Recently a shooter asked for my top five psychological factors or hurdles to a shooter’s performance on the range, and a small insight into how you can train to overcome these. I came up with 11, an odd number but each is an important consideration.
As questions go, this is a lot more complex than it seems. New shooters are going to have a different set of factors and hurdles to that of the experienced shooter.
The veteran shooter who isn’t shooting up to their previous standard because of age, physical ability, changes in their ability to maintain attention or health problems will also have a different set of factors from the others.
So too will the shooter who is returning after a break or coming back from an illness or accident. Given the COVID-19 enforced ‘off season’ we have all had to endure, this question seems timely as a reminder of the important things we need to consider.
- Gun fit
When a gun, which is usually a substantial investment, is purchased, we should spend some time and money making sure it fits properly. The length of pull, cast on or off, trigger weights, comb and rib heights are all important aspects that impact on the score, recoil and enjoyment of the sport. Some shooters buy a gun and then adapt their bodies to fit the gun. This will lead to poor performance, flinching, uncomfortable shooting and loss of enjoyment in the sport. A reputable stock maker, for example, Joe Camilleri in Sydney, Kevin Wright in Ballarat or Daryl Stevens in Queensland, will be able to work out what fits and what doesn’t. They can also fit adjustable combs and good quality recoil pads that will make the gun fit and feel better because felt recoil will be reduced. When you think it is right, go to the pattern plate and see for certain.
Regardless of your ability and experience (or inexperience), having a map of where you want to get to with your shooting is important. Set goals and make sure they are specific to you and your sport. Make sure they are measurable, achievable and realistic. Finally, there should be a time frame so you can evaluate your performance and the appropriateness of the goals. Coupled with goal setting are two other important aspects: making a plan to achieve these goals and committing to the plan. Your goals and your plan should be the program towards achieving a jump from ‘C’ grade to ‘B’ grade and so on.
- Perfect practice makes perfect
If you are going to practise make sure it is perfect practice. Do not practise mistakes or poor skills. Make sure you also know the difference between practice and training. Training is about learning a new skill or technique and practice is generalising that skill or technique into your shooting. Coupled with your SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and timed) you should have a plan that looks at physical skills (strength, stamina, fitness), technical skills (gun mount, stance, follow through, pre-shot routine) and mental skills (goal setting, concentration, relaxation, visualisation).
- Keep a journal
You cannot effectively evaluate your goals unless you have the empirical data to go back through and see where you performed well and not so well. What needs to be kept and what needs to be changed, trained for and practised. This will also help you know when you have achieved important milestones, such as personal best scores.
- Pre-shot routine
Whether you shot trap, skeet, sporting or field and game, whether you play golf, bowls, snooker or darts, you need to have a routine before every shot. A pre-shot routine enables you to go over the basics. Are my feet in the right position? What is my gun hold position? What is the point where I will see the target clearly and be able to focus on the target? Where is the kill point? Where do I follow through to? Sometimes the pre-shot routine might involve a relaxation strategy such as centring or a visualisation technique, or a key word or phrase. Go back and read the previous edition of Field and Game magazine.
- Keeping the mind quiet
You cannot focus on the target if there is a continual dialogue going on in your head. Your mind giving you instructions on what to do will not help you hit the target. Negative self-talk that focuses on past failures or judges your self-worth based on your score will not help you hit the target. Techniques such as visualisation (see the pictures of you hitting the target), humming, focusing on some sensory experience in the here and now, and catch phrases all help to keep the mind quiet.
- Staying in the here and now
To shoot well you need to be in the present. When you let your mind go back to some other time, some other shoot or a target you missed five targets back, you will be shooting in the past. Shooting in the past leads to you making judgements about your ability or your self-worth as a person and a shooter. When you focus on what happened in the past you will miss, because you are not focusing on the target in the air. Shooting in the future can also be a problem. Thinking about the score, the result, the trophy or the prize money, will also take you away from the job at hand, which is hitting the target in the air. Shooting in the future leads to anxiety and worry.
- Be process orientated
If you focus on the process the product will look after itself. By this I mean that if you only think about the process of shooting the target, you will most likely hit it. The process involves the pre-shot routine, making sure you are set up properly, staying in the present, having fun and enjoying the sensory aspects of shooting, such as the feel of the sun on your back, the wind, the noise, the smell of the shell being fired and the recoil. The opposite of being process orientated is to be product orientated. This is where you are focus on the score, the prize or on the feeling you get from winning or beating others. Focusing on the product will take you away from the present and you will be shooting in the future.
- Shoot one target at a time
Rather than expect to shoot 25/25 or 50/50, go into the competition with the expectation to shoot one target, 25 times. This will keep you in the present and focusing on the process. Recently a local rifle shooter asked if he could start skeet shooting. I suggested he started with field and game as he could get a feel for a wide variety of targets. I invited him to my local club and he turned up with his wife who also wanted to shoot. Both hit a couple of targets in the first two rounds and over afternoon tea, he stated that in the next round he would shoot at least 10 out of 25. Quite optimistic, I thought, given his first two rounds. He asked me what I was going to shoot and I said ‘one’ target. He laughed: “You’ll shoot better than that.” And then I said ‘one target at a time’, and when I’ve shot that target I would concentrate on the next target. My score for the round was 24 so I was able to prove the point.
This should be self-explanatory but when people choke it is because they do not breathe. As you are reading this take three deep breaths: breath in and out, breath in and out, breath in and out. Now do that for the rest of your life! Breathing and relaxation go together. Relaxation is a good method of staying in the here and now.
- Have fun
Remember, shooting is a sport. Have fun, be sporting and enjoy yourself and do not interfere with others enjoying themselves. When possible I shoot with a regular squad. We all take it seriously but we also have a lot of fun and give each other a lot of stick in the process.
The question asked for five factors, but the above 10 (plus gun fit) are really important. However, no one factor is more important than any of the others. You need to accommodate all 10 factors and make sure they are integrated into your sport each and every time you compete or practise. There are probably heaps more factors but these are the ones that came to mind. Over the next few months I will elaborate on several of these factors.
Michael Kruger-Davis is a consulting psychologist and a member of Wagga Field & Game. He uses SAGA ammunition provided by Hunts Shooting Supplies. Questions regarding psychological aspects of sport and shooting can be addressed to him at 144 Bassetts Rd, Gillenbah 2700 or on 02 69 592802 or via firstname.lastname@example.org