Mental Toughness 101 – Thoughts on Improving the Mind

  • SumoMe

Partial material taken from Y.C.H.T.P.

General Discussion/Introduction: “Theory of a Miss” – Some time ago, while trying to figure out why I was making mistakes, while knowingly making them (observing the mistake happen yet not being able to stop it), I developed a theory called “theory of a miss” Theory of a miss is a defining observation that describes the mental system breakdown causing the common “miss” under stressful situations (matches).  The term “miss” can certainly be used interchangeably with any mistake made during a match or real world event (game day), and is not meant to be a limiting term.  Most shooters (athletes) understand the physical dynamics behind a mistake under stress, but few know the mental factors involved that lead to the mistake or how to correct them.  This section will cover that material, and may very well be the key to flawless performance on demand.

The Root of all Mistakes – The word mistake implies that a wrong decision has been made, which in practical shooting is incorrect.  The “miss” (a mistake) in our sport happens at high speed, within the sub-conscious level of thought processes (usually), and can’t be controlled (most of the time), even though you may know you are making the error.  Why can’t it be controlled?  Likely, because you have trained yourselves to make the error.  When training repetitions are repeated multiple times a “program” is written into your subconscious to control those physical skills in the future. The root of this uncontrollable mistake is the subconscious mind and how it works.  Let’s take a closer look at the subconscious and conscious mind:

Conscious and Subconscious, A Comparison Comparing the subconscious mind and the conscious mind is like comparing an adult to a child.  The infant, prior to the age of about two, does not have the ability to make decisions between right or wrong.  After the age of two, and increasing in age, children and adults have the ability to make decisions based on information and can determine between right and wrong in general terms.  You process information based on beliefs and stored information that you deem necessary.  Now let’s compare that to an infant, somewhere around the age of one.  At that age, the infant has the ability to process information, but for many different reasons cannot assess whether the information is right or wrong.  The infant simply processes the information and records it for later use in life.  The infant does not have the ability to screen that information and store the good stuff and reject the bad like we do as adults.  When comparing the conscious and subconscious portions of the brain, the conscious brain is like the adult.  It has the ability to reason, reject incorrect information.  The subconscious portion of the brain is like the infant, unable to reason or reject information. It just stores information and stores it well.  Each and every small detail is stored because it has such a capacity for knowledge (similar to an infant’s brain that is stimulated more when it encounters more information). The conscious portion of the brain accomplishes analytical or logical thought processes.  The subconscious portion of the brain accomplishes automated and automatic processes. The conscious portion of the brain triggers the subconscious portion to engage during times of high anxiety, stress, and believe it or not during times of zero anxiety, while accomplishing mundane tasks.  Think about it, when you drove home from work the last time, did you consciously have to think about turning on your blinker, or even hitting the brake?  Probably not, as these actions are all handled with relative ease by the subconscious mind after being prompted by the conscious decision making process (see stop sign, decision to stop, hit the brake).

As I was working with a shooting athlete the other day at the range, I observed something that I’ve seen time and time again, and have even observed myself doing. I had this athlete working on a drill that involved managing his trigger and sights on two different target types, forcing him to utilize varying trigger pulls in one string of fire. I had set up two targets at about 5 yards from the athlete and spread about 2 yards apart. In between those two targets, about 12 yards away, I had placed a small mini pepper popper.  The drill was simple: draw and fire two shots on the left paper target (with a certain type of trigger pull), one shot on the steel (with another type of trigger pull), and then two more shots on the other paper target, perform a reload, and repeat that array of targets with the same number of shots. This particular athlete was going to be repeating the drill approximately 10 times. At about the fifth or sixth time, I stopped him and pointed out the fact that out of those six runs, he had fired two shots on the paper, one miss on the steel, two shots on the other paper all while missing the steel target each time.  Sometimes he proceeded to make up his miss on the steel, and at others, he failed to make up the miss on the steel.  When asked, the athlete had no problem telling my why he had missed the steel target repeatedly.

His mistake was a simple timing error coupled with poor sight alignment.  While the athlete could answer the question of “why he was missing the piece of steel,” one thing that did not stand out to him was the fact that over those six repetitions he had already began to program his subconscious mind to perform a mistake. He knew why he was missing, but did not know how to fix it.  Think about it for a second, every time he fired at that piece of steel, he fired at it with either misaligned sights or a trigger pull that was incorrect. So visually, in his eyes, he must have seen something incorrect, and that visual input was transmitted through his optic nerves to his brain, which prompted him to do something, i.e. pull the trigger.  So he sees the sights visually which keys his brain to continue to manipulate the trigger to the rear causing the gun to go off. The problem is that the shot was an incorrect shot.

This means that he was training the subconscious area of his brain to manipulate the trigger with the wrong visual stimulus. His subconscious mind did not understand that the sight picture and timing of the shot was wrong, although consciously he knew he was making a mistake. The problem is that now his subconscious mind had six repetitions of this improper technique written into it.  When I asked him why he was missing the steel he replied, “Because the front sight is nowhere near the center of it!” “Well,” I said to him, “if you have repeated that same sight picture six times in a row, or let’s say for the sake of discussion a 100 times in a row during a given training session, then what are you training your subconscious mind to do?”  He answered, “I guess I’m training myself to miss”.

You see, even a simple drill in which we’re firing at targets or a piece of steel can cause us to write the wrong subconscious program into our computer (our brain). Once this program has been written it’s at least double the work to correct and rewrite it correctly. The act of repeating a skill allows us to improve that skill through a process called myelination.[1]  This process coats the nerve pathways with a substance called myelin, which is a fatty substance that helps the nerve transmission travel faster.   The more a skill is practiced, the faster that nerve transmission is, hence the improvement that comes from repetitions of any skill.  The big problem is that once a nerve becomes coated with myelin, it cannot be “unmylenated”, and the only way to correct a bad habit due to improper myelination of the wrong set of nerve paths is to write (myelinate) a new and stronger path.  So, if the initial skill took five thousand repetitions to write (myelinate), then the new one will take at least that many, and then some so that it becomes the primary path that is selected by stimulus to run a skill.

Now this athlete went through multiple repetitions of missing the steel, and as I have discussed, this trained him to perform that way under stress (miss!).  Another problem is that if he missed a piece of steel during training on a regular basis, what do you think that did to his self-image? Nothing good, I can tell you that. It could create a negative self-image and belief that he cannot hit a piece of steel at that distance of that size in a match.

Subconscious Skills.  This is the area that one great author calls the “skills factory” and rightly so.  The subconscious portion of the mind is where key components of a specific skill set are stored for use under stress, and also during common repetitive tasks.   The entire premise behind the Shooting-Performance company and website is: “Correct Design and Perfect Execution.”  This refers to designing a training program correctly (so you train the right subconscious skills), and then executing those training sessions perfectly (so you ingrain them properly). Ingraining skills happens at the subconscious level, and is necessary in order for you to perform complex movements at extremely fast speeds.  When you build subconscious skills you are writing “skill programs.”  When an athlete is performing, they will be running skill programs that were written during their training sessions.  These small programs will run all or portions of a skill from start to finish as dictated by a conscious thought (information processing).  Most people think that the best performances are all subconscious, but this is untrue during events that cannot be memorized or trained repetitively.  The truth is that the decisive thought process and sub-conscious must be in concert.  The real key is that the sub-conscious programs must be written into the brain (like a computer hard drive) properly or when ran, they will perform the wrong processes, even if you consciously know they are wrong.   Skill programs are written by repetition, and don’t forget that the repetition is not judged by the subconscious mind as correct or incorrect, it is simply recorded.

Self Image.  Your self-image is who you believe you are.  Your self-image dictates your confidence (or lack thereof) in your ability to act a certain way or do certain things.  It is built as a result of your entire life experiences, and it is one of the most powerful things you can manipulate in your training that will impact your performances in a positive manner.  Your self-image will cause you to believe in yourself or not, and this creates an emotional state that is either positive or negative.  While the actual beliefs in your self-image are important, I don’t believe that they alone affect your performance.  Think about it for a second; what you believe doesn’t literally affect the outcome of a performance. Now, the emotions you experience because of your beliefs do affect the outcome, because your emotional state will actually change the physical state the body is in.   I will expand more on self-image in the next section where we discuss emotional control.

Emotional State.  Your “emotional state” is the mental condition you are in when performing.  It is the often-overlooked piece of the puzzle that truly paints the picture of whether a performance was true and repeatable, or just luck.  Those top athletes, who perform well, in what some call the zone, do it while they are in a positive emotional state and feel in control.  I have found elements of this theory in almost every single mental training resource I have ever read.  Eliminating negative emotional triggers and creating a positive emotional state are largely the goal of mental training, and what I believe to be the true secret to performing well.  I pay particular attention to my emotional state when training (control zones) and performing.  Don’t confuse nervousness with negativity, as many athletes perform exceptionally well when they are nervous.  It is very possible to program the brain and convince the self-image to believe that your best performances are when you are nervous, while at the same time feeling in control.  Emotional triggers can be either positive or negative and will result in a corresponding emotional state.  Common negative emotional triggers are as follows:

  • First Experience Memories.  These are memories created during your first experience(s) of a particular sport or event.  Most athletes competing in practical shooting for the first time at match feel an incredible amount of stress and anxiety.  This occurs because of a lack of self-confidence in their ability.  In our first experiences we will often see things that seem to be repeatable and “easy”, but they are far from that.  How many of you remember trying to go as fast as your local guy who was at the A class level in USPSA and then failing miserably when doing so?  This is also the case for those in law enforcement and the military who have never shot before and have watched most of the shooting they have ever seen on T.V.  They watch actors do things with guns that are unlikely and pretty much wrong and then try to repeat this skill.  This memory or experience is so strong sometimes that it is carried with us during years of competing.   Most shooting athletes that I work with have been trying to go too fast for their entire shooting career and have never really learned how to perform “in control.”  This lack of control leads to a dead end road that is unavoidable.  One of the steps outlined below (acceptance) is often the hardest step in fixing this error.  Most shooters just don’t want to slow down and train themselves to do what they have to do to succeed.  This trigger can be overcome by experience and skill development.  Positive self-talk can aid in reducing this effect on performance.
  • Primers.  I call anything that reminds you of something that causes you stress a “primer.”  It is a primer to a negative emotional state.  For you competitors, an example might be seeing the top shooters in their sponsor shirts.  Why would this “prime” you to be in a negative emotional state?  Because you normally don’t see those shooters when you are shooting your club match.  They only show up at the big matches, which your brain automatically labels as important.  Anytime the stakes get high (important), your brain tells your body to prepare for battle and you tend to feel more stress, even though the skills you need to perform are the exact same skills you use in practice and at your club match.    For you military guys and gals, a negative primer for you might be arriving at the rifle or pistol range if you have had a negative experience there before.  Your brain remembers the stress you felt while trying to qualify and attaches that to the location you experienced the stress.  If you have negative self-talk going on while you experience these primers, things get worse.
  • Self Image.   Your own self-image is also a huge emotional trigger that can have catastrophic effects on your performance.  “Getting over” ourselves is sometimes the hardest thing to do.  A poor self-image is largely a result of previous failures, or more so the lack of self-forgiveness.  Athletes should hold themselves accountable for their mistakes and take corrective action via hard work, not self-punishment.  When you punish yourself internally and hold yourself to impossibly high standards of perfection, you set yourself up for failure.  Self-image is the key to unlocking full potential, and without a strong self-image athletes will do well but will never do their best.  Keys to building a positive self-image are positive visualizations, self-talk, and most importantly, self-forgiveness.  Mistakes happen, get over yourself and find solutions to the errors.  Look at a mistake as an opportunity to learn “why” something happened and improve.
  • Fear of Failure.  This is probably the most common emotional trigger and it is linked directly to self-image.  The fear of failure resides deep in most competitive athletes and stems from a mentality that failure is not an option.  If this were correct, then no professional athletes would exist. They would all commit suicide and sport would disappear.  We develop a fear of failure because we have all failed at one time or another and it is disturbing. Realistically, a fear of failure can be tamed by changing the way an athlete thinks.  Failure to accomplish a certain goal or level can be looked at as something so positive and powerful that, if used correctly, will drive an athlete to certain success.  Here is the key: failure must be understood as the single propellant that has driven all great successes to the levels they reached.  This author has yet to find a person, company, or story of a great success without repeated failures first, sometimes hundreds of failures!  The key is to change the way you think, and continue to move forward.  Why do something if it is going to be easy?  This manual exists because this sport is hard to master.
  • Laziness.  Laziness may not seem like a common emotional trigger but it is.  Laziness in a training program results in lack of self-confidence.  Those that do the work deserve to reap the rewards, and when an athlete slacks on their training they cause internal doubt to start growing inside the recesses of their mind.  This lack of confidence may not be apparent when they are competing in an environment where they feel they are the superior athlete, but will surely surface when the going gets tough.  The only cure to this emotional trigger is the work.  When an athlete does their homework and has put in the time, they will have an incredible amount of confidence when competing.
  • Trying too hard.  Yes, believe it or not, trying (usually to go fast) stimulates thought patterns that can cause negative emotional states.  Think of it this way, have you ever tried to walk?  Seriously, go ahead and stand up and try to walk.  You will stumble or feel awkward.  When you walk, you just do.  When you place too much emphasis on trying to do something, you set yourself up for failure.   Trying to go fast is the exact opposite of what you should be doing.  Train the mechanics so thoroughly that the speed just comes, and forget trying.  Do instead.

Learning Emotional ControlIn order to rebuild emotional control and place yourself in a positive emotional control zone there are several key steps that we can follow. Remember, learning emotional control is a key part of the process of learning how to do anything in control. Here are some things that you can do to rebuild or learn how to place yourself in a positive emotional control zone:

  • Do the Work.  Nothing puts us in a better emotional state than solid preparation.  The only person you cannot lie to is you.  If you have done your homework and have prepared well and worked hard, that is the first step in placing yourself in a positive emotional state and boosting your self-image.  This entire book is a about designing your training sessions so they will allow you to excel, so you can check this box if you are reading, learning, and acting on the guidance you have read.
  • Acceptance.  Accept that there may be some setbacks when trying to un-train certain negative processes.  Just taking the time to slow down and learning to perform techniques in control is incredibly difficult.  I spend most of my time on drills that twist my brain in knots because I mix easy and hard shooting skills together, and then I force myself to slow down enough to perform the technique I am working on correctly.  Another thing you need to do is remove the do or die attitude from performances.  Practical shooting is an incredibly rewarding sport and really means a lot to some athletes, but it should not be so important that it causes a negative emotional response because of a fear of failure.  If you are training for combative purposes, you may actually have a do or die performance, but if you allow it to dominate your mind you will not perform at your best.  If you have done the work (step one), then don’t worry; your performance will match your preparation.
  • Forgiveness.  During the process of moving into the elite performance levels, you will undoubtedly fall off the track several times.  As stated in a previous section, failure drives all great successes.  This author has personally experienced and witnessed the greatest athletes in history making critical mistakes in the heat of competition.  If it can happen to them, it can certainly happen to anyone!
  • Baby Steps.  Take one step at a time when rebuilding emotional control.  Start by fixing practice routines so that they build proper skills and thus confidence.  Move to applying those skills in practice stages and mini tests, always striving for the emotional state of being in control even while under extreme stress.  Further that by applying those learned skills and emotional zones at local or small matches, or during small training exercises (for the combative arena) and then graduate up the chain all the way through to game day.  The point is, use the crawl, walk, run principle.
  • Positive Self-Talk.  One of the best ways to retrain your brain and turn a negative primer into a positive one is to change your self-talk.  It is believed that we have tens of thousands of conversations of self-talk each day.  Imagine if you used these self-talk conversations for positive purposes.  I will cover this in detail in the actionable steps to building mental strength.
  • Expanding your Control Zones.    For competitive athletes I teach three levels of emotional control called “zones.”  I think the principle would also apply to those of you getting ready for a fight, but these zones were primarily designed to put a name on the different performance zones we can find ourselves in when shooting in the competitive world.  Emotional control zones are relevant and connected to the speeds that you shoot, but speed itself does not dictate what control zone you are in.   Actually the opposite is true.  Ultimately, the level of control you feel when performing at that particular speed dictates the control zone you are in.    When you are training your physical skills, you should be focusing on expanding the control zone you want to be in during practical shooting competitions, which is Zone 2.  Each zone has a physical speed that is associated with it, as well as emotional characteristics.  The chart on the following page will show how each zone has key physical and emotional characteristics.

The Control Zone Chart on the next page that shows the differences between zones 1, 2, and 3.

Control Zone Physical Characteristics Emotional Characteristics
Zone 1 This zone is slow fire.  It is the zone that you would find yourself in if you competed in bullseye type matches.  The only emphasis in this zone is accuracy.  You RARELY ever enter Zone 1 in practical shooting. There is no pressure in this zone so emotional state is completely relaxed.  Heart rate and anxiety should be very controlled (low) in this control zone.
Zone 2

The optimum zone!

This zone is the perfect performance-shooting zone if speed and accuracy are both important, and falls somewhere midway between Zones 1 and 3 in terms of physical speed.  It is the widest zone (if the three were divided up), and the more you expand it the better you get.  You are always trying to expand this zone of control deeper into zone 1 (accuracy) and zone 3 (pure speed).  The emphasis in this zone is equally balanced between speed and accuracy. There is pressure in this zone, yet the predominant feeling is control.  Heart rate and anxiety may be higher than when in zone 1, but are at a level that does not interfere with your performance.  Emotionally, this is actually the “zone” that is referenced in many books and videos.  You may not have perfect recollection of what happens during this zone, because they are largely subconscious (yet not totally).
Zone 3 This zone is the redline zone.  You should almost never end up in this zone yet most shooters end up here when they push themselves over the edge.  There is nothing to gain in this zone and everything to lose.   You do not have the ability to control your physical skills at this speed. You are performing outside of the confines of what you can control, and this is very risky.  You are most likely in a negative emotional state in this zone, and probably feel out of control.  You may not have recollection of what happens in this zone, mainly because you are not paying attention to what is happening.

Building Conscious Control (memory) – Conscious control in practical shooting sports consists of priming the brain to make correct decisions at speed (meaning in a split-second).  Without this ability your conscious mind cannot make decisions like it needs to and will get “lost” during performances.  The conscious mind and the subconscious skill programs are connected when you perform a group of processes at high speeds (i.e. shoot a stage or get into a gunfight).  The conscious mind (memory and decision making ability), guides the subconscious to run subconscious skill programs when needed.  The best way to give the conscious mind a clear pathway to follow is to use solid visualization techniques.  Visualization is the act of seeing yourself do something in your mind, without physically doing it.  It is very similar to daydreaming, yet with a purpose.  Proper visualization is one of the keys to every great athlete’s success.  If you are an athlete reading this book, hoping to perform your best at a match, then understand this:  The key to running a successful mental program while shooting a match without making mistakes is proper visualization. 

Mental toughnessMental toughness is a term I have heard throughout the years as I have competed against the best shooters on the circuit.   You also hear this term on a regular basis on sports shows when announcers are talking about the ability of some of the great players to perform when the pressure is overwhelming.  Mental toughness is primarily made up of confidence, and is critical if you want to meet your goals.  Whether you just want to win your division at the sectional championship in your state, or a world championship, you will need to be mentally tough to succeed.  Any one of us can perform well when we are at the practice range; the trick is to keep those skills consistent with the high-pressure arena you will be in at a large match.  You will develop mental toughness in this program by doing a mental training routine each time you train that includes things such as perfect execution of the drills (to develop confidence in your skills), visualizing yourself succeeding (to develop confidence in your abilities under pressure), and focusing on positive images and using positive words (to put and keep yourself in a positive mental state).

Mental connection The term “mental connection” means that you have to commit to connecting mentally with every skill you train in practice thus allowing that same connection at a match.  One of the biggest mistakes I see people make when training is that they go through the motions during their training drills, instead of mentally connecting with each and every repetition.  To get mentally connected in this program, you will perform active visualization exercises during your training sessions and at matches.  There are keynotes on each training drill that will remind you of the visual and mental cues that are important during that skill development.  Pay attention and use them and this will maximize your learning experience.

Until Then – Train Hard!

Mike S.



[1] Daniel Coyle, The Talent Code (New York: Bantam Dell, 2009).

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