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By: Paul Giambrone, III

In one of my previous articles for Clay Target Nation, I briefly touched on the topic of having a pre-shot routine before you get on the station to shoot. Hilary, being the awesome editor that she is, read just one sentence in that article and said, hey can you write an entire article about this topic? Here it goes! How important is a mental routine? In skeet, we shoot the same target presentations from club to club the only thing that changes is the weather conditions and the background. So, is it really important? Positively without a doubt, yes it is just that important. It is right up there with the importance of keeping your eyes on the target, proper gun fit and proper physical technique. Actually, once you fully acquire all of the physical techniques and have proper gun fit, the mental game becomes the highest priority. Now, do not take that as never paying attention to your physical game/body mechanics ever again. You have to constantly keep all of those items in check as well. However, this article will focus on the importance of the mental routine we need to have.

I want to start with a few examples of how having a solid mental routine got me through some of the toughest events I have endured. The first one that comes to mind is the Poco Loco in 2012. For those of you who do not know that shoot, it’s was a really awesome event held at one of the finest facilities in the country. St. Joe Valley Conservation Club hosts the event sponsored by John Haugh, John Waters, John Ramagli and many others for the weekend. It is a competition of all .410! That’s right! We shoot 400 .410 targets for the weekend! In 2012, I found myself on my flight going to the shoot and the thought of shooting a 400X400 crossed my mind. I quickly dismissed it telling myself that isn’t even possible… Then, upon further review, I asked myself, “why not?” I know how to hit every single target on the field, I love the facility, I have an incredible squad, great referees, why wouldn’t it be possible? Well, I guess it’s not. I went on to do my visualization exercise that Mr. Bob Palmer gave me. It is the DVD exercise where you basically visualize how your weekend is going to go. I chose to watch myself (in 3rd person) shoot the final round of the final event at the shoot and I watched myself finish a perfect 400X400 straight for the weekend. The seed had been planted. It was possible to do. Once the tournament started, the first two hundred targets were fairly uneventful, maybe one or two recovery shots but nothing earth shattering and no nerves whatsoever. That evening, it was brought to my attention that a 400 straight was possible by multiple sources. My wingman, Captain Edwards, quickly got me away from the gun club so I wouldn’t be distracted by these thoughts and we proceeded to have a normal evening and did our normal routine. The next day, I found myself in the final round of the final event and still straight. Now, my adrenaline and nerves were far more than I had ever experienced! My heart was racing, breathing heavily, my mind going a mile a minute. How am I going to get through this?!?! One station, one target at a time. I stuck with my mental routine verbatim, no flaws, no excuses, just trusted my routine and my fundamentals and my eyes. The last half of the round I couldn’t even feel my legs! It was so exciting and scary all at the same time! Thankfully, I executed my plans, I was able to stay relaxed (sort of), and I was able to finish! You see, when you have something to focus on, it helps you get through situations like this. Another one for me was the World Shoot in 2014. I found myself 350 straight going into the last event, so I was shooting well, but I hadn’t made a trip to the podium all week. No worries, only two of us were straight so I potentially had a bird to give. Little did I know, I would give that bird up on the very first target out. S&^T! Are you kidding me? I haven’t been on the podium all week and now I’m going to screw this entire week up on the last day and I’m going to go in my off-season very ticked off. Yes, all of that went through my head in the few seconds it took me to reload my gun and shoot my option. These demons continued to follow me all around the field the first box. I got through it, and the 2nd and 3rd with little worry, but they came back the last box. Once again, putting all of my focus on my mental routine and TRUSTING that routine, I was able to finish the event.

How does one develop a routine? Let’s start with the basics:

Having a plan before you get on the station. Clearly defined foot positions, hold points, look points, break points, visualize your sight picture if you wish as well Once on the station, set up the plan correctly and be 100% ready for the target when you call Once you call for the target, match gun speed with target speed to build in sustained leads Acquire your hard focus on the target as you approach your break point Quick review of the station and rest These are the basic principles that I follow and try to execute each time I step out to shoot in a tournament. The only time I do not perform these steps in detail is when I am working on something physical (example-staying in the gun or keep your shoulders level during the swing). Let me walk you through a station in my head. When the shooter in front of me steps up, I am standing behind the station with a similar line of sight that I will see when I get on the station. I have already established my foot position and am going to pick out my hold point and mark it with something in the distance (could be a stake, a tree, a piece of target on the ground, etc.). I am also going to pay attention to the window and make sure my barrel elevation is below the flight path of the bird. By this time, the shooter is about to set up and call for the bird. I am going to put my eyes at my look point in the soft focus and await the flash. Once the flash comes out, I am going to follow it and transition to a hard focus at MY break point (not where they shoot it). I do this for each shot before I get on the station. I know, it’s a lot of work before you get up there, but this method is visualization on steroids. You will feel confidence in a totally new way if you haven’t done this before. Once you get on the station, it is extremely important to setup the plan like you just did before you get ready to call for the bird.

So many times I see a shooter think they are shooting one target like High 5 and they are really on 6. How does that happen? Lack of focus and mental discipline! Set up exactly like you just planned it and pay attention! Lastly, before you call for the target, you want your focus to be 100% on moving on that flash. Not the fact that you see a bird flying in the distance or the fact your gun isn’t mounted correctly or your eyes are bouncing around or whatever! If any of that stuff is the center of your attention, you aren’t going to react to the flash correctly. You will leave early or late, but not on time. So make sure you are actually ready when you call for the target! Once the flash gets to where you are looking, the next step is matching your gun speed with the target speed with a solid fundamental rotation. This will build in your sustained lead. Last step (and by far the most important step), get a hard focus on the target as you are going to pull the trigger. See the dimples, the rims, the front edge, where the black meets the orange, something specific on the target. If you are trying hard to see those things but can’t, it might be time to visit the eye doctor. It is very easy to look back to the lead or the gun at the moment you are going to shoot (especially rifle & pistol shooters), but fight that temptation and stare a hole right through that target! Wow, that is exhausting, please tell me I can take a little break after all of this. Absolutely, I encourage and require it. Once you complete the station, if you do a quick, and I stress quick, analysis of the shots you just took, go for it. If everything feels good, leave it alone going forward. If something felt a little off about the shot, go ahead and try to figure out what it was, make the adjustment and move on. This applies when we miss. I like to visualize three really good shots of a target that I make a bad move on or miss (Bob Palmer trick as well). This leaves the last memory as a positive rather than a negative. At this stage, I am going to just walk around a little, tell a joke to my squad leader or just chit chat in a non-distracting manner with my squad mates. This helps keep us loose and relax between stations so we have enough gas in the tank to finish the event mentally. Yes, you can burn yourself out and try to focus too much while competing, it happens all the time. I used to get migraines before I learned to relax! Last point I will make is that this routine is detailed, but it is fairly easy to follow when you practice it. The most difficult part? Doing it each and every time it’s your turn to shoot.

Tip of the month: As mentioned, having a routine is vitally important to successful shooting. I have outlined my exact routine and have given you some points to ponder on. It’s up to you to develop your own routine that works for you. The trick is having the mental discipline to work the routine each and every time. You see, it’s not like physical training where you can train yourself to stay in the gun or use your legs to swing. Physical things can be learned over time to be sub-conscious actions. The mental routine needs to be executed each and every time…we cannot rely on autopilot to get us through the event.