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Pressure in Trapshooting Competition by Phil Ross

Jimmy Heller (right) is an excellent shooter under pressure. Here he is relaxing between rounds with his friend Tom Mack. Photo by Johnny Cantu.

n an earlier article, I spoke about burnout in trapshooting (see December 2013 issue). Burnout and pressure are closely tied together. While trying to become and remain a successful shooter, you can feel pressured and that can lead to burnout. A lot of things can cause pressure.

Psychological/emotional pressure is simply a feeling you must overcome in order to obtain a level of comfort that includes a significant reduction in anxiety. The thought of failing is almost always very daunting; hence, the feeling of pressure. And pressure, in my view, is also an inevitable offspring of risk. Risk arises when you place yourself in competition with others; it also arises when you attempt to make a living in your chosen game (or at least earn enough to pay for all your shooting).

You need to ask yourself if you can handle a situation where pride, money and, in some cases, the ability to protect oneself from “scavengers” (i.e., dark–horse entries who “play the money” — wager on his/her performance — on a whim and unexpectedly win). Pressure certainly happens when one reaches into his wallet to put money into a program. You can pay for purses and options available in trapshooting. In some cases, you can also put money into a “Lewis” class, which will always give a return if you win an event with the highest score or via the luck of the draw.

A shooter can create pressure in more than one way when trapshooting. Shooters who are motivated to shoot for money may wager on their performances, and then the pressure can be “over the top.” When a shooter considers how much money is needed to support his shooting endeavors and also have some discretionary funds at the end of a shooting season, it can be overwhelming. I figured roughly a “money shooter” needed to make around $20,000 a year during the 1970s, $25,000 a year during the 1980s and around $30,000 a year during the 1990s. These are approximate figures for a shooter expecting to dedicate himself to trapshooting with the intent of paying for his shooting in its entirety, pay his bills and work on a part–time basis so he/she can travel to shoots. (These are, of course, net figures from a shooter’s gross winnings.) Add the personal need to excel and the pressure to stay on top, and you are talking about a lot of pressure!

When I left trapshooting in 1996 (taking what I call a “retirement” from competing at a very high level), my reasons for leaving trapshooting at that time were partially due to physical ailments. I had gained a good deal of weight over the years, which caused problems with my knees and back. It became very painful to stand for long periods of time. During the years when I was “only” 60–100 pounds overweight, I was able to accumulate a good number of wins, but the overbearing pressure I experienced during many of those years took a good deal out of me and made me realize how difficult it is to compete on a national level against maybe only seven to ten individuals who are also shooting for monetary gain. This elite group during those years included the late, great Leo Harrison III, Brad Dysinger, Dan Bonillas, Bobby Gilbertson, Britt Robinson and a few others. Many other individuals put themselves under pressure by trying to shoot to make a profit via winning purses. Many of those individuals failed because of the pressures they faced.

To help myself deal with pressure during my most competitive and rewarding years, I would ask myself if I was at the right place at the right time. I also asked myself if my commitment was strong enough to challenge the pressure I knew I would be feeling due to the very intense competition I would face. Anytime you put your skills to the test against other shooters of the same level, you are going to feel pressure.

I often tell shooters to have a “game plan.” I continue to maintain a game plan is very important in trapshooting. As one who tried to make my living shooting, I had to consider where to challenge others, where and how to enter an event. During my heyday, those spots were, from a Westerner’s perspective, the two major shoots held in Las Vegas and one in Reno, Nevada, and, of course, the Grand American (then held in Vandalia, Ohio). These were four shoots where a trapshooter shooting to make a profit knew he had to “come up big.” With this knowledge, there was even more pressure.

Bobby Gilbertson, Gary Bonetti, Rick Schuler, Dan Bonillas and Ron Alcoriza

Bobby Gilbertson, second from the right, learned how to shoot under pressure and was inducted into the California State Trapshooting Hall of Fame in June 2013. He is flanked by some other “pretty good” shooters who also did the same (L to R: Gary Bonetti, Rick Schuler, Don Bonillas and Ron Alcoriza).

Pressure is an overbearing amount of stress that can beat a trapshooter down year–to–year, month–to–month and week–to–week. The overbearing pressure most of us felt required an incredible amount of fortitude and the ability to remain in our comfort zone. The need to shoot successfully (not the desire, but the need), was a subliminal noise almost continually in the back of my mind. That was a constant during those 20 years for me and the other top trapshooters at that time. Remember, a good deal of our winnings was earmarked to literally put food on the table, since we were away from our daily occupations or business endeavors for long periods during the year.

Pressure has a way of keeping the trapshooter “in the hunt.” Pressure keeps you on your toes and aware of the need to succeed. It also keeps the trapshooter aware he/she is just human. You learn failure can be just around the corner if pressure is not handled. Sometimes I would look for ways to meet pressure head–on. I would seek it out because, upon occasion, pressure allowed me to do difficult things. For example, at one particular southern California trap club. the jackpot money for breaking 100–straight had grown into five figures. I’d seek out that longshot of a wager and eventually was able to win the entire pot with 100 straight from the 27–yard line. I also won the Golden West Grand Trapshoot in 1976. Both experiences put me under great pressure during the pursuit, but I was able to use the pressure as a motivation, a challenge, an advantage, if you will, to help me improve.

There have been other shooters who have used that strategy. California shooter Jimmy Heller comes to mind. He is a shooter who does well when facing pressure. Dan Bonillas is another example of a shooter who shoots well under pressure, as did Bobby Gilbertson during his shooting years. These shooters tended to thrive under pressure. Perhaps they felt they were better than their competition when the stakes were high. Jimmy Heller and another Southern California shooter, Terry Bilbey, learned to work well under pressure later in their careers. Bobby Gilbertson learned to handle pressure early on, as did I, because we realized we wanted to shoot and if we really wanted to excel, pressure almost always would be part of our emotional environment. I “worked” as a trapshooter seeking significant monetary reward for approximately 20 years (from 1978 through 1998, and I feel I was fairly effective in being competitive despite an almost continuous feeling of pressure. I believe that was because I did not avoid pressure and tried to learn how to avoid most of the negative effects of pressure.

To work under pressure, you must be able to anticipate scenarios where you might fail and almost “enjoy” working through those conditions and come back to win another day. I learned through failure and through success. I estimate maybe one shooter out of a 1,000 would attempt to win a substantial amount of his income through trapshooting or learn to “enjoy” shooting under pressure.

I suggest any trapshooter who wishes to explore the feeling of pressure consider shooting for funds to pay for all expenses involved with his/her trapshooting. This includes travel, motels, fuel, food, shells, entry fees and, of course, loneliness. You will miss family and friends while far away from home attending larger trapshoots. Even when I returned to my home base in Southern California, I would shoot pickup shoots at the Redlands, Oaktree, Laguna Hills and Winchester West gun clubs to keep my head in the game.

There are many shooters who shoot competitively for no money, merely for the trophy and the enjoyment of competition. Those shooters know to overcome pressure, one must learn what he or she can do under duress to shoot better than others in such conditions. One must face the pressure of beating others in his/her particular yardage group or classification in 16–yard shooting and know how well he/she has to shoot to win by shooting well in Doubles. Shooters who shoot for the pure desire to compete must find ways to deal with pressure to reduce the feelings of anxiety or unhappiness that often follow not winning or not shooting well. A shooter learns early on that he must put his emotional state on the line, at least for the short term.

There is only one way, in my view, to handle pressure. Ask yourself if you are shooting for money and to bring financial rewards or necessities to you and your family or are you shooting for the sheer enjoyment of shooting on the weekend where there is relatively less pressure and the heat of having to win is significantly reduced, so the consequences are also greatly reduced. Pressure is very often how much we put upon ourselves. Pressure is related to how large of a “fight” we wish to get into.

Harlan Campbell, Jr., the late Leo Harrison III and Sean Hawley are all fabulous and consistent winners at the largest shoots throughout the country. Those champions are under pressure to shoot often and well in order to reap personal and financial rewards. They are under pressure to shoot well and win often to maintain their standing and status so they will be sought out for trapshooting lessons, instructional media and industry support. These opportunities would diminish were they not to continuously shoot at consistently high levels throughout each season. Shooters that have learned to shoot under pressure have reaped great rewards and climbed to the top of a difficult summit.

Pressure eventually takes its toll on even the best in trapshooting. Reward outside of meeting personal goals almost always demands an above–average performance at any level. One can perform at an “average” level and generally maintain employment. That is not the case in trapshooting; hence the pressure to varying degrees for all who partake in competition. Pressure brings its own unique problems. The primary symptom of pressure in trapshooting is burnout, which I addressed in my earlier article (see December 2013). If you don’t learn to handle pressure and avoid burnout, you will lose the enjoyment of the game and of winning and will start to falter.

I think pressure is unique in trapshooting because success is predicated upon shooting the highest score for one’s class or scores that are very close to being the highest. Fourth place, for example, will usually only provide personal satisfaction, at best. Pressure in trapshooting is an emotional feeling that easily thrives, as the vast majority of trapshooters at any trapshoot, no matter how small or large, will, by definition, be non–winners. Learning to handle pressure can put you on the road to success and consistent wins. If you aspire to do more than just shoot for fun, put yourself under pressure and learn from it.

Phil Ross has won trap events over the last seven decades. He continues to teach trapshooting and promote the sport with joy and passion. You can find out more about Phil’s trapshooting clinics, as well as his books, CDs and speaking engagements by calling (909) 307–0385.