In Part I of this well-known series, which later evolved into Amazon’s highest rated sporting clays DVD, Don introduces the four principles of FOCUS: 1) Focus on the target, 2) have no conscious perception of lead, 3) time your focus, 4) focus small.
(Appeared in the February-March issue of Clay Shooting USA, p. 72.)
By Don Currie
If success or failure at breaking clay targets or hitting birds could be attributed to just three factors, wouldn’t that simplify things? In my pursuit of higher scores, I have taken lessons from many of the big names in the sport: Wendell Cherry, Bill Maguire, Bobby Fowler and John Woolley. But it was Bill Kempffer, owner of Deep River Sporting Clays in Sanford North Carolina, an NSCA Level III instructor and avid wing shooter, and now close friend, that handed me “The Holy Grail” back in the fall. Don’t misunderstand me. What I am about to share with you doesn’t replace the lessons, the thousands of targets or years of practice. It does however distill all of the basic principles of clay target sports and wing shooting, including most of the possible causes of a miss, down to three interdependent elements: Focus, Movement and Faith.
Wow. When Bill first shared these nuggets of truth with me, it was like magic. It was so simple and made such perfect sense. While this might not be exactly the way Bill would explain it, the following is Focus, Movement and Faith in the context of my experience. But wait. It is too much information to convey in a single article so I’ll break this up into a four part series, one on each element and the final one to pull it all together and explain the relationship between the three. As I said, Focus, Movement and Faith are three interrelated elements that must all tie together for successful execution.
FOCUS. Visual Focus. It is the first and possibly the most important of the three elements and the single most important factor in breaking targets or dropping birds.
I have never heard of a better explanation than that of Robert Churchill in his writings (you know….the Churchill Method of Wing shooting?). He wrote that clay and bird shooters should “dismiss all ideas of calculated allowances.” He further said that,
“the shooter should not be conscious of his gun- muzzle, the rib or sight. His eye or rather attention should be fully occupied with the bird, and, if he holds his gun properly, he will hit whatever he is looking at.”
In other words, we should not “see” lead or forward allowance if we are truly applying a hard focus to the target. There are some who will say that the shooter should look at the target, but see the muzzle with their peripheral vision and thus see the lead or “gap” between the target and the muzzle. I am not saying that this can’t work, particularly if the forward allowance is predictable, as in skeet. I know of one top competitor in the sport that teaches this method. I am only saying that Churchill disagreed and so do most of the other instructors from whom I have had the opportunity to learn.
Did you ever notice how we crush some clay targets and others we just chip? Sure, it is possible that our natural “computer” miscalculated the lead. But it is more likely that we were not giving the target a hard focus just prior to and through the breakpoint. I find that, in almost every case, the targets I chip are the ones where I failed to achieve a laser-sharp focus prior to, and maintain it through, the breakpoint. Whenever I experience a “chippy” break, I don’t try to figure out what part of the shot stream hit the bird. I simply put a little extra effort into my visual focus on the next bird and it almost always breaks harder than the preceding target. Think of your eyes focusing on a target like a laser pointer illuminates a pin-point spot on a wall. Now visualize shining a flood-light at that same spot. Get it? The laser focus is what we need to apply to the bird just prior to and through the break point…not the flood-light or diffused focus.
The two most difficult things for a clay shooter to do are to 1) apply a strong focus just before and through the break point and 2) apply this hard focus consistently on EVERY target thrown. Only the top shooters in sporting clays have the visual acuity and the mental concentration and discipline to give each and every target hard focus AND apply the “max focus” just prior to and through the breakpoint on every bird. That’s why they shoot in the 90s, or a rare 100. Sure there are other reasons for a miss, but most of the top shooters will tell you that when they miss, it is usually a lack of focus or what I like to call a “diffused” or “soft” focus. It takes a tremendous amount of mental and visual discipline to apply this kind of focus on each and every station, to each and every target.
So for us mortals, what can we do? Well, there are two tactics I have learned from great shooters that I have used with success. It may seem like a lot to think about, but if you take the time to practice this, it will become automatic and a regular part of your execution.
First, FOCUS SMALL. Do you recall in the movie “The Patriot” when Mel Gibson’s character and his two young sons were setting up in an ambush position to strike an enemy patrol? His sons were scared to death and likely afraid that if they didn’t shoot accurately, they might all be killed in the process. The father told his sons to “aim small, miss small.” On the sporting clays course, I’m sure you have heard someone say, “just look for the rings.” The fact is that most of us can’t see the rings. Instead, pick out half of the target, or some detail on the target, rather than the whole target. In most cases it will be the leading edge of the target. With crossing rabbits, it is the “chin” or lower leading edge. With game birds, always focus on the head. If you “aim small” or focus on only a small portion of the target, rather then the whole target, it will help prevent your focus from diffusing or going soft.
Second, TIME YOUR FOCUS. For engaging clay targets, plan your shot such that your visual focus reaches a crescendo just prior to and through the breakpoint. Picture a long incoming or incoming/quartering target or any other target where you have a long window. Have you ever mounted and focused early on a target like this, rode it all the way in for what seemed like an eternity and then missed the target? The problem likely wasn’t that you didn’t have enough time to figure out the target line, right? On the contrary, you had too much time. You focused on the target early, applying maximum focus and then you waited for the target to get close enough to where you felt comfortable pulling the trigger. But by that time your eyes, being unable to maintain a sharp focus, started to diffuse or go “soft”. Your eyes were probably drawn to the barrel (you checked to make sure it looked right) and you missed behind. This probably doesn’t apply to the totally instinctive visual engagement required to hit flushing birds but might be useful when hunting duck, geese or dove where, for some shots, you have a longer window to engage the target. On targets with a longer window, you might want to consider timing your focus. Here is how it works. Develop your plan for engaging the targets as you always do (more on this in the next article in the series). Identify the line of the target, your pick-up point, break point and hold point. As you visualize the flight of the target in your mind, determine where you are going to start applying hard focus to the target making sure that your interval of hard focus is relatively short and that you can maintain that hard focus from a point just prior to and through the breakpoint. How long should this “hard focus interval” be? As short as possible but this is really dependant on the type and flight of the target. Remember, the longer your “hard focus interval” is, the more unlikely it is that you can maintain it through the breakpoint (at least for most mortals). Timing your focus will help prevent eye fatigue on these “long window” targets and help prevent your eye from wandering to the barrel or measuring the gap between the target and barrel.
Focus, perhaps more than any other element of wing shooting and clay target sports, will determine your success or failure in breaking a target or downing a bird. In some cases, good focus will compensate for a poorly chosen hold-point or an improper gun movement and still result in a hit. Regardless of whether your sport of choice is sporting clays or wing shooting, the above tips should help you improve your performance. As with all new techniques, you should practice on a skeet field or 5-stand and not while simply shooting a 100-target clays course.
In Part II, we will talk about the Movement element of Focus, Movement and Faith.
By Don Currie
© 2009 – Don Currie – All rights reserved.