The importance of listening to your body

It’s easy to think that injuries are something you can just ignore, but Jason Doyle finds out the hard way that you should listen to your body

This month’s article almost didn’t happen due to a niggling and persistent neck injury that has been causing me problems and resulted in me taking a few weeks away from the shotgun.

Without any shots fired I had no topic for this piece, but my coach encouraged me to write about the injury: how it has affected me, the negative impact on my shooting and the strategies I’ve used to deal with it.

The bulk of my work during the winter months is as a professional deer-stalking guide in Ireland’s Wicklow Mountains. This can be heavy, physical work, with lots of dragging, lifting and carrying.

Knee injuries have plagued me for years, as well as the odd back tweak and a particularly nasty groin hernia. I’ve never had a problem that had a long-term effect on my clay shooting, however. That was about to change.

Early this year I woke up one morning with a crick in my neck, the sort that usually fades after a few hours, but three days later it was still there, and I had become acutely aware that something wasn’t right. Digging into the stash of anti-inflammatories left over from my knee surgeries got me through the next couple of weeks, but then the pain came back suddenly on a game shoot.

Jason’s problems were particularly acute when shooting targets high overhead

After a couple of drives my neck stiffened up terribly and made it very uncomfortable to shoot. The next day I wasn’t too bad, but I still made a doctor’s appointment to find out what the issue was.

After several checks and prods my doctor was happy that it was muscular and not a disc-related issue. He prescribed some painkillers and a trip to the physio.

However, I quickly ditched the painkiller prescription, didn’t book a physio appointment and carried on as normal. A week later my problems resurfaced, this time at a clay shoot while shooting some driven targets off a tower.

My neck became very stiff and my movements were seriously impaired, my sight was off and I struggled to put the gun where I wanted to. The stiffness in my neck was restricting my gun movement and speed to the point where my lead picture was all wrong.

I tried to compensate with more gun speed, but this led to timing issues and all sorts of other problems.

This time I went to the physio, and his diagnosis was quite interesting. The splenius capitis muscle – a large, flat muscle that runs down to the nape of the neck from the base of the skull – was causing the issue.

This is the muscle that often suffers from trauma in a whiplash accident. In this case it was badly inflamed on my right side. I’d not been in any car accidents, but other causes quoted by my physio included looking upwards for extended periods of time and sitting at your desk with your head turned to one side.

“My sight was off and I struggled to put the gun where I wanted to”

Both of these rang a bell with me instantly. As a deer stalker I spend hours of every week laying belly-down on the ground, balanced on my elbows to stare at deer through a pair of binoculars. This is essentially the same pressure on my neck as looking upwards from a standing position.

Then in my office-based work, which predominantly involves editing video, my suite is set up in such a way that I spend most of my time either looking at a second screen to my right or at a third screen, on my laptop, even further to my right!

Once all this information was out my physio concluded that my muscles were being pushed over the edge by the movement of shooting a driven-style target. I explained that in a game-shooting situation the movement before a shot is often very rushed and not at all smooth, which backed up his diagnosis.

My physio gave me some stretches to do and showed me how to massage the muscle myself to speed up recovery. He also prescribed a change to my office arrangement, a break from deer stalking and a month’s rest from clay and game shoots.

Now, the deer season was over and the office is an easy win – but surely I could keep shooting, right? My next call was to Ed Solomons, my coach and good mate, to get his opinion. Surely Ed could give me some tips and tricks to shoot in a different way until my neck was healed? The short, definitive answer was no.

Ed pointed out that shooting should be a long way down my list of priorities. If shooting hurts, stop. Find the problem, fix it and don’t shoot again until you are sure the issue is solved.

After some difficult but necessary time off, Jason is once again on a mission to shoot, learn and improve his score card

Even a small muscle injury can prevent you from committing to the shot, pull you off the line of a bird, make you flinch or stop you finishing a shot correctly.

Another important point Ed made was that changing my style temporarily to work around an issue could build in a new technique without me even realising it. Shooting while injured could therefore put my shooting back significantly by teaching me bad form. His advice was to be sensible, take a break, get some treatment and get it sorted. I knew he was right.

Feeling like a scolded child, I duly thanked him for his sound advice. As I finish this piece I’m typing on a beautifully aligned computer screen and I’m feeling good in body and mind. There are a couple of months left until the ICTSF World Championships here in Ireland, and I’m about to hit the clays for the first time in six weeks.

It’s just a 50-bird local club competition, but I’m hoping for an enjoyable and pain-free experience. Ed has been in regular contact over the last few weeks, making sure I’ve been doing what I’m meant to and getting myself right.

The level of attention he provides to his students really is far and above what I expected from a coach, and it’s a massive help. I cannot stress enough how important it is to listen to your body. Shooting is a hobby to me and one that I love and didn’t want to take a break from. I felt that stopping would set me back a lot and I would miss the social side of attending shoots.

But failing to address the injury definitely set me back further. If you sense something isn’t right, get it looked at ASAP, and follow professionals’ advice to get it sorted. Don’t work around it, and definitely don’t ignore it. Being macho about injuries doesn’t impress anyone.

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