Precision Shooting: A Mental Game

Your foot placement is perfect. Your stance, a thing of beauty. Head placement, sight picture–as good as it gets. Grip–Yur’Yev would be so proud. Trigger movement is the epitome of isolated control. The shot breaks… and goes right in the Goddamn seven ring. For all your practice and hard work, the simple truth is that if your head is not in the game, the game gets the best of you. Precision shooting is a mental game. How does that make you feel? (A little therapy humor…anyone?)

Get out of your head

  • “Stop thinking about it.”
  • “Clear your mind.”
  • Stop worrying and shoot.”
  • “Just shoot.”
  • “The game is 90% mental–don’t think.”
  • “When at a match… calm down.”

Like me, if you too have been the recipient of, or have heard of, any of the statements above, then you too may have had the same reaction as I. It made me more nervous, self-conscious, self-aware and served to further remove my head from the task of shooting. Statements like these are just about as useful as the good ol’; “You yanked the trigger. Stop that.” Gee…thanks.

Probably the most frustrating aspect of trying to calm the heck down is the fact that the statements above are absolutely correct. We DO have to stop thinking, worrying and clear our minds so that we can  “just shoot”. But how? How do we “Get out of our heads?”

Easy stuff first

We can start the process of enabling our process by taking care of some of the easily controlled deterrents from concentration. I find it truly amazing how many of these items are not remembered or considered, no matter how many times we hear them or how many times I grit my teeth, reminding my junior shooters AGAIN about the following:

  1.  Did you drink enough? Dehydration affects both the mind and body. Without enough fluids, be ready to experience shaking and/or lack of fine muscular control, difficulty focusing mentally, difficulty focusing your eyesight, muscle cramping (even tiny cramps are enough to throw a shot), irritability and just an overall “blah” feeling. None of which are going to help you get even one step closer to high-master.
  2. Did you eat enough? Ever gotten “hangry” before? The combination of hungry+angry is common and disastrous to precision shooting. While consuming multiple bacon, egg and cheese sandwiches before a match can be just as disastrous as not eating at all, finding that personal balance for your particular needs is essential. Be fed for a match or practice. Eat until comfortably full and not stuffed. Don’t forget to snack and drink throughout and around breaks in your match or practice. Do you wait until completely empty before filling the gas tank in your car, rolling to a sputtering stop on the highway? Of course not–so should it be with your body.
  3. Did you eat the right foods? I could write an entire blog post on the right and wrong foods to eat in gearing up for a match or practice, but let’s just say that a balance between carbs and proteins and fats is exactly what nature intended and will never steer you wrong.
  4. To be caffeinated or not to be caffeinated? If you’re like me and drink an average of thirty-seven cups of coffee per day, then the rule of thumb is that you do not change that habit. Caffeine withdrawal can cause irritability, sluggishness and child abuse. Too much caffeine at once can make you jittery and cause the dreaded bowel stimulus–the “tap on the shoulder” from your stomach alerting you that you have no choice but to hold up the match with a visit to the throne, despite having just shot the best rapid fire score of your life. Notice how I mentioned “jittery” and not “shaky”? That’s because caffeine is a stimulant to the central nervous system and affects dopamine levels. Use of caffeine–regardless of your tolerances to it–can stimulate concentration as well as calm the body, helping to better sync both body and mind together. Honest. You can read a report on it from the National Institute of Health. Can it raise your heart rate? Sure, if you start downing it like you’re at a college frat party. The key is small doses over longer periods of time.
  5. Are you distracted? I am not referring to the mayfly that lands on your scope and crawls across the lens during timed fire. I mean, are you thinking about the fight you had with your husband last night? The fact that your boss gave you crap on Friday. About your teenager mouthing off to you and making you feel old. Did I leave the stove on? Regardless of what it is that’s causing your mental distraction, we have to overcome it. Sometimes we can force ourselves to think about something else… like shooting. Other times we need a little more help…. 

Visual Trigger Words

Sometimes our mind needs a little push in the right direction. Can we actually force control over what we think about? Well… kinda. Every precision shooter who shows improvement will do so with the use of a shot plan. A shot plan is a step by step process through which we make sure that we are doing everything that will have a positive effect on each shot we make. Visual trigger words can be incorporated into our shot plan in the hopes that they will bring us out of the larger world and into a tightly controlled little bubble–where all that exists is only related to the shot or shots we are about to take. All the research I have done on the subject in the hopes of helping my juniors to stop thinking about Snapchat, tells us that three non-similar words with some physical representation that we can think about as part of our shot plan will create the focus we are hoping for.

Now, sit back down and don’t go on Facebook. Stop calling me “hippie“. Hear me out. 

Three non-similar words. They can be anything. I’ll pick; Cup, Chair, Glove. Step three of my shot plan is “deep, cleansing breath” which takes place after I have taken my gun in hand with the proper grip. I close my eyes and think; “Cup” and visualize in my mind my favorite coffee cup and the feeling I get from that first cup of hot coffee in the morning. I then think; “Chair” and visualize my favorite, comfy armchair that I would rock my baby daughter in and remember how soothing that was. “Glove” is a fictional, soft warm or cool glove on my shooting hand that will guarantee a shot in the X-ring. And then the shot process continues. See the intent there? By incorporating this technique, you can effectively remove yourself mentally from the world around you. It will take practice. It will need time to work. For many people–it does work. Myself included.

A clear mind

A clear mind is the goal, can we agree? Brian Zins, winner of almost sixteen-hundred national championships, once said; “I’m not smart enough to shoot bad.” Which as funny as it is, can be heard as; “The less I’m thinking about, the better I shoot.” This is absolutely the case when taking everything written above at face value. My personal preference when getting ready to begin a day of shooting is to tell myself to think about the right things. I can’t make myself think less or slower or more simply. What I can do is train myself to think only about what matters that very moment, using these techniques. Does it work every time? Hell no, I AM human or at least I pretend to be.

If there is a key to this lock, then it must be that it’s not about thinking less, but thinking differently when we are on the firing line. Outside stimulus is the enemy for any shooting sport (Imagine a USPSA shooter thinking about being audited by the IRS when the shot timer goes off), but these techniques discussed can help anyone fight back the mind as the enemy. Consider the above and find what combination works for you. More importantly, find what DOESN’T work for you… but don’t think about it. It’s distracting.

Go have a match. Think less… drink coffee.