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Shooting in "The Zone"

5/31/2006

I don't know about you, but I felt a lot of the commentary during the recent
Olympic Games was pretty superficial and inane. Especially upsetting was
the coverage (or lack of coverage) of sports psychology. Periodically
commentators would remark that an athlete had used a sports psychologist in
their training, but that's about it. Since people normally don't go to see
a psychologist when they're healthy, the failure to explain the practice
of modern sports psychology conjures up all kinds of negative connotations,
which are inappropriate.

The fact of the matter is that one of the reasons why athletic performance
has improved so much in recent years is because just about every serious
athlete now either sees a sports psychologist or uses sports psychology
techniques. Sports psychology has raised the mental game to a new level of
refinement, and it has applications for shooting and hunting and
other sports, as well as business and life in general.

Targeting "The Zone"

"The buck stepped out from behind the tree, a scant 20 yards away. I
raised my bow, picked a spot directly behind the foreleg and without
thinking the arrow flew directly into the middle of the heart-lung kill
zone. I cannot remember releasing the shot, but it was perfect and the deer
died in seconds."

There are those moments in all sports when mind and body melt together into
a dynamic unity of concentration, and perfection just unfolds. Some sports psychologists call it "the zone." Then, there are those other times.

"The buck stepped out from behind the tree. My legs and hands were shaking
so much the arrow started rattling against the bow. I started to raise the
bow and the arrow fell off the rest and onto the ground. My heart was
beating so loud that I think that was what scared him off. I just came
unglued."

We all miss on occasion. Game animals are not stationary targets. Branches
do get in the way. The wind blows. But, when "buck fever" strikes, we seem
to do nothing right. It's called "performance anxiety." To anyone with the
problem it's like being cursed by a demon.

If there is no excitement in your hunting or shooting, then it's probably
time to hang up the bow or gun and try photography. Or, if all you want is
excitement, there's always sky diving or bungee-jumping. The real issue for
hunters and shooters is managing the excitement you feel when you're
participating. And that requires that you learn how to relax and
concentrate.

Removing barriers to full concentration

Practice helps build confidence in your ability to make shots.
Practice is important, but repetition alone is not enough. Perfection is
learning to master the skills involved. And that requires
understanding the entire process, developing the ability to
analyze one's performance, and mastering the ability to relax and stay
focused.

One key to consistent peak performance in any sport is concentration — not
willfully bearing down so much as attaining a focused mental
state of mind-body coordination where intention and execution arise from a
conscious decision that seems to happen without thought.

To illustrate how mental thoughts influence concentration, try this simple
experiment with a friend. Hold your arm straight out in front of you and
make it strong, as if you are holding up a weight. Ask your friend to push
down to determine your strength. He need not push too hard, just enough to
affirm your strength. Now think of your arm as a wet noodle and have him
test your strength again. You can try to resist as hard as you want, but if
you have an image of your arm as a wet noodle, it will lose a significant
amount of strength. This is essentially what happens when buck fever or
target panic destroys your accuracy.

Modern sports psychologists have borrowed a number of cocncepts from meditation and martial arts and applied them to athletic
performance. The following are several techniques that may be
useful in strengthening your concentration.

1. Use visual imagery
Extend your arm and ask a friend to test your
muscle strength. Resist as they apply downward pressure. This is your
baseline reference point.

Now pick a point on a wall. Extend an arm and direct your hand at that
point. Imagine that a beam of light is flowing from your arm. Point that
beam of light so that it hits directly on your target. Now ask someone to pull
down on your arm. Resist their pressure. If your concentration and
visualization are strong and focused, your muscle strength will
dramatically increase, but your muscle tension will not.

Take this visualization technique with you when you pick up your bow or
gun. Shooting at one spot over and over again helps develop consistency,
but in hunting the target
doesn't always stand still or appear where you want it.

Picking a small spot to shoot at on a target, or on a deer, helps to narrow
focus and improve concentration. You can practice narrowing your
focus with visual imagery anywhere. I understand that US women's sporting
clays champ Linda Joy practices "tracking" clays by concentrating on the
blades of a slow-moving fan.

2. Choose words to increase focus
Reciting a word, a phrase or a series
of words helps many develop powers of concentration. Recall how the image
of your arm as a wet noodle decreased strength and confidence. Try the same
exercise of extending your arm and confidently thinking about the word "focus" or
"the spot."

Select a word that feels appropriate to what you are doing.
"Bullseye," "zone," or "jackpot" work for some people. That word, mentally
repeated while shooting, will drive away useless mental chatter. Combine
the imagery with the word and you'll have created an "affirmation," and your
concentration will improve more as your actions express your thoughts.

Relax at will

Excitement is good. But reacting anxiously to excitement initiates a vicious
spiral that lessens accuracy. The key to accurate shooting, whether at a
tin can, a speeding clay or at a trophy whitetail, is to manage the
excitement much like a surfer catches a wave and rides it out under control.
Learning to relax at will helps dispel anxiety that impedes performance.

1. Learn to control breathing
In addition to being an essential act of life, breathing unites
mind and body. The respiratory system
ties directly into the nervous system. Breathing is an involuntary act
that changes according to our level of excitement. It is also easily
controlled consciously. If you can control your breathing, you can control
your excitement as well.

To quiet your mind, try this exercise. Inhale slowly to a count of 10.
Then hold your breath for a count of five, and exhale slowly for a count of
10. You can experiment with the number of beats, gradually increasing them
to increase relaxation. Some people can develop a 32-count exhalation! Take
your pulse before doing this exercise. After doing it five times or so, take
your pulse again and you will see a drop in heart rate. It is a useful
method to steady oneself in any tense life situation, including that moment when a bull
elk steps out of the brush 20 yards away.

Some archers find that if you coordinate your breathing with the draw of the
bow, you increase your ability to concentrate as well as stay relaxed. A
common rhythm is to inhale slowly on the draw, hold your breath when you
are at full draw, visualize your shot and exhale after you have released
the arrow.

Shooting in "The Zone"

"The Zone" that athletes talk about is a state of mind where time
seems to slow down and physical performance seems effortless. It is a state
of both excitement and relaxation. If you get "buck fever," know that you are
half way there, because you've got the excitement part down pat. That
adrenaline rush is the raw material from which perfect shots are made. All
you have to do now is apply these techniques to bring that excitement under
control. As it
happens, your senses will become more alive. Scenes take on a new freshness and
nature becomes more rich and enjoyable. This is what a "hunter's high" is all
about. "Buck fever" is just hunter's high shifting into a higher gear. The
key to success is to learn to ride that high, like a surfer rides a wave,
until the moment of truth arives and you make that perfect shot.


James Swan is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting."

To purchase a copy visit his website.

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