What is Mental Toughness?

posted on November 21, 2016
Editor’s Note: During the 2016 NRA Intercollegiate Pistol Championship at Fort Benning, GA, I heard performance coach and author Dr. Raymond Prior speak about the mental aspects of competitive shooting. That chance meeting led to this article, in which our NRA Publications Firearms Inventory Manager, Karie Thomas, provides a first-hand account of her experience working with Dr. Prior.

I wish I could poll each of you to discover the number of readers who believe:

  1. Thoughts pop in your head all day and they cannot be controlled.
  2. People are born with confidence.
  3. People are permanently optimistic or pessimistic.

In the past, I would have told you these statements are true without question. I thought mental toughness meant that I could “execute the fundamentals [of pistol shooting] under stress on cue and regardless of external factors.” It sounded good at least.

Karie Thomas saw her USPSA classification go from C to B, after working with Dr. Prior.
I discovered these ideas are false. As it turns out, mental toughness has nothing to do with being a natural optimist or inherently confident or even the fundamentals of pistol shooting. Mental toughness has to do with an athlete’s ability to have a great attitude, give their best effort, focus on the right things at the right time and be a good teammate. In short, their mental toughness is determined by their ability to make choices. 

How does one develop mental toughness?
Working with Dr. Raymond Prior was a liberating and empowering experience. He gifted me the knowledge that I was capable of making these choices. I freely admit this concept seems like common sense now. I can’t explain why the idea had never occurred to me, and certainly no one shared this idea with me before. Choices, you say? What sort of choices?

I choose to have a great attitude.
I try to find something good in every performance, even if it was less than stellar. If I make a mistake, I learn from it and then move on. If I do something amazing, I replay it over and over in my mind and talk about it frequently. The most difficult part of having a great attitude is learning how not to complain. It may feel good at first, but all it does is bring you and everyone in ear shot down. I’m still struggling with the complaint department, but as a rule I never complain during a match.

I choose to give my best effort. Even when the weather is foul, I’m tired, would rather sit by the fire at home, I stay and do my best work. Everyone is dealing with the same conditions. My best in the mud may be better than someone else’s best in the mud—because I don’t succumb mentally to the frustration of being muddy.

On the range, the author now focuses only on performance.
I choose to focus on the right things at the right time. Off the range I now redirect negative thoughts toward ideas and images which reinforce a positive self-image. On the range, I disregard distractions and focus only on my performance. In other words, I am choosing my thoughts, and disregarding the ones I don’t like, thanks to Dr. Prior’s coaching.

I choose to be a great teammate. This one surprised me the most but if you are a good teammate the positive energy, praise, and jokes create an electric, cheerful atmosphere that is conducive to remarkable shooting performances. I acknowledge and praise a fellow squad member that has an impressive run. I don’t offer or seek sympathy or acknowledgement for a bad run, they are ignored. But most of all, I do not complain about anythingthe weather, a bad call, or a penalty—instead, I stay upbeat.

By making these good choices I have created a positive feedback loop, which increases my confidence—and also creating tangible results.

Why is mental toughness important?
They say that the shooting sports are 90 percent mental. In USPSA, a Grand Master will be armed with a sub-second draw, 1/5-of-a-second splits and transitions, and a two-step reload. Physically, the top tier athletes perform at the same level, but the mental game is what determines who will take first place. I focus just as much time on “working out” my mental toughness techniques as I spend training at the range or in the gym—because my mental attitude is ultimately what can make or break my performance in a match.

Since working with Dr. Prior, and reading his remarkably comprehensive book, Bullseye Mind, I have grown as a competitive shooter. My USPSA classification improved from C to B, and I have on occasion taken first in my class, as well as High Lady. Now, I am actively working to improve my mental toughness. And, I have more fun at matches with my friends and squad mates.

Bullseye Mind - Mental Toughness for Sport Shooting, by Dr. Raymond Prior.
Everyone on my Christmas list, even the non-shooters, are getting Dr. Raymond Prior’s book Bullseye Mind this year. His simple, straightforward, common sense philosophies have applications for people from all walks of life which can empower anyone to be more mentally tough. So, if the glass is half full or half empty, we can easily discern whether you are an optimist or a pessimist. The question is if you are a pessimist, can you become an optimist? Well, it depends on how mentally tough you are. Are you willing to put in the work? Dr. Prior imparts the tools you need to be mentally tough in Bullseye Mind. To pick up your own copy, visit his website at www.rfpsport.com.


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