By Phil Coley
Thursday, 18 October 2012
A disconcerting affliction for many shooters
Trigger freeze” is an affliction that is becoming increasingly common, yet I’m always surprised by quite how many shooters say they are affected by the problem, which is also known as “flinching”. For some, it is a rare occurrence, while for others it can increase over time. In extreme cases, trigger freeze can become constant, causing the sufferer to give up shooting altogether.
In the majority of cases, flinching is the inability to pull the trigger at the time you want to — meaning that, while you swing through the bird, you keep up and try to pull the trigger, but are unable to. The problem is comparable to what is known in other quarters as “golfing yips”. Some claim that it is caused by shooting with heavy loads over long or sustained periods of time, while others believe the flinch is due to a mental block. What is certain is that both clayshooters and gameshooters can suffer from the problem. I am in the process of conducting some of my own research to understand the phenomenon.
“Yips”, or “the yips”, is the apparent loss of fine motor skills without any obvious explanation, and it can occur in competitors in numerous sports. The technical term is focal dystonia. Athletes affected by the yips demonstrate a sudden and unexplained loss of previous skills, and while some are able to recover their ability, others need to compensate by changing technique, while the unlucky few are forced to abandon their sport completely — something that has been known to happen even at the highest level.
The cause of dystonia is not precisely understood, hence the need to research it in greater detail. The misfiring of neurons in the sensorimotor cortex — a thin layer of neural tissue covering the brain — is thought to cause contractions. This misfiring may be the result of impaired inhibitory mechanisms during muscle contraction. Normally, when the brain tells a given muscle to contract, it simultaneously halts the muscles that would oppose the intended movement; in dystonia, it appears that the ability of the brain to inhibit the surrounding muscles is impaired, leading to loss of selectivity.
Furthermore, the sensorimotor cortex is organised as discrete “maps” of the human body. Under normal conditions, each body part (in the case of shooting, the parts in question are the fingers) occupies a distinct area on these cortical maps. In dystonia, these maps lose their distinct borders and an overlap occurs. Some research on the subject describes how over-training a particular finger movement in a non-human primate resulted in the development of focal hand dystonia.
Levels of flinching
I asked leading shooting instructor Peter Harris for his views on flinching. He said: “In clayshooting, flinching seems to be more of a problem for trap and skeet shooters, and there are fewer sufferers in fitasc or sporting.
Sufferers of trigger freeze fall into three categories: those with an occasional fl inch — normally youngsters, beginners and casual shooters who leave the sport early; those who develop an early flinch and actually trigger the shot prematurely; and the worst affected, who suffer from a full-blown flinch, which can also be called ‘staggers’.
“Many sufferers are in denial because of fear of ridicule from their peers. I believe it is caused by a fear of noise, recoil and failure to hit the target. It occurs less frequently in sporting shooters, partly because of the movement involved — they start with their guns down, whereas trap shooters start with amounted gun.”
In principle, I agree with Peter’s assessment, though I have witnessed flinching among both those who have shot for a short time and experienced Shots. Dystonia seems to prevail among those who pull the trigger more frequently.
With gameshooting, doubletriggers are a factor — it could be said that a double-trigger helps those with a flinch, as the hand movement and greater extension of the finger may well prevent trigger freeze.
One of the keys to dealing with a flinch is to recognise what brings it on. There is always — if you will excuse the pun — a trigger. If we can discover what this is, we can find out how to interrupt it. For example, if the flinch starts at the end of the season, it can be remedied with rest and recuperation; if the trigger is a fear of recoil, then dampers, light cartridges or even a different cartridge brand may help; if the cause is a fear of noise, then foam plugs and ear defenders can be used. Under the supervision of a coach, training with snap caps and live cartridges can be helpful. Substituting snap caps for live cartridges at random can break the cycle of fear, calming the shooter and allowing the fear of noise or recoil to dissipate. Of course, it is vital to work with a good coach, building up trust, and to use visualisation techniques for triggering the shot.
I will be conducting a research study over a 12- to 18-month period with four distinct groups of Shots to try to determine a pattern: clayshooters who suffer from fl inching; clayshooters who do not suffer from it; gameshooters who suffer from flinching; and gameshooters who do not suffer from it.
My research will be scientific in its approach — while testing the focus group, I will monitor heart rates as well as alpha and beta waves in the brain. This will enable me to determine whether the brain changes the messages heading to the sensorimotor areas of the body.
In the US, release triggers are used to cure flinching, while other ways to help the problem include working with a sports psychology expert, changing shoulders and using hypnotherapy. However, it is important to remember that, in many cases, these can only have a partial cure, and there are no preventative measures that are known.
If you suffer from trigger freeze, please get in touch to take part in my confidential research, and play your part in helping to find a solution to this problem.
Phil Coley’s research is being supported by Eley, Browning UK and Musto. To enquire about taking part, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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