Reaping the rewards of failure

Philip Siddell takes an analytical approach to his shooting and explains how applying a simple feedback cycle can turn a miss into a hit.

I hate to miss a shot. It bothers me far more than it should. There is a saying “a miss by an inch is a miss by a mile”. Over my years as a hunter, I have imbibed this as a core shooting philosophy, and so perhaps this is where my uncompromising attitude comes from.

However, as a youngster terrorising tin cans with a cheap springer, I would often remark on a flyer, on how close it had been. As I out-grew Tin Can Alley and ventured out into the field on early hunting forays, I carried with me that sense that a near miss was somehow almost as good as a hit.

That is until I got tired of seeing quarry scamper away unscathed and evermore wary. Gradually I began to understand how critical that first ‘cold barrel’ shot is in hunting, and indeed, how critical it ought to be on the range as well.

This epiphany, gradual as it was, became the genesis of an analytical approach to improvements in my shooting that later intermingled with the ethos and methods I developed while working as a sports coach.

In recent months, I’ve been moved to crystallise this modus operandi into a simple, practicable feedback cycle. The motivation to do this came from, you guessed it, missed shots.

The range is where we do our best shooting, but this isn’t necessarily the best place to give us all the data we need

I had been lucky enough over the summer to acquire a new permission to hunt over in a beautiful Somerset valley. Unfortunately, my initial enthusiasm wore thin following a couple of missed shots on my first session there.

This was particularly galling as the shots should have been easy for me. Plus, it’s never a good look when you come up empty-handed in front of a landowner who’s been kind enough to put their faith in you. The quiet drive home that evening provided ample opportunity for mulling over my mistakes and formulating a suitable solution.

Carefully thought-through corrections are invariably what are needed to fix problems in our shooting. Most people are unaware that one of the most common impediments to improvements in most sports, and indeed shooting, is the repetition of faults.

Our natural reaction after a miss is to send that follow-up shot downrange as quickly as possible; perhaps in the hope that it will help wash away the frustration and embarrassment of the miss.

However, without understanding the cause of the fault, the chances are high that we’ll repeat the mistake. And the danger is in the repetition.

Just as practising the right stuff embeds patterns by forming neural pathways, so too with compounded mistakes – but with less desirable results.

The best thing we can do after a miss is to resist our impulse and leave that bolt handle or cocking lever alone!

Sometimes just slowing down and observing the lie of the land can give us the space we need to improve our shooting

The Feedback Cycle 

Once I’d learnt to stay my hand I was in a position to make use of my feedback cycle. The cycle itself is simple: Analyse – Diagnose – Create Correction – Test. But it can be used to fix complex issues. For example, as I analysed those missed shots on my new permission I came to the conclusion that the problem was likely twofold.

Firstly, I was shooting from an elevated position at short range, which is a unique ballistic problem for me in light of my other flatter permissions where I’m usually dealing with insignificant gradients. Secondly, I realised that I was rushing my shots in my determination to be perceived as an investment of value by the landowner.

In my haste, I was operating outside of my normal methods and patterns and so was throwing away my usual accuracy.

To diagnose the issues affecting my shooting, I had to look beyond the events to discover the root causes. In this case one problem pertained to technical proficiency, and the other to frame of mind.

I love a technical correction – in all my coaching experience, I have never encountered an issue of technique that couldn’t be corrected. Problems of mental approach are far more nuanced and challenging though.

Bring your shooting data with you on every shoot – but for it to be truly useful, keep it where you can easily see it!

To borrow from that famous Rumsfeld speech, with my technical problem I had a known unknown. Having not shot from an elevated platform at close range before, I had no data on the trajectory peculiar to those circumstances.

Without that data, I was simply guessing at my adjustments. As for the mental block I was having, it began to dawn on me that I was so concerned with proving myself on new ground that I was not taking the time over shots I normally would. I was chasing short-term success at the cost of long-term proficiency.

Missed-Shot Misery 

Having developed a dual hypothesis for my errant shots, I wanted to create corrections that would put an end to my missed-shot miseries once and for all.

Often, when we head to the range to get our eye in we tend to stick with the shooting positions available, those generally being benchrest or prone. In other words, the positions in which we do our best shooting.

While this is valuable, it doesn’t make room for really understanding the dynamic nature of airgun trajectories. Therefore, the solution to my technical malady was simple: I needed to practise shooting within the parameters of the situation that had so baffled me previously. Happily, I now had access to some land with suitable undulations.

Shooting at an incline can be tricky, so Phil deliberately set up on a forward slope to punch some paper and gather some data

Attending to my mental attitude was best done from the comfort of an armchair. I’m not unused to working under pressure – I’ve fished for magazine shoots on extremely un-fishy days and competed in various sporting events.

Usually, I just tell myself that I can only control so much, and so treat it just like any other day. I decided that this was exactly how I needed to think about shooting this new piece of ground.

In reality the only pressure to generate results came from me, and I was the only one in a position to lift that pressure. In order to move forward I resolved to stop focusing on quick results and make a determined effort at learning the lie of, what was after all, a tricky piece of ground.

With these corrections in place, all that remained was to test them. When trying out new techniques and approaches, it’s important to remember that any feedback cycle is just that – a cycle.

Sometimes the most important kit is the cheapest – a notebook and good quality targets are vital for attaining optimum accuracy

The results coming out of the cycle don’t have to be a fixed end in the process. Any new information should feed back into the cycle, causing perpetual incremental improvement in your shooting.

But what of my own results? 

I decided to fill out my inclined angle shooting data, and set up targets at varying ranges in order to garner the information. In terms of adjusting my mental approach, I decided to rest the ground for a couple of weeks in favour of somewhere more familiar to change things up to disrupt potential negative patterns.

So, only time will tell whether my new shooting data combined with a fresh unpressured approach will reap the rewards I’m hoping for.

Take Note

The key to the success of any feedback cycle lies in the fact that it provides a structured framework within which to sort through and remedy a given problem. That, and it also prevents the embedding of improper techniques through the instinctive repetition of mistakes.

It’s worth noting that you can be flexible about how you use a feedback cycle. Some people find the process easiest as part of a discussion, while others prefer to write it out and work through it stage by stage.

Personally, I am happy to run through the stages in my head over a cup of tea, arriving at the corrections needed and perhaps jotting them down for reference. Speaking of which, if you don’t already have a notebook of some kind in your shooting kit I highly recommend you purchase one.

Not enough shooters carry them and so forgo the opportunity to faithfully record errors and corrections that would undoubtedly improve their shooting abilities.

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