Sport Psychology Applied to Sport Shooting

Hector Montalvo Angulo is a Spanish level 1 national pistol coach that I met thanks to an invitation to participate in an online competition via WhatsApp during the first COVID lockdown. Among the many things that were shared in that group was this conference he gave at the olympic shooting federation of Valentia (Real Federación Valenciana de Tiro Olímpico). As soon as I started reading it I thought that it had to be published and Hector immediately gave permission.

I have translated to English the original post in Spanish where I adapted his PDF presentation. If there are any errors they are all mine. There’s a lot to learn and to practice in this presentation (it has interesting exercises). Read it, take notes, and put it into practice.

If you want to contact Hector, you will find his contact details in the sport shooting coaches directory.

Definition

“Sport psychology is the science applied to studying how, why, and under what conditions athletes, coaches, and spectators behave the way they do, and also to research the mutual influence of physical activity and sport participation in psychophysical well being, health, and personal development”.

Sports performance
Technical
Tactical
Physical
Psychological

It is erroneously commonly thought that the main function for the sport psychologist (if not the only one) is to motivate athletes and to manage those with a bad attitude.

In reality, the job of a sports psychologist is to know the psychological phenomena experienced by athletes, on top of the character and personality specificities of each one of them in a sports setting, so as to be able to execute a series of structured techniques that will allow to optimize the athlete’s or team sport and psychological performance. Most professional teams profit from the services of sport psychology professionals that work with the technical team for the better work of the team.

Psychological variables

Concentration

The capacity to focus on a task or exercise without letting anything or anybody from outside distract us to obtain the best performance possible and not waste opportunities.

This is important for every task, but it is specially important in sport competitions where the environment can be full of stimuli, and also when shooting is an opportunity to showcase your performance and loosing your concentration can spoil months of work.

Attention

Closely related to the above: athletes need to be absolutely attentive to their activity , especially those of elite and high performance. Distractions can take their toll at the worst time.

Motivation

It is the core of a person’s work, and even more so for athletes. Depending on motivation are participation in the effort properly oriented towards well-defined and delimited goals and objectives.

Self-confidence

Again, an important factor for everyone that is crucial to athletic performance. It is the reasonable belief that we are capable of achieving our goals successfully.

Coping with pressure

Pressure to perform well, win, and demonstrate one’s abilities can negatively influence the above factors. That’s why part of a sports psychologist’s job is to help manage pressure and expectations so they don’t become a problem.

Tools

Self-knowledge

It seems very simple, but it is not. It consists of learning about yourself , how you react to certain situations and why, when you feel safer and when less, what leads you to lose focus and what strategies you can implement to solve this…

Relaxation

Just as it is important to maintain attention and not lose focus at crucial moments, it is important for athletes to learn to relax both physically and psychologically, so that pressure does not build up and end up causing problems, such as injury, insomnia or lack of concentration.

Visualization

This technique helps to visualize the goals and objectives and the way to achieve them . Thanks to it, motivation, concentration, and confidence are exercised so that all psychological variables are aligned with the objective to be achieved and the steps that must be taken to achieve them.

NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming

This technique consists of projecting our wishes and verbalizing them.

Establish a plan, set goals

Establish a plan

Establishing a plan is essential to be able to set goals, both final and intermediate goals. The goals set together with the coach must be difficult, but achievable, because it is useless to set goals for which we do not strive, and even more damaging is to set ourselves nonviable goals, whether due to sporting level, lack of time to train or time to improve our brands.

Planning and objective

You have to plan the season. At the beginning of the season you must analyze the calendar, and mark the important and secondary competitions (training for the important ones start 2/3 months before) and there is nothing left at the mercy of luck: volume, technique, physical work … it’s all part of planning for the season.

The objective must be marked from reality, it must pretend to be the maximum performance of the athlete, and it must be positive. (The objective cannot be not to do eights, or to beat so and so…the objective must be to get into the final, make good executions, perform the shot with perfection, keep the pistol still …) Each athlete has to be demanding with their own objective and to obtain it the athlete must divide each of the parameters that this final objective gives us into small pieces and overcome small intermediate objectives.

Educate the mind

Do not limit yourself mentally

Human beings, during their evolution, have protected themselves from stressful situations by fleeing from the situations in which they are most uncomfortable. This prevents growth in sports. This must be changed for sports growth, otherwise there will be no progress.

We must therefore think positively: limits should not be set, we cannot think that something is impossible for us. If we are able to shoot a 10 we must be able to think that it can be repeated over and over again. We should only be able to think that this is given by a good execution of the technique, so we should work for a good technical execution and not simply to obtain a good mark.

The result is the fruit of good execution, if we carry out good executions we will obtain good results.

Working on technique, tactics, physique and mind will guarantee good results.

“Whether you think you can do it or not, you’re going to be right”

Let’s not limit our thoughts.

Exercises to improve concentration

Learn to shift attention

The purpose of this exercise is to be able to experience different attentional styles and demonstrate how different types of attention are required to perform different skills.

Pay attention to what you hear. Choose a separate sound, voices, footsteps, radio…. Then, listen to all the sounds around you without trying to classify them, just passively listening to them and eliminating any other thoughts.

Become aware of bodily sensations. Now become aware of bodily sensations, such as muscle tension in a specific area, cold on the tips of the fingers, etc. It’s about focusing on each one independently, identifying it, labeling it, and then moving on to the next one. Then try to experience all the sensations simultaneously, without dwelling on any one of them in particular.

Pay attention to your own thoughts and emotions. Try to experience them one by one. Then try to let those thoughts and emotions disappear and relax. 

Open your eyes and choose an object that is located in front of you. You should look at that object directly while trying to capture with your peripheral vision the rest of the objects that surround you. Then gradually narrow the focus of your attention until you only perceive the initially chosen object. Repeat the process in the opposite direction, so that you go widening the perspective until you get to perceive the entire room in which you are.

Learn to stay focused

Find a quiet place without distractions. Choose a relevant object for shooting (a target, a pellet, etc.). Think about its characteristics (weight, texture, smell, color, size, etc.) while you are holding it. If eventually the attention goes to something else, gently return to paying attention to the selected object and empty your mind of any other thought that prevents this focus, in the end our mind only allows us to focus strongly on a single thing.

During the competition, you can look and focus on something on the table, although the ideal is to focus on the front sight, that way, when you execute the shot you will continue to focus on it clearly. This will help you pay attention to the gun, to see the target certainly blurry, and to have a clear mind to perform a good execution.

Other concentration techniques are pre-acting routines, self-verbalization of certain instructions or keywords, and mental practice or visualization.

Examples:

  • This is the most important shot of the entire series.
  • I am looking for a good execution.
  • Sharp sights, still gun.
  • I press the trigger gently, while the front sight is in position.

One of the biggest obstacles athletes face in maintaining concentration is the tendency to evaluate performance and classify it as good or bad. These judgments tend to promote ego-compromising personal reactions. The process of evaluating and judging what one does in competition generally hampers performance. After judging our execution, it is common to begin to generalize and think in this way: “I’m stupid, I can’t believe I’m doing so badly, I’ve taken so many bad shots, I’m going to be fatal.”

These thoughts and judgments will make us lose fluency, timing, and rhythm.

The brain will begin to over stress the body, causing muscle tension, overexertion, lapses in concentration, and negatively affecting decision-making. Instead of judging the value of the shot and categorizing it as either good or bad, it is important to learn to look at our actions without judgment . This does not mean that one should ignore errors but rather that one should see performance as it is, without judgment, and work to perform well.

How to face a competition

Motivation

One of the first aspects that you must control to adopt a positive and beneficial attitude in your performance is to begin to study yourself and become aware of your strengths and weaknesses.

Having that certainty can give you great confidence and mental reinforcement when facing the competition. Not being clear, on the other hand, can create an insecurity that can work against you.

Everything is planned

During a competition you should not leave anything to chance. You must plan in advance how things will develop.

So, study the range, the time of the competition, the services offered by the shooting range, the material to be used, lighting, temperature, the shooting table, etc … All these are things that we must prepare, we can’t expect it to be like home. It can be cold, the white of the target can be with less light than usual, the table can be higher, or smaller… You must study everything.

The same happens with the the time of shooting: if we compete at 3 pm, you must eat lightly at 1 pm, because it is not good to compete hungry or with a full stomach. (You must avoid, exciting drinks and tobacco at least 3 hours before.) Nor can we be at the firing point rushing to finish to go to the toilet. Nor wait to buy the ammunition that suits us at the firing range, because it may not be available. Nor to trigger adjustments the afternoon before the competition.

Full control of all these factors will provide you with peace of mind and security.

What to think about at the firing point

The level of attention is not constant during the match.

Think about small things about the shooting process, pay attention to two things only. You already worked on everything at training. The raises, stopping, trigger, balance, grip, sights… just pay attention to two and work to make them perfect .

Be demanding with yourself and work on perfect executions.

Do not externalize emotions: focus on doing things well, not on others seeing you in this or that way. Analyze the shot fired and continue with our competition. We analyze the shot, we do not judge it . 

You must be able to follow a previously set shooting process (I breathe, I visualize, I lift, I focus, I stop, I press, I analyze, I go down) and not to think another damned 8Not good results must be corrected without focusing on the error, reinforcing what we must do well, without thinking about the things that we have been doing wrong. For example, if we jerked the trigger, we must think about the movement that we must make when pressing it, and not remember the sudden movement that caused the bad shot.

The impact value is the result of our executions, whoever performs better executions will obtain better results.

You do not compete against anyone, you compete with yourself. Don’t be afraid to disappoint.

Peak and valley moments

During a competition our condition will vary. Take advantage of the good moments, to be fully in; if you are on a roll take advantage of it and continue to shoot mechanically. When you notice that you attention when facing the shot has dropped it is an indicator that this moment has passed.

When you execute poorly take take a dry fire penalty shot (except in finals). Take as many dry shots as necessary to review your shooting process, make sure that you are able to properly press the trigger, make a good stop, be balanced, etc.

If you make a couple of bad executions in a row without really knowing why stop, sit down, take a break, and in the chair analyze the situation, calm down and review the correct shooting process in your notes. At that moment it is more important than ever to be positive in your thinking (“ I must do one thing, and then the other, and always think about what I must do” ). We should never think about what we do wrong, or wish for not another 8

Pensar de forma catastrófica te prepara para fracasar.

Thinking catastrophically sets you up for failure.

Control pressure

When you start to feel the stress of competition, try the following relaxation techniques:

Deep breathing

Sit on the firing post, breathe in slowly through the nose, completely filling the lungs, try to make the air brush against the palate. Hold your breath for about five seconds and then breathe out slowly. Repeat the exercise five times in a row.

Muscle relaxation

Strongly contract (flex) a group of muscles. Hold them taut for about five seconds and then relax them. Repeat the exercise five times, choosing different muscle groups.

Visualize

Close your eyes and imagine a place or event from the past that gives you peace. Evoke beautiful sights and calming sounds. Imagine the tension dissipating from your body. Advisors to professional athletes often advise them to imagine themselves making a good pass, shooting, or scoring over and over again.

Positive thinking

Keep negative thoughts away. Repeat phrases like:

  • Come on, I have trained well, I am prepared, I come to enjoy.
  • The 9 is as good as the 10.
  • I have nothing to prove to anyone.
  • Good executions will pay off.

Remember, you choose your thoughts: you either think about how you are going to fail or you think about how you are going to keep fighting. The two alternatives are incompatible simultaneously in the brain.

How to overcome mental blocks

The mind never rests

The mind is the part of the body that rests only when you sleep. In addition to recovering it by resting, we must learn to relax physically and mentally through the techniques we have discussed.

At home we can try to visualize.Dedicate fifteen-minute sessions to directed imagination. Close your eyes, sit somewhere comfortable, away from noise, telephones, and other distractions. Imagine practicing your sport, from the beginning of the warm-up, until the end of the session.

Do not fall into burnout (mental fatigue)

When athletes have nothing in mind other than shooting, training, more training, and competitions; and if we also add work or studies, they the risk of mental fatigue, falling into burnout.

It is necessary to know when to occupy 100% of our time and when to stop: stop training for a few days, go out for a drink, practice another sport, have fun and get oxygen. We practice our sport for fun, for personal and sporting growth, and if we don’t have fun we will end up leaving it.

Practice some physical activity other than the sport in which you compete. Ride your bike, get out, walk, and completely disconnect from the activity that is stressing you out. 

Don’t pretend to be perfect, everyone misses a shot or screws up every now and then. Be forgiving of yourself, remember all the times you’ve done well, and look ahead.

Some of the stress may be rooted in uncertainty: talk to your coach alone. If your expectations seem vague or inconsistent, ask for clarification. Although the coach should promote the physical and mental development of the athletes who train, you may have to be the one in charge of opening a line of communication.

If you feel overwhelmed because it seems that you are not doing enough with all the activities that you do and it gives you the feeling that you have lost control, review the options and decide the order of importance.

Recognizing when you need guidance to help you get out of a stressful situation is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of courage and good sense. Don’t stop looking for support until you find it. 

At the federation we are open to trying to help any athlete who requests it.

Published by ramonsuarez

Pistol shooter practicing mostly the Olympic & ISSF disciplines, learning and sharing along the way. #10mairpistol #25mpistol #50mpistol #rfp #rapidfirepistol #issfpistol #olympicpistol

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