Can relaxing and taking a break from shooting improve your hit rate? Ian Mason talks to the experts to find out

It’s the first drive of the season. I’m wound tighter than a watch spring and shuffling nervously around my peg. It’s one of those rare occasions when I pray that the first bird heads for someone else in the line. If it comes to me and I miss, the banter will be radioactive.

Like all the syndicate members, I have been looking forward to the opening salvo for many weeks. I’ve re-read every article on how to hit high birds. Inside my head a nagging voice is on a loop; good footwork, keep eye on bird and gun moving, don’t look at the barrels, keep cheek glued to stock, etc.

pheasant flying

Focus on the very tip of the pheasant’s beak when aiming your shot

I had to stop shooting due to a net injury

Well, you know the outcome. The bird does come to me. I miss. Bring on the banter. It’s crazy really, because I know full well that nervous tension is the worst enemy of good shooting – on clays or game. This was self-evident earlier this year. My clay scores had been less than brilliant when I had to stop shooting due to a neck injury.

Fast forward a few months and on my first two outings post-injury my scores were (for me) fantastic. Shared high Gun on two consecutive clay shoots. It reinforced my feeling that taking a break can sometimes help the average shooter to regain their form.

I put this to John Heagren, chief instructor at Bisley Shooting Ground, Surrey, and also a depressingly good shot. Can taking a break from  shooting really help improve it?

Shoot without over-thinking

“I see this a lot,” he told me. “You come back after a rest. You have not shot for while so you don’t have any great expectations. You’re relaxed and everything you have learned over the years just slots into place. You shoot without over-thinking it – hence you tend to shoot quite well.”

So what advice does John give to the game Shot that finds it’s all going to hell on a handcart during a driven day? “Try to re-group and relax. I’ve seen people get in a right old state even before the first bird has come out. If you miss a few, don’t beat yourself up, it won’t help. On the next drive, pick a more straightforward bird. Leave the 50-yard screamers to someone else and pick a nice 30-yard bird. Also try to find your favourite bird, be it straight driven or a crosser. Once you start cleanly despatching a few you can go back to something more challenging. You need to get back to not overthinking the shot. Do what has worked before and pick a bird you can hit,” he said.

man shooting in field

Don’t beat yourself up about missed shots, re-group and relax at the next drive

Stay focused

His second tip to rebuild confidence and accuracy is to really focus. John is also a golf coach. Rather than telling a golfer to “focus on the ball” he may tell them to focus “on the dimples on a ball” – or when taking a fairway shot to narrow their focus to a particular leaf on a tree halfway down the fairway. In shooting this translates into focusing on the very tip of a pheasant’s beak, or the middle of the leading edge of a clay target.

He reckons that the very act of intense focus takes your mind off all those distracting “inner voices” and lets your muscle memory and innate timing get on with the job. He may have something here. British Shooting commissioned some very interesting research designed to help our Olympic skeet and trap shooting teams. The research team, from Liverpool John Moores University, took both elite and somewhat less skilled shooters and recorded them shooting. Specialised equipment recorded gun and body movement and exactly where the shooter’s eyes were looking at any given moment.

The quiet eye

The results were fascinating and tie into something called “quiet eye duration” – basically gaze behaviour during an aiming task. It has been known for some years that in many sports, people who are very good at that sport show more efficient and steady gaze behaviours than novices.

Without getting bogged down in too much scientific detail, the Liverpool boffins found that elite clay shooters both fixed their eyes on the target earlier than less skilled shooters and kept their eyes glued on it for longer. At the same time, the elite shooters showed slower, smoother and more stable gun movement. Other research has shown that even elite shooters show degraded performance if anxious – with shorter quiet eye duration and jerkier gun movement.

Gaze training

Even more interesting are studies showing that “gaze training” (teaching people to focus on the target as quickly as possible and visually track it continuously) really can boost accuracy and improve hit rate. As an aside – and coming back to what John Heagren was saying – researchers have also found that really focusing attention, for example on the beak of your pheasant, can slow heart rate and help prevent distracting internal thoughts about the mechanics of the shot.

I have to say that although I found these scientific studies fascinating, an old-time Yorkshire gamekeeper I once knew put it so much more simply. Having witnessed me waving my 12-bore around and struggling to pull down mediocre birds, he strolled over; “Jus be still and look ’ard at tha bird – tha kills t’bird with thy eyes,” he told me. Spot on.


man with shotgun

Ian’s going to use John’s advice next time he uses his Bonehill hammergun

A final tip

I also recall wise words from a good friend who introduced me to shooting many moons ago. He told me that the thing to remember about good shooting is the importance of ‘the big nut on the end of the gun’. For some time I fruitlessly examined the action and stock of my Beretta for this mythical nut – until the penny dropped.

So there you have it. Why not take a “shooting break” before your first day in the field this season. If you do start missing, don’t get your “big nut” in a twist – just try to relax and focus hard on the tip of the bird’s beak.

Oh, a final tip from John Heagren. He told me that many right-handed side-by-side shooters miss down the left side of a driven bird. Cupping your hand tightly around the gun’s barrels tends to make the leading arm drift left. He counters this by telling the shooter to focus on the bird’s right wing. This makes them push across to that wing and solves the problem. I’m going to give it a try next time I shoot the old Bonehill hammergun.