WEB VERSION | 24 February 2020
Visual skills and shotgunning
The most important part of any shotgunner’s makeup is the use of his eyes. You start by shooting birds in your head. If you are not confident in your ability to hit the target it will most definitely reflect in your results. To shoot well you need to be self-assured, calm and relaxed. Being negative, nervous and tense will only return poor and inconsistent results.
Dr. Sherylle Calder, renowned performance and vision skills coach who has worked with some of the top sportsmen and teams in the world, believes that negativity in sport starts with the eyes and can therefore be solved by the eyes.
Some of her successes include Ernie Els winning the British Open in 2012 and Bryan Habana regaining his form and being named SA Rugby Player of the Year, also in 2012. Marco Botha writes extensively on Dr. Calder's work with the Blue Bulls in his book Coach (Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2014).
So, how does Dr Calder achieve her results? She does it through a series of her specially designed exercises for each specific sport. These exercises increase your eye fitness and help you to see better and improve the applicable visual skills necessary for your discipline. Your improved visual skill builds your confidence and this in turn results in a greatly improved performance.
But what are visual skills and how does it apply to shotgunning?
The following description of visual skills relies heavily on the table on page 198 of Botha’s book (from the September edition of SA Sports & Health Monthly). It can be applied directly to what shotgun shooters are trying to achieve:
• Peripheral vision; is described as everything that is visible to the eye outside the central focus area or side vision. Imagine standing in a hide waiting for an approaching flock of ducks, or in the veld when your dog flushes a covey of eight francolin over you. Its decision time, you’ve got to pick out a bird, latch your sights onto the largest or closest or most shootable individual, but just when you want to pull the trigger you notice something on the periphery, an even better option! You decide to change your aim and at that moment only succeed in fumbling the shot. Wouldn’t improved peripheral vision be a great boon to your shooting?
• Visual reaction time; is the ability to react quickly to what you see, as in the above. Chopping and changing between decisions is a bad idea.
• Focusing and tracking; focusing is the ability to quickly and accurately change focus from a near point to a far point, whilst tracking is the visual ability to follow or track a moving object closely with the eye without losing focus on it. What could be obviously more important when shooting birds? To be able to hit a fast-moving target such as a pigeon passing at 80km/hour or isolate a partridge against a mountain backdrop, you must be able pick it up, follow and focus on the target to the exclusion of anything else.
• Depth perception; is the ability to perceive spatial relationships, especially distances between objects, in three dimensions, and to react quickly and accordingly. Probably one of the most common mistakes inexperienced shooters make is to shoot at birds that are too far away. The answer to the most frequently asked question, “was that bird too far?” is mostly “yes, let them come in much closer”. You must be able to judge accurately how far you can shoot and still have a fair chance of reliably killing your target.
• Visual recognition and visual discrimination; sound much the same, i.e. the ability to perceive an object’s physical properties (such as shape and colour) and attribute meaning to it, or to distinguish between different objects. Being able to positively identify the different gamebird species is a basic minimum requirement in wingshooting. For example, a mixed flock of gyppos and yellow bills comes past. The season is closed for the yellow bills but open for the gyppos. Can you make a quick distinction and the right decision? Or do you wait so long that, by the time you have made up your mind, the opportunity is lost?
• Visual memory; builds on experience and ties in with the above, the ability to recall what you have seen before. Birders talk about the GISS of a bird; the general impression of shape and size. More often than not it is all you will have, a dark silhouette against the sky. What is it? Goose or hadeda or heron, and don’t think these mistakes have never been made! Having the GISS of gamebirds imprinted on your visual memory is a great help to make that decision much faster, giving you more time to take that relaxed and easy-looking shot.
• Eye-body coordination; eye-hand, eye-foot and eye-body coordination involve the input of visual information to the brain and the interpretation of that information by the brain to coordinate movement. It is evident that any sport involving a projectile relies heavily on eye-body coordination and shooting on the wing almost wholly so; getting your gun shouldered correctly, picking up the target and swinging through, planting your feet correctly, deciding on the right moment to pull the trigger, to name but a few.
Understanding what visual skills are and practicing improving it will up your hit ratio.
(Condensed version of Visual skills and shotgunning By KOBUS DE KOCK, originally published in SA JAGTER/HUNTER, December 2015.)