If you’re relatively new to the shooting sports, you may be surprised to learn that shooting is as much a mental game as it is physical. Yes, basic hand-eye coordination is essential, so if you’ve participated in other sports, you have a leg up. But once you learn the basics of shooting, it’s the space between your ears that will help you hit more targets.
Someone who knows well the mental aspects of the shooting sports is Raymond Prior, Ph.D., of Chicago. A sport psychology professional and performance consultant, Prior has worked with U. S. Olympic Team shooters, collegiate shooting teams, and professional athletes in various sports internationally for more than a dozen years. Shooters make up about 10 to 15 percent of his clientele.
“Good shooters will tell you that at least 80 percent of a shot happens even before your finger touches the trigger,” said Prior. “With a good pre-shot routine, shooters prepare their physical position and, just as importantly, prepare their minds. In fact, when faced with the challenge of shooting under pressure, there is no greater source of consistency for a shooter than a well-executed pre-shot routine.”
Prior helps competitive shooters by providing them a simple, quick mental checklist to run through before taking each shot. You may not be interested in competition, but using his technique for recreational shooting will work for you, as well. Prior refers to his method as Q.R.S.T.
Q = Quiet your mind
R = Relax your body
S = Sharpen your focus
T = Trusting Mindset
“Quieting your mind means turning down the amount, and volume, of your thinking,” said Prior. “To quiet their minds, some shooters focus their eyes on a point on the range or at their firing point. Other shooters recite a word or short phrase, a Bible verse, or song lyrics that are meaningful to them. Some shooters take a few seconds to imagine a place or something they do where they are relaxed in order to quiet their minds. And many shooters quiet their minds by simply bringing their focus to their breathing. How you quiet your mind is up to you, every shooter is different.”
Prior continued, “Relaxing your body means releasing the tension from your muscles so you can execute your skills. Under the pressure of competition, athletes’ muscles have a tendency to get tense. Tension is a normal reaction to nerves but less than ideal for shooting because tense muscles produce jerky, erratic movements. An effective way for shooters to relax their bodies is to purposely tense their muscles, then slowly relax them.”
Next, Prior explained focus. “Sharpening your focus means directing your focus to where your performance happens: at the target. Specifically, a shooter must be fully focused on the exact sight picture he or she is looking for. Remember, your body and mind work together best when you simply see the target and react.”
Lastly, and this suggestion may be the most important of the four, Prior explained what he means by a Trusting Mindset. “The result of a good pre-shot routine is a Trusting Mindset,” he said. “A good pre-shot routine doesn’t cause a shooter to think more. A good pre-shot routine helps a shooter to think better by eliminating doubts and distractions, as well as overthinking technique and mechanics, and any other thoughts that interfere with executing a shot.”
I shoot all types of firearms recreationally—shotguns, rifles and handguns—but prefer the shotgun sports; I love seeing those clay targets break. That said, even though I’m not a competition shooter, I enjoy striving to be the best shot I can. So, in recent months, I’ve applied Prior’s mental pre-shot routine to my shotgun shooting, and guess what? It helps! Not that I now break every clay target I shoot at, but my percentage of hits has increased.
For instance, as to quieting my mind and sharpening my focus before a shot, as a shotgun shooter I tell myself “See the bird, shoot the bird.” As a result, I don’t overthink the shot. I simply see the target when it’s thrown and react to it, allowing my body to relax and do what I’ve already trained it to do with the Trusting Mindset that Prior recommends.
If there is one thing more I would add to Prior’s advice it would be to shoot with authority. Meaning once it’s your turn on the firing line, mentally take charge of your shot by being confident and assertive. A shooting coach taught me that concept, and even though I’m not naturally an assertive person, that approach has improved my shooting.
“Remember,” said Prior, “just having a pre-shot routine does little for improving consistency. Having a consistent pre-shot routine that you use for every single shot is a must for any shooter. Ultimately, it’s your thoughts about your performance that guide your performance.”
If you’d like to learn more about the psychology of the shooting sports, Dr. Raymond Prior’s book, Bullseye Mind: Mental Toughness for Sport Shooting, is highly recommended and available at rfpsport.com. Use the coupon code “Chip” to receive 15 percent off an order of any amount through Dec. 31, 2020.