Movement to the Target: Smooth, Smooth, Smooth!

Movement to the Target: Smooth, Smooth, Smooth!

Movement to the Target: Smooth, Smooth, Smooth!

The importance of movement control and the efficient performance of skill based actions during the shooting technique and how they relate to the initial movement of the athlete and gun in the Clay Target disciplines.

Movement to the target

“Smooth, Smooth, Smooth!” was a coaching phrase I learned from a well respected and successful shotgun coach. He would say this phrase to his students to illustrate how they should control the movement of their gun to the target. His use of English was always brief and economical as it was not his native language but I always believed that this gave his statements a clarity and simplicity of observation that went to the core of the complexity of the task that the athlete was performing. We should remind ourselves that what we are striving to achieve in our athletes shooting technique is a simplicity of motion and a simplicity of action. The oft used phrase “Keep it Simple!” underlies a key feature of how we as coaches work with athletes in transferring knowledge and understanding but also in how they approach the application of their skill to their technique and ultimately to their performance during a competition.

Clay target shooting requires the athlete to perform a series of synchronised actions and movements with the express purpose of bringing the barrel of the gun to bear on the clay target in flight at an optimal point for triggering the shot. If we had all the time in the world to perform the movements we would do so in slow and progressive movement but we are time-bound in our activity by the target in flight and we must make this movement over a very short period of time of between 500 milliseconds and 1 second.

Coaches strive to guide their athletes to achieve a consistent and technically efficient performance of a shooting technique that is in harmony with both the physical and mental abilities of the athlete. To bring this harmony to the technique it is useful to try and comprehend how the athlete can physically control and adjust their movement as they perform their technique, this is the concept of movement theory.

The movements we make when we perform our shooting technique are an acquired motor skill. This skill has to be learned. To begin with, there is nothing intuitive or natural in the movement. Just remember the first time you tried to shoot a clay target with a shotgun. Remember how holding the gun felt so awkward, how your balance was probably on your back foot, your spine arched backwards and your head tilted over onto one side. The sudden movement you made with your arms to try and line up the gun to the target and that sense of urgency that time was against you and that you need to fire the shot quickly. If we can accept the importance of instilling a good shooting technique when coaching beginners then we should also accept that the same learning concepts we use with beginners are still valid when coaching elite athletes where we are constantly looking to fine tune the technique. By keeping the structure the same but refining the components of the technique with the correct level of emphasis on the contribution each component makes to the technique we can progressively improve the overall performance of the technique.

The initial movement

To control movement we must understand its principles and to illustrate this we will look at the initial movement phase of the technique, the movement that is triggered by the first comprehension of the target in flight. The initial movement made by the athlete will have the greatest impact on the ultimate success of the shot. Errors introduced at this stage will compound and increase the likelihood of a missed shot. This is why I believe this component of the technique is so important and essential to the outcome of the shot.

How does a brief glimpse of a clay target leaving the trap house give enough information to an athlete to determine the movement they will make to take the shot? Well, we can apply a conceptual model of human performance that shows how information is processed in three stages – stimulus identification, response selection, and response timing – to translate the information we receive into a chosen movement response. These three components make up the executive phase of the conceptual model of movement. Once the executive phase has determined a chosen programme of movement it is passed to the effector phase, which through the central nervous system and the musculature, results in the movement being performed. Feedback is received from both the output of the movement and of the body position itself, proprioceptive feedback. This feedback is compared with the desired objective of the movement to determine if the movement was as desired or if an error has resulted. If an error in the movement has resulted then to correct the movement the process must start again taking the feedback received as the new input to the loop. This conceptual model of movement is called a closed-loop control system and closely matches the movement model of clay target.

We are going to focus on the executive phase of the model and examine the three steps that result in a specific movement being performed and the basis on which that movement is chosen.

Stimulus Identification

We use our sensory system to collect and interpret the information and the most important sensory system in target shooting is our vision. Vision allows us to make sense of our environment and to distinguish the objects of interest to us. It provides a basis for the anticipation of future events and also gives us information about the direction of movement of the target. I have heard the saying “we shoot with our eyes” and it is quite an apt phrase for us to use.

Response Selection

Once we have processed the visual information we know the direction of flight, the speed of the target, its contrast against the background. Now we must select either an automatic or controlled processing response.

A controlled response is what we do as beginners. It requires a lot of conscious effort to determine the reaction to the target and can lead to mental and physical overload in determining which of several steps in the movement is to be performed. By comparison we have a very different kind of processing that we see in well-practiced and skilled athletes. Automatic processing does not require attention to the activity being performed, it is involuntary and it happens fast. Automatic processing is the result of many hours of methodical practice. Automatic performance occurs when information is processed in parallel, quickly and without competition for the attention of the athlete. As we become expert in our sport we learn not one but many different automatic processes that allow us to adapt to different environments and to different presentations of the target in flight.

The problem with automatic processing is that should the clay target deviate in flight suddenly from the anticipated course that the athlete expects it to take and then this feedback is not handled by the response that the athlete has selected. It can take several hundred milliseconds to react to the feedback and in trap shooting for example we are dealing with a performance time of just over 500 milliseconds. We see this in clay target shooting as the athlete continuing their movement along the original track of the target and firing their shot at the point they would have expected the target to be at the optimal position for triggering.

Clearly our ability to rely on automatic performances is determined by the environment in which we compete and underlies the importance in the correct setting of targets and of suitable backgrounds and foregrounds to maximise the correct selection of the performance response.

Response Timing

Response timing is the interval of time between a sudden stimulus and the beginning of a response to it. From the initial visual detection of the target in flight we can estimate a response time of 120 – 180 milliseconds before any response is selected and the instructions to move are issued. This is a voluntary reaction and should be distinguished from triggered reactions that have a latency of 80-120 milliseconds such as when a glass begins to slip in your hand and you react to the glass falling.

When we have to make a correction during the movement for a target deviation or for an initial mistake in reading the direction of flight of the target, we are faced with having to rerun the steps we have identified above to re-determine a suitable response to the sensory input we are receiving.

(Henry – Rogers, 1960) showed that the more complex our movement is in response to the stimulus the greater our reaction time. Thus more steps we add into the movement phase of our technique the longer it will take for that movement to commence. This concept I believe is key argument for simplifying the movement activities in clay target shooting. More steps in the technique also create more opportunities for errors to enter into the process.

How can we change the initial movement?

We have three components that we can alter which will directly affect the initial movement – the movement speed and the movement distance and the movement accuracy. These components we can superimpose upon our technique as follows:

Movement Speed

When we speak about movement speed we are also talking about movement time. If we increase the speed of movement, we shorten the time taken to perform the movement. For the clay target coach the issue is preserving the quality of the movement as we speed up the time.

We often refer to the acceleration component of moving the gun as “Gun Speed”. If we see the gun as a physical extension of our body and hence integral to the movement we make, we can control the application of force through the body to control the inertia of the gun. The initial input of force to overcome the inertia of the stationary gun to start its movement is significant in terms of overall movement to the target. If we sustained the initial acceleration throughout the movement we would lose control almost immediately. The initial acceleration of the movement is thus high but quickly reduces once the speed of movement is sufficient to overtake the target within the timeframe of the technique.

Each step in our technique has a timing of the action being performed that is directly related to the proceeding and subsequent following action. For instance, the individual movements we combine together in our skeet technique, the lift of the gun to the shoulder, the rotation of the body towards the target, the maintenance of constant lead etc. There is a timing associated with each movement component, if we speed up the overall movement the individual movement components invariably speed up relative to each other (Armstrong 1970).

Movement distance

The distance we must make the movement with our gun to bring the gun to the target defines the movement distance. This distance must also take into account our perception of spatial awareness. The longer the distance over which we make the movement the greater the opportunity to accept feedback and then to affect a change in the movement but with increased distance also comes an increase in the possibility for movement error.

Movement accuracy

One of the most important concepts we can take away from the study of human movement is the relationship between speed and accuracy of movement. It is obvious if we speed up our movements too much then we perform our technique with less efficiency and with a loss of accuracy in the movement. Fitts’ law illustrates the point that if we require a performance that uses fast and accurate movements then there must be a trade-off between speed and accuracy.

We need movement accuracy in our shooting technique to ensure that the shot pattern falls across the target at a point of maximum efficiency. There is a narrow band of accuracy for the shot pattern to intercept the target and consistency of shot placement on the target is the goal we wish to achieve.

All of this leads us back to the open line of this article. By applying smoothness to the first of the three movement components; movement speed – we can directly influence the remaining two components, movement distance and the movement accuracy. By minimising the distance travelled in the movement distance component we give ourselves the opportunity to maximise the movement accuracy component vs. movement speed trade off that Fitts’ law states we will encounter. We can use our visual observation and evaluation of the smoothness of the technique as a direct measurement of the performance of the three components of the movement.

I believe that a quote from Leonardo Da Vinci sums up our situation when it comes to teaching the movement phase of the shooting technique – “the ultimate sophistication is simplicity.” If we can keep our technique simple and focus on controlling the efficiency and accuracy of the movement then I believe we will go along way to empowering our athletes in producing more consistent competitive performances.


Henry-Rogers (1960) – Increased Response Latency Prior to More “Complex” Movements.

T.R. Armstrong (1970) – Training for the production of memorised movement patterns.

Paul M. Fitts (1954) – The information capacity of the human motor system in controlling the amplitude of movement.

Schmidt, R., & Wrisberg, C., (2004). Motor learning and performance. A problem-based learning approach. (3rd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.