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The Psychology of Shooting

October 31, 2016

by: Theresa Vail, Bowtech Ambassador

There is no subject that I enjoy studying or discussing more than psychology. Not only does it provide reasons for why we do certain things, but it also provides solutions to problems. What does this have to do with archery? Think of it this way; the art of shooting inherently comes equipped with man-made problems that need solving.  It is a dire and catastrophic assumption to think that shooting is purely physical. Let’s take a look at an example.

Every shooter is aware of the dreaded “target panic” phenomenon. The problem is, many believe that this phenomenon is physical in origin. While the symptoms are certainly manifested in physical ways (punching the trigger, freezing, not being able to release at all, shooting immediately as the pin passes over the desired target, etc.), the real issue is 100% psychological. Interestingly enough, it has everything to do with an individual’s perceived level of competence/confidence in shooting, whether one’s motivation to succeed comes from fear of failure as opposed to personal performance goals, and whether or not they are motivated by extrinsic or intrinsic elements. After speaking to a few different women about this, it became clear that many of us have a recurring thought when shooting around men; we HAVE to shoot x’s or else we’re going to be judged. Is this rational? That’s debatable. As soon as that thought enters your mind, all three factors affecting performance come into play. Your perceived level of competence drops, you become motivated by fear of failure, and you’re only motivated to hit the x because of extrinsic factors, namely, how you’ll be judged. At this point, despite your technical skill and “perfect” form, kiss your accuracy and consistency goodbye.

The mind is both your greatest ally and your worst enemy. It is that fragile friend to whom you’re always catering; hurt it and prepare to feel the consequences. If you find yourself staring at the target thinking, “don’t blow this shot,” or if you have already prepared a laundry list of excuses for why you shot poorly, you have made an enemy out of your mind and your consistency will suffer. Here’s the thing, your own thoughts betray you. Despite how hard your conscious brain fights them, your subconscious believes them and is subsequently manifesting them into all of the big “no-no’s” of shooting. You know exactly what I’m talking about—you have this fleeting thought where you’re questioning if you can make the shot or not, but then you suddenly realize the presence of that thought and hurriedly push it out of your mind; “I can’t hit that X…wait, yes I can! I can hit that X!” That is your conscious trying to override your subconscious through the “fake it till you make it” approach….and it doesn’t work. Your mind is already made up.

theresa“If you find yourself staring at the target thinking, “don’t blow this shot,” or if you have already prepared a laundry list of excuses for why you shot poorly, you have made an enemy out of your mind.”

So, then, how do you fix target panic and how the heck do you determine if you have it? A good way to determine this is by recognizing your performance and thoughts when in practice versus competition, and/or when shooting alone versus with people around. The misconception surrounding target panic is that you will have it in all situations of shooting. This isn’t always the case—for many people it manifests itself only in the most anxiety-producing situations (this is entirely from the perception of the individual, as you’ll find that many are motivated by anxiety while others are hindered by it). Therefore, some people don’t even realize they have target panic when they can easily chalk up bad situational performances to random “choking.”

The first thing shooters do when they experience this phenomenon, which is nearly unrecognizable, is change their release. If you’re consistently punching the trigger, it seems like the obvious solution, right? Wrong. While this is a great initial step to fixing a physical symptom, you are not actually eradicating the root of the problem. Target panic is opportunistic; it will remain dormant until you give it an opportunity to present itself. If you really want to cure or inoculate yourself against target panic, then psychological training is a must. We place so much emphasis on physical training, yet rarely even speak of the mental side to shooting. I’ll be kind and hypothetically propose that shooting is 50% mental and 50% physical (although I really believe it’s more like 80/20). If these weights were true, why would you not incorporate some PST (psychological skills training) into your shooting regimen? Would you knowingly settle for a 50% performance? My bet is no. All elite athletes have a psychological skills training program, and that includes many Olympic shooters. It is simply a series of exercises that strengthen your mindset, in and out of competition.

Since we know that shooting is both mental and physical, the exercises you want to incorporate are considered cognitive-behavioral. This is just a fancy way of saying you must change your thinking in order to change your behavioral output. If the output you want to change is your inconsistency in shooting, you have to change your thoughts (this is, of course, if your physical fundamentals are already on point). A few cognitive exercises that can be done anywhere include imagery, goal setting, and self-talks. For example, each time I step up to shoot, I incorporate two of these; I imagine hitting an X. I imagine the incredible feeling that comes with it. I also tell myself that I am prepared and that I am good enough to hit exactly where I am aiming. This is using imagery and self-talk. With repetition and belief in the process, it is highly effective! For behavioral exercises, deep breathing and progressive relaxation have proven to be tremendous aids in all sports. In the video that corresponds to this blog, I demonstrate my own “psychological warmup” whereby you’ll see me utilize deep breathing before my shot, as well as tensing and relaxing my shoulders before I draw. This is considered progressive relaxation, where you focus on tensing the muscles in your body, and subsequently relaxing them. This is a great tool for connecting mind to body, and allowing your mind to be in full control of your actions. All too often you’ll see shooters who are extremely tense and rigid in their form. Having the same degree of muscle contraction is much more difficult to repeat per shot than just keeping your body completely relaxed. Muscle tension also has the potential to create far more torque and instability. Try it; flex the muscles in your hand, forearm, upper arm, and shoulder—you’re going to start shaking. You may not even be aware that you’re tensing up while shooting, and therein lies the problem; your mind is disconnected from your body. Get in the routine of connecting the two before each shot.

This all might seem a bit hokey if you don’t subscribe to psychological theories, but the research has been backed for over a century. Did you know that the majority of professional sports teams employ the assistance of sport psychologists? Why? For all the reasons I mentioned above; physical skill will only take you so far. Even elite athletes can succumb to pressure and take a loss in performance. You have to have the mindset to back up your actions and you have to train yourself to view anxiety and stress as facilitative.

Because this is far longer than I anticipated, here are the key points to get your mind and body in synch while shooting;

  • Use mental imagery to get your mind accustomed to what is “right.” When you do this, be specific in the details. You envision the X, you see the rings around it, you picture your reaction after hitting it…
  • Goal setting
  • Self talks. These are “pep talks” before each shot. Remind yourself of why you love shooting. Only YOU know what you want to hear, so remind yourself of those things.
  • Deep breathing exercises. This helps regulate anxiety and arousal in stressful situations. If you’re prone to target panic when shooting in a group, this is effective.
  • Progressive relaxation. Focus on each muscle, consciously tense it, and then relax.

These are only a few things you can do to strengthen your mind/body connection. There are plenty of other exercises that you can find if you research cognitive-behavioral therapeutic methods. Think of these exercises as superstitions in sport; we have all heard about athletes performing some “ritual” before their game. They have to listen to a specific song, they have to wear the same socks, they have a lucky pair of boxers, etc. Do these things have anything to do with their physical skill? Not one bit. But, they have convinced the mind that their performance will be better if they repeat this before each and every game. The same concept applies here. Come up with some ritual or psychological warmup that you can hold yourself to before each shot. Believe in the power of your mind and the process of this exercise, and I guarantee you will benefit from it.

Check out my video to see how I apply this concept. It might be weird…but it works!