The Goal

The Goal

Saturday, 9 May 2015

Pretending you're awesome; visualisation for beginners

At various points I've mentioned visualisation in my posts, as have people who have commented on either my Facebook page or the UK Fullbore Facebook page. It has been pointed out that it may not be entirely clear to people what visualisation (a.k.a. Imagery, mental rehearsal) actually is.

What is visualisation and what is it not?
Visualisation is the process of imagining yourself firing the perfect shot under a variety of different conditions. The idea behind it is to try and imagine all of the different sensations (but vision and touch in particular) as you prepare for a shot, fire it, and then follow through. In theory this will help you execute the action when you come to do it for real because it reinforces muscle memory pathways. There is a significant amount of evidence to support this hypothesis but perhaps most significantly in our case a 1995 study by Whetstone* found that police recruits who were instructed in and then practiced visualisation showed a much greater increase in marksmanship skill than a control groups who had not been so instructed. This increase in marksmanship test scores was statistically significant for both high performing and low performing groups.

It is important to note that visualisation in this context is about rehearsing the precise actions associated with a shot; it is not about imagining how wonderful it would be to win the Grand Agg or the World Long Range Championships. There is some evidence to suggest that this kind of "creative visualisation" approach may lead to a reduction in motivation to achieve the goal imagined (article needs to be purchased to get full text.)** So, despite the rather catchy title of this post, pretending you're awesome isn't strictly a good definition.

How do I do it?
Here's a step-by-step guide to doing a basic visualisation session...

  1. Sit down, close your eyes and relax. It's probably worth trying this somewhere quiet when you start, but with practice you'll learn how to do it with a bit of noise.
  2. Imagine you're lying down on the firing point with all of your kit and ready to load the rifle and fire a shot.
  3. Follow your normal shot routine, but focus on how everything feels***: arms, legs, face on cheekpiece, hands on stock, the pull of the sling on your upper arm, what the trigger is like when you squeeze it. Try to ensure that the technique you're imagining is as perfect as possible, for example, you're pulling the trigger back perfectly in line with the bore of the rifle.
  4. Imagine the rifle firing and seeing the follow through.
  5. Rinse, repeat.

There are a huge number of variations on the basic theme, such as seeing yourself execute the shot from the perspective of a 3rd person, or imagining what you'd do if the wind changed, if there was a stoppage and how you recover from it etc... however they all come down to seeing and feeling yourself execute perfectly the skills that you want to develop.

Unless it's something that you're done before or have a very disciplined imagination, it will probably be quite difficult at the start. Your concentration will waver and you'll start thinking about something else, or weird things will happen (I used to have a problem with the firing point start to ripple like water. Yes, really.) Over time you will get better at it and you'll be able to see a sharper image and feel sensations more vividly; however to get good at this you're going to need to practice regularly. I've found that 10 minute sessions 3 - 4 times each week is a good amount of time to dedicate.

If you want to go any sit somewhere inspirational like the top of a mountain, or stand one legged in the crane stance at the beach go for it. Personally I used to do it on the 06:36 Stansted Express on the way to work in the morning. The key point here is that like the other elements of your training it won't survive if you don't find a good slot for it in your normal routine.

If Mister Miyagi shot fullbore, he'd tell you to practise visualisation too.


Mental rehearsal of correct technique is a core part of any competitive athlete's training programme and has significant experimental evidence to back it up. It can be another marginal gain to your overall level of performance if you have the discipline to include it in your training programme.

*Whetstone, T.S. Enhancing Psychomotor Skill Development Through the Use of Mental Practice. Journal of Industrial Teacher Education. Volume 4. Number 32. Summer 1995. Available at http://scholar.lib.vt.edu/ejournals/JITE/v32n4/whetstone.html

**Kappes, H.B. Oettingen, G. Positive fantasies about idealized futures sap energy. Journal of Experimental Psychology. Vol. 47. Issue 4. July 2011, pp. 719-729.

***The technical term for this internal sensation of position is proprioception. Your body has a huge number of different mechanisms for measuring muscle tension, joint position etc...

A couple of other papers for those who are that way inclined...

Clark, L.V. Effect of mental practice on the development of a certain motor skill. Research Quarterly. 31: pp 560-69, 1960. See http://psycnet.apa.org/psycinfo/1962-00248-001 for abstract.

Suinn, R.M. Imagery and sports. In Straub W.F. and Williams J.M. (Ed.). Cognitive Sport Psychology. 1984. Lansing, NY: Sport Science Associates.

Decety, J. & Jeannerod, M. L’imagerie mentale et son substrat neurologique. Revue Neurologique, 1995. 151, 474-479.

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