Monday, August 21, 2006

What A Wife

It appears that the blog is rapidly devolving into a shotgun site, so to speak, but I have to brag on my lovely wife, who is not only smokin' hot and unbelievably organized, but has also decided that she wants to learn to shoot Sporting Clays.

Marci is a good pistol shot considering the relatively poor quality of instruction (mine) and the few times she's been to the range. She says it's the steady hands of an old-school graphic designer, but I think there's also a certain amount of innate ability there. After listening to me rave about Sporting Clays, she's decided that this is what she wants to try for a husband-wife sport, and I'm pleased beyond words.

Sporting Clays is in many ways a lot like golf, in that if you begin and learn bad habits you'll spend a lot of time unlearning the things that "feel right" but are actually wrong, so this past weekend we headed off to Prairie Creek Sporting Clays in nearby Gladewater, a Sporting Clays course and the home of Steve Brown. Steve is a Level III NSCA-certified instructor, the highest level of certification in Sporting Clays. He's so dedicated to teaching that he, a right-handed and right-eye dominant man, shot left handed for a year to be able to understand what it's like to shoot cross-dominant (when your dominant eye and dominant hand are opposite) and to be a better instructor. There's not a lot of people that would intentionally handicap themselves that way once they've reached the apex of their sport, but he did it to be a better teacher, something I can respect.

Marci is left-hand and left-eye dominant, so that's not going to be her problem. To be honest, after talking with Steve for an hour Saturday morning, Marci is even more enthusiastic about our upcoming actual lesson with guns and everything this coming Friday. Steve has a lot of empirical experience, and has inferred a lot about neurophysiology and how your brain works while shooting. In wingshooting instruction there are two schools, for lack of better descriptors the "instinctual" school and the "computational" school. Strong adherents of each school find no validity in the other and there are sometimes heated debates about the "proper" method of instruction, but Steve's experience and discussions with investigators at MIT who delve into visual processing may be the Grand Unified Theory of Wingshooting.

What was fascinating in hearing him discuss the debate and the underlying visual-neural processes was that he was explaining both my own shooting experience and my experience in sports in general. Apparently, it depends on what part of your visual receptors you're paying more attention to, the fovea (sharp central vision) or the periphery (the rest). Steve says the image in the fovea, the narrow cone of central sharpest vision is processed virtually instantaneously, and that the information from that perception is available immediately to your subconscious motor control. When you're tracking an object with this sharp, central vision there is no conscious calculation involved in shooting it, my experience of this kind of shooting is that it "feels" mentally like you're reaching out with your hand to slap down the target rather than consciously firing the shotgun.

The other way that you can hit a target is with brute-force computation, and in my experience this is not as natural-feeling as the "reach out and slap" experience. The peripheral vision is not processed in real time, and can induce a delay of up to 2/10th of a second, meaning that you are typically behind on a flying target. When this happens, my "inner" Fire Control Director will observe a bird in flight and give me a big shrug of the conceptual shoulders as to the time and place to shoot. That is never a good feeling, and results in a "lost bird" (miss) often as not. It's like my left brain gives up on the computations and I'm on my own.

What's really interesting to me is that I have experienced precisely the same thing on the golf course. The best golf shots I hit are practically out-of-body experiences, I have to disconnect or distract the computational parts of my brain, and my inner subconscious golfer, who actually knows how to make the shot, is able to direct my motion to the desired outcome. When I stand over a golf ball and find myself thinking intensely about what I have to do with this particular shot, more often than not I don't achieve the desired result.

Something else that Steve mentioned also resonated well, that the subconscious does not respond directly to words or mathematical equations or higher-order descriptors of language. You can't speak directly to your subconscious, it understands metaphors and feelings better than words. In practice, you can tell yourself (as I do, often, on the golf course) to "slow down" or "follow through" without any apparent effect. But visualizing molases slowly pouring out of a jar on a cold morning will get the idea of "slow" across to your subconscious systems.

This is a problem for me in particular, Steve said, because I rely so much on the logical and computational parts of my psyche. If I didn't have ready access to them, I wouldn't have my current job and wouldn't have stuck through an extra four years of schooling and residency. My fallback defense for a challenging situation is to try to think harder, because that works for most everything else I do. In a sports or physical performance situation, that is probably the wrong thing to do, because conscious interference will actually degrade performance. He said that there is a place for thinking in Sporting Clays, but that place is before you begin shooting, not when the shotgun is on your shoulder and the bird is in the air. I have to believe that this concept will help me with golf, as well. "Swing thoughts" are to be considered before the swing, and should be more of the allegorical and metaphorical variety, rather than brute force commands with physiologic monitoring in near-real time. Basically, think before you act, then act without thinking.

It was a fascinating conversation, you generally don't expect to hear about neurophysiology and visual processing when you go to talk to a fella from East Texas about shooting a shotgun. Marci and I are both looking forward to Friday and bustin' some birds.

As far as the shotgun selection goes, Steve said that left-handed folks shoot right-eject semi-auto shotguns without difficulty all the time, and that about 60% of his female clients shot semiautos, with the other 40% shooting over-unders. When talking about the relative merits of both, he got as far as "The over-under is much easier to clean, if that's important to you," before Marci and I shared a knowing look. Neat freak wife = over-under shotgun. He also told the story of his own wife, who started with a custom 28-gauge and came in third in her first tournament. Someone told her, "You shot really well, if you used a 20-gauge you probably would have done better." So she got a 20-gauge, practiced, and came in second at the next tournament, at which some helpful soul said, "You probably would have won if you had used a 12-gauge." Needless to say, in Steve's personal and expensive experience, he felt Marci should use a 12-gauge with reduced-recoil loads to begin with. He has a beater Beretta AL391 with a ladies-length stock for her, and I imagine she'll start with a semi-auto on Friday. I also imagine there is a Beretta Silver-something over-under in her future.

I don't know why, but there's just something inherently cool about a beautiful, intelligent woman who can blast things with a shotgun, and asks you to take her to the range. Pics and a report this weekend!

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