Hunters, competitors, and plinkers can all benefit from a Personal Shot Plan.
The last competitive shooting experience I had was on the Olympic shooting range in Barcelona, Spain, July 29, 1992. I was competing against the world’s best shooters trying to earn myself and my country the first Olympic gold medal in the women’s standard rifle event. Standing on that firing line, I faced both the possibility of winning and the fear of not performing to my full potential. Even though I knew I could shoot tens, how was I going to be able to deal with the pressure now that the gold medal was actually on the line? My answer was to use a personal shot plan.
Though my experience was on the Olympic level, all shooters can feel the kind of pressure I did when shots become very important. How many times have you ever sighted in on a large buck and felt your heart pound out of your chest? Maybe you shoot silhouette matches. What does it feel like to shoot a clean string up to the last ram? What goes through your mind, and how does your body react? More often than not, we feel the pressure of a very important shot, and many times, we wish we could get that shot back when the dust finally settles. When the importance of a shot goes from “just another round” to “the biggest shot of my life,” we have a tendency to change our shot plan. All of a sudden, we either try to make the shot more than perfect, and we wait too long, or we shoot too fast in a panic that we’ll miss the trophy. Too often, shooters see the medals around their necks, or the horns over the fireplace before the shot. Mental pictures like that lead to inconsistent shots and poor performances.
A Better Way
Using a personal shot plan can increase your confidence before you take important shots, which will usually help your performance. A personal shot plan contains vital physical and mental elements that, when utilized, creates a consistent and reliable frame of mind, one that you have tested and proven to produce your best results. Instead of wondering how you will react in a stressful situation, you follow your shot plan to bring out the confident shooter you have practiced to be. I have to warn you there is no magic in the personal shot plan. The plan I came up with took a lot of practice and patience to develop. It is not an instant remedy that will make the pressure disappear and ensure every important shot a 10. However, it will provide a familiar strategy that will help you perform to your full potential.
I proved the value of such a plan five years ago, when after 18 years of dedication, training, and experience, I was set to shoot my very last ten competition shots in the 1992 Olympic finals. If you are unfamiliar with finals, the top eight shooters from the preliminary match return to the line for ten more rounds in the standing position. Each shot is timed and then scored individually. The range official calls “Start” and “Stop” to signal when to begin and the end of time for that particular round. Because no time is given to wait out a change in the wind, shots must be taken when conditions are not perfect. An additional stress is the audience. Spectators can watch all shots for each competitor on electronic scoring targets. The shot values are broken down into tenths, so a shot just touching the 10 line (scoring 10.0) carries less value than a center shot (scoring 10.9) in Olympic finals competition. Believe me, shooters are focused on the center because every tenth adds up when the shots are finally totaled for the medals.
Going into the finals, I was leading the pack with a new Olympic record of 587/600 points. Because even big leads can be overcome in the finals, my 2-point margin over second place was not a comfortable pad. Every competitor was capable of shooting a great final, and every competitor was focused on winning the gold. Being in first place and having every other competitor trying to replace me did not help my anxiety level.
Thinking back on my experience, I am not surprised to say I shot very mechanically and was conscious of my every move and thought right up to pulling the trigger. I had complete confidence in my ammunition and equipment, so I felt the only other variable in my performance was me. Everything had to be executed perfectly, without any element taken for granted. Every muscle was checked, every wind flag read, every ring of light in my sight was aligned and realigned, and every mental thought or cue was used constructively to create the perfect shot.
After years of training, you would think every aspect in shooting a shot would be automatic. But from experience I learned when the shot becomes very important and the pressure gets high, I do not rely on my automatic process of shooting. I had to feel in control of every aspect of the shot to ensure all my bases were covered. As soon as I satisfied all my mechanical requirements, I could submerge myself in the rhythm and anticipation of the shot. This was were the automatic process of my shot plan started.
Using a shot plan was the way I practiced for many years. It instilled not just practice, but perfect practice. My focus was always on quality training, not quantity training. Not only did this help me focus on just the elements I needed for shooting a good shot, the process kept me anchored in the present and on the elements within my control. My mind was filled with a check list, and running through that list helped eliminate anxiety about match results or the future, the things I could not control. Focusing on the present also helped eliminate worry from any past performances that did not improve my confidence level.
I relied on this training method and had faith in it when I shot my last ten rounds in the Olympic finals. In the first five rounds of the finals, I shot four 10s and one 9 by sticking to my plan of shooting the first “center shot” I saw in the sights. But I could feel the pressure mounting around me as we got closer to the final five rounds. For the next three shots, I tried just a little harder and waited just a little longer to make the shots better. What a mistake! I shot two weak 9s and an 8 that told me I needed to get back to what I knew how to do. I shot a 10.2 on my ninth shot, but I found it hard to breathe as we loaded for the tenth and final round. As I picked up my rifle, I completely locked myself mentally onto the sight picture I wanted, no words or magic affirmations, just an image of “center.” If that sight picture ever actually happened, I have to say I did not see it. What I saw was my sights moving much faster and wider than any previous shot. Still, I hung onto that image and trusted my plan. The second pass over the center I squeezed. Unfortunately, as fast as the barrel was moving, I squeezed on the way out instead of on the way into the center, and I shot a 9.3. Considering the magnitude of my hold, a 9.3 was a keeper.
Not knowing if that shot was going to be enough to stay in first place, I watched my competitors’ monitors for the first time and felt huge relief when I saw them shoot 8s and 9s to let me hang onto the gold medal.
Your Shot Plan
In the accompanying sidebar, I describe what my personal shot plan was like at the Olympic level. To begin building your personal shot plan, start by becoming aware of what you feel physically and what thoughts go through your mind on good, confident, on-call shots. Some questions you might ask are: Was I relaxed or energized? What did I do to become relaxed or energized? What variables did I check in my position? Was I thinking about trigger squeeze, sight picture, or target? What did I focus on? What made me feel confident?
Once you’ve determined what aids your performance, write all your special elements down. Even though this is practice, it is better to try and identify the elements that go into shooting a good shot now, rather than trying to identify and remember all the elements during a high-pressure situation.
Also, compare these elements to how you feel and think when shots (or days) are not so good. Some questions you may ask are: Was I tense? Was I forgetting to check something? Was I over- or under-holding? Was I upset about my last shot or previous shooting experiences? Was I anticipating the shot? Was I distracted? Do not be afraid to nail every negative down right now and build the elements you need into your shot plan to counteract these problem areas. It is hard to control the elements that positively or negatively affect your shot unless you specifically set out to identify them. And it is much better to identify them in practice than when that huge rack walks into your sight picture! The memory of what you did right or wrong gets a little blurry when the only thing you can feel is your heart in your throat.
Because everyone shoots differently, elements of a shot plan will differ from person to person. I know building a shot plan seems time consuming, but finding the elements you need to rely on when the pressure is on is worth all the time it takes. Once you’ve gained that confidence in your ability to make the important shots, you’ll be a much better shooter, regardless of your game. And when someone asks you how you won your medal or got your record buck, you can say, “The shot happened just as I planned it. Let me tell you about it.”