Positive thinking on a shoot day is essential when you start missing, says Simon Reinhold
We’ve all been there. We were shooting perfectly well and then, on one drive, we inexplicably have the equivalent of a batting collapse.
Just as perfectly competent batsmen seem incapable of performing even the most basic functions under increasing pressure and are sent back to the pavilion, so we cannot connect.
Four or five misses in a row may feel like shooting’s equivalent of a collapse, but how can we fix it when we only have a short window because more birds are coming?
First, you should realise this is probably a mental issue and that any pressure you feel is coming only from within yourself. This is in your power to control. You must make yourself aware that everyone else is trying to focus on what they’ve got to do — not on you. Don’t worry what others think — it’s none of your business.
Don’t judge your mistakes. Learn what you can from them, then box them off mentally and get yourself ready for the next bird with your newly acquired knowledge. Above all, don’t lose your temper. It does nothing except reveal a petulance to those around you and no one enjoys themselves in the company of a petulant child. The release might feel good, but it gets you no further down the road to recovery and you don’t have time to waste.
If Roger Federer nets a return of serve, he simply walks to the opposite side of the court with only one small shot replay. That’s him quickly debriefing himself — absorbing useful information from an error, then discarding it and preparing for the next return he must make.
That is a growth mindest in operation, treating failure as an opportunity to learn. At his level, he has about the same amount of time between serves as you do between shots and he rarely wastes time swearing. A simple aid to not giving vent to anger is to remind yourself that it beats being in the office.
If it was working for you last week or even last drive and the recipe hasn’t changed, you can cross ‘rubbish cartridges’ off the list of suspects. If you really are underequipped for the birds you are shooting at, that’s your inexperience and life is a learning curve and you’re learning about missing shots. Take advice in good grace from fellow Guns and be wiser next time. There isn’t much that cannot be tackled with a 32g No 5.
As a competent Shot, any technical faults you may be suffering are more than likely to be the result of a lack of mental focus. However, booze — either on the day or the night before — can affect a master eye if it is shifting in middle age anyway. Of course, too much is not only irresponsible, but will certainly slow your reaction times and coordination.
To salvage a drive that is getting away from you, you have to think clearly in the heat of the moment and rebuild from the ground up.
Footwork is particularly important with crossing and quartering birds. The biggest muscle groups in your body largely govern how effective your swing will be and a fluid swing is essential. Get your feet moving. It’s hard to do in heavy plough but that is your environment, so deal with it. They didn’t plough the field to make it harder for you. You must not allow yourself to fall into any sense of victimhood.
A consistent gun mount is crucial. With frustration or fatigue, sloppiness creeps in. We may move our head down to the stock rather than the gun up to the cheek with our head still. Sloppiness can also mean the stock is brought back to the shoulder rather than the shoulder forward to meet the gun to positively lock everything together. These deficiencies can mean we lift our head to compensate. When we do that, we have altered the equivalent of our rear sight without realising it.
Stopping your swing
Stopping our swing is one of the most common causes of missing shots and can be hard to self-diagnose. Watching a lot of AimCam footage online doesn’t help. You may reinforce unnatural lead pictures and this can result in measuring forward allowance, which kills a fluid gun swing. Whether you are shooting game traditionally, going for an instinctive shot with good gun speed, or taking on high birds by consciously opening up lead, your swing must always be smooth and fluid.
It may be that you are leaving the birds too late and your swing is running short of elasticity, perhaps because your front arm is too straight, restricting your movement. If you find you are trying to take game past 12 o’clock, though, you should try to take straighter birds a little earlier to avoid missing shots.
Try blotting it out with a moving gun at 10 o’clock, as the angle of incidence will be much more acute and typically less lead is required. As it gets towards the perpendicular above you, your margin for error decreases. This is the same effect as a police car on the opposite side of the carriageway. It seems much faster as it passes you than when it is coming towards you. Try to kill the bird in front. This does not apply to very high pheasants, where at 10 o’clock they may be out of range and only killable as they get to 11 and 12 o’clock above you.
Fear, doubt and hesitation are all rungs on the descending spiral ladder of poor performance and these must be checked immediately. Optimism is key. The beauty is, even if you fake optimism, it’s not fake.
As humans, we have two states of being: ‘fight or flight’ and ‘rest and digest’. Both can influence our shooting. The two states stem from evolutionary biology. Once we had caught and cooked our prey, we didn’t have to hunt until we got hungry again. We conserved the hard-won nutrients until we needed them, for either ‘fight’ — hunting, territorial defence — or ‘flight’ from predators. Flight we can discount. We’re not running home or back to the Gun bus (it’s never that bad), so all that is left is fight mode and that is where we operate most effectively.
The best fighters are calm and confident under pressure. This is the state of mind we must look to get back to. Their engagement with their environment is total and their breathing is regular and unhurried. They know how to take a punch and can deal with it without being thrown off balance. We need to allow our Shaolin monk to shine and accept our misses, and in so doing reduce our doubtful, fearful self to hiding in the shadows. We need to think clearly in the heat of the moment.
Rest and digest can be an issue when we stop for a big lunch. Nowadays, we know one of its effects not by its official title of postprandial somnolence, but by its common names, including food coma or dinner dip. It is often why, for many people, the wheels fall off after lunch on a shoot day. This can be exacerbated by alcohol.
It is not simply about blood flow being diverted to the stomach and intestines. It is thought to be a drop in our blood sugar caused by our bodies naturally secreting insulin to deal with the increase in blood sugar that the brain anticipates is ‘in the post’ after a heavy meal. The delay in one catching up with the other may cause a mild hypoglycaemia and this may be why we are more clumsy and drowsy and missing shots.
Being aware of it means we can take steps to avoid it — less booze at lunch would be one way. Diabetics reading this will be acutely aware of the issues already.
For me, if all else fails, going down to one cartridge can sometimes be a system reset when missing shots. It’s going back to first principles, simplifying an otherwise complex process to its basic components. It’s how I started game shooting. Perhaps tapping happy memories of time spent in the field with my father realigns my priorities and pricks any pompous sense of entitlement. “If you get it right with the first barrel, you won’t need the second,” he would say. A single point on which to focus the mind.
While wounding is to be avoided at all costs, missing is part of game shooting. Not only that, but a necessary part. What would we get out of it if we shot everything we raised a gun to?
We would all like to shoot to the best of our ability every time we pull gun from slip but in reality we won’t. Accepting that fact is part of the cure — relax and enjoy all aspects of the shoot day, even missing.