From the pistol side of the Range with Sanders
The Mental Side of Shooting
I have personally struggled with this many times over my competitive shooting years. Even though I started at a much older age, there were many parts of the mental game that I had to relearn and implement. There are several mental roadblocks that cause performance limitations in practice and in matches. Three of these mental roadblocks that seem minor in nature are some of the same issues most competitive shooters face at one time or another.
One. Expectation of outcomes is pressure put on the shooter to attain a result. And that outcome, an expectation where practice results have shown may not be realistic. But most believe they are better than we may be. Being focused on the result of the match or event as opposed to being focused on the execution of the process from training is a significant distraction.
Two. Focusing on negativity or dwelling on what has gone wrong is also quite common. Many shooters walk around between stages or between days on the range obsessing over what went wrong. This hyper focus on negative performance does nothing to increase the performance on the next stage. But each person must release that negativity in their own process. I personally must verbally voice my disgust with my performance. While I am not yelling a loud at others, I am shouting many bad words to myself.
And thirdly many shooters do not adequately prepare. It is exceedingly difficult to be at your best when your gear is not ready or have a poor understanding of what is expected on the stage. Have a solid plan and being ready has a mentally calming effect that helps when it is time to shoot. In a class I took with Bob Vogel, IDPA-IPSC World Champion, he stated that prior to shooting a stage he visualized executing the stage plan in his mind 40 times as to make it a subconscious executed plan when the buzzer went off.
There are many points noted by many experts on the mental part of the game. I have several strategies that I use before a competition whether it be local weekend matches around central Texas or bigger State matches around the country. Here are a few to consider:
One. Improve mental fitness and preparation for competition. What this means to me is using local matches as teaching moments. Can I stay focus thru 6 stages in local matches knowing I have 12 or more stages to be focused on at major matches? What actions thru a match causes me to lose focus? And did I put the work in with dry fire practice and live fire practice?
Two. Learn to take responsibility for your self-confidence. This comes from knowing that I have done the two a day 20-minute dry fire practices in my garage or backyard. I have done the live fire practice at the range on targets more difficult to score on then might be at a major match. To me self-confidence comes from putting in the work.
Three. Enhance your shooting performance with pre-shot routines. Everyone should have a standard routine you go thru before a match. I like to do about 15 minutes of dry fire at home mainly focused on the draw and mag changes before leaving for the range. Then at the safe table at the range, I like to practice the draw and sight picture for a few minutes. Then use my strong hand and weak hand thru a draw with several trigger pulls making sure I get a good sight picture and a straight back trigger pull. At the stage starting position, I like to feel where my first mag is with my weak hand and getting the feel of moving my strong hand from my side to the gun repeatedly. All at the same time walking my mind thru the stage one more time.
Four. Trust your skill and take your practice to competition. With COVID-19 this year and the limit on primers, I have reduced my live fire practice. I can tell you my mental mindset before the first stage of a match is not as positive now as it has been in the past. Putting in the practice and knowing you have scored well on harder place targets then the ones you are about to shoot exudes huge mental confidence in the start of a match.
The Civilian Marksmanship Program has an excellent facility in Alabama that I have visited many times over the years. Not only is the facility first class but many of the instructors are of the same caliber. I have taken some of their top points on mental performance and integrated it with some of my real time learnings for your consideration.
MOTIVATION. The interest and excitement you have for shooting is the first stage of motivation. I can remember when I first started shooting that I wanted to get to the range at least three times during the week and shoot local matches on each Saturday and Sunday. Years later, one can lose motivation for continued improvement since the improvements now come in smaller increments. One must remember small improvements over time can add up!
FOCUS-ATTENTION. Concentration skills are a mandatory mental building block of shooting success. Shooters must learn to concentrate, but concentration is not possible without something specific on which to focus attention. New pistol shooters are instructed to focus attention on sight alignment. As one advances the focus becomes spread over the other parts of the game like movement thru a stage, stage planning and no flat footed reloads.
SHOOTERS’ JOURNAL. Keeping a Shooters’ Journal or Diary is a key part of mental training. The journal is a daily record of the shooter’s practice and competition efforts. I have found its best that I also keep my round counts at each day’s practice or at matches in that same journal. These notes taken after a match allows me to review issues I need to address more in practice and allows me to also review current YTD round count to determine if different spring changes are required to ensure proper performance of the pistol.
SELF-DISCIPLINE. New shooters quickly learn that they cannot consistently handle guns safely unless they discipline themselves to always pay attention to gun handling rules. New shooters must also learn that they cannot master correct shot technique unless they discipline themselves to focus on sight alignment/target/sight picture while firing their shots. Doing the Bill Drill (six consecutive shots as fast as you see an acceptable sight picture) allows one to track the front sight thru multiple shots to ensure you really are focused on seeing the front sight even thru the recoil and return. One can address gun handling safety by being a student of dry fire practice. The more you dry-fire the better you become in the manipulation of your firearm. The reason dry fire practices are kept at 20 minutes is to ensure your mental focus and self-discipline is at its highest level while you train.
RESPONSIBILITY. Sports champions are remarkable in their common refusal to blame anyone or anything else for their poor performances. They have learned to accept full responsibility for their results because they recognize that every cause of a bad performance is an opportunity for them to learn something new or to fix a weakness in skill or technique. This is where I believe a journal will help you review your critique of the match while it was still fresh in your mind.
EMOTIONAL CONTROL. The first steps in learning emotional control usually come when things are going badly. After a bad shot or a bad score, a shooter’s first impulse may be to act out, to make verbal expression, to jerk open the gun action or to throw something. As mentioned above, this is a huge issue with me. I find it better that I verbally voice my disgust in what just happened. While I am yelling at myself, it does seem to get that bad juju out of my system faster. I have tried being silent and acting as nothing had happened, but the horror of that previous stage continues to repeat itself in my mind even as I am stepping up to the next stage’s starting position.
POSITIVE SELF-TALK. Champions are positive people. Negative people fail in sports. The shooter can from the very start be encouraged to think of themselves in positive terms. Positive thoughts also come from knowing you have put the dry fire and live fire practice in. You have done the work!
SHOT-PLAN. A shot-plan is a step-by-step delineation of what a shooter does to prepare for and fire a shot. Again, Bob Vogel stated he went thru a stage plan 40 times in his mind as to make it a subconscious routine when the buzzer went off.
Hopefully, this information might help you in your mental part of the game in sport shooting or just in the mindset of shooting. I know many of the above topics has helped me become a better shooter over time. I remember a quote by an Olympic gold medalist Lanny Bassham who said: “It doesn’t matter if you win or if you lose—until you lose.” But, if we take the reasons for the lost and incorporate them into future practices and mental preparedness, we will be winners again. And isn’t that, what we all are striving for anyway - To Be A Better Shooter.
To my Friends,