How to stay sharp during the off-season

Ben Husthwaite
helps you work on your shooting methods during winter training sessions

With the competitive shooting season coming to a close, I’ve received a lot of emails about winter training, asking how it’s possible come out next summer as a better competitor than you are now. One thing to say outright is that a diary and records of your score cards are an essential tool that will play a huge part in your training. Another thing, which I’ll be going into detail on here, is that practice and training are very different entities, and should be treated as such.


Practice makes perfect. It doesn’t hurt to go over what you know already

Practice is when we work to perfect something we already do. We’re comfortable with the move we’re working on; we’re just going to the range to make sure we can perform it correctly every time. We perfect it by making the same shot over and over, honing it and enhancing our muscle memory – “not until we get it right, but until we can’t get it wrong.”

For instance, maybe spend one day just swinging through targets, and another pulling away from them. On the third day, practice coming out of one method into another method and learning to switch methods between targets when shooting pairs. This may be more advanced, but it’s still practising the foundations of our methods and shot taking.

Training and the winter

Training is something I rarely see on the range, and yet it is key to enhancing our shotgun skill set and moving through the Classes. So what is it?

Training is a pre-planned session of a set number of shots that works on either a single skill set you’re struggling with or a number of diagnosed problems (depending on training days available and budget). If you’re heading to the range, make sure you do your research to ensure the ground has the targets you want. Travelling another 20 minutes to visit a different ground may be worth it in the long run if it means you get the type of workout you’re looking for.

A normal training session for me would involve 75-100 cartridges and 90-115 clays (more on that later). Let’s take an example to see how training works in practice: I’m going to the range to work on fast targets from a Fitasc mount, as my diary tells me I have been struggling on these of late. The night before my session, I’ll make a list of possible issues that could be causing me to miss these targets and my thoughts on what the cure could be.

One practice technique involves using the gun without any cartridges loaded

My notes tell me I’m going to try new things at the hold point, so my first 10-15 shots will be a purely visual exercise with no cartridges in the gun. I’ll simply be executing the correct moves and committing them to memory. Only when I’m happy with my form will I entertain shooting the target with a cartridge. When I do move on to shooting targets, I’ll go through a few different scenarios until I’m happy with the outcome of each. Having trained the shots, I’ll then nail them down in my future practice sessions.

That’s a typical training session for me, so how can this help you over the winter months? Let’s say we have from November to February to train; that’s a lot of training and practice sessions if we manage to get out at least a couple of times a week (over the winter I prefer training to competition).

Shooters, like all athletes, tend to plateau when it comes to developing their techniques. There are five main areas of difficulty that I come across on a daily basis: methods; hold and kill points; body rotation and picking up second targets; speeds, and mounts. I’m just going to focus on methods for now. A detailed training session in this area should help you push forward.

Try out different hold points as part of your training

The best place for this is a Fitasc or Sportrap layout that offers the freedom to move around to create different angles. Pick a target to experiment on, and take 15 shots at it using each of the three methods available five times each: swing through, pull away and sustained lead. The key here is to feel the shot process. Which one feels the best and most controlled? It won’t necessarily be the one that gave you the best kills. This information will lead you into your training session. Once you have taken your 15 shots, take two more with the method you have chosen as the best for the target, and document it. Then comes the report challenge. I want you to repeat this process, but using the target you’ve been shooting so far as a report bird. This changes things – are you still able to apply the same method when coming off a different shot? This process will make life easier for you in competition, as you will have eradicated all the variables. Once you’ve explored shooting the on-report bird, you have a couple of choices. You can either stick with the same target and change the angle by moving to the other side of the layout, or repeat the process with a new target. Whatever you do, make sure you document your findings.

In a training session expect to miss, and understand that this is part of the process of learning what suits you and what doesn’t. In competition we go to the methods that we know work. We don’t experiment when it counts. Even a miss can be a great shot if you executed the move correctly; just because you missed, don’t write off the method you used. If a shot felt good, you may have only missed because your lead was off. Concentrate on the process, not the outcome. Most clays are missed because the shooter’s methods need work. Simply fixing where you missed is the wrong correction. A better understanding of breaking the shot process down will bring more consistency.

Another thing to try in your training sessions is moving hold points. Try taking on the same target from different hold points, shooting 3-5 times from each point. Again, see what gives you the most control over the target, and don’t be afraid to try thinking out of the box. It’s especially important to try different hold points on the report bird of a pair. Some people’s optimal hold points change considerably when they are moving, their eyes are in transition and their reaction time is affected.

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