Psychological training and Holy ****! miracles

Bang! Miss.

Bang! Miss.

Bang! Miss.

It actually went on much longer than that, but you get the idea: I was shooting badly. Very badly.

And to make things infinitely worse, I was shooting sporting clays with four of my new co-workers from the California Waterfowl Association at its annual Staff Day event. Yeah, it’s a duck hunting organization. OK, conservation too, but for the purposes of this discussion, I need to highlight that I was shooting badly — cringe! a girl shooting badly — among fellow hunters. Guy hunters.

There were a number of stations where I missed every single clay out of, like, oh, 10 opportunities. 

Nightmare. My self-confidence dwells somewhere south of the toilet bowl as it is. But this …

… wasn’t bothering me.

Yeah, go ahead. Check my ID. It’s me, Holly. The person who, for her entire life, has battled the urge to sulk whenever she couldn’t do something well. (And sulking, as you can imagine, is soooo good for your performance.) My mom and I were talking about this the other day. I have been this way forever. I’m not proud of it. Just honest.

But something was different this time. A few days before this event, I had embarked on something I’ll call psychological training because if I just quoted from the book that inspired me, you might instantly remark that it was a bunch of total hippie crap.

What I kept saying to myself before and after every shot — don’t laugh now — is, “Wow, I’m so happy that I’m shooting so well!”

I have been fascinated with psychological training for shooters since editing a column by twin biathletes Lanny and Tracy Barnes, where I’d get a little taste now and then of what they do to stay in top Olympic form. I always wanted to harness this force for myself, because I know somewhere inside me is someone who shoots really well. I see her whenever a duck takes me by surprise and I let my subconscious take the shot instead of letting my conscious brain blather on about things like lead and whether I have any business taking the shot. When I don’t think, I shoot well.

The core of this psychological training I’d started isn’t about visualizing how well I’m going to do; it’s about convincing my brain to believe that I’m already doing well. Hence, the present-tense fantasy.

The book that inspired me is based on a combination of quantum physics and knowledge about how we wire — and can re-wire — our brains. Could be total bunk, but what on earth could I have to lose by walking around with a more positive attitude? Nothing. So I tried it.

Over and over, after humiliating myself with poor shots, I sat there grinning and telling myself it felt great to shoot so well. At the very least, it helped me avoid sulking, which is a huge plus.

When we got to the penultimate station, which fired off three series of two clays, angling away, in rapid succession, I managed to hit half of them. And at the final station, I hit eight of 10.

OK, maybe the guys scored generously — I really can’t remember how many I hit, so I’m taking their word for it. It probably also helped that pretty much every female employee of the organization walked by while I was shooting and cheered me on. Chick power!

But could it have helped that I’d convinced my brain to work as I made myself believe it was working?

I walked away from that day knowing psychological work alone wouldn’t be enough. It was my third time shooting since duck season ended — I took off several months to experience the agony of, then get a grip on, a herniated disc in my neck — and my mounts were sloppy as hell. One of the guys also noticed I wasn’t swinging through.

So I worked on both at home: mounting with my eyes shut to focus on how the stock should feel against my cheek until I could consistently find myself seeing nothing but the imaginary target when I opened my eyes, and swinging my gun in the back yard, tracing a target line, making sure to keep swinging after pulling the trigger. (And yes, I used a snap cap.)

Simultaneously, I kept up the psychological training, which I’m pretty sure took at least three years off my face because when you walk around being grateful and happy all the time, the smiles seem to melt away the stress lines.

A week later, I went to the skeet range with my friend Hellen and …

… Oh. My. God.

I was amazing.

Not Olympic amazing. I can’t tell you exactly how many clays I hit because I refuse to keep score — it would just lead to spreadsheets and unhealthy obsessions. But I hit way more clays than usual, and the quality of the hits was something new:

  • Three times on Station 8 I smoked the low-house clay so perfectly that it disappeared. Normally, my best shots on Station 8 result in clay fragments falling into my bra (I know, super fun). But there were no fragments. The clays were just gone. I really hope I don’t do that to any teal this year.
  • Several times I did something I remember my gunsmith telling me about: As soon as the gun hit my cheek, the shot was just there and I pulled the trigger and nailed it. That’s never happened to me before.
  • This is the really weird one: A few times I wasn’t swinging along the clay’s trajectory; rather, my muzzle rose up and intercepted it. It was totally unconventional, and totally wrong, and I’d never done it before, and it worked. Go figure.

 Hellen and I just laughed and laughed. “It’s great you’re shooting so well!” she’d say enthusiastically.

“I’m so happy I’m shooting so well!” I’d respond.

Of course, the real test will be whether I can keep it up. Almost any new regimen — be it diet, fitness or mental — is really effective when you get started; the trick is keeping it going. Who knows — maybe I’ll get distracted. I do, after all, have a new job that’s consuming massive amounts of my brainpower at the moment.

But smoking clays is pretty addictive, so this just might stick. Either way, I’m pretty happy about it.

Holly A. Heyser is the editor of California Waterfowl Magazine. A hunter, forager, writer and photographer, she lives in Sacramento, California. You can see more of her work at


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