Even Flow: Effortless Shooting With Muscle Memory

You shoot much better than you know. Here's how to get out of your own way.

by posted on June 28, 2021
Muscle Memory Lede

I have been training pistol shooters for some time now, and I often get questions about how to get better. For beginners, the questions have predictable answers, because they are still covering the basics. For more skilled folks, it can get more complicated. For more experienced shooters, their mindset plays a huge role in advancing. Long-time shooters can become plagued with inconsistency after one bad day at the range. Sometimes we get off our game and can’t find our way back on.

There are many factors that can interfere with getting off your best shots. Maybe you didn’t get a good night’s sleep. Maybe you have too many distractions or worries. We are only human after all, and we can’t control every variable of our lives. I have written before about controlling thinking to perform better. Now, it’s time to talk about our level of thinking.

Think about your level of consciousness right now. What are you aware of in this moment? You probably immediately started reviewing sensory data, or whatever you are seeing, hearing, smelling, feeling, etc. You would be correct, because that is where much of our consciousness comes from. But we are also having thoughts, memories and an inner dialogue. Much of that information is not conscious until we direct our attention to it. There is also a lot of information that never makes it to conscious awareness, because we don’t even know it’s there to pay attention to it.

Here’s an example. If you are a practiced shooter, you cannot still be attending to every sensory input that you did when you first shot a gun. When you are learning, you may over-attend to the details. Establishing your grip on the gun in the beginning is a novel experience that you eventually move past once you’ve achieved muscle memory. After practicing this skill, you only need to tell yourself, “Get a grip.” Then your brain tells your hands to do the grip thing that they already know how to do, because most of that is now unconscious.

When athletes are “in the zone,” they are only partially conscious of the physical feedback they’re getting as well as their internal monologue. If they were focused on details, it would ruin the big picture and their performance. “In the zone” is better termed a “flow state.” It is a mental state in which a person is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of an activity. It has been described as functioning at the mid-conscious/mid-unconscious or even the low-conscious/high-unconscious range of awareness. If you have not experienced this while shooting, I’d argue that you are doing it wrong. An interesting read about changing awareness and shooting is Zen in the Art of Archery by Eugen Herrigel.

If you have drilled and practiced the basics well, quit thinking so much about it. Set your intentions on hitting the target and let your muscle memory do all the work. Become fully involved in the activity so you are unaware of other thoughts, distractions, noises, feelings, etc. When you are focused, fully involved and having a great time, there is no room for self-sabotaging. Once you have established the basics of shooting, just get out of the way and let your body do the work.

About the Author: Samantha Mann, MA, is a WV Licensed Psychologist, Licensed Professional Counselor WV, and Nationally Certified Counselor. Raised in West Virginia, Samantha was the youngest of six grandchildren (and the only female) who were raised to love the outdoors and hunting. She has hunted from Texas to Africa, and believes that while Superman gets his power from the sun, her power comes from the outdoors. Samantha lives in southern West Virginia with her supportive husband, who doesn’t mind showing off her trophies to his buddies. She balances her time in the office helping others with time in the outdoors, focusing much of her career on helping children and adults who have been abused, neglected and mistreated.

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