Real success is in your head

Apr. 13, 2013 @ 08:53 PM

Some men and women have ice water in their arteries. I am not one of those. When I’m under pressure, whether it is a national championship or a friendly competition between friends, I feel it and I have to manage that pressure. Last Saturday, I was shooting the first stage of a club level pistol falling plate match at Piedmont Handgunner’s Association, and I was feeling the pressure. It’s not that winning is that important to me, though I certainly do like to win; it’s that I want to perform my best for the personal satisfaction.

Standing on the 10 yard line, gun loaded and holstered, I thought of my friend, Chris Cerino. I shoot with Chris and we’ve done some training together. Chris always does a little breath clearing exercise before shooting a stage. I inhaled deeply, blew the breath out, and waited for the whistle. When the whistle blew, I made a fast draw and cleaned my six plates with time to spare. I realized after the stop whistle that I’d utilized what I knew and all the recent practice had been rewarded for my efforts. I’d run the gun the way I teach running the gun and was seeing the payoff. I repeated the process on the second string and eventually won the match with 90 of a possible 96 hits.
It’s a well-known fact that 20% of outdoorsmen enjoy 80% of the success. This is not luck. It is the result of making sure their equipment works, doing the homework with honing their skills, and putting on a game face when the flag drops, whether this means sight casting to a bass, or a trout, putting the shot where it needs to go on a deer, or keeping every shot in the ten and x ring at 600 yards.
The first two of these don’t require real determination, they only require work ethic. The last requires drive and the ability to control your emotions or at least convert them under pressure. Even though you know the right thing to do, doing it under pressure is another matter. Controlling the trigger, making a precise cast, or placing the shot in exactly the right place is easy to practice but hard when you’re shooting for the medal of your dreams or looking at the biggest buck you’ve ever seen.
Those times require mastering your emotions if you’re nervous or pulling up your resolve and determination if you’re not. There are a tiny percentage of us who find it natural to perform at their best and are never shaken. I’m not one of those people. I have to master the stress and make it work for me.
Others are more passive and many of those never excel because they just don’t want it enough. In some ways, I envy those folks. They can enjoy the hunt or competition without the slightest bit of stress. The down side is that few of those people really reach their potential because they aren’t invested in the game enough to really dig down for the very best they can do. They simply lack the focus to succeed. They’re fun to be around, but in a competition, I hate to shoot with them. Their apathy infects me and my scores suffer.
The drive to succeed doesn’t have to be the desire to win. The best shooters I know like to win, but their main goal is to improve for the sake of the gratification that comes when you master a difficult task. Focusing on the win only often creates competitors who think they can buy the win, with better equipment or more training. Those who really, truly succeed find victory in the execution of the task, whether that execution results in a trophy, or not.
Another performance killer is negative thinking. If you worry about your equipment or your preparation, your focus will suffer. Those most successful at reaching their goals put the negatives in the back of their minds and devote their thoughts to the task at hand. It’s a matter of how you view success. In my career as a shooter, I’ve asked at least a dozen national champions if they’ve ever ended a competition feeling they couldn’t have done better. All repeated the same thing, “You can always do better.”
Like many other sports, shooting well is primarily accomplished with the right attitude. Equipment plays a part, preparation plays a part, and mastering the fundamentals is crucial, but ultimately, success comes when you manage and master your own mind.

Dick Jones is an award winning freelance writer living in High Point. He’s a member of the board of directors of the Southeastern Outdoor Press Association. He writes about hunting, fishing, dogs, and shooting for several NC newspapers as well as national magazines. He’s an NRA Certified Instructor, a Distinguished Rifleman, former High Master, and teaches shotgun, rifle, and pistol as well as the North Carolina Concealed Carry Certification and Hunter Safety at Lewis Creek Shooting School.  He can be reached at or