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What’s Your Plan?

“Mental Training” by Michael J. Keyes, M.D.

We all train to shoot in competitions, but very little is ever written or said about how to train for the competition itself. Most of us are familiar with what we have to do in order to develop the three major aspects of shooting — technical, mental and physical — and many of us have mastered these and put in the time needed to develop the qualities that make a good shooter. But being a good shooter is not synonymous with being a good competitor.

Competition occurs any time you commit to a measured performance in the presence of others trying to do the same thing. The purpose of this action is to see who is “the best,” and there is a system that determines the order in which you finish. There are rules that specifically outline what the performance is and how to judge the quality of the performance. Each competitor is required to meet certain terms of eligibility and has to ensure admission through some method such as an entry fee. There are usually prizes, and the order of finish is public in order to let the competitors know who won. In other words, you enter a competition in order to take the prizes away from the other entrants, while they try to do the same thing.

What's your plan?

In the case of many sports, such as golf, bowling, horseshoes and shooting, competitors act independently instead of direct one–on–one contact. This does not mean you are not affected by what others do; you are, but it does mean only you are responsible for your performance. This means you have total control over your actions, or at least as much as the environment will allow.

Competitions bring on a specific type of stress, which is both mental and physical (which, as we know, may be the same thing), is predictable and very hard to duplicate outside of an actual competition. Every competitor experiences match stress, but not every competitor reacts the same way to it.

We pretty much know match stress is a natural reaction to the kinds of exposure any gauged performance brings on, and there are plenty of physiological studies showing what happens. We also know match stress is probably the result of an unnatural exposure that lays out all your faults and foibles to a huge audience, and there is no way to avoid it if you follow the social contract you made by entering the competition.

Or something like that. The important thing to know is match stress is universal, and you should learn to deal with it.

Competition is not just about match stress. First there are the variables. Variables are those environmental aspects over which you have no control. All a competitor can do is react when one of these issues occurs. This doesn’t mean you are totally at the mercy of the variables; you can plan to deal with them before the competition occurs.

To give an example, golf is played on a different course every time. Even if you play on the same course, hole placement and weather are different and ensure a different look each time, so every shot requires a specific analysis and tweaking of technique in order to obtain the optimal result. This kind of competition has a high degree of variables. On the other hand, horseshoes competition has far fewer variables. Horseshoe courts are standardized by the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association (NHPA), scoring is clear, the equipment is the same for all pitchers, and the outcomes are obvious and digital. The rules reflect this, and they are specific and lengthy in an attempt to cover all possible situations.

Variables are important because, while they are often disconcerting, they are also finite and predictable.

Next is the uniqueness of each competition. In a sense, this is a type of variable, but in a sport such as shotgun shooting, each match field has a different background, a predictable weather pattern, the usual crowd of shooters and an administration of the grounds that is peculiar to that place that make it unique. Depending on the sport, these factors can have an effect on how you shoot and how you prepare for each event.

The level of competition also changes the way you look at each competition. Local weekly matches are easier to prepare for, especially if you practice at the same venue, than a national championship at the same place. The level of match stress is naturally higher in the latter, and that has to be taken into account when you prepare for the match.

The only way to do the 10,000 hours of learning match techniques is to participate in matches. If you don’t have any idea what will happen to you in a match, you will not be prepared for matches. Match stress occurs only in matches. You can simulate some of the aspects of match stress, and you can certainly plan and prepare for it, but unless you have experience and learn from that experience, you will not be a good competitor.

This means not only do you have to compete in order to learn to compete, you have to have some way to record and analyze what you have learned. I strongly recommend using some sort of shooter’s diary (you can download one here). It should include ratings of match stress components, along with measurements of technical and physical skills. Being able to correlate and analyze this information will help with future matches.

Are there secrets to match preparation and the development of match skills? No, not really. Mostly it is common sense and hard work, just like the rest of the skills needed for competing.

A lot of shooters fail to learn to compete. I think I know why. Facing up to your “failings” (i.e. not winning the match or achieving the standards you set) is very similar to what causes match pressure in the first place — a fear of losing or looking bad. A natural defense against this is to simply deny it occurred. People minimize the bad things in their life and, most of the time, they can get away with this because there are so many other paths to take and be happy. Not so much in competition.

The very things that make competitions so interesting and (mostly) fair also tie you down to a rigid set of rules and expectations. Facing up to why you are not successful in a match can be hard, but it is necessary if you want to improve. An important part of the plan to be a better competitor is to look at the results and learn from them, especially if they are awful. Awful means there is room for improvement, and it gives you a blueprint as to what to avoid and what to work on.

How do you plan and prepare for competition? Let’s look at how the pros do it. Football is a pro sport in this country starting in high school and ending up in the National Football League. The pros I am talking about are the coaches whose job it is to get his or her team ready for the next competition. Each coach has to assess the team, taking into account all the pluses and minuses. They also have to take into account all the variables, including the other team. In the short period of preparation for each game, they try to maximize their team’s assets and figure a way to minimize both their team’s minuses and the other team’s pluses. This involves a lot of preparation, including viewing film, setting a game plan and preparing the team for specific situations.

Sometimes this does not work. Sam Houston University (SHU) versus University of Texas (UT) has a fairly predictable outcome, but in the process, the SHU coach can make his team better for the real competition, and they earn a lot of money that goes towards the team. In this case, the planning takes into account the loss and works towards improving the team. It’s more or less a win for SHU, in spite of the score, as an enhanced performance is usually the result because SHU is playing UT, and they don’t want to look too bad.

Here are a few tips: Prepare for the unexpected. Scout the opposition. Practice matches in matches.

Prepare For Unexpected

It’s not that unexpected, after all. If something actually is a unique experience, file it away for the future — it may happen again. But, if it is an equipment malfunction and you blow up, shame on you. This is a very predictable unexpected situation that should have a predetermined solution.

Every time you compete, there will be a mistake or error on your part. Because one of the variables of the game is shot pattern, there is an element of chance that may work in your favor. You may have broken a target after a poor performance due to the fact your performance was just good enough that the target met the shot at the appointed time.

As a competitor, you have to know when these things happen, either because you see it or a coach/friend does. This is a good example of an unexpected outcome that can benefit you. If you ignore your error and expect good things to happen every time, you will be disappointed.

Scout The Opposition

In this case, the opposition is the venue and the match itself. Individual venues have predictable variables you should know, especially if you keep a record of every match. For specific competitions, you should have a specific game plan based on your knowledge of both the venue and how the competition is run. A state championship on your grounds is different from the weekly match. If you are not prepared for the extra match stress, you will not do well. Make those preparations early, and when the ship hits the sand, you will be prepared.

Practice Matches

“Not planning is
planning for disaster.”

– Old Army saying

Learning to shoot matches takes experience in matches. This is a straightforward mandate often ignored by shooters. You have to have experience that matches (pun intended) what you will experience the next time you shoot a competition. Learn from the mistakes and situations. Take these lessons and set up a game plan based on what you learned. Rinse and Repeat. That’s how you learn to deal with matches and match pressures. There is no substitute.

Top competitors deal with every detail of each match they enter. The more precise and accurate you are in planning for the match, the more likely you will be able to deal with match stress. Learn to plan and trust your plan and skill level. You will find you will become a much better competitor that way.

Dr. Keyes has written over 220 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.