In the zone the psychology of shooting

Todd Hutchison

Competitive shooting is a concentration sport which requires precise body positioning and movements with intense focus on the target. A beginner often experiences a sensory overload on their conscious mind in trying to deal with the sequence of actions they have to follow in the lead-up to squeezing the trigger.

Over time the subconscious mind starts assisting by taking up some of these control functions through a four-part learning process. When a person initially learns to shoot, the brain physically starts creating a web of synaptic relationships which forms a neuro network that later guides a series of limb movements required to position the body and hold the rifle, known as the ‘unconscious incompetence’ stage. The beginner may experience confusion with the process and sometimes frustration in trying to do it all correctly within those critical seconds. Fortunately, the experience of shooting also releases reward-feeling neurochemicals to maintain their ongoing interest.

The act of shooting can increase heart rate and blood pressure for novices which corresponds with the release of a flood of several neurochemicals including cortisol, adrenalin (aka epinephrine) and other hormones like serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine which is often associated with the fight response. That’s why they can feel unsettled the first few times on the range, particularly from the noise of other firearms.

With more experience the shooter moves to the ‘conscious incompetence’ stage where the conscious mind is attempting to recall and follow a sequence of steps. They still have low performance although are starting to become more familiar and comfortable with the rifle’s various parts.

The third stage is ‘conscious competence’ where they start improving their performance through repetition, each time reaffirming those neural networks which shape their thinking patterns, making each shoot easier. They’re gaining awareness of what they’re doing correctly and the errors being made and are still consciously aware of the activity’s process and making adjustments needed to achieve better scores.

The final phase is ‘unconscious competence’ which is achieving a division of the tasks between the conscious and subconscious where certain actions are in autopilot-type mode. With the existence of stronger neural networks guiding their thinking, dependence on the conscious mind is minimal and the subconscious mind takes over much of the set-up body movements of the shooting process.

This brings higher performance as they position themselves into the familiarly comfortable body posture, holding the arms and hands in the correct position and seemingly set up to shoot without thinking too much about it. They slide the bolt more smoothly, load the rounds without much looking and find the whole process simple.

The level of concentration by the conscious mind can be greater as it now has fewer tasks to do itself. Unconscious competence supports familiarity and enables conscious focus to be on the important things – the wind, target and required adjustments. This explains how repeated experiences improve skills over time, integrating the conscious and subconscious mind’s functions. Muscles and tendons are strengthened (ie, muscle atrophy and hypertrophy) with ‘muscle memory’ creating a strong brain and motor skills connection. Muscles suddenly know what to do when receiving the brain’s signals, like the position and action of the trigger finger – muscle memory is believed to be retained for around 15 years – and it’s through this persistence in repeating tasks that leads to becoming an expert shooter. Author Malcolm Gladwell spoke of the ‘10,000-hour rule’ which is an estimated time of persistence in education and experience to build a mastery level of skill.

When a shooter takes an extended break from the sport, the related neuro networks created in the brain begin breaking down through a process known as pruning, which slowly starts destroying the neuro network to make more brain space available for learning other things, which reflects the old adage: ‘If you don’t use it, you’ll lose it’. Interestingly, a retired professional shooter who’s lost some skills will be able to obtain results faster in taking the sport up again compared to a new shooter, as the core of the neuro network will still largely be in place.

Once the procedural thinking is working and the muscles developed, a shooter has to deal with the real challenge on competition day which requires managing their emotional state. A champion-level sports person can go from being the highest performer to low on the scoring ladder as the limbic system triggers emotional responses (the paleomammalian brain) which interfere with logical thinking (the rational brain).

Business schools are using the term ‘emotional intelligence’ to explain the need for leaders to avoid or learn to manage the unwanted consequences of emotional, irrational responses. This is about maintaining the correct state of mind to become and retain a champion mindset and calls for the ability to concentrate and focus on the task and separate oneself from negative thoughts and distractions. Thinking capabilities are influenced by many factors such as sleep, diet, fitness and the active hormones (produced by the endocrine glands) and neurotransmitters (produced by the nervous system) which influence neurochemicals in the brain.

As we become more frustrated, irritated or distracted our emotions start impeding the higher cognitive functions needed to stay mentally sharp. To deal with this, athletes are proactive in managing the thinking patterns by practices known to program their thoughts – basically to wire their neuro networks to their advantage so they ‘feel’ like a champion. Thinking directly impacts a person’s behaviours and actions which give them their results. If a shooter wants to change their results they’re required to alter their thinking to overcome past bad habits and recurring negative thoughts. When they program their mind to believe they’re a champion they’ll train harder, practise with more focus and increase their performance level.

Olympians such as US multi gold medal-winning swimmer Michael Phelps have used techniques like ‘visualisation’ to program pre-event thoughts which can impact on their belief systems. In addition, affirmations which enable positive self-talk can also be used to program the mind which inevitably increases confidence and self-esteem as well as reducing fears, doubts and limiting beliefs. It’s about achieving a sense of control, given stress is a real or perceived loss of control – breathing exercises have proved useful on competition day to calm oneself and release stress.

Away from the range a skilled shooter can actually visualise themselves going through the motions of shooting in their mind in a form of perfect practice. Neuroscience has shown this has a direct and physical impact on wiring the neuro networks in the brain which starts to mimic a real-life experience and such techniques have been found to be beneficial in improving sporting performance.

This also explains why a person who goes to a competition feeling not very confident may have formed self-limiting beliefs about their level of skill which can then self-sabotage their performance. This becomes evident watching shooters who become upset after off-target shots – where emotions get the better of them – and their results then quickly decline.

When a shooter’s in the right frame of mind and achieving results, neurotransmitter chemicals like dopamine are present and have been seen to be a formidable skill-booster. The combination of all these factors puts the shooter in what neuroscience calls a ‘flow’ state – also known as being ‘in the zone’ – where their emotions are not interfering with the conscious mind’s focus on the target, wind and timing while their subconscious is working in unison with the rifle. With this intense focus all other factors in the outside world are blocked out, giving them total commitment to achieving a great score.

  • Professor Todd Hutchison is an author and behavioural specialist who has worked with numerous athletes and sporting teams.
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