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Secrets off the Shoulder: Excising the cause of a miss (Part I)

Updated: Aug 16, 2022

Secrets off the shoulder

Excising the cause of a miss (Part I)

“Where was I on that target?” Following a miss, this is perhaps the most frequently asked question on the sporting clays course. Sometimes we ask the question audibly so our squad mates, eager to assist, can tell us exactly where the shot pattern was in relationship to the target (and they often tell us even if they really don’t know). Whether or not the information is solicited or unwelcomed, your squad mates are absolutely confident that their uttering “Behind!” will put you on target for the next pair. Armed with this nugget of information, you level your gun to the hold point and call for the targets again. You pay closer attention to the barrel this time and intentionally give the target more lead than you gave it before. “Dead LOST!” What happened! You gave it more lead? Two pairs later, your turn is finished and you never touched that stinking target. The problem was, you tried to fix the symptom rather than identify and address the cause.

In this series of articles over the next few issues, we will look at some principles and proactive techniques, forged on the competition circuit and off the shoulder of countless aspiring clay shooters. These techniques will help you avoid the most common causes of a miss. Helping shooters address the cause, rather than the symptom, is the goal of any serious instructor in our sport and the ability to self-diagnose the root cause of a miss is the key to consistency for competitors.

So let’s get back to “You’re behind it!” The above scenario is but one example among many when knowing WHY you missed the target is infinitely more useful than knowing WHERE you missed the target. There are essentially five categories of causes for a missed target: 1) flawed FOCUS, 2) flawed MOVEMENT, 3) eye dominance issues, 4) gun fit issues, 5) insufficient target database. While these causes are inter-related, we will address them separately starting with flawed Focus (below) and address the other causes in subsequent issues.

“Where was I on that target?” is the wrong question. The first question you should ask yourself after missing a target is, “Did I see the target clearly at the precise moment I pulled the trigger?” If the answer is “no”, you have taken your first step toward solving the problem. The next question is, “why?”. Why didn’t I see the target clearly? For now, lets assume that your gun fits perfectly and that your mount and movement to the target were flawless (we will cover these other two possible causes in subsequent parts of the series).

There are four principles of visual focus that may help you get to the root cause of your miss. They are: 1) Focus exclusively on the target, 2) have no conscious perception of the barrel-target relationship, 3) Time your focus, and 4) Focus small. So you have already determined that you didn’t see the target well. The next question: “Do I know where the barrel was at the moment I pulled the trigger?” If you did, you now have another clue about the cause. Either you are a shooter that consciously “measures” lead habitually or you are an instinctive shooter that had a momentary lapse in concentration and visual focus. Either way, you failed to completely delegate the job of establishing lead to your subconscious mind. If you are in the batter’s box or perhaps in the outfield catching an outfield fly, you know that the key to intercepting the target is to “keep your eye on the ball”. As in baseball, sharp visual focus on the target increases the likelihood of connecting with the target. So why would intercepting a moving clay target be any different? It isn’t. If you are already a convert to the school of instinctive shooting, as I am, the solution to the aforementioned miss may lie in the third and fourth elements of Focus: Time your focus and Focus small.

Time your focus:

In clay target sports, visual target focus should reach a crescendo, or climax, just prior to and through the breakpoint. When talking about visual focus on a clay target, I often use the Maglite analogy with my students. You should apply a very loose visual focus (the wide beam) at the visual pick-up point, then intensify your focus on the target (tighten up the beam) as the target develops reaching your narrowest visual focus on the target (like a laser) and greatest perception of detail just prior to and through the breakpoint. For trap-like targets, timing your focus is not necessary. You just focus and fire. But what about the crosser, the chandelle, some rabbits or the slow lobbing incoming target? On these target types, the target has a long flight time. The human eye can’t hold intense visual focus for an extended period of time. After only a few seconds of focus on an object, the eye starts to fatigue and the sharp and tight focus surrenders to a looser peripheral focus. On a slow crossing target for example, if you apply sharp visual focus too early, by the time the target reaches the breakpoint, your peripheral vision kicks in, you gain a conscious visual awareness of the barrel and the barrel starts to loose speed. Conscious visual perception of the barrel almost always results in loss of gun speed at the precise moment you are executing the shot. The speed at which your focus (or Maglite) needs to tighten from wide to laser-like depends on the “air-time” of the target. But this should all be worked out during your pre-shot planning of the target pair. Regardless, you need to achieve and maintain laser-like focus just prior to and through the breakpoint.

Focus small:

“Focus on the threads!” At least that’s what my little league coach used to tell me. This identical principle should be applied in sporting clays. Apply very sharp and tight visual focus to the target, rather than focusing on the whole target, and the quality of the information being captured by the eye and processed by the subconscious (the onboard target guidance computer) is optimized. This optimized visual imagery feeds the subconscious guidance computer (your brain) and leads the hands to the target more accurately. You should always attempt to gain sharp visual focus on a dime-size piece of the target, rather than the whole target. Exactly where “the threads” or the dime are on a sporting clays target, depends on the character and distance of the target. For a quartering or trap-like target, for example, try to see the rings on the back of the target. For a long crossing target, you may not be able to see detail, but you should focus on the nose or “beak” of the bird rather than the entire target and make sure that you time your focus well. For a transitioning target, one changing speed and trajectory at the breakpoint, you should be focused on that piece of the target that happens to be at the leading edge at the precise moment that the target reaches the breakpoint.

You can avoid most misses in the first place by adding a simple step to your pre-shot planning sequence. As you conduct your pre-shot planning, and establish your hold points and visual pick-up points, remember to plan the timing of your sharpest visual focus as well as selecting the exact spot on the target that you plan to apply your visual focus. Once you step into the station, give yourself one last mental cue: “Laser Focus”. If you do happen to miss, ask yourself, “Did I see the target clearly?” and “Did I see the dime when I pulled the trigger?” If not, reinforce what you rehearsed during pre-shot planning: the timing and placement of your visual focus.

Remember, where you missed a target is an irrelevant and often destructive piece of information. It’s the why that’s important. If the visual target information captured by the eye and transmitted to the brain is good, your natural hand-eye coordination will lead your hands and shotgun to the target.

© Don Currie – 2013

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