Edition 18 (March 2014)

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Mental Toughness Digest for Sport & Performance.

The Psychology of Pistol Shooting

By Gareth J. Mole (PSY0001372747)

One of the questions we get asked a lot is how much overlap there is between different sports when it comes to the mental side. I am not aware of any research that has been done to answer this question but I’d suggest it’s about 80% – 90% and even higher within team sports and individual sports. With this in mind I thought it would be a nice idea to use the content below that we were recently asked to produce for Australia’s largest pistol shooting publication. I’d be very interested in the comments from both our pistol shooting reader as well as the non pistol shooting followers about if my estimation of 80% – 90% seems ‘about right’ or not. Email me at gareth@condorperformance.com, enjoy!

As a sport psychologist, one of the most interesting parts of spending time with pistol shooters and coaches, is witnessing how many of them acknowledge the fact that the sport of target pistol shooting incorporates a huge psychological component, yet few understand how to train the mind effectively. Unlike the work that we do with some sports people (rugby league, for example) whereby the first goal is to actually convince the athletes that spending time to develop mental toughness is beneficial, it is the case for most of the target based sports that we can skip this part and jump straight into working on the aspects related to mental training.

Having said that, it can be useful to explain why mental training is so commonly overlooked and/or underdone. By far the biggest reason for this is that ‘mental strength’ or ‘mental toughness’ hasn’t been defined amongst those trying to improve it. If you ask fifty pistol shooters ‘who wants to become mentally stronger’, you’ll get a universal affirmative. Ask the same group what mental toughness is and all you’ll hear is chatter as they try to agree amongst themselves on some common notions about what it may be.

In defence of those who may be confused, sport psychologists themselves are only just starting to agree on what ‘mental toughness’ is and, just as importantly, what it is not. The reason why this is such a vital step in terms of mental training is that the mental techniques or mental methods (see below) proposed to address the issue tend to be more effective when the shooter knows why he/she is spending his/her valuable time on this aspect of his/her training and development. By ‘defining ’ mental training you provide a greater purpose for it’s importance and with that comes a propensity for the athlete’s motivation to be heightened. This is the core reason why people will stick with something as opposed to quitting when they don’t notice immediate benefits after an hour or so of trying.

Mental toughness is the umbrella term used to define five general sport psychology targets:- confidence, emotions, concentration, communication and motivation. This could mean that improving mental toughness as a whole can be counterproductive in that the methods used to improve each of these five components tend to be very different from one other. However, mental toughness is not about improving technique, its about making improvements to these five aspects separately. While some would argue that as human beings everything is psychological to some degree, it’s normally more productive to separate the purely mental elements of performance e.g. ‘confidence’, with the parts that only have a psychological link to those elements i.e. everything else.

Other areas of improvement that benefit from focused attention, separate from mental toughness, are the physical pillars of modern day science i.e. strength, fitness, flexibility, and the lifestyle choices such as sleep and nutrition. Incidedntly, the tactical pillar of modern day sports science is not that relevant in sports where the moment by moment goals never change.

Historically, sport psychologists didn’t need to have an in-depth working knowledge of the sports they’ve consulted to, but over time, as the profession slowly evolved from being ‘counsellors’ and more towards being ‘mental coaches’, having an idea of the psychological demands specific to different sports is imperative to being able to ascertain which elements of mental toughness are more or less relevant for a particular sport.

Let’s be blunt here, it’s quite plausible for a pistol shooter with poor or average communication skills to win an Olympic medal. By way of comparison, however, a rugby league half back or doubles tennis player with a similar communication deficit will find it impossible to reach the pinnacle of his/her sport. With this particular example in mind, it’s then worth asking the question: which of the remaining elements of mental toughness (confidence, emotions, concentration and motivation) are more conducive to competitive target pistol shooting? What do you think? Rather, than read on right away to discover how I would answer this question, try and come up with your own ideas and then compare them with what follows.

I would start with motivation. Motivation is the driving force behind everything so without it the rest will basically result in just ‘going through the motions’. Next up, I’d have to say concentration. In a sport that is so predictable in terms of what the shooter is trying to achieve, the ability to switch on (to the right things) and switch off (in order to rest the mind between attempts) can be highly beneficial in the pursuit of excellence. Obviously, confidence and emotions are still very important areas to work on, but it would be better to be a nervous shooter with excellent concentration skills than one full of confidence, but without a Pre-Shot Routine (PSR) to establish concentration, for example. With motivation and concentration arguably being most influential when it comes to the psychological aspects of target pistol shooting, we can turn our attention to the ways in which mental training can be developed with the focus on these areas. With individual differences aside I’d suggest three target areas that are, potentially, of the most value to pistol shooters and coaches alike:

a) goal setting b) establishing routines and c) knowing what you can control and/or influence and knowing what you have no control and/or influence over.

Goal setting would have to be one of the most spoken about mental techniques (a quick Google search results in 97,600,000 hits!), but there are a few keys that can increase the chance of goal setting converting to goal getting. First, start with the end in mind and work backwards. Simply saying, ‘I’ll just keep practising and see where that takes me’ might sound like a nice, relaxed approach to increase performance, but it will probably have a fairly negative impact in areas such as commitment as well as on the quality of your training sessions.

One of the most useful analogies for starting with the end and working backwards would have to be a car trip. Most people will decide on the ‘desired destination’ first then start to think and plan about what they have to do in order to arrive at the chosen destination and at the preferred time. When using this analogy to improve goal setting for your performance outcomes, the destination is the result e.g. winning, top position, qualifying for various teams, etc. Once you’ve decided on which outcome or outcomes you’re striving for, the next phase is to allocate a reasonable amount of time to achieve it.

Finally, set about planning how best to reach your goal. Exactly the same mental strategies that go into planning a successful car journey, apply to planning a successful performance goal and there are likely to be a number of challenges along the way, most of which are predictable. Those who go about their goal setting well will not only know what most of these challenges are likely to be, but will actually have a ready-to-go solution for managing them all. Continuing with the analogy mentioned earlier, a well-planned car journey might well factor in extra time for traffic congestion, whereby the journey to achieving a performance goal would be benefitted from the athlete knowing how training sessions would be structured in the event of a serious physical injury.

What is both great and challenging about mental skills training is how everything is linked. Much of what is written above regarding goal setting also applies to successful routines; the next technique towards achieving mental toughness that is particularly pertinent to the art of pistol shooting.

In my role as sport psychologist I’ve witnessed many shooters use routines that demonstrate a common weakness – a tendency to be too rigid. Our aim, when we design routines, is for them to be robust, but slightly flexible. It reminds me of the development of golf equipment. When I purchased my first one wood (driver) back in the 80s it was made of metal. As strong as it was it was only a matter of time before the stress of continually trying to knock the cover off the ball become too much and…snap! Nowadays, it’s almost impossible to find a golf club made of metal as those have given way to shafts made of graphite, which is a much stronger and lighter material. Most significantly this new equipment has a little bit of ‘give’ so each swing allows the shaft to bend so that stress is absorbed and a much more long lasting piece of equipment is the result. I for one am still using the same clubs that I purchased some 15 years ago.

One very sensible way to build some ‘give’ into your routines is by separating what you need to do from what you’d like to do. In other words, separate the needs from the wants. Whether this is done as part of a longer routine i.e. the hours leading up to the start of a competition, or as part of the much shorter pre-shot routine, the fact is that most issues arise when a shooter confuses on what he/she wants to do (wipe his/her hands) with what he/she needs to do (reload the pistol).

One of the fastest growing mental techniques in sport psychology is the ‘art of mindfulness’, which essentially teaches the subject to focus on the present moment and to judge emotions with less criticism. In other words, “oh crap, I’m nervous” becomes “that’s interesting, I’m getting nervous”. One of the reasons why the art of mindfulness is becoming so popular is because of its effect to actually reduce the vicious cycle of a mere thought about an emotion actually leading to that emotion becoming much more severe. So, ‘Oh crap, I’m nervous’ morphs into ‘Oh crap I’m nervous, which is making me really nervous’. The secret to successful mindfulness is not to allow the non-judgemental component turn into excuse making!

Last, but not least, we come to the mental method that we at Condor Performance refer to as ‘Controlling It’. In many ways it is the foundation mindset for improving mental toughness and performance and many of our clients revolve all their mental training around this approach. The strategy requires you to consider eleven categories:

• The past • Genetics • The weather • Other people / animals • Moveable objects • Your surroundings • Your results • The future • You • Your effort • The present

These categories are common to all sports and performance areas and they can be divided into three groups according to the amount of ‘influence’ you have:

  1. The Un-influenceables – not surprisingly, those you have no influence on at all
  2. The Influenceables – the areas that you feel you can influence to a greater or less extent
  3. The Controllables – the category containing elements that you believe you can influence entirely

With this in mind, consider the eleven categories listed above in isolation of the others and try to work out if they are Un-influenceables, Influenceables or Controllables. I invite you to send me an email directly at gareth@condorperformance.com if you have any questions about your responses to this exercise and/or if you want to know more. Best of luck and I look forwarded to hearing from you gareth@condorperformance.com 

Author: Condor Performance

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