Shooting invitations are a cherished addition to the season, but what happens if you’re off form? Do you just accept you’re shooting like a smelly drain, or can game-shooters glean valuable training tips from Britain’s Olympic clay-shooting elite?
The 14 competitors short-listed for the 2012 Olympic clay-shooting squad (made up of skeet, trap and double trap shooters) left nothing to chance. In the run-up to any major competition they embark on a rigorous training regime that puts to shame the rushed 50-bird sporting layout that most game-shooters squeeze in the day before a weighty invitation.
Peter Wilson is currently ranked world number one double trap shooter and after securing a medal quota place for Great Britain at London 2012, took the gold medal for double trap at London 2012. He says he has always been perplexed as to why game-shooters do not invest more time in preparing for the start of the season. “Back home in Dorset we have a small family shoot over 500 acres, where I shoot up to 10 days each season,” Peter Wilson says. “Most guns I know are content with shooting one in three birds, which would definitely not win them any world championships. In my opinion, game-shooters only ever pay lip service to practising. If your invitation is for stratospheric West Country pheasants, then get yourself to the highest clay tower you can find and stand under it for as long as you need to.”
During the winter months, when there are no clay-shooting competitions, Peter Wilson shoots between 250 and 1,000 cartridges, five or six days a week. “For me, it’s all about muscle memory – hitting clays needs to be second nature. My training will start to taper off two weeks before my first competition in February, as I need to give my body and mind a break.”
Four-times Olympian Richard Faulds MBE won a gold medal at the Sydney 2000 Olympics in the double trap event. Richard and his wife, Tanya, who has also won many sporting and FITASC championships, run Owls Lodge Shooting School near Winchester, and both teach game-shooters throughout the year. “Game-shooting is not a competitive sport but participants still want to hold their head high at the end of every drive,” says Richard Faulds. “It is not a cheap sport and the cost of a few lessons at the start of the season will ensure that the money spent on the cost of the day itself is an enjoyable investment, rather than a frustrating one.”
Olympic Skeet Junior Team member Rory Warlow, from Plymouth, follows a similar regime. “My training drops off four or five weeks before the big day. I find that it is better to be hungry for it rather than burnt out. My advice to game-shooters? Sit down with a shooting instructor at your local clay ground and work out a plan to action over the summer months so that you are match fit when October comes around.”
Mentally preparing to perform on a world stage is gruelling. Ensuring the pressure to win does not overwhelm shooters is something Gloucestershire-based sports psychologist Phil Coley deals with regularly. “I assess how the shooter reacts emotionally to circumstances,” he explains, adding: “In simple terms, a sports psychologist works on coping with fear of failure, anxiety, concentration and loss of confidence.”
According to Coley, if a shooter suddenly starts to miss targets in a sporadic way then a sports psychologist may be needed. “When most competitive shooters start out, they find progress swift but then they plateau. To win then becomes about their mental approach. Once a shooter reaches the elite level, the slightest change in mental approach or subconscious routine can break their mental plan. A sports psychologist works on developing and maintaining a mental routine.”
Coley feels that there are a lot of similarities between clay- and game-shooting psychology. “You can only shoot the target you are presented with. Of course people want to hit higher and higher birds, but it is easy to lose your way on driven game and end up not knowing if you are in front or behind. My suggestion is to treat a bird as a single target, focus on your routine and let your shooting technique flow. But always be realistic about your ability and enjoy your shooting.”
Peter Wilson works with renowned Dubai-based coach and sports psychologist Sheikh Ahmed Al-Maktoum, who won gold in double trap at the 2004 Olympics in Athens. “The effectiveness of sports psychology is difficult to quantify,” admits Peter Wilson. “Ahmed and I simply talk on the range. The therapy is not like you might imagine. He doesn’t sit me down on a chaise longue in a sterile room and peer at me over spectacles. We bounce ideas off each other and, without me even realising, he is treating me. His approach is very subtle.”
So, on the morning of your long-awaited shooting invitation, should you have a full English or the athlete’s choice of a banana and a bowl of cereal? Olympic clay-shooting may not be as demanding as rhythmic gymnastics, but diet and exercise can still be a major contributing factor to success.
“A breakfast full of saturated fat will leave you lethargic and slow - especially if you are trudging up the side of a grouse moor,” observes Peter Wilson. “I would always opt for a healthy breakfast that slowly releases energy throughout the morning. It will keep your mind sharper and make you feel less bloated.”
Warlow keeps to a strict diet and exercise routine. “I suppose I eat like an athlete. I don’t drink alcohol and eat plenty of fruit and vegetables. On the morning of a significant competition I won’t eat anything. I shoot on an empty stomach and simply run off adrenalin the whole day. I drink plenty of water and may sometimes have the odd espresso between rounds, but that is about it. On the way back to the hotel I fall fast asleep in the taxi. That level of sustained concentration is physically and mentally exhausting.”
This may be unsuitable for guns who are expending energy walking between drives, but it demonstrates Olympian commitment.
Six-time Olympic head coach Ian Coley adds that competitors’ fitness levels make a notable difference to their performance. “It all comes down to stamina. I also think sportsmen should present themselves in a professional manner. If your heart is pounding when you reach your peg it is going to take far longer for you to shoot straight.”
Mother-of-two Shona Marshall is the top-ranked GB trap shooter and Commonwealth Games silver medal holder. A keen stalker, she is disciplined when it comes to exercising. “We have roe and red deer on my Aberdeenshire farm, which keeps me fit. I also lift weights in the gym twice a week and run for 40 minutes three times a week.”
Marshall, who spent time training in Spain with the Scottish Institute of Sport, says that core stability is essential for shooting well. “I focus on scapular retraction exercises in the gym, which help prevent back and shoulder injuries caused by shooting posture and shotgun recoil. Posture and core strength are major contributing factors to winning.”
Coping with distractions is something all competitive clay-shooters and hobby game-shooters have to overcome. “Distractions for a clay-shooter are invariably different to those that will affect a gun in a grouse butt, who may have cold hands, an unproductive drive or an ill-fitting jacket – all these distractions can break your concentration. Find a way to stay focused,” advises Marshall.
Choosing the right shotgun and cartridge partnership is next on the list. Warlow competes with a Beretta DT10 with Fiocchi loads; Marshall uses a Perazzi MX8 with RC cartridges; Faulds shoots a Beretta trap gun with Lyalvale Express cartridges. Peter Wilson, however, is less conventional. He shoots with a Perazzi MX2005 but has developed his own bespoke shotgun cartridges with the assistance of Sheikh Ahmed Al-Maktoum. “No expense has been spared,” he beams. “We have sourced the best shells and best components. If we can better the equipment I shoot with, then why not? At this level, I need an edge to win.”
Stalkers often load their own rounds, so why not pheasant-shooters?
As head coach, Ian Coley keeps a close eye on how the Olympic shooting team is faring. “These honed athletes are beyond me standing at their shoulder and pointing out when they miss a target,” he explains. “They know exactly what they are doing. My role is to eke out that extra 1% that could bag Britain a medal. If you want to make a good impression on your host’s day, go back to basics. Know how to stand correctly. Determine your dominant eye. Ensure your gun fits you correctly. Do not keep making the same mistakes.”
He urges game-shooters to spend time practising. “Some game-shooters I speak to dismiss practising on clays. I do not subscribe to the notion that real-life birds are speeding up and clays are slowing down. Do not always go for the most difficult layout. Confidence is built by hitting targets.”
The Olympic hopefuls spent the winter and spring proving their worth before the final list of seven clay-shooters was announced in May. Their stringent diet, exercise and training regime might not be wholly applicable to hobby game-shooters, but certain elements can be cherry-picked and adopted to gain more respect from your peers.
“If you take your game-shooting seriously, you will gain a lot by assuming the mentality of an Olympian,” says Richard Faulds. “Do not let yourself become a shooter with an A-Z of excuses,” he cautions.