One of the reasons sport shooting is so demanding mentally is because it requires a shooter to face a definitive score with every single shot. Whether you’re shooting pistol, rifle, shotgun, trap, or silhouette—with every shot you get a score that measures your shot, a hit, or a miss. In short, in a given match, a shooter will have to react to an outcome-based measure of his or her performance over and over again. Given how sport shooting is scored, the manner in which a shooter reacts to any given shot has a vital impact on confidence and consistency. The reason reacting to both good and bad shots has such a strong impact on a shooter’s performance is because our thoughts guide our performance and our thoughts are often based on how our minds create memories.
Since most people have an inaccurate understanding of how memory works, they are unable to use their memories to their advantage, particularly when it comes to effectively reacting to shots. Many athletes believe that practicing physical skills over and over again will build “muscle memory” that allows them to execute those skills under pressure. It’s true that practicing skills builds stronger and more effective neural connections in the brain and trains the muscles needed to execute your skills. However, it’s important to understand that muscle memory does not exist. There is no such thing as muscle memory. The only place memory exists is in your brain.
Practicing enough to master your skills is necessary for performing well, but no matter how much you practice and master those skills, your muscles cannot remember anything and execute skills on their own. Your muscles and your body are controlled by your brain, which is why your thoughts guide your performance. When it comes to reacting to both good and bad shots, sport shooters must understand our minds create memories from thoughts that are constant, recent, and associated with emotions. "After a good performance, most athletes take the approach that performing well was something they were supposed to do and nothing worthy of discussion or a second thought." Thoughts lead to memories the more you think about them. In essence, the more you think about something, the stronger of a memory it will become. These constant thoughts can be thoughts that you decide to think about or things that are presented to you. For example, this is why when you hear that terrible song on the radio every hour for several months you can sing it without having to think about the lyrics years later. This is also why when athletes think about their mistakes and failures over and over again, those thoughts become strong memories and often pop into their heads at the worst times. The more you choose to think about anything, good or bad, the more your brain takes it and makes it a memory that impacts your performance.
After a good performance, most athletes take the approach that performing well was something they were supposed to do—nothing worthy of discussion or a second thought. Conversely, after a poor performance, athletes tend to think and talk about their mistakes over and over, and they can usually find another person willing to share in their commiseration. This approach begins a constant stream of criticism and re-playing of mistakes and failures, which quickly become memories for your mind to dish out as it pleases.
Instead of creating harmful memories this way, shooters would be better served by talking about their successes and great shots and ignoring any mistakes and failures. With a constant feed of thoughts about good shots, even if it’s only a few, you are creating memories of these good shots. At the same time, thoughts about bad shots and bad matches that could infect the shooter’s confidence are sooner forgotten. The more constant your thoughts are, the stronger the memories they create.
Recent thoughts also create memories. Put simply, whatever you just thought about is more easily remembered. This is why it’s easier to remember what you ate for lunch today than it is remembering what you ate for lunch a year ago, or even just a month ago. Hence, it’s easier to remember the details of your last shot than it is to remember your 12th shot from five matches ago. Additionally, when athletes fixate on a recent mistake or failure, it often causes them to overthink and become critical themselves. A strong source of confidence for any athlete is a memory of recent success. Shooters who have just taken a great shot have that accomplishment fresh in their memories, guiding their next shot. Conversely, the memory of a recent mistake can lead them away from a trusting mindset. This is why more often than not, thinking about a recent mistake leads to another mistake. Again, your thoughts guide your performance. "When a great shot is the most recent memory in your head, you can fully commit to seeing the target and taking another great shot." To use more recent memories to perform better, athletes must let go of mistakes when they happen. A recent mistake only influences your performance negatively when you let yourself grab onto it. Instead, forgive and forget. Mistakes happen, but there’s no sense turning that mistake into a memory that infects your next shot or your next match. Instead, choose to think about a great shot and then shift to a trusting mindset. When a great shot is the most recent memory in your head, you can fully commit to seeing the target and taking another great shot. Many shooters let thoughts about a mistake or a bad match be the last thing they remember before they shoot. This type of memory leads to over-thinking, self-doubt, and more mistakes. Make sure the last thing you remember before your next shot is exactly what you want to do with the shot you are about to take.
Your brain also creates memories from thoughts and experiences that are associated with emotion. The most common emotions athletes experience during and after a poor shot or match is some combination of fear, frustration, anxiety, anger, grief, disappointment, embarrassment, shame, and inadequacy. Because of the athletes’ emotions, these events become some of the strongest memories and stay with them much longer. Conversely, events and thoughts that don’t elicit emotion are more easily and quickly forgotten, like what you ate for lunch a month ago.
Emotions don’t have to be something negative in order to create stronger memories. Joy and happiness form memories just as well as fear and embarrassment. The positive emotion attached to events is also why people tend to have such vivid memories of their wedding day and the births of their children. Your mind creates strong memories from events linked to strong emotions, but it doesn’t care whether the emotions are negative or positive.
In terms of your performance, the emotions you give to an event allow you to select which events become memories. Ideally, shooters would remember only their best shots that are associated with joy, pride, and trust in their skills. Then, when confronted with a difficult match or shooting under pressure, a shooter’s mind would only have thoughts of joyful, successful shots to choose from. With these memories in their heads, shooters would take confident shots and greatly improve their chances of performing up to their capability. Unfortunately, most shooters tend to do the opposite. They remember their bad shots associated with frustration, anger, and disappointment. Then, when faced with a difficult match or shot, their minds are flooded with thoughts of exactly what they do not want to happen. "Every athlete at every level of competition will face setbacks, failures, and difficult situations." Given our culture, reacting to performance in this manner is no surprise. In fact, most of what we do embraces thinking this way. As children in school, our teachers highlight our mistakes by marking wrong answers with red ink. In sport, coaches point out mistakes and flaws in an effort to help athletes correct those mistakes and avoid making more mistakes in the future. Unfortunately, focusing on mistakes is not very effective for learning or improving—instead, it turns thoughts and the emotions associated with failure into memories that fuel later performance.
Athletes at every level of competition will face setbacks, failures, and difficult situations—as well as make a mistake from time to time. It’s not a matter of if, but when. A common belief in sport is that athletes should be downtrodden after a poor performance, that they should look miserable so everyone around them knows he/she is unsatisfied and unhappy. This belief is wrong and perpetuates thoughts that only lead to inconsistent performance and decreased confidence over time. The best course of action from a setback is to quickly consider what you can learn from it, then forget about it. When you shoot a good match, focus on what you did well by talking about it with a teammate, coach, friend, or family member. Enjoying your successes is a vital part of reacting to shots in ways that build memories that moves a shooter forward.
About the Author Dr. Raymond Prior is the author of Bullseye Mind: Mental Toughness for Sport Shooting. As one of the country’s top peak performance professional, he has nearly a decade of experience educating athletes and coaches about building mental toughness. Raymond works with athletes, teams, and coaches at professional, Olympic, NCAA, amateur, and youth sport levels. His clients include professional athletes, Olympic gold medalists, individual and team National Champions, National Coach of the Year Award winners, individual and team Conference Champions, and countless NCAA All-Americans in a variety of sports.
Raymond has a firm commitment to growing sport shooting in its many forms and he continues to provide peak performance training to many college shooters and teams including the 18-time National Champion WVU Rifle team, Olympic level shooters domestically and internationally, and shooters of all levels who want to perform more consistently and enjoy shooting more. Visit Dr. Prior’s website at www.rfpsport.com.