8 Tips for Improving Your Mental Game
Practice and repetition can only get you so far… While sport shooting is obviously physical, it is so much more than that, it’s a mental challenge. Developing target-hitting techniques takes repetition and focus. It doesn’t matter if you’re training to become a national champion or if you simply enjoy going to a shooting range and drilling the center of your target with your favorite firearm. To truly reach your potential, you must align your mental game along with your shooting skills. Here are some of the things I’ve learned that help me achieve my best on the range.
- Set yourself up for success. The first step in having a strong mental game is being prepared. For me, that’s creating a master list of items I need to bring to the range -- from guns, ammo, targets, gear, eye and ear protection, the right clothing, sunscreen, water, and snacks. By prepping everything I will need, I eliminate the frustration that comes when I’ve forgotten something important. I am also sure that I’m hydrated and get enough sleep the night before I shoot. Knowing that I have all my supplies and that I’ve prepared my body to perform at its best sets my mind at ease.
- Have or know the plan. If I’m heading to a match, I make sure I know what I’ll be shooting, the schedule of events, and where I need to be. If I’m hitting the range to train, I have a clear idea of what I want to accomplish so that my training is both specific and efficient. Having a clear plan makes it that much easier to focus and perform.
- Accept your nerves. Feeling nervous means that you care about what you’re doing, and that’s a good thing! That said, I don’t know many people who enjoy being nervous. An elevated heart rate or a case of the shakes before you perform makes shooting all the more challenging. I’ve found the best way to deal with this type of tension is by continually placing myself in tough situations. It helps me learn how my body reacts to this type of stress. In shooting sports, some competitors will do everything they can to avoid nerves. They avoid going first on a course of fire or steer clear of shooting with their direct competitors because it makes them feel more comfortable and in control. The problem with this tactic is that when nervous situations are unavoidable, these competitors have not mentally prepared for the challenge and the results can be disastrous. Know and understand that dealing with nervous tension is a part of the game you should train for.
- Visualize. In shooting sports, visualization is critical. After I have received the briefing for a course of fire and developed my plan, I use visualization to practice that plan as many times as possible before I’m called to the firing line. It’s a type of training that sets me up for a successful stage. You don’t have to compete to reap the benefits of visualization either. Think of visualization as mental dry fire, where you go through all the steps to be successful before you shoot and it’s a great way to make every shot count.
- Breathe. One of the most useful tools in my mental management arsenal is controlled breathing. Deep, slow, and steady breaths not only help to calm an anxious mind, but this type of breathing also slows your heart rate too! Whenever I feel nervous, I know the best thing I can do is calm my heart and my mind with long and slow breaths.
- Develop a routine. In shooting sports, top competitors develop a shot plan or standard routine that helps prepare them both physically and mentally for the shooting challenge. Establishing a routine and executing it the same way each time lets your mind and body know it’s “go” time. This plan is a series of steps that incorporates visualization, breathing, loading, and making ready. It’s repeatable, familiar, and completely customized to you and your quirks. Among shooters, no two routines are exactly alike and you can adjust your routine as needed to address the shots, your nerves, or even your mood as necessary.
- Understand that not every day will be easy or produce the results you want. Sometimes we don’t meet our goals or find that we’re just not performing the way we want to. Athletes know and understand that there will be peaks and valleys as they train, compete, and build their skills. It’s unrealistic to expect a personal best every time you’re on the range. That doesn’t mean you don’t put in the work, but having an “off” day can still be valuable, especially when you find a way to work through it positively.
- Avoid negative self-talk. There is a big difference between addressing your shortcomings and mental abuse. Thinking about yourself negatively reinforces all the wrong things. A bad target, misses, or poor run on a course of fire are all tough enough to come back from without adding the sort of self-sabotage that comes from mentally berating yourself. Similar to learning how to accept that you may be nervous, it’s important to learn how to deal with poor performances. Address the problems and then channel your efforts and energy into doing everything right at the next opportunity.
Whenever I find negative thoughts creeping in, I use visualization and breathing as an effective and productive distraction.
There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to mental management but if you find that you’re in a slump or rut, try to discover why. Sports psychology books, blogs, and podcasts can help you discover techniques, mantras, and other ways to reinforce positive mental training. Talk to fellow shooters to learn what they do to control nerves or negative distractions. Developing a strong mental game is an ongoing process but one well worth the effort.
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