In preparation for an upcoming once-in-a-lifetime, dream-come-true trip to Scotland in a few days that will include some wild bird hunting, I went to the local skeet range yesterday to remind myself how to shoot a shotgun. It has been years, and I could barely remember which barrel went with which trigger, how to mount the gun, aim, swing.

Most people don’t know that the group of BB’s shot towards the birds (as the clay pigeons are called) travel in a cigar shape or a chubby string, rather than a cloud shaped like a ball. If you follow through on your swing, rather than stopping once you pull the trigger, the string of shot is whipped around in front and behind the traveling disk, and you have a much much better chance of breaking the target. It’s just like cracking a whip. I was amazed that I could still do it. You fire two or four shells from each of eight stations arranged in a semi-circle. As a fellow shooter explained, “It’s like riding a bicycle. You never forget, and it comes back to you.”

I was very proud that out of the 25 birds in a round, I “killed” 18 the first time and 21 the second time. I think the best round I have ever had broke 23 out of the 25. Some experts there easily hit all 25. I was especially pleased, because I make it much harder for myself by beginning with the gun near my stomach. Then, after I say “Pull!,” and the bird is launched automatically, I first have to raise the gun to my shoulder and the stock to my cheek. Next I aim and swing the gun in a smooth motion that follows the bird, passes it and pulls the trigger at the right time, and then KEEPS SWINGING…

Most skeet shooters don’t yell “Pull” until the gun is already mounted, so they save some valuable time. This is an easier way to break targets on a skeet range, but doesn’t give a hunter any practice for what it’s like in the field, when you are walking along and suddenly see a bird that takes off rapidly, away from you. You can’t walk for hours with the gun mounted.

After shooting, I agreed to play tennis today with my friend who almost always beats me. And that is exactly what happened yet again for the first two sets, which I lost 1-6 and 2-6. I wasn’t disgusted, but I was definitely puzzled. After all, just 18 hours earlier I was able to focus on a speeding clay pigeon, keep swinging and hit bird after bird. Shouldn’t I be able to hit a slower-moving tennis ball the same way? By watching it and following through after impact? Especially when it is generally coming right at me, as opposed to the more difficult left-to-right or right-to-left motion on the skeet range?

What the hell! I decided the only thing I was going to focus on was watching the tennis ball, a task that some people have said I must have a psychological impairment about…because I haven’t been able to do it with any regularity. So forget about standing, turning, watching my opponent, putting spin or speed on the ball. Or lobbing it. I would concentrate on nothing else except WATCH THE BALL…or SEE THE SEAMS…or as one champion squash player advised in a movie about his life: KEEP EYE ON BALL.

Well I did it and won 6-2, and then the next set as well: 6-1. This was extraordinary. I may have won just two or three sets against this friend in two years. Now I was frequently hitting the sweet spot, the ball wasn’t going out long, and obviously my serving was stronger. You can’t imagine what a confidence booster this was. And to win point after point. I have been dismayed for years that I couldn’t even watch the ball when I was serving…just too impatient to see where it is going and landing. How can anyone explain this inability to focus It is insane!

But for at least a few minutes, I was able to watch the ball, see the seams, even notice the black type saying “Dunlop.” Killing skeet birds had helped me “kill” tennis balls. Not necessarily with power, but definitely with accuracy and enough speed to decrease my unforced errors and enjoy one of the best days of my short tennis life. I confess I was more determined to do well, to not feel sorry for my buddy, to say out loud to myself that I was going to win. And it worked.

Now there will be a couple of weeks off the courts, and we will see if my game deteriorates, so that I have to retrace this most satisfying athletic achievement. (I write this on Sept. 23rd: Ha Ha! I didn’t have to wait two weeks to find out. My friend wanted to play again today, and he beat me as usual, 6-2, 6-2. I couldn’t watch the ball, I made lots of unforced errors, and he broke my serve 7 out of 8 times. So much for my new strategy. I can’t go overseas feeling so good about my game, can I? Was it just a fluke? We’ll see.)