Author: Mark Roberts, Retired Firearms Safety Instructor / Provincial Range Officer (Ontario)
Neil Peart is considered one of the finest drummers in the music business, yet he was still taking lessons late into his career. His self awareness to identify room for improvement, combined with a sense of humility to accept an external source to improve likely contributed to his remarkable skills as a musician.
Yet self awareness is not necessarily synonymous with self correction because identifying room for improvement is far different than formulating a solution for it. The shooting sports are no different, and engaging a coach early into your career can save much frustration and money.
What are we working with?
Before we decide to buy a gun, gear and engage a coach, let’s consider how our brains process data to give us a basis on what a remarkable job they do while addressing some of its inherent faults.
All brains, in all animals, use a predictive process to manage the body’s functions. From blood aeration, thermal regulation, digestion, and sensory cognition, the brain uses a combination of genetic and learned predictions based on external feedback. Most of these are autonomic (habitual) because of their ability to perform consistently. Yet when habitual predictions fail to produce the expected results, the brain will employ its cortical centers to either modify or manufacture new predictions – which are externally vetted against the problem until a workable solution is found. If those continue to work, we form a habit around them.
But, there is a problem: Habits, by definition, are often immune from our self awareness (think of the cognitive load the brain would be under if it had to consciously move the diaphragm for each breath), and thus are impossible for us to self correct.
A shooting coach once told me it takes the body roughly 5000 repetitions to correct a bad habit, yet a novel, good habit may be learned in just a few evolutions, so it makes good sense to start off by giving your brain the right data before bad habits are formed.
The predictive brain and shooting.
One of the most fascinating things about shooting is the remarkable ability for the brain to assess target speed, distance, angle, then compute a shooting solution for lead (perhaps even hold over for long targets), consistently mount a gun in soft tissue to ensure eye/line of sight, and then finally pull the trigger to have the shot string connect with the target.
It manages this by taking snapshots of current data, compares them with previous snapshots (along with stored knowledge) to gain a temporal framework, then finally formulates a ‘predictive’ future vector and kill point. Once that point is assessed, the trigger is pulled.
Considering the number of variables, it’s a wonder we can hit anything and yet we do. Some are better than others so let’s see why.
The emotional brain and shooting.
When predictions fail, succeed, or are just mundane, emotions are created to identify/motivate it to what needs fixing, what works, or none of the above.
When we consistently miss a target, we feel frustration because our brain does not have the ability to formulate a solution to an identified failure. When we feel anger, our brain has identified the problem, but the execution has failed. We feel joy, or even elation when we consistently hit a difficult target that we have learned a successful solution to, and we feel nothing (either contentment or boredom!) if our predictions are working as intended on those standard targets.
The competitive brain.
Because our brains work on this predictive nature, it constantly searches for feedback to assess how it’s doing and be better. While this can come in various forms, comparing our performance against others is perhaps the most direct and most appealing due to the many cognitive and physical variabilities we are sharing.
The appeal of peer validation is highly addictive and will motivate you to justify the expense of practice and the methods that got you there. Your emotions will dictate your fitness and progress level.
Finding an appropriate coach for your expectations is key, but engaging with one as a new shooter is critical. A coach will augment your self awareness to seek improvement by establishing the fundamentals, such as eye dominance, gun mount, body placement etc. into habit status. They will then assist you with self correction by giving you the tools to formulate shooting solutions to novel targets on the course or in competition so subsequent bad habits can be broken. Perhaps the only prerequisite for a good coaching session is being amenable to their suggestions.
The musings of my brain.
When I started shooting sporting clays, I spent a full day with an English fellow named Roger Silcox. His primary focus was on technique and had a disdain for too much focus on gear. Guns, shells, chokes and even lead methods were secondary to how the brain/body dynamic assesses and addresses the target, and this is what I wanted to share here.
Nothing will disappoint or curtail a new shooter more than spending so much on gear and then find themselves floundering on the course. It’s not good for you, the club or the sport.
While coaches may not be as immediately rewarding as buying that fancy new gear/gadget… Reward yourself better in the long term with a coach.