As is the case in most sports, most shooters experience fear, stress, nerves, and/or anxiety before a match. Not all stress is bad though, as you need some stress to be able to attain peak performance.
If you have ever competed in sport, you may have heard of the Yerkes-Dodson Curve. According to what is known as “The Yerkes-Dodson law,” performance increases with physiological or mental arousal (stress) but has a diminishing return until ultimately the level of stress becomes too high, and performance decreases. This is a great example of how some stress is needed, but you need to keep it at a manageable level.
This isn’t something that is only experienced in shooting sports, but any type of sport and life in general. At some point in your life, you will experience some variation of performance anxiety. Many describe this as a nervous stomach, stress headaches, hyperventilation, or lack of concentration. I want to share some of my tips on managing performance anxiety in shooting sports in order to help any shooter with the stress they may experience.
Keep Things In perspective
Why are you shooting? Why did you decide to take the plunge and shoot your first match? For fame and fortune? Probably not. Then why is it that so many new shooters have this overwhelming expectation of themselves to shoot lights out at their first match? Keeping things in perspective is key. While not impossible, the likelihood of you destroying the field your first match is about as likely as finding true love on Tinder your first day on the app.
Fear and stress affect everyone. If you are a lower-place shooter and you see the same guy continually winning time and time again, you might think that shooter has no stress and is just out there having fun. Truth is, that shooter is stressed just as much as you are. At the bottom, there are no expectations of that shooter. When you’re at the top, there is a lot of pressure to win and to keep winning. Oftentimes those shooters will have sponsors that they want to perform for, prizes and payouts potentially on the line, and the overwhelming pressure to be the best time and time again. It’s a crummy feeling when you’re the top dog and you have an off day. Temper your expectations, be ready to be humbled and accept that some level of anxiety is just a part of the sport.
Identify The Feelings
What are you scared of? Hopefully nothing. No one should be scared while shooting competitions. The group of competitors are usually friendly, and what is the worst that could happen? Meet some new people and send some lead down range? Like a good friend and fellow competitor always says to me, “A day at the range is always a good day”.
Nerves, anxiety, and stress however are very real things. In order to overcome those feelings, you need to be honest with yourself about how you are feeling. Trying to suppress or outthink your feelings never work. If you don’t admit you’re feeling a certain way to yourself, you won’t be able to leverage those feelings into opportunities to improve. Identify what you are feeling and think of it as an opportunity to learn how to work with and eventually overcome them.
Feel Your Feelings
One of the greatest mistakes I have made was thinking that I was smarter than my feelings. No matter your IQ level, you can’t play chess with your feelings. I often tried to analyze what triggered my nerves or stress, yet all this did was add to it. You start to overanalyze and overthink, which just perpetuates more stress. You end up so deep inside your own head you can’t hit the broad side of a barn, let alone your target. Instead, let yourself feel the stress, nerves, and fear. Only then will you be ready to move to the next step.
Face Your Demons
Often it feels much easier to run from your feelings of stress at a match than to face it. You’ll see people just shut down, throw their gear in frustration, and sometimes just straight up leave the match. If you had a terrible first stage or string, don’t let that tear you down. Accept that it happened, identify that you’re feeling stress, feel it, sit with it, get to know it, then FACE IT! Get back on that horse. The only person affected and feeling your stress is you. It’s an illusion inside of your own head, and only you can overcome it. Stress and fear of another failure is your only limit from performing at your best.
Like the great Michael Jordan once said, “Never say never, because limits, like fears, are often just an illusion.”
Like shooting, think of confronting your feelings as a skill. It’s something you can practice and get proficient at. Practice will only make your feelings seem less dramatic and you will feel more in control when that demon rears its ugly head. Just like practicing the fundamentals of marksmanship, we don’t become proficient overnight. This is something you will be a lifetime student of, but the journey sure gets easier the further you venture.
Babe Ruth once said, “Never let the fear of striking out keep you from playing the game.”
I truly feel these are words to live by. Don’t ever let the stress of performance keep you from taking the next step. Competition is a great place to practice your skills, become a better shooter, and meet a ton of great people with a common interest. Whether you are considering signing up for your first match, or your hundredth match, remember that everyone goes through feelings of nerves, anxiety, and stress when competing. It’s how you handle and learn from those feelings that will propel you into being a clutch shooter that everyone will be chasing in the standings.