The brain game

Shooting clays is a mind game, so how do we train our brains for success? James Simon gets his head around three different methods.

I’ll be fine as long as I don’t get called to shoot just before Jason. If I miss one in front of him then it’s over. I may as well pack up and go home.”

This was whispered to me at a recent Skeet championship by one of the UK’s finest shots. He was voicing his concern at performing with a close competitor breathing down his neck.

The name has been changed to protect the innocent, but it demonstrates that even the very best have to endure an unwelcome level of mental pressure during the heat of competition. 

Another challenge for many shots is the strain of remaining attentive during multi-day events, when mental fatigue and even boredom start to take hold.

It’s tempting to concentrate all our efforts on physical training, which may prove invaluable for our technical skills, but is unlikely to significantly change our mental outlook. Fortunately, our minds are just as malleable as our muscles – and help is at hand. 

The Brain Trainer

Henry Hopking, MD of The Brain Training Company, has helped many athletes to the podium since founding his pioneering business in 1999.  Client wins include two Olympic Gold Medals, nine World Championship Titles and ten European Championship Titles. 

We’ve all experienced rare days characterised by a fluidity of effortlessness, where every shot goes to plan, and we feel on top of our game. Henry calls this fleeting experience, ‘flow state’, and has developed a three-month programme called ‘Get the Mental Edge’ to enable us to enter it at will.  

Henry Hopking’s clients have an impressive list of achievements, including two Olympic golds

The brain functions using pulses of electricity, and the frequency of these waves determine how we are performing at any one time. Of course, there is often a mismatch between how we are actually feeling and how we should be feeling in order to perform at our very best. Why is it that many of us feel anxious before a shoot, when that anxiety is of little use?

Henry’s programme trains the brain to function using the most appropriate frequency for the task at hand. 

“My field of expertise is psychophysiology,” says Henry, “which looks at the measurable aspects of mental performance.”

During the first month of his programme, Henry identifes and refines the physical aspects of pre-shot routine and its effects on mental state. Are they very fidgety? Are they overcautious and slow?

“In the second month, we measure brain activity, and start exploring how an individual can control their mental activity on their own, for example, how relaxed or focused they need to be.”

By looking at a shooter’s brainwave pattern, Henry might be able to discover that on a Friday night before a big competition, they have a higher level of stress, or by day two of a four-day competition they are already mentally fatigued.

“The rest of the second month is dedicated to neurofeedback, which uses brainwave equipment for mental training. The exercises work by triggering a certain feedback when the frequency we are aiming for is achieved.

“For example, a YouTube video will begin to play when the correct level of focus is reached and stop as soon as focus drops. So, they are receiving active feedback of what true mental focus is.”

In the third month, Henry looks at competition management and how to apply what’s been learned in a competitive environment. 

“After three months they will have enough tools to understand and control the effects of their physiology on their neurology. The key to the long-term success of this training is to firstly develop a strong level of self-awareness, and then have the discipline to implement their processes to a high level.”

Mental training can help shooters perform their best when it matters

The Sports Psychologist

Dr Phoebe Sanders is one of a team of four Sports Psychologists who work with British Shooting athletes. Her role is to ensure that they have the psychological skills to deliver their technical shooting talent whenever and wherever they need to, regardless of what is going on around them or in their heads.

“Our focus is very much on the positive side,” says Phoebe, “taking time to help athletes discover what their strengths are, and how they can use them to their best advantage.”  

Dr Phoebe Sanders works with British Shooting athlete

Much of Phoebe’s time is spent developing robust, solid and consistent performance routines, which are a set of behaviours that can reproduced consistently. These behaviours will differ from shooter to shooter, but they prepare them to be in the best place physically and mentally for what they are about to do.

“To achieve this, we do a lot or work around mindfulness, which is basically being in contact with what is going on in the present moment and taking a non-judgemental approach to what you are thinking and feeling. Your thoughts and your feelings are not a problem, but they can present you with a distraction. 

“So, we tend to avoid telling athletes that they need to feel or need to think in a certain way. Instead it’s about giving them the ability to understand what’s happening to them in any given moment and letting them decide how to respond.

“In a nutshell it’s about responding mindfully to what you are experiencing, rather than reacting to it without thinking through what the consequences are.” 

Phoebe does this by encouraging shooters to become more aware of their thoughts and feelings, then observe those thoughts without getting wrapped up in them. She often works with the breath, and encourages athletes to cultivate a practice of stillness while keeping their focus and attention in one place. 

“Focus on your breathing. Your attention will drift, but the key is to notice when it drifts and then bring your focus back to your breathing again. By practising mindfulness exercises like these, our athletes can recognise where their current focus is, and whether they would be better served by moving that focus elsewhere. They will then use this skill in their routines, which will take them to their best performance space.”

The Meditation Teacher

Michael Miller is Director and co-founder of London Meditation Centre and New York Meditation Center. Michael teaches a specific form of meditation known as Vedic Meditation to a broad variety of athletes from cricketers to F1 drivers. 

Vedic Meditation differs from mindfulness meditation in that instead of focusing on an anchor, such as the breath, the meditator repeats a mantra that is personal to them. It comes from an Eastern tradition that’s at least 5,000 years old.

Michael Miller teaches a technique called Vedic Meditation

It yields a wide range of benefits including the promise of better sleep, increased energy and a more robust immune system. This is all well and good, but competitive clay shooters are most likely to be more interested in its ability to reduce stress and increase focus.

“A unique challenge that clay shooters face is the need to stay in a state of heightened alertness for a long period of time, and then be called into action for very short bursts,” says Michael.

“Vedic Meditation can help. Shooters, like many athletes, need high levels of ‘tripartite performance’. That’s the ability to make decisions quickly, accurately and under pressure.

“Doing any two of the three is easy, but bring the third element in and your world suddenly becomes very complex. Vedic Meditation brings a sense of focus where it is needed and helps us to maintain an emotional calm.”

One issue with mindfulness is that people can find it enormously difficult to be present. The classic practice of following the breath does work, because your breath is always in the present. 

But it’s hard to deal with distractions and interruptions when your ever-chattering mind is just buzzing with them. 

“Vedic Meditation is different,” Michael assures me. “We use particular sounds that are chosen and personalised for the individual. As you think the mantra silently, your mind finds the sound fascinating, very charming. This means that your mind is naturally attracted, and drawn towards, a more settled state. And you don’t get so easily distracted.

Shooters need to achieve heightened alertness for extended periods

“As you continue to repeat the mantra, you’re drawn down into ever-quieter thinking until it disappears, and you find yourself in a state of no thought – awareness without thinking.

“This is not hippy-dippy nonsense, it’s a completely natural state known as the hypnagogic state, which is what we feel in the moments when we’re just falling asleep. Vedic Meditation doesn’t create an altered state — it just takes us to an optimal state. 

“When you come out of meditation, you will feel sharper, more wakeful, more creative and so on. This is what has such a positive knock-on effect on your whole life. Rather than being stereotypically blissed-out, people will find that they are actually more driven and more focused than before – the best version of themselves.”

The Brain Training Company: www.thebraintrainingcompany.com

The London Meditation Centre: www.londonmeditationcentre.com

You can find a list of qualified Sports Psychologists on the HCPC website: www.hcpc-uk.org

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