pheasant hunting
A rooster makes its getaway. John Hafner

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Okay, so there’s not actual joy in missing. It’s not fun, but it’s just missing. Everybody misses. Learn from misses and let them go lightly. If you allow them weigh you down, you risk entering a downward spiral of despair, madness, and more missed birds.

The best way to shoot is with joy, regardless of how well or badly you’re doing. This is all very touchy-feely, I realize, but that doesn’t make it any less true, both in the field and at the range. And it’s never truer than it is in competition, which is why competitive shooting, even more than plain target practice, makes you a better wingshot. The realization that you are shooting for a score which will then be displayed for all to see cranks up the tension levels and puts your mental strength to the test.

I was reminded of this during a spectacularly bad performance in a recent sporting clays shoot. When you worry too much about your score, you start to be careful. Being careful makes you miss. Missing makes you be even more careful, which leads to more missing. It’s a brutal cycle that ends only one place: down the drain. As I mentioned, this phenomenon isn’t confined to the target games. It can happen in the field, too, as I can attest first-hand. Confidence is critical to good shooting.

And, it’s worse the more you have invested in it. If your self-esteem is tied up in how many clay disks you can break, the pain of missing is amplified. You can see it in a competitor’s body language. I’ve seen kids I coach practically melt on the trap field, heads hanging, shoulders drooping, calling despondently for targets, when they weren’t shooting well.

The answer, one answer anyway, is to take a step back and see the big picture. You do this for fun. If you’re not enjoying it, maybe you should try some other sport. Take another step back and realize you are lucky to live in a time and place where you can own a gun and are healthy enough to get out and shoot it. It could be worse. You could have been born an amoeba, or North Korean. Then get back in the cage, think positive thoughts and call for the target. Obviously, you’ll do your best to hit it, but if you miss, so what? You’re playing a game, and “playing” is supposed be the key word. Think about why the target didn’t break (or fall) so you decrease the chances of failing that way again, and put it behind you. If misses prompt anxiety, it only makes you miss more. Nobody else cares one tenth as much as you do what your score is, or how many shells it takes to reach your limit so let go, have fun, and you might very well find yourself shooting better.

Savor the hits, too. Take an instant to appreciate them, even on those days when they are few and far between. One of my favorite coaching quotes actually comes from a golf coach, but it works perfectly for shooting.

A disgruntled student says to the teacher: “I’d enjoy this game more if I was better at it.”

The teacher responds: “You’d be better at this game if you enjoyed it more.”

That’s the truth.