order to shoot well, you have to be in the right frame of mind, says Simon Ward. And the key to achieving that lies in the preparation.
It's the first drive of the day and you are pegged right out in the open, in full view of your fellow Guns. Feeling very exposed, you are suddenly overcome with nerves and find yourself praying that the first bird of the day, the one everyone will inevitably be watching, doesn't come your way. But it does. Getting up from a long way off, it makes a beeline straight towards your peg. Even though it isn't a particularly challenging bird, you just know you are going to miss it. And, of course, you do. But why?
The fact is, you were defeated by that bird before you even mounted your gun. And the root cause, you may be surprised to learn, almost certainly wasn't poor technique, but poor preparation. Getting into the right mindset is key, but it doesn't happen by accident – you have to work at it.
Everybody is different. Some people love the pressure of the big stage and others shy away from it. But even the very best Shots get nervous – it's just how they deal with those nerves that sets them apart. It's like an actor who is about to step onto the stage – they have learnt to control their nerves or they would freeze and be unable to deliver their next line.
Given the choice, I would always choose for the first bird of the day to come my way. Not because I want to be the centre of attention, but because I want to overcome that barrier as soon as possible and get my day off to a positive start. If you think you are going to miss, you almost certainly will. Luckily, there is a lot that you can do before you get to your peg to improve your odds of succeeding.
The importance of visualisation
A couple of weeks before you go shooting you should start to visualise how you want the day to go. Picture the topography, the layout of the drives and how the birds are likely to fly, and mentally go through the techniques you know you will need. So when you turn up on the day, you will have done your homework and will already be feeling well prepared and ready. Crucially, you will also be in a positive frame of mind.
Once you get to your peg, before the drive starts, use further visualisation techniques to prepare yourself for what is to come. Even if you have never shot a specific drive before, you can usually ascertain where the birds will come from and how they are likely to fly.
Next, mount your empty gun and practise a few imaginary shots – a few to the left, a few to the right and a few straight driven. You should actually picture the birds in the sky and how they may be affected by a prevailing wind. I do this before the start of every drive and, for me, this is an important part of my preparation. Not only will this warm your muscles and stop you from getting stiff and cold before the drive has even begun, but it builds on the muscle memory you will already have established through practice, preparing your body for what is to come. That way, you won't have to think about your feet, posture and technique during the drive and you will be able to focus on the task at hand.
Having this routine in place will also act as a trigger, switching your brain from a sociable, relaxed and convivial frame of mind to ‘performance mode'.
In my opinion, to shoot well, you have got to be focussed and committed to the shot. One of the big things I have learnt to do is to quieten my mind when I am on the peg, to block out all external influences that could affect my enjoyment, allowing me to focus solely on the next bird.
You can't co-ordinate your muscles if you are tense, so if you have butterflies, you need to think about what is causing them and block that out. But, equally, there is a fine line between being relaxed and focused, and being too relaxed. If you are too relaxed, you won't commit properly to the shot. I always say to my clients that you need a pinch of malice – i.e. you must really want to kill the bird. As you prepare to mount the gun you must have that desire in you. If you can channel that, it will just tighten your focus.
Building muscle memory
When I teach someone to shoot, I also try to teach them to believe that they are going to succeed.
Obviously, gunfit, theory and technique are important – if your technique is flawed or if your gun doesn't fit, it is unlikely that you will shoot well – but, equally, you can get bogged down and become too preoccupied by the theory.
Once you have got the basics right, you must learn to have faith in the method and focus on the bird. It is all about building confidence and establishing the right trigger points so that when you see something, you automatically know what to do; a bit like an actor on stage who may not be able to recite all of their lines in one go, but given certain prompts – such as a line from a fellow cast member – their next line comes naturally. This comes from practice – lots of it.
Many people will read about the technique and theory of their chosen sport but they won't go out and put that theory into practise. This is futile. The actor who hasn't rehearsed enough is going to come unstuck. In shooting, there is no point in trying something new or different on a shoot day, because if you are thinking about your technique, you won't be focussed on the bird.
Establishing new techniques needs to be done beforehand, both on clays at a shooting ground and at home, in your back yard or in front of a mirror. By simply practising the correct mount, swing and footwork with an empty gun at home, you will start to build that all-important muscle memory so that when you get to the peg, things will feel natural and well rehearsed. It's all about putting theory into practice through muscle memory.
Missing is a learning curve
If you find that you are struggling with form – i.e. you are consistently missing a particular bird – you probably need to go back to the drawing board. There's no point in making the same mistake over and over. In this instance, I would really recommend going to a seasoned game shooting instructor for a bit of fine-tuning. Until you know your own personal foibles – i.e. the things you, personally, tend to do wrong – it is very difficult to make a self diagnosis; it could be one thing or it could be two or three things. An instructor will very quickly help you to get to the root of the problem.
All of the best Shots will know exactly where their weaknesses lie, what makes them tick and how their mind works. When they miss, they can work out what they did wrong. Indeed, in order to overcome the fear of failure, you must learn to see a miss as a lesson. You can brood about it, internalise it and beat yourself up about it, or you can see it as a learning curve, make amends, forget about the last bird and move onto the next one with a positive frame of mind.
The mental side of shooting is something that very few people spend much time thinking about – they don't have a plan B, a way of making amends when things go awry, which they inevitably will from time to time. The ability to recover from a poor spell comes from experience and maintaining a positive frame of mind.
Gary Player, the golfer who famously coined the phrase ‘the more I practise, the luckier I get', struggled with bunker shots. But, rather than taking the attitude that a good golfer won't end up in the sand, he spent hours chipping from a bunker until he became the best golfer in the world at it.
Shooting is no different. If you really want to improve your game and shoot well, you must do the same with your own bogey shots – practise them until you have mastered them and you no longer have to think about the theory and technique involved.
At the end of the day, you only get out of shooting what you are willing to put in.