Match Stress — Dealing With The Lizard Brain
“Mental Training” by Michael J. Keyes, M.D.
No matter how hard we wish it to, match stress is not going away. It took me a long time to realize this in my own competitive career, and I had to work very hard to understand the anxiety I felt before every match is a fact of life. Shooters rarely come to this conclusion, however, and even if they do, it often makes no difference in the way they approach match stress. In every sense, this is a natural reaction — it just doesn’t help a lot.
I’d like to explore match stress and explain some ways to deal with it. To my mind, match stress is a result of several factors, including perfectionism, conflict between competitive and social drives and the limited nature of competition. There are other factors, but those are enough on their own and seem to be the main drivers of the anxiety shooters feel in a match.
When competitors at all levels of skill experience these factors, they trigger the same pathway — the flight–or–flight response. We end up experiencing this uncomfortable feeling, no matter what the cause, and we usually have two responses to it: We are upset because it seems to be a huge surprise every time it happens, and we don’t realize it is a normal response to the situation.
Match pressure is normal in competition. I’m not saying most of us are not aware of match pressure on a rational basis, we are. But competition is not a rational act. The parts of our brain that react are more primitive than the rational brain and, if they react too much, we fall apart, no matter how much we know that doing so is “irrational.”
Why does the brain react this way? If you have read my columns on how the brain works, you are aware nothing a person does is totally rational. In fact, no one is capable of living a totally rational life because the more emotional part of the brain makes living more efficient. So, we are always working with a combination of the rational and emotional.
As we experience things and learn to do whatever task is in front of us, we begin to rely more and more on the “heuristic shortcuts” our brain develops as it parses and learns a task. These shortcuts allow us to analyze and make decisions without endless fretting because they are triggered by or guided by emotions. The emotional part of the brain also does the subconscious work needed to come to the conclusions we need. It comes out as “intuition” or “common sense,” even when it isn’t.
When we look at the amount of time we spend practicing and shooting and compare it to the time we spend in competition, the latter is clearly only a small part of the whole. In other words, we don’t compete very often compared to how much we shoot, and this has consequences. Most shooters have little experience dealing with match stress, and the result is little attention is paid to this aspect of competing until it is too late.
The part of the brain that originates the flight–of–fight reflex (the “lizard brain”) is related to the emotional midbrain but not a direct part of it. It can be influenced by the emotional midbrain, so dealing with match stress relies on training your emotional midbrain to send a less urgent signal. Linear thinking doesn’t work very well when you are attempting to deal with fight or flight; thus, changing the midbrain to work in your favor requires a lot of work and motivation that is not directly related to a rational idea of stress.
The shooters who deal well with match pressure are those who are successful in matches. Individuals who are not affected by match pressure are rare. More often, successful shooters have a strong desire to succeed in competition and are motivated to do whatever it takes to deal with match pressure. They find ways to minimize the fight–or–flight response. Remember, no matter what you do, match pressure is always there. That’s because the very same qualities that make a shooter succeed are the ones that trigger the lizard brain to start looking for a way out.
The first quality is the desire to compete and win. This is considered more prominent in men, but it is universal in the human race. We see a chance to excel against another, and we take it. And therein lies the rub. We are also social creatures who have the instinct to cooperate with one another and not to rock the boat. In normal social situations, this cognitive dissonance is usually resolved by forming some sort of hierarchy in which each person has a place. Social conventions grease the skids and keep us from strangling each other as we sort things out. Most of us grew up in a society in which these conventions have become second–nature — we develop heuristic shortcuts that are emotional in nature to resolve the problems we see in a rational manner (usually).
But competition pits one person against another and changes the social conventions by eliminating the possibility of compromise. Technically speaking, sports such as golf and shotgun shooting are not direct confrontations (until you get to the shoot offs, that is); rather, they are a measure of how well you can perform in the specific conditions laid out in the rules. But, on an emotional level, they are you against the rest, and normal social conventions are impotent while you are competing. Ironically, the reason a lot of shooters go to competitions is for the social advantages of being with like–minded people.
Social vs. competitive drives are one set of triggers that are often found in shooters. Wanting to compete and having to compete are two different things. When you put this into a social situation with its objective hierarchical sorting and make sure the sorting is public, the emotive brain comes to the conclusion social sorting and the objective scoring are the same thing. In other words, only one person can come out on top, which is hard for the rest of us who don’t. And this can cause emotional heartburn.
If you combine this with the fact the social grease of altruism, friendship, expectations and even morality are not taken into account, you see how there is a conflict, one that is mostly emotional and hidden from the rational mind. If you make this public with a scoreboard and prizes, it amplifies the dissonance. It also promotes some to cheat, but that is another story.
While this is enough stress to trigger fight or flight, there is more. Almost every shooter has perfectionistic traits. By this, I mean competition shooters expect to hit every target, even when they clearly are incapable of doing so in practice. The corollary is when a mistake is made, a whole range of awful feelings occur automatically that can lead to discouragement and poor performance. This concern about missing a target is usually the first thought that occurs as the competition starts. Couple this with the social/competitive drives and visible scoring for all to see, and you can understand why there will be a response in the midbrain that gooses the lizard brain to start wanting to get out of the area.
Most of the time, if you get into a situation like this in real life, there are ways to deal with it that have laudable consequences. For example, if a mistake is made, it is usually fixable or you can start over. It may be a little annoying (and you should learn to avoid the mistake), but it is not the end of the world. Another built–in mechanism is denial. If there is a serious issue, the natural response is to ignore it and hope it will go away. In many cases, that is exactly what happens — whatever it is goes away without too many consequences or side effects. In fact, that is the main reason people never expect match stress, it goes away after the match and we forget it on an emotional level.
But competitions with objective scoring are different. You can’t take back that missed target (unless you cheat, of course), and every action has a result of some sort. Couple this with the fact you are probably capable of hitting each target in games like skeet and trap and the fact winners of most matches have a very high percentage of broken targets, then you can see how expecting to be perfect and not being so (and knowing beforehand at some level) can cause the midbrain to fire off messages to the lizard brain.
You’d think personal emotional issues would play a part in this, too, but I have seen many elite–level shooters with soap–opera lives use competition to avoid those parts of their lives for a short while and do very well. If things are bad enough, shooters will simply not shoot as they try to resolve those personal questions.
“Ninety percent of this game is half–mental.”
Okay, we know match pressure is inevitable, we sort of know what the mechanisms are, and we know there are plenty of shooters who deal with match pressure very well. So, how do you learn to deal with match stress and succeed in matches?
I wish there was an easy answer to that question. There have been shooters who tried drugs or alcohol to cope. The problem with this approach is the sharp edge of competition is lost. The fact is, dealing with match pressure is a long journey that involves changing the way you respond to the triggers. It is not a rational change, because most of the action in match stress originates in the midbrain as it deal with the irrational issues mentioned above.
There are obvious things you can try, of course. Become as technically adept as possible with the time and talent you have. Experience, especially in matches, is crucial, but you have to learn form the experiences and not put off dealing with the triggers of match stress until it is too late. You have to accept that match stress will occur; if you don’t, you will be ambushed every time. You have to understand that match stress is not rational, it is emotive, and the parts of the brain that regulate this are not directly influenced by rational thought.
On the other hand, rational thought can set off a set of responses that will help you deal with the incipient fight–or–flight response and calm it down, if you train to deal with it. This takes a lot of work, and you have to use every mental tool you have. Lastly, get a coach. Find someone who has the experience to help you deal with match stress, can teach you how to shoot in competition and can help you analyze what went right and wrong so you can eliminate the negative.
Match stress is here to stay. In future columns I will write about some of the methods used to deal with competitive stress, such as self–talk, relaxation and aspects of cognitive behavioral therapy. Just remember, match stress affects everyone, and it can be dealt with.
Dr. Keyes has written over 200 articles on mental training for Shotgun Sports and is author of the book Mental Training For The Shotgun Sports. He is a former physician for the U.S. Shooting Team, retired Colonel from the Army Reserve and a veteran of Viet Nam and Desert Storm. A Tennessee state pistol champion and coach of several national championship teams, he currently practices in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. You can e-mail him at email@example.com.