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The Eyes Have It


BY MICHAEL G. SABBETH Previously published in ClayShootingUSA August / September 2012

The brain ‘sees’, not the eyes, yet the eyes train the brain to become the repository of skill. Where performance excellence is the goal, the eyes are used in seemingly contradictory ways – as conduits to the brain to analyze sensory input and as transmitters of inputs that shutdown that analysis. Each function of the eyes can be enhanced through dedicated practice to instruct the brain on how to find significance in what it ‘sees’, to remember what it sees and then to use its skill at the critical moment.

‘Seeing’ is different from ‘vision’ and employing one process over the other separates the average shooter from the elite shooter. “Seeing,” says Dr. Lynn Hellerstein, a Fellow of the College of Optometrists in Vision Development, “is very complex. Seeing involves a dozen behaviors such as eye movement skills and focusing while balance, fatigue and other variables affect the brain’s ability to interpret that visual data.”

Seeing is observing something, which is challenging for clay target shooters because targets appear in peripheral and direct vision, high and low, slow and fast and move away and toward the shooter. Seeing involves tracking, focusing, depth perception and the fusion flexibility of both eyes working together over a sustained period.

Vision is analyzing what you see – interpreting data in the context of time and space. Vision provides feedback – and that requires disciplined eyesight. Feedback is how the eyes inform the brain, enabling the brain to determine a neuromuscular response. Vision leads to strategies and adjustments. Thus, you will not ‘get’ or understand what you see without effort and analysis. Vision requires studying details such as the part of the target hit, at what point in its path and at what elevation and what speed was it hit. Dr. Hellerstein says that when performing at top levels, the minutiae make a difference.

Years ago I shot sporting clays with Andy Duffy. One of his memorable comments related to lead. “The more you shoot, you build up a bank of visual pictures – providing the ‘experience’ to compete at the top level.” The eyes are used to measure and to input data into the brain and to do so with such clarity that the data will be stored in long term memory. I came to understand the neuroscience validating Duffy’s words from discussions with Dr. Richard Colo, an ophthalmologist for many top shotgun shooters, and reading two outstanding books – Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else by Geoff Colvin and The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How by Daniel Coyle.

Knowledge is the Power that Leads to Elite Performance

Data is the key to performance excellence. Colvin writes, “We’ve seen how extensive, well structured and deliberate practice develops the specific abilities of great performers to perceive more, know more, remember more and how these abilities are critical to exceptional performance.”

Elite shooters remember those visual pictures in their memory bank differently from non-skilled performers. For example, they see patterns or chunks of data in a context of what the target is doing, where and why – whereas others see data fragments.

Colvin continues, “Researchers estimate that good club chess players have a ‘vocabulary’ of 1,000 data chunks while the highest ranked players have a ‘vocabulary’ of 10,000 to 100,000.” The point is that elite shooters remember more, remember data in a larger context and are able to retrieve more useful information and do so more quickly. The long term memory of the best shooters is built on a retrieval structure connected to the essence of the activity such as Duffy’s mental “picture bank’.

Think of elite musicians or a person reasonably skilled at typing. The notes and the keys are embedded in long term memory. The advanced cellist doesn’t think about where the finger is pressed on the strings. The superior pianist sees the notes on the music and presses the correct keys without thinking that the E key is three to the right of the B key. Neuromuscular impulses are efficiently sent because the visual input bypasses the analytical part of the brain, allowing the eyes to access those data chunks and patterns.

This process is the same as what Dr. Colo calls, “letting the shot develop”, rather than forcing it. No subconscious or muscle memory is involved. The brain is drawing upon accumulated knowledge and the greater the knowledge, the more success the shooter will have. Shooters talk about how the target seems to slow down when they are ‘in the zone’. The explanation for this sensation is straightforward – the enhanced speed of the brain linking visual input to the memory makes the visual input seem slower.


Elite shooters focus intensely. Focus serves two functions. One is enhancing vision – which allows the shooter to place more data and context into memory. One consequence of this function is an enhanced ability to anticipate stimulus input.

Eyes on Targets Leads to Success

Elite shooters focus intensely. Focus serves two functions. One is enhancing vision – which allows the shooter to place more data and context into memory. One consequence of this function is an enhanced ability to anticipate stimulus input.

For example, elite tennis players, as they get ready to receive an opponent’s serve, don’t look at the ball but at the posture, hips, feet and arms of the opponent. That data indicates where the ball will go. The best players begin to position themselves to return the serve before the ball is hit. These players have found a way to react faster without improving their neuromuscular reaction time, which is much more difficult to do. So, the shooter that focuses on the show pair and the targets of shooters before him can shoot faster and more accurately. Top performers figure out what’s going to happen sooner by seeing more relevant data.

The second function of focus may seem contradictory. It is to stop gathering and analyzing data inputs. “My reason for focusing on a spot of the target,” Dr. Colo told me, “has little to do with gaining data. Rather, focusing is a vehicle for trapping the conscious mind and getting it out of the way. You focus like a laser on the target to shut down the thinking part of the brain.”

Some shooters say with bravado that they focus so intensely they can see the ridges of the target. Well, if you say so, but does that help break the target? Elite shooter Jamie Blei argues that such intense focus risks turning the smooth shotgun swing into aiming like a rifle, causing the shooter to try to see an ideal sight picture. “It’s too analytical,” Blei says, “and it compromises the shot.”

A laser focus can only be held for a second or two. You go from a soft focus on a chandelle, for example, to a hard focus just before pressing the trigger. But on a sixty-yard incoming target, a hard focus cannot be sustained. If you try, the eyes begin to look at the lead rather than the target and you are more likely to miss. The shorter the focus time, the more intense the focus ability can be and the greater success in silencing the thinking brain. “But,” Dr. Colo says, “it’s exhausting.”

Training the Brain

A few years ago George Digweed said to Dr. Colo, “To get better, you must miss – you have to learn how to win.” At the time, Dr. Colo didn’t understand Digweed’s meaning. Now he does. Benefitting from years of study, including reading Colvin’s and Coyle’s works, Colo came to understand the extraordinary brain characteristic of neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to grow additional neurons and the role of myelin to insulate the neurons and accelerate the speed of electric impulses through them. He came to understand, also, that intense, focused practice accelerated the formation of myelin on the neurons.

The neuroscience supporting Digweed’s mandate requires that to accelerate the growth of myelin, the athlete must practice in a demanding environment at a level where some of the shots are unlikely to be made. What Colvin calls ‘deep practice’ is built on a paradox – operating at the edges of your ability, where you make mistakes which makes you smarter and increases skill.

Struggle is not optional – it’s neurologically required. To get your skill circuit to fire optimally, you must first fire the circuit suboptimally. You must make mistakes, pay attention to those mistakes and slowly teach your circuits. Circuits are taught through intense focus and vision, thereby increasing short term and long term memory, increasing the speed of accessing memory and, thus, increasing skill.

Colvin cites an exchange between Nathan Milstein, one of the twentieth century’s greatest violinists, when he was a student of the famous teacher Leopold Auer. As the story goes, Milstein asked Auer if he was practicing enough. Auer responded, “Practice with your fingers and you need all day. Practice with your mind and you will do as much in one and a half hours.”

Thinking Eye Reacting Eye

I met Scott Robertson over a decade ago at a Beretta-sponsored writer’s event. I asked him about determining lead. I have not forgotten his words – “You notice lead, you don’t measure it.” Now I understand the neuroscience that supports Robertson’s advice. The lead is ‘noticed’ rather than measured because, through focus, the analytical part of the brain is suppressed, allowing access to short and long term memory which stores those visual images and chunks of data.

Then, according to Dr. Colo, the shot ‘feels right’ and the brain “lets things happen rather than making things happen.” Exercising discipline, without measuring, the trigger is pulled at the correct instant. It’s like seeing notes on a sheet of music. The brain doesn’t say, “Take a look – there’s a C sharp! Now I’ll find it on the keyboard.” Instead, the visual input goes directly to memory which then stimulates a neuromuscular response to press the correct key.

Colvin writes that the essence of practice, which is constantly trying to do the things one cannot do comfortably, makes automatic behavior impossible. The performance is always conscious and controlled. Think of the rabbit target that takes an unexpected jump just as you are about to press the trigger. Adjustments are made and the elite shooter is likely to break the target – others most likely will not.

Years ago I interviewed Jason Elam, NFL All-Pro placekicker for the Denver Broncos. Elam told me, “You don’t practice until you get it right. You practice until you can’t get it wrong.” I now better grasp the science underlying his remark. It’s not that the elite shooter shoots when he sees the correct sight picture, it’s that he cannot shoot when he does not see the correct sight picture. That’s quintessential mental toughness. It’s control. It’s a little bit of analysis derived from accessing those ‘mental pictures’ in the brain instantaneously and judging if the applicable ‘image’ matches the sensory input.

Anthony Matarese described how doubt influences the mind as well as vision. “The minute doubt enters your mind, if you don’t trust yourself, you become aware of the gap between target and muzzle. Then you are back into the past tense, willfully recreating a prior event, trying to make the shot happen.” Doubt not only affects the mind. It affects the eyes!

In summary, the eyes train the brain to become more skilled. The shooter dedicated to pursuing excellence will engage in a sequence of deep practice by pushing his limits and accumulating those mental images to bring to realization Robertson’s comment, ‘notice, don’t measure’. Then, we just let the shot develop and bask in higher scores.


Michael G. Sabbeth – The Good, The Bad and The Difference: How to Talk with Children About Values

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