The Mental Game of Competition Shooting
There are various mental or psychological considerations when approaching the sport of practical precision competitive target shooting. It is my goal to provide you with some initial thoughts on the topic. This is by no means an exhaustive meta-analysis of the mental preparation aspect of competitive shooting. Rather, it is an introductory offering about what I believe is one of the most overlooked dimensions in shooters’ preparation and competition repertoire.
A positive mindset is a foundational requirement for success in physical and mental efforts requiring skill and challenge. According to Dr. Sue Jackson (2012) there is a psychological model that helps us to understand how finding the right mix of challenges and skills in a situation can bring about an optimal psychological state for performance. This is the flow model.
What is flow?
Csikszentmihalyi (1975, 1990) developed the flow concept after investigating the experiences of individuals during times when they were totally involved in what they were doing and when everything came together during performance of their chosen activity. Csikszentmihalyi operationally defined flow as being a psychological state that can occur when challenges and skills in a situation are both high. More precisely, flow is predicted to occur when an individual is being extended by virtue of performing in a challenging situation, and has a skill level that matches the challenge being faced. Flow occurs when the individual moves beyond his or her average experience of challenge and skill in a situation. Sport and the performing arts are environments conducive to the experience of flow, both involving a clearly defined structuring of performance around a graduated series of skills and challenges.
In the flow model, other experiences are predicted to result from different mixes of challenges and skills. It is important to remember that flow is more dependent on the perception of challenge in a situation, and the perception of skill one has, than on the objective level of challenge and skill in any given situation. Anxiety, for example, is predicted to occur when perceived challenges are high, but perception of skills low. Boredom on the other hand is predicted to occur when skills are perceived to be high, but the challenges in a situation are perceived to be low.
I’ve been reading, experimenting, researching, and analyzing the psychological aspects (mental game) of competitive shooting in excess of twenty-five years. In my opinion, success in competitive shooting can be divided along these lines:
• Mental preparation and follow through = 90-95%, and • Equipment, reloading, and fundamentals of marksmanship = 5-10%
In other words, where the head goes, the body will follow. This perspective is supported by the wealth of scholarly (e.g., Losel, 1999) and layman articles that are easily accessed via the Internet.
Recently, Rich Emmons approached and asked me to share my thoughts on the mental aspects of competitive shooting. With that brief exchange, the genesis for this discussion emerged.
At the range and during competitions, there is much discussion about the latest whiz-bang tool/device, reloading data, and snazzy camouflage fashions. It’s very rare that you’ll overhear conversations about how to think while shooting in practice or at a competition. The importance of how and what to think is key to formulating a consistent winning strategy. This belief is supported by my consistent performance as well as the work of Lanny Basham. If you wish to learn more about this topic, I would encourage you to read With Winning In Mind: The Mental Management System: An Olympic Champion’s Success Story (Basham, 1995).
The psychological aspects of the “mental game” are understandably very personal. It should be understood that there are general principles to be considered when approaching such preparation, and individuals are expected to tailor them to suit their personal needs, goals and development. As such, this brief article is not gospel and should not be misinterpreted as the only way to mentally prepare for competitive practical precision shooting. Top competitive shooters have a winning mindset, follow the basic fundamentals of good marksmanship habits (e.g., Proper breathing control, trigger pull, natural point of aim, follow through, etc.) during practices and matches, and maintain behavioral and psychological balance during matches. A winning mindset stems from deliberate psychological preparations done prior to, during, and following practice and matches.
World class athletes, across competitive disciplines, use visualization to promote optimal performance. In a recent New York Times article, Christopher Clarey, (2014) discussed the visualization preparations of Olympic athletes. Although practical precision competitive shooting is not slated for Olympic inclusion anytime soon, we can transfer the knowledge to our sport and use it to help us realize our full potential as shooters. Here are some things upon which you should reflect:Tell yourself positive affirmations before, during, and off the line. Remember it’s not necessarily what you say, but rather what you cause yourself and others to imagine.
Never discuss your misses unless it’s to learn from those mistakes, and the person with which you converse is willing to help you resolve the symptoms (e.g., Proper form, follow through, etc.) leading to poor performance. Dwelling on poor outcomes doesn’t promote future success. It is a losing strategy to focus on your misses. Your negative thoughts reinforce, at the subconscious level, errors while simultaneously solidifying habits that undermine your shooting success. If left unchecked, you are merely reinforcing failure. In other words, every time you talk about, read about, or think about your misses you increase the probability of repeating failure. What’s done is done. Leave misses in the past and focus on the shot you are about to take. It is the only one that matters.
Read the stage brief, and be present by listening intently to what the range officer says. Ask questions in order to clarify points that seem vague. This will help to ensure that you understand what is expected of you during a stage.
Use visual mental imagery to complete the stage in your “minds eye”. I will “shoot” a stage 20-40 times in my mind before it is my turn on the line. This will promote success or “correct action” from your subconscious through your physical manipulations of body and weapon. Multiple repetitions will have the added benefit of promoting a calm mind while performing under time constraints and ancillary stress that comes from competitive environments.
Stay within yourself during a match. Some may refer to this as their “comfort zone”. In other words, don’t focus on what others do, focus on your performance. If you haven’t tried a position in practice, don’t try it in a match. Experiment (e.g., Form, position, etc.) during practice. After you are successful in practice, use it in a match.
Only review your score for accuracy after you complete a stage as well as at the end of a day’s shooting. Speak with the range officer or match director to resolve discrepancies, and maintain your professionalism at all times. Focusing on your score during a match is a distraction which prevents you from focusing on a stage. Outcome is resolved after your final shot. Performance is fluid and ongoing, and is the variable over which you have the most immediate influence and control.
Lastly, maintain a positive attitude, smile, and have fun.
In closing, I would like to leave you with a quote from Lanny Basham that underscores the importance of being present, “Wherever you are, be there”. Whether you are on a competitive line during a match or driving to and from the range be present and enjoy the moment. Thank you for taking the time to consider my suggestions for improving your mental game. I encourage an ongoing dialogue with you and hope you will take a moment to share your thoughts with me. Together we can continue to grow the sport, raise the bar, and grow as shooters. Best wishes to you in the reloading room, on the practice line, and at your competitions.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Francis Kuehl has been shooting and reloading for thirty-five years. Competitive shooter for the last twenty-eight years. Francis attributes much of his shooting success to reliable equipment, solid fundamentals, and sound mental preparation. Some of his more notable competitive shooting accomplishments over the last few years include:
2014 - Precision Rifle Series Challenge – 4st Place overall
2014 - Surefire PRS – 2nd Place
2014 - GAP/Bushnell Grind ProAm – 1st Place Team
2014 - NorCal Tactical Bolt Rifle Challenge – 1st Place
2014 - K&M Precision Rifle Challenge – 2nd Place
2014 - Silencerco Quiet Riot – 3rd Place
2013 - Precision Rifle Series Challenge – 2nd Place overall
2013 - K&M Precision Rifle Challenge – 3rd Place