The Importance of the Mental Game
By Mark V. Lonsdale
Any individuals involved in competitive or precision shooting know the importance of consistency in form and technique to produce repeatable accuracy, but do they appreciate the equally important role of concentration?
In any high performance sport, and especially at the elite levels of precision sports such as shooting, archery, or even darts, the mental component of the sport is absolutely critical. It is part of the 3M training and competition triad: Mechanics – Mental – Matches. Mechanics being your fundamentals of marksmanship; mental being the confidence and stress management; and matches being real-world experience under match conditions.
If you study any precision shooting sport, championships are won or lost on one point or even one X. There are disciplines where all the top shooters can shoot perfect scores in practice, but on game day it comes down to the X count to crown a new champion (especially when the wind is not beating everyone up).
Winning Team McMillan F-TR shooters at the 2018 Nationals where it often comes down to X counts
So when we talk about the mental component in sports, we are embracing several aspects of sports psychology focused on championship mental preparation. The first is to overcome the fear of being beaten, especially in contact sports such as judo or boxing. Then there is just the fear of performing in front of a large crowd – also known as stage fright. Self confidence is another important part of mental preparation, and this usually develops with time, from performing well in practice and previous competitions.
Equating this to ELR shooting, the shooter who knows he has the best equipment for the job, has produced hand loads with excellent accuracy and low SDs, may feel well prepared for an ELR match. But real confidence comes from extensive experience shooting at distances from 1,500 yards to 3,500 yards under a variety of conditions. However, the greatest confidence is derived from shooting well in competitions under actual match conditions. There is not substitute for match experience in any sport. But there is another component to the mental game, and that is the topic of this paper – concentration.
Ensuring the correct dope dialed onto the scope for the next target at the 2018 Ko2M
In contact sports such as boxing and judo, a laps in concentration will get you hit or thrown, or at best, it will cause a missed opportunity to score a winning point. But that’s human nature – people become distracted and they have accidents. So the goal of the elite athlete or aspiring shooting champion is absolute concentration, which is also referred to as focus or being in the moment.
When we apply this to shooting, we are talking about the ability to self-analyze your shooting position, manage your breathing, focus on the sights or reticle, and then break the trigger cleanly every time. When the shooter has practiced for hours, days, weeks, and months on these fundamentals of marksmanship, the mechanics will become second nature, but only if the shooter is focused and in the moment when shooting. If the goal on a particular day is to shoot a tight group, and one shot goes wild, the shooter must be able to self-analyze to understand why that shot was off. In many cases it may come down to what is often termed a “brain fart” – a momentary lapse in concentration. The trick is not to beat yourself up – we all do it from time to time – just refocus and shoot again.
So what role does concentration play in self-analysis? We all talk about the importance of a natural body position behind the rifle – a position where muscles are not straining to hold the sights on target, but rather a relaxed but solid human platform for the rifle. But to do this, the shooter must be aware of every contact point with the rifle. First, for example, is the shooter comfortable or straining in the prone position? Many shooters simply cannot get comfortable in the prone because of body type, old injuries, or just age. However, for those who have chosen a shooting discipline where prone is the standard, and there are many, then the first goal is to find that comfortable position.
Next comes the contact points with the rifle. Is the rifle light into the shoulder or firm? Is the cheek pushing down or laterally on the cheek rest? Is the cheek rest the right height to match the scope? Is the eye-relief on the scope causing the shooter to strain his or her neck? Is the shooting hand pulling back into the shoulder or torqueing the grip? Does the trigger finger lay naturally on the trigger or is the trigger too short or too long? Is the supporting hand pushing or pulling the stock to align the sights, or is it just a relaxed support? Is the bipod front loaded or sitting neutral? And then, with all these contact points, is the pressure uniform, consistent, and repeatable?
In all honesty, a consistent shooting position for competitions that require a high degree of precision is not something that just happens overnight. It requires practice, experimentation, and often coaching from a more experienced shooter. Sometimes a shooter may have had serious problems with his or her position for years, until they take a class or get some coaching. So when it comes time to practice or game day, the shooter must have total concentration and focus for self-analysis and the task at hand.
To develop and refine this concentration or mind-set, many competitors will have a pre-match routine. This ritual begins days before the match with equipment checks, ammunition prep, and final zero and adjustments. There is then another routine on match day that begins hours before the match, which includes adequate sleep, up early for breakfast, ensuring everything is loaded into the car, and then equipment checks after registration and shooter brief. All of these little building blocks are part of the focus and mental discipline of the elite shooter. But even for the individual who is just shooting for fun and an opportunity to hang out with friends, it is more fun if you shoot well and that requires concentration and attention to details.
There is no substitute for detailed preparation, structured training, and actual match experience to reduce stress and gain confidence in competitive shooting
So now you are on the line and it is time to shoot. There should be a ritual and routine on how you go to the line, prepare your shooting position, place your ammo, timer, etc., and prepare to shoot. At this point your total focus is on the task at hand – ensuring the correct dope on the scope, watching the wind, and listening to your spotter or wind coach if you have one. This is not the time to be thinking about work, problems at home, what you plan to have for lunch, or if everyone else thinks your new rifle looks cool. It is the time for body position, contact with the rifle, consistency in shooting position, reading the wind, and time management.
Whether is it benchrest, PRS, long range, F-class F-TR, or ELR, one lapse in concentration will result in a missed shot that could blow the whole match.
World F-TR champion Derek Rodgers demonstrates tremendous concentration and consistency when shooting
Just like any other skill, concentration can be learned and developed with practice. For some people it comes easily but for others it is a challenge. Just look at the child who can read a book or play with blocks, while blocking out all distractions, as opposed to the kid who is hyper active and bouncing off the walls. One of the most beneficial activities for young children is well structured martial arts such as judo, since self-discipline, focus, and concentration are foundational to the sport.
For the adult shooter, concentration can be learned on the range with well structured, disciplined practice. By this I mean, not speed shooting on big gongs at medium range, but real effort and focus on precision shooting at small targets or at long range. If your ELR rifle is expensive to shoot and practice with on a regular basis, get an accurate 22LR, .223 or .308 for low cost practice. Another usefully way to work on concentration is playing a game like darts at home. It takes total concentration and a lot of practice to throw consistent bulls or treble 20s – and while it may not help your shooting position, it will definitely hone your focus on body mechanics.
Precision reloading is another aspect of competitive shooting that requires concentration – both for accuracy and your personal safety. Many serious accidents can be attributed to not paying attention, being distracted, and then double charging or using the wrong powder. Precision reloading requires a distraction free environment and a system that prevents mistakes. Yes, you can lube and size cases while watching a ball game, but seating primers, loading powder charges, and seating bullets requires focus and concentration.
To wrap this up, when you get behind the rifle, put on your hearing protection, take a deep breath, then, as you exhale, block out the rest of the world and focus on your shooting. At the elite levels of any sport, it is the mental game that separates the champions from the rest of the pack. It will also help eliminate some of those annoying fliers or forgetting to dial in the correct dope on your scope.
Photo Credit: Thanks to the guys at Tactaholics for their great images and support of the shooting sports