The game season has started, and soon we will be into the partridges. Partridges are always a great challenge, both redlegs and, if you are lucky, English. These days, partridge shooting is usually a driven day, and as with all shooting, you want to enjoy your day and hit a few birds.

So, apart from technique, how can you improve your shooting? I believe it is about having mental discipline. Your driven game day should be fun, but many people dread the first bird of the drive ? the lone bird heading straight towards you, with all the field?s eyes on you and the pressure of making sure you hit it.

To illustrate how much of a mind game this sport is, one of the many complaints gameshooters speak to me about is trigger freeze or flinching. This happens at the moment that you are about to pull the trigger and find that you can?t. Trigger freeze has nothing to do with technique ? it is purely brought on by a mental block. Indeed, I am about to conduct a research study on the subject to get to the bottom of this fascinating, but highly frustrating problem.

Techniques to improve

Let?s look to see how some simple mental techniques can help you shoot better at partridges or any other game. The key to shooting any target, be it a clay or quarry, is being decisive. The moment you try to second-guess or change your mind is the moment you miss. Decision-making is where many people go wrong. I use the subconscious ? let it take over, rather than trying to measure a shot.

In terms of the subconscious, the best way to explain this is through the analogy of catching a ball. If someone was to throw you a ball, you catch it in the palm of your hand without looking ? you use instinct. The same can be said for shooting. When a bird comes out and heads towards you, the process of shooting it is already in play in your mind. What then happens is that the process either plays out or you intervene and stop it, leading to a miss.

Why stop the subconscious?

The key is to understand why you stop the subconscious ? what makes you check this? Usually this is caused by self-doubt, or a lack of confi dence in your technique. Confidence can be improved by having a lesson as well as through what I call ?pre-shot management?, or creating a routine that you follow every
time before pulling the trigger. One of these is, for example, saying ?bum-bellybeak-bang?, which creates a routine to follow every time, so that it eventually becomes a part of your subconscious.

I see so many people miss birds in front. This happens because they miss a bird and assume that they are behind, so they add even more lead. This is especially common in partridge shooting, where the perception is that the bird is travelling faster than it actually is. When you miss, you have to start again and let your subconscious take over. My father, Ian, always says, ?Shoot where it is going, not where it has been.? This might sound simplistic, but what he means is that it is easy to overcompensate. In doing this, many Shots miss out the vital stage of starting behind the bird and swinging through, and start too far ahead, which will result in a miss.

Relax and breathe

Another good attribute in the field is relaxation. It is important to be able to calm down in a drive and focus on the next bird. To achieve this, I use a technique called centering. This is a breathing technique used in martial arts. The method is simple. To centre yourself, breathe in to a point an inch behind your belly button, focusing on that point as you breathe in. This has two outcomes: first, it gives you something to focus on, and second, it keeps you taking deep breaths, which is an important part of staying relaxed, something not many people realise. By being more relaxed, you increase your peripheral vision, which is vital to shooting in the field where you need to be able to react to a second bird.

Visualisation

The other technique that I recommend is visualisation. This is a word that has certainly been used in the past few weeks by Olympic competitors. It involves imagining a situation and going through it in your mind. Gameshooting is, of course, different from competition shooting, but you still want to do your best ? and a few people I know are very competitive in the field, too. Visualisation can play a key part in shooting better and warming your mind up. Some simple exercises can make a major difference.

If you were to think of your favourite partridge drive or pheasant drive, imagine a covey coming out in front of you. What can you see? How does it feel to see that bird coming towards you? Imagine you are ready to take the shot, how does it feel and when will you pull the trigger? While reading these few sentences did you see the bird? Could you feel the moment you pulled the trigger? Did your heart rate rise slightly?

Visualisation is a way of ?shooting? without actually holding a gun. The benefi t is that it makes you think of what you will shoot and in turn increases your muscle memory and leads to a muscle twitch. If you have a dog, you will know what I mean ? my springer, when lying on the carpet asleep, will suddenly start shaking slightly. It is dreaming of chasing a bird and flushing it, and its legs move as it dreams. This is similar to what we are trying to achieve with visualisation, though we are able to make the conscious decision to pull the trigger.

The evening or morning before a shoot, go through in your mind how it feels to shoot a bird and what thoughts you go through before pulling the trigger. When you get to your peg and feel excited about the drive, remember to relax and take a breath to steady yourself each time. Be aware that sometimes when you miss, you may just be in front rather than behind, so start the process again.

Phil Coley is a sports scientist specialising in sports psychology in shooting. He works with many top clay Shots and has been practising as a sports psychology expert for more than 20 years. Phil is conducting a research project on trigger freeze in clay and in game Shots. If you are interested in being a subject for the study, please contact him ? all the research is confidential and the results will be published in 2013. Email Phil at phil@coley.co.uk.