In preparation, make two lists for yourself: A list of what you do well in comparison with other shooters in your class, and a companion list of what you don’t do so well.
How do you figure that out? One way is to compare station-by-station scores in tournaments. With careful study, you’ll spot good and bad trends in your shooting and you’ll see how you measure up against others in your class.
This is more effective than making a list of stations where you thought you performed poorly and practicing those. In many cases, you’ll find that almost no one shot a particular station very well. You surely could go out and work on those shots, but you’ll move up faster by shooting the targets where you underperformed relative to your competition.
For example, if you found that most of the shooters in your class took a 7 or 8 on one station and you broke only four, that’s one to focus on. The targets were well within the ability of most shooters in your class, and you should be able to close that gap with a bit of work.
On the other hand, if most of your peers only broke a few targets at a particular station and you were right there with them, then that’s an indication that the targets may have been a little beyond your current skill set. You can get there eventually, but the other, somewhat easier targets are low-hanging fruit that you shouldn’t pass up.
You should also list any skills that you need to work on. Those may be harder to identify, but you can get feedback from your instructor or friends, and with some analysis you can figure it out yourself. For example, over time it may become apparent that you have trouble transitioning between targets on a report pair, or shooting from a low-gun start. Working on those skills will help you even more then specific target practice as they apply to many presentations.
Prioritize the list of the targets that challenge you and the skills you need to work on, making sure that you give more attention to common presentations or skills, not the toughest stations from your last tournament. At times, practicing extreme targets can be a bad idea. If your skill set isn’t up for the task, you’re in for a lot of frustration. Trying to “dial it in” can lead to bad habits like trying to see a sight picture, failing to sync up with the target, or learning a specific target instead of learning proper technique and tactics.
It also makes little sense to spend a lot of time on an extremely difficult target that flummoxes everyone if you have a more fundamental hole in your game. If one of your bugaboo targets is a trap-style shot from a premounted start and another is a 35-yard crossing rabbue, focus on the trap shot – you’ll see it far more often, and if you can turn that weakness into a strength, it will help you more than mastering a less common presentation. Besides, a single extreme target isn’t going to ruin your score, but inconsistency on a common presentation will wreck it.
Once you’ve finished your lists, start working your way through the list of things you currently don’t do well with the goal of moving them to the other column.
Remember that when you’re building skill you should be more aware of the process than you might normally be. This helps you builds the neurological connections or “muscle memory” that later allows you to perform without conscious thought. And sometimes, it’s OK to miss.
A good example of that is working on transitioning between shots on a pair. Your goal is just that, the transition, so it’s less important to hit the first bird than it is to work on building your skill. You can work on hitting the first bird later – for now, it’s about making the right move to get to the second bird. It’s a drill, not a competition, so focus on the specific task at hand.
At times, a range near you may have a particular shot that you don’t see very often. A great example of this would be a high incoming bird off a tower, a so-called “driven” shot. If you come across a target like that, plan your practice schedule to visit that range more often until you either master the necessary technique or the targets are changed.
You also can help yourself prepare for tournaments by making a list of the targets you expect to see and working on those. If you’re headed to Nationals, then you had better practice steeply climbing trap-teal targets and longish crossers out to about 45 yards. If you’re visiting a club for the first time, call your friends who have shot there and get a sense of the terrain and the most common presentations.
Remember that target setters have tendencies as well. Keep notes on what you see from various setters so you can anticipate what you’ll see the next time you shoot their targets. For example, anyone who plans to shoot at my range knows that I’m going to test as many skills as possible, including your ability to shoot with a premounted gun. Because of that, you’d be well advised to practice true pairs of going-away trap targets, because I frequently set one of those. Other setters are well known for long, fast chandelles and others beat you with changes of speed and transitions that make you move your gun quite a bit. If you know that ahead of time, you can better prepare for the tournament.
By working on your priorities, you will bring focus and discipline to your practice sessions. Instead of heading out and just wandering the course, you’ll have goals in mind and you can work toward them. I’d rather see you shoot 150 shots focused on a specific goal than see you shoot 300 random targets.
Once you’ve mastered one skill or presentation, go on to the next. Over time, re-examine your performance and add to your “to-do” list. Gradually, you will narrow the holes in your game. Even at my level, I’m still working to make any holes in my game smaller, or non-existent if I can.
It’s a never-ending process, because new challenges emerge all the time. You may even find yourself struggling with targets that gave you little trouble in the past. This is very common with rabbits; new shooters generally do well on them because they require very little lead. As they advance and gain skill, they sometimes struggle as they unconsciously build in more lead and shoot in front of the rabbit. The solution? Dedicated, conscious practice.
This process works. One of my students, a longtime shooter, had a consistent problem with rabbits. He’d get nervous whenever he saw one, and the results usually were predictable. Even worse, he’d sometimes carry that fear over to the following stations.
He got some instruction on rabbits and went to work. It took him some time but now he’s breaking rabbits with ease. Now, if you ask him about rabbits, he’ll tell you that he loves them and that he’s moving on to another skill to master. If you can turn the targets you hate into targets that you love, you’ll be well on your way to achieving your goals.
How much should you practice? As much as is practical for you, given your time and resources. It’s important to have a sustainable practice regimen that is well thought out and strategic. Shooting more often and going through more ammo will accelerate your learning curve only if you do it correctly. Be calculated and practical with your practice.