When learning a new process, we go through 4 different phases of learning. We start as unconscious incompetence, in that we don’t know what we don’t know. The transition then flows into conscious incompetence meaning that we know that we don’t know. As we progress and become more experienced and our abilities improve in sport we can transition into a phase called conscious competence, or we know that we know. The final phase we can step into is called unconscious competence which is where we are so competent in what we are doing, we don’t need to consciously think about it. Realistically, most of us will float between conscious incompetence and conscious competence, for the more elite, you’ll mostly float between conscious competence and unconscious competence.
Now if we have a very concise and basic overview of how the brain learns! Imagine you are walking through a field, where the grass is waste high. The first time you have to walk through the field it can be difficult to find the right way to go, you take a different direction as there are obstacles to overcome. Eventually, after a long while, you get to the other side. This is when you first start to undertake learning something, its difficult, you have to consciously think about what you are doing, knowing that its hard work and it will take time and effort.
The next time you come to walk the same field, the grass is still very high but there is the slight path visible from the first time you walked through this field. Taking that path, its still a hard path to take but its slightly easier than the last time you walked through this field.
Lets now imagine this path, having walked it a thousand times. What does it look like? It should be well engrained, there shouldn’t be many obstacles in the way and it should take no time at all to walk through it. This is where we can start to move into the conscious competence and the unconscious competence stages of learning.
Your brain is very similar to walking this path, the more times you perform the same action over and over again, the more engrained the neural pathways in your brain become, making the task of performing processes (ie shooting) much easier, faster and more accurate.
Sounds simple! Well yes it is, that is until you veer off the path. In these cases you end up walking through the long grass that does not have the path engrained in it. Alas its likely that things will go wrong and you won’t know why (unconscious incompetence). This happens when you don’t undertake your processes perfectly every time (effectively giving your brain mixed signals!), that being said, the more you engrain your perfect pathway, the easier it can be to identify when things are going wrong (and also where!)
Now, visualisation is an important training task to undertake because it helps to reinforce these neural pathways without having to actually shoot. Research has shown that the closer you are to the shooting environment you are the more effective. For example, visualising the shot with your eyes open is more effective than with your eyes closed, standing/lying/kneeling is more effective than merely sitting in in a chair.
When undertaking visualisation exercises, you shouldn’t just be visualising what the view down the sights is, you need to also consider how the position feels, but as mentioned above, you must undertake visualisation “perfectly” and how you undertake your shot processes, which is why its usually not a good idea to use other peoples “tools” for this job but rather create your own.
Creating your own tool is a relatively easy task and involves creating a detailed shot process flowchart (it can just be a list) that includes key points but most importantly should include how things feel (and when you “check the feel”). We will cover creating your own shot process in another article (its easy to give it a go). A good aid for this is creating a video of yourself shooting (a match/at least 20 shots) and watch it, writing down your process from there but also key points at thinking how things feel, or questioning yourself with “what am I thinking there”. Going one step further you can record yourself reading off your shot process with all the pointers and listen to that recording on repeat whilst you are visualising the shot itself. This is helpful if you struggle with visualisation. If you require visual aids, its recommended to just use a simple image of sights and target alignment that is as close to your own set up as possible. I have personally used visualisation in the shower before a match where I have talked myself through my individual shot processes.
Finally visualisation is great for in matches when anxiety has risen. Taking a few moments to talk yourself through the perfect shot before undertaking the next one (time constraints considered!) can greatly improve performance and get you back on track.
In conclusion, visualisation is a great thing to practice in any and every scenario, whether to improve training volume, processes or to get back on track during matches (or training, as there isn’t any difference!) just ensure that you are perfectly visualising your own process to make sure you are walking down your engrained path.