The use of sports psychology has grown exponentially in sport as the benefits that it brings to sporting performance has clearly been identified. It’s use in shooting has been more gradual and in my opinion, less structured than it has been used in other sports.
For example, I have seen athletes who look to sports psychology to bridge a gap in their performance. The gap in their performance is not necessarily caused by a psychological issue but is more likely to be a technical issue, particularly if the shooter is still developing. This example brings to mind the question of how Sports Psychology should be used and integrated into athlete training and competition activities.
What is Sports Psychology?
Sports Psychology is a distinct field of sports science which studies how psychology can be used to influence and improve their mental health and the psychological influences and reactions of athletes during training and competition.
Sports Psychology tends to work best when it is implemented as part of a multidisciplinary sports science approach. This would be when it is included with other sports science topics such as nutrition, physiology, biomechanics, physical preparation and of course, technical shooting skills.
Sport Psychology use In shooting can be beneficial to a shooter in areas such as motivation, coping with competition stress and anxiety, strategies for improving concentration and focus, coping with success and failure and athlete wellbeing and mental health.
When to introduce Sport Psychology
There is really is no excuse for not introducing the principles of Sport Psychology to a shooter from the very earliest stages of their training. Sports Psychology should never be seen as an ‘extra’ activity or something that is bolted on to a training programme when a shooter reaches a certain level of achievement or experience.
Integrating practical Sports Psychology activities early into the regular training programme is by far the best way to extract the maximum benefit from this science discipline. It also removes the stigma that sometimes is attached to this discipline where it can be misconstrued as a ‘failure’ of the athlete in the area of mental strength.
The principles of Sport Psychology are wide and varied and easily suitable for introduction as part of a junior training programme. There should never be any stigma or concern about introducing such programmes. They can only ever be beneficial when combined with other sports science disciplines as part of an overall holistic approach to training.
Just like technical training, Sports Psychology activities can be introduced at different levels to match the requirements of the shooter at whatever point their training and competitive development has reached.
Use a professional Sports Psychologist
From the start, secure the services of a trained Sports Psychologist. This is an area where using the skills and insights of a professional can give you the best start to your programme and ensure the activities chosen for your shooters are best suited for their needs.
Take the time to discuss and to brief the Sports Psychologist concerning the nature of the shooting sport. Take them to a training session and also to a competition so that they can see our sport in action and so they can determine where best their skills might be applied to help your shooters.
I advise that you do not rush this part of the introduction. The more time and exposure the Sports Psychologist gets to our sport the more they can understand its specific attributes and the needs of the shooters who participate. Time spent during this phase can lead to the development of a better programme to aid your shooters. It is like any activity, the more information and understanding you have the better you are prepared to provide a solution.
It is not certain that you will find a Sports Psychologist who is a good fit for your shooters and for the sport. Be prepared to ask several practitioners to meet and as you would with any professional contractor, quiz them as to their suitability for the task that you require them to perform. If you do not feel the Sports Psychologist understands the specific needs or requirements of the sport and your athletes then move on and find another.
Examples of Practical Sports Psychology
Do not make a big fuss about introducing Sport Psychology activities to your shooters. It should always be seen as an integral part of your training programme and this is best achieved by the subtle use of psychological activities that are integrated wtihin the training schedule and not added as an isolated module to the training programme.
Some psychological activities can be introduced as part of the warm-up activities before the start of technical training.
The use of a pre-shot routine can be seen as utilising the psychological principles of performing a well-practiced activity that is positively associated with the start of the technical shooting technique. Starting the technical performance with pre-activities that are well learned and thus performed in an autonomous way, makes it easier for the shooter to enter smoothly and automatically into their technical performance.
Rituals or routines relieve the an easy mechanism whereby a shooter can manage the time between their shots while engaging the mind in activities which do not add to stress. Rituals such as self-talk — where a shooter repeats trigger phrases that reinforce their confidence and aid in their ability to maintain or increase focus.
How an athletes ability to control their emotions in times of personal high stress and emotion is probably best reflected in their visual emotional display.
Comments typically attributed to athletes in these situation are having ‘Ice in their veins’, being ‘Unmovable’ and ‘Rock solid’. The descriptions reflect the emotional responses of the athlete to the situations they find themselves in. Compare this to descriptions of shooters emotional state who succumb to competition stress — ‘fading’, ‘choking’, ‘slumped’ and ‘collapse’.
Athletes who have strong emotional control skills are also referred to as possessing ‘competition toughness’. It is another reflection of the same ability to thrive in situations of stress and to derive a strong performance under conditions in witch others of lesser competition toughness would fade.
Developing emotional control takes much practice and exposure to the conditions that generate the correct emotional response. I find the best approach to acquire this is to attend and compete in competitions on a regular basis.
Advance activities for training and competition
The most obvious uses for athlete of Sports Psychology is in the providing coping mechanisms for dealing with competition stress and the pressure that comes during participation in shoot-offs and in finals.
Additional tasks arise during the competition when tactical situations arise. The unexpected situations where the shooter’s normal competition routine can be disturbed. Dealing with these situations in a calm and decisive manner can maintain the composure of the athlete and ensure that they resume their shooting with no discernible reduction in performance.
At times of high stress, a break in routine or a stoppage of the competition for any length of time can allow negative thoughts to intrude upon the shooter. It can bring them out of their shooting rhythm, change their autonomous approach to the performance of their activity into one that becomes conscious and deliberate.
With all of the potential interventions that Sports Psychology can address in these instances they mostly concern maintaining behavioural and mental stability under pressure with the purpose of maintaining a high level of technical performance.
In these situations, the solutions tend to be very athlete specific and they need to be to be effective. Activities that focus on controlled breathing and synchronisation with the heart rate has been shown to be beneficial for some shooters in controlling their emotional response to stress. The use of quiet eye training to provide a controlled and systematic scenario under which the shooter prepares before calling for the target is well researched and shows that shooters who can maintain a longer quiet-eye duration benefit from a better outcome of the shot.
Irrespective of the personal requirements of the shooter at this level, a good basic grounding in Sports Psychology principles will aid them in quickly adopting new techniques which might be introduced to address specific concerns or issues.
Sports Psychology is a proven and well-documented sports science discipline that can positively enhance your shooting performance. Utilise it in the way that best compliments your needs. The best results are obtained when something is practiced for a little time but often. This makes Sports Psychology something that you can consider incorporating into your daily activities as a part of your lifestyle and not necessarily as a specific sporting activity. In this way it normalises the activities.
In this respect, my parting piece of advice is that any level of Sports Psychology activity performed on a daily or regular basis is far better than intensive but infrequent activities.