The OPTIMAL Process
(Part 1, Pre-shot planning)
Besides being great shots, competitors at the top of our sport have something else in common…a process. Whether in sporting clays, FITASC or any other self-paced sport from golf to shot put, top competitors have a process or “program” that they run through as they prepare for and execute their performance. Simply put, a pre-execution routine or process breeds consistency in execution and reduces the likelihood that our conscious mind will be occupied with thoughts that distract us. Pre-shot routines help us focus our mental energy on the task at hand. Virtually all sports psychologists will tell you that, in order to consistently deliver peak performance during competition in a self-paced sport, the athlete should focus on the process, not the results. In competition, you can’t control the weather, your competitor, malfunctions or the behavior of your squad mates. You can, however, control the process you use when competing and how well you adhere to that process for each pair. Interestingly enough however, most competitors are unwilling to share details of their specific routines. So what is an aspiring Master Class Competitor to do?
Like most seasoned sporting clays and FITASC competitors, I’ve searched high and low for THE process that I could practice and follow in competition to land me at the top of my class or propel me to HOA at big tournaments. I’ve shot in thousands of competitions, taken dozens of shooting lessons from some of the best instructors, read and studied the art and science of shooting, been coached by sports psychologists, conducted independent research on the brain, hand-eye coordination and biofeedback and swapped notes with other top competitors. So, I would describe my quest for the perfect pre-shot process as a lifelong pursuit.
After winning the side-by-side event at the NSCA Nationals in October, I gave myself a challenge: To capture and journal the process I used that Thursday afternoon, in 35 mile-an-hour winds and shooting a gun choked extra full that enabled me to get in and stay in “the-zone” and win the competition. This article, and the OPTIMAL Process, is the result of my journaling and subsequent effort to reduce my musings to a simple, memorable and repeatable process that I could impart to my students and use in competition.
In my careful study of pre-execution routines both in and out of shooting sports, I have come to certain conclusions related to sporting clays and FITASC. The goals of any pre-shot routine should be: 1) to study the target and understand its character, 2) to established a target engagement plan, 3) to imprint an image of the target and your execution of the pair, 4) to assume the proper physical position to execute the pair, and 5) to calm or clear the conscious mind.
O P T I M A L is an acronym, or more accurately a mnemonic, designed to provide you, the competitor, with an airtight process to follow at each station, from the time you first approach the shooting station, to the time you shoot your last pair. OPTIMAL stands for OBSERVE, PLAN, TEST, IMAGE, MARK, ALIGN and LASER FOCUS. The OPTIMAL Process is divided into two phases: Phase 1 – OBSERVEPLANTEST is the pre-shot planning phase and is usually accomplished before you step into the shooting stand, and Phase 2 – IMAGEMARKALIGNLASER FOCUS is the pre-shot routine which is the program you will run once you step into the shooting stand and just before calling for each pair. We will cover O-P-T below and I-M-A-L in Part 2 of this series.
The pre-shot planning phase of the OPTIMAL™ Process (OBSERVE-PLAN-TEST) usually occurs outside the shooting stand unless you are the lucky first shooter in the rotation, in which case you will only have the opportunity to OBSERVE, PLAN and TEST during the view pairs, while standing in the shooting station.
Once you are in the best position to see the targets, OBSERVE. Study the surrounding terrain, backdrop and vegetation. Locate the position of both traps. Look at the angle of the traps and trap arms if you can see them. OBSERVE each target throughout its entire flight, from the time it leaves the trap until it hits the ground. Look specifically for transition points where the target seems to noticeably change speed or direction. Identify two or more landmarks through which each target flies, and visually map the target lines across the background terrain, vegetation or sky.
Next, PLAN how you intend to break the targets. (For more details on shot planning, go to https://doncurrie.com/shot-planning ). Your plan must consist of a visual pickup-point, hold-point and break-point for each target. First, identify your break-points – the areas along the target lines in which you are most comfortable breaking the targets. This is the precise point at which the target comes into sharp focus and seems to slow down visually. Ideally, the target should be moving at a fairly constant speed and direction (not in transition) at the break-point. Identify your visual pick-up point – the area on the target line closest to the trap where you are first able to clearly see the target after it emerges from the trap arm. Establish a hold point for the first target. The hold point is to be positioned along the flight path of the target between the pick-up point and the break-point and is where you orient the barrel of your gun just prior to calling for the target. For the second target of a pair, identify a point where your eyes and muzzle should go immediately after discharging the first shot. This will allow you to efficiently pick-up the target with your eyes and ALLIGN your gun with the target line of the second target. If you plan well, you will always know where your gun and eyes should be oriented throughout your execution of the target pair. If you start from the right place (the hold point), and stay on the path (the target line) through the break-point of each target, consistency and higher scores will result. With time and practice, this pre-shot planning process will become second nature to you.
Next, TEST your PLAN. Using the outstretched hand and arm opposite your dominant eye, conduct rehearsals of your plan, with particular attention to confirming the proper location of your hold-points and visual pick-up points. Simulate moving your gun to your hold point and your eyes to the pick-up point. Watch the target launch. Pick up the target with your eyes and move your arm and hand along and slightly under the target line through your first break-point. Now move your eyes to the pick-up point of your second target and your outstretched hand and arm along the target line of the second target and through the break-point. If the timing works, go with it. If not, adjust your hold points and possibly your timing on the pair and test again. If, during the TEST, the targets jumps in front of your eyes or your hand, you should think about moving your hold point out a bit more from the trap.
This may sound like a lot of work, but remember this: It is the hard work outside the box that allows you to excel once you step into the shooting station. If you don’t possess and execute a plan each time you step into the box, you can’t expect to be a consistent performer. The most significant impact of pre-shot planning is that it provides you with an accurate understanding of what the targets are doing and infuses your subconscious with the shot plan you are about to execute.
O P T . . . OBSERVE, PLAN, TEST. You have OBSERVEd the targets and know precisely what the targets are doing. You have a solid target engagement PLAN and you have TESTed your plan to make sure it works. Now you are ready to crush the targets.
In Part 2, we will step into the shooting stand for the second half of the OPTIMAL Process, the pre-shot routine, and discuss IMAGE, MARK, ALIGN and LASER FOCUS.
© Don Currie – 2014