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The Fine Art of Not Cracking Under Pressure, Part II

The Fine Art of Not Cracking Under Pressure, Part II

In Part I of this three-part series, Jock Elliott began chronicling the personal solutions of 13 champions with regard to dealing with match pressure.

Lanny Bassham, Smallbore Rifle
My answer might not be the same as others. It doesn’t mean they are right, or I am right. There are multiple ways that people deal with pressure. One of the things I learned in my early shooting career is that I had some wrong ideas about pressure. The reason that I wasn’t able to deal with it was because I didn’t understand what the right ideas were. Initially, I was able to find some information outside of shooting. When I started working on this in a lot more detail, I found a lot of misinformation about the sensation of pressure.

The major reason why this has become a problem for some is because people are very interested in outcome and accomplishment—they want to do well. They want to finish the event on top of the leaderboard. While we’re thinking about outcome, the probability is that we can’t simultaneously be thinking about executing the shot. This can cause us to “over try”—and that’s the number one reason why good shooters don’t shoot well under pressure. Shooting is a “trust sport” not a “try sport.” You need to train so well that you can trust your training. The minute that you try to get that national record, things come unzipped. You are applying more mental effort than it actually requires. Our conscious thoughts are interfering with our subconscious mind. The best scores that people shoot happen when they are not thinking about the outcome.

Here’s a myth: Pressure causes performance to drop. Pressure does not cause your performance to drop. What I learned about pressure was that when you feel the physical effects of pressure, it’s real. You feel an adrenaline rush, your heart rate increases and your blood pressure goes up. I’ve seen shooters shoot extremely high scores with their legs shaking. Pressure doesn’t cause your scores to go up or down—but your attitude does.
When you’re shooting in competition, you can’t be past or future tense. You have to be in the moment.
Another myth: If I could avoid pressure, I would do better. Actually, pressure is an amplifier. It is my friend. Pressure makes me realize what I’m doing is important so I pay better attention to my shooting. Be careful what you care about. It is more important to focus on your shooting process. The primary reason people “over try” is that they go into competition with an incomplete goal. People tend to seek out what society rewards them for, and accomplishment is easy to measure. It has a number associated with it. But it is focusing on the process that will get you there. Attaining that goal—how and what we learn from our mistakes, is valuable. There’s nothing like making a mistake to make a person realize that they need to do something about it. If you look at the only benefit of shooting in a tournament as a place on the leaderboard, then you don’t recognize the accomplishments that lead up to that score as the more important objective.

Pressure is not the problem. It gets a bad rap. You don’t want to get rid of it. You’re not going to go to the Olympics without it. You better make it a friend. It’s put there for you to amplify the experience of doing something few people can do.

The primary reason we compete should be so we can pay attention to who we become along the way. When outcome is primary, we’re concentrating on the wrong thing. When I stopped trying to win tournaments, I started winning. When I stopped worrying about where the bullet went, I concentrated on how well I executed the shot.

Jessie Duff, Action Pistol
Say I’m at a match to defend my title. That means the other ladies are ready to go after it too and want to beat me, so I do feel a certain amount of pressure. The way I deal with it is I never look at scores during a match. If I’m behind or ahead, I don’t want to know it. I don’t want to put pressure on myself if I’m behind, and I don’t want to think I can coast if I learn that I’m ahead.

Not knowing where I stand as the match progresses allows me to do my very best every time I step to the line—giving it everything I can, right there. If I am in a match and I know I have a good stage, it gives me self-confidence to shoot well. But then I tell myself that stage is over, and the next stage is a brand new one. If I do badly, I have to drop it, forget it and move on. Otherwise, dwelling on it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy.

One thing I’ve always said: “I can only shoot to the best of my ability.” If that’s enough to win the match, that’s great; If not, I’ll be the first to congratulate the others. I want everyone to compete at their best so we can say, “Whoever won, they were the best shooter that day.”

My main job is to be on the range and shoot. I spend four to five days out of the week on the range, training for what I have coming up and making sure that my equipment and guns are working properly. I check all my equipment before I go to a match. The last thing you want is to have a problem with your gun. In my sport, there are no alibis. This preparation also helps me deal with pressure.

Because each match can be unique, I don’t have set regimens. Instead, I keep a clear head when I shoot. If there is an unusual type of shot in a match, I’ll just focus on the basics of executing that shot. One year at the Florida Open, for example, there was a 12-inch plate at 40 yards—a little longer distance than normal. I cleared my head and told myself, “you have done this shot many times.” Next, I go over the fundamentals of what is involved in executing that particular shot. I visualize myself executing every element of the shot: A clean draw; my dot coming up on the center of that plate and executing the trigger pull. I visualize every detail in the exact sequence of the shot.

Sometimes I will practice every element of my shooting at an exaggerated slow pace to make sure that I execute all the little pieces perfectly. Auto racers have a saying: Slow is smooth and smooth is fast, and there is a lot of truth in that. I also constantly work on little things that sometimes get overlooked. For example, I work heavily on my footwork to be as smooth as possible as I transport myself along the line, with no wasted movement. I practice leaning into and out of barriers to make those transitions as smooth as possible. I also practice my draw, sometimes taking an entire day just to work on that. I’ll start in slow motion and then speed it up when the fundamentals are right.

The point of all this is to take away pressure during competition. When the timer goes off, my mind is blank. If I start to think—that is when I screw up and slip into the past tense, thinking about how I messed up. When you’re shooting in competition, you can’t be past or future tense. You have to be in the moment.

Launi Meili, Smallbore and Air Rifle
In my experience, it comes down to the shooter’s personality as far as dealing with pressure. Dan Durban is the one person I know who used “fear of failure” in a positive way. That was his fuel to not shoot badly. For me, every time I shot, I expected to break a record. I had very positive expectations, but I also trained to earn it. If you’re shooting 10 points better than you’ve ever shot, you need to keep your perspective. If you’re saying to yourself, “This could be a national record,” you’re bringing the future onto your shoulders. If that happens, you have to deal with it. But what is your job really right then? To shoot one perfect shot—the thing that you’ve done thousands of times to finish out this match. It takes practice to have that discipline.

My big experience with pressure was in the 1988 Olympics. I went into the finals with a new Olympic record, and then dropped more shots in the final than in the whole match. For the next four years, I mentally shot thousands of shots as if I were in a final. My job was to shoot 10s. I didn’t need to let scores bug me in the final. I needed a stronger plan to handle each shot of the final so that, no matter what, I could rely on that plan to get me through. The key question is: What does it take for me to shoot one perfect shot?

Finally in 1992 I went into the smallbore final in first place and I kept that lead. I’m talking about repeatedly executing the perfect shot—inside a 9.8 or better. Everything goes back to the practiced routine. For example: Before I pick up my gun, I analyze my last shot to decide what changes I need to make, i.e. the placement of the last shot, where I thought the wind was, where the wind actually was, etc. in order to learn from the last shot. It’s important to be realistic and constructive. A key component of evaluating the last shot is being optimistic vs. pessimistic, i.e. a constructive attitude. What can I learn from the last shot that I can use on the next shot? Don’t begin a shot sequence while you’re being negative or emotionally self-destructive.

Once I’ve analyzed the previous shot, I have a plan of how and when I want to take that next shot. I check my body; take three breaths and relax, relaxing a little bit more with each shot, just letting everything go. I take another deep breath and lift the gun. As I exhale, the gun comes down on my hip and the target. And now I’m looking over my sights, and I take another couple of breaths to check my body alignment. I put my finger on the trigger and take another breath while I put my face on the cheek piece, assuming that my natural point of aim is correct. Now I take another two to three breaths. Take one more slight breath and hold. I stop my breath as the sights align at the center of the target. I’ve checked my rear and front sight alignment and now am focusing on the target because it’s the thing that’s not moving. I am anchored in the 10 ring. My shot plan starts at the ground and ends in the 10 ring. The thing that you should always be able to rely on is your shot plan, both physically and mentally. You train for endurance to shoot your last shot as well as your first. You have to build it and learn to trust it. To use it and trust it when the pressure’s on, takes years of training.

Julie Golob, Action Pistol
The critical thing for me is to accept that there is going to be pressure. You’re going to feel nervous or can even have feelings of self-doubt. Add to that, whether you’re thinking about it or not, your body is going to naturally react to tension. The best thing you can do is simply accept this.

There are two ways that I deal with it. The first is to stay positive. It’s never over until it’s over. I’ve seen shooters pout and throw equipment on the ground after a bad run. Not only can it reflect badly on the shooter, but if you allow a negative attitude into your competitive mindset, you could lose because of it. Instead, I think, “This is my time to really feel alive.” It’s like the moment before bungee jumping or the moment you start to move on a crazy roller coaster ride—you feel everything pumping through you in that moment. Harness that nervous energy as positive excitement. It can actually help you shoot well if you accept it and not fear it.

Julie Golob competing at the 2016 Bianchi Cup Action Pistol Championship.

The second thing, while you have all these emotions racing through your system, is to focus on technique. As an action shooter, I tell myself to micromanage everything about my stage—every little thing that I can, instant by instant. Nothing is on auto pilot when I’m preparing to shoot.

Hear the buzzer, draw the gun and bring the sights in line with the target. Smoothly engage the trigger. Trigger the shot. I think about all these things and focus strictly on what to do. I micromanage the moment as best I can, focusing on the individual skills necessary for the particular event I am shooting. This helps me to avoid thinking about pressure. This type of visualization is like getting a free “perfect” run at the course. When you’re actually competing, it’s possible to shoot in what many athletes call “the zone.” But if for some reason you can’t get there, focus on all the steps needed—the process, that will help you to do the best you can.

At the end of the day, I think some shooters get angry with themselves for not having a perfect performance. You have to be proud of yourself for putting forth your best effort. Don’t be angry with your performance, just learn from it and focus on the positive for the next time.

Jason Parker, Smallbore and Air Rifle
The best way to deal with shooting so well that it scares you is to have prepared yourself for those days when you are successful. You have to be ready for those big scores to hit you at any point, which starts with training. When you’re about to shoot a record or are trying out for an Olympic team, you say to yourself, “I’ve been shooting these scores in practice, it’s okay to shoot this score now.”

I do a lot with breathing techniques. I don’t have to shoot a particular shot if I don’t want to, so I take a couple of deep breaths, let my heart rate go down and then I’m ready to shoot the shot.

During my preparation, I have a pre-shot routine that I can depend on—how everything is supposed to be positioned and how it is supposed to feel. When I feel my heart rate go up, I go back to my pre-shot routine. If you do every single shot the same way, you can take it anywhere, be comfortable with that and shoot a 10 at any time. I’m just doing the same thing I did in practice. I was shooting in a world cup and shot a world record. When I felt that extra anxiety coming on, I embraced it, and then I used my breathing and relaxation techniques to calm down.

In Part III of this series, we will hear from Lones Wigger, Brian Zins, Bruce Piatt, Carl Bernosky and Ernie Vande Zande.

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