(Developing a mental game)


It’s only appropriate that upon the demise of the legend Yogi Berra of Yankee baseball fame, we talk about the mental game.  Yogi coined the phrase, “This game is 90% mental and the other 50% is physical”.  He was speaking of baseball, but this can be translated into our favorite pastime Sporting Clays very easily. 

Once we learn to move and mount the gun and focus on the targets, the game of sporting clays quickly becomes a cerebral sport.  Not that you have to be smart to perform well, because generally the more you think the worse you do.  Also, in general, the more Left brained you are, and the more organized you are (list makers, engineers, who calculate everything, accountants, numbers people)  the more you’ll have more trouble overcoming the conscious side of your  brain that is inefficient in the shooting arena.  For the Right brained folks, the behavioral guys, are more able to rely on an “Instinctive” plan and therefore tend not to overthink a presentation.  In other words the “grip it and rip it” guys and girls do it better more often!

The Gurus of Sporting tell us that you must first make a plan.  Call it a pre-shot routine or I refer to it in my coaching as a rehearsal.  This usually involves some visualization of the proposed targets flight and breakpoints.  Then you must turn off that conscious side of your brain and let it happen based on the intuitive skill which resides in everyone’s subconscious data base.  Sounds easy doesn’t it?  

 Well…………it’s anything but easy!!!……….developing a mental game is probably the most difficult part of the Sporting game.  Anyone who can consistently shoot in the nineties has got a handle on it.  Most of us haven’t reached that pinnacle yet.  Several tips come to mind and as I coach a  lot of youth I am beginning to get a glimmer of why someone who has a good positive mental attitude is easier  to teach than someone who’s ”glass is half empty” all the time.  I would much rather teach a kid who is not afraid of failing or doing poorly sometimes than someone who can’t handle a poor performance and reacts negatively.  Believe me, in this sport you are going to fail sometimes.  You must encourage!  You must be positive!  You must not make excuses!   You must accept that you’re not going to shoot a great score every time!   And sad but true, you are going to fail more often to begin with until you accept and consider  the inevitable failure as a learning curve that we all have to go through in our Sporting journey.  Only then, when you can accept occasional failure can you grow in this sport!

One of the biggest blunders I see with kids shooting is the tendency of kids to compete among themselves or let their parents or sometimes a coach affect their mental performance.  If the leadoff squad mate runs a station and little Johnny or Susie doesn’t, there is an automatic pressure response!   This allows the conscious side (You know that little VOICE that talks to you) to start getting loud in in your ear and takes your focus away from being instinctive.  Or maybe Dad walks up and little Johnny who was doing great sees him and notes from Dad’s body language (crossed arms, slight frown) that he should have run that last station.  Believe me when I say that no parent can be “just a spectator”!   Your kid always knows where you are and generally what you are thinking in regard to their performance!   I have seen parents who just cannot put it all aside and be cheerleaders as appropriate but have, in the middle of a shoot, taken their kid to task over a missed target or two.  Actions such as these destroy any attempt at a mental game that kid is trying to develop.  Positive cheerleading is much more appropriate, especially during the shoot.  It’s the coach’s job to note the problems and address them at the next practice.

And it’s not always related to kids.  The guys I like to shoot with used to continually get on each other with negative comments.  You’re can’t hit them  today to save your life!  Well I am beating you!  What’s wrong with you and the Rabbit?  You missed that one by six feet! Do you wanna borrow my glasses!  Or either from themselves:  I don’t know why I am doing this, I’m no good!  I gotta take up another game.  Or the usual   &^%$#@.  This is all very damaging to one’s mental game.  Again the gurus say,  damaging to the inner self.  However on the way home from a shoot a couple of years ago my squad mates and I made a pact.  We discussed the damage we were affording each other and agreed to “be more positive and encouraging to each other and to only offer aid and advice when solicited”.   This has made our ventures much more pleasant and our friendships stronger.  Be an encourager and try to stay positive and upbeat!   Consider your failures part of a learning curve and try to learn something from every target.  Those you hit and Those you miss!   I tell my kids “it’s not what happens, it’s how you handle it”.  That is an attitude for Sporting and for Life.  And remember another of Yogi’s famous phrases….”It ain’t over til it’s over”……….so have the faith to not count the score or condemn the performance until the gun is in the rack after the last station on the last day of the shoot.   There are many aspects of a shoot performance you can’t control.  You can’t control the weather, you can’t control what the other guy is doing, you can’t control the target set, but you can have an influence over your attitude toward all of these things.  Decide to accept all of these things in stride.  Then look at things that you learned rather than the ones you missed.  It will aid you in staying positive and you’ll certainly enjoy the journey more!

Dan Paxton

VP South Carolina Sporting Clays Assoc.

NSCA Level Two Instructor