Mental Training > Stage Fright

“In my opinion the only way to conquer stage fright is to get up on the stage and play.” —Taylor Swift

Recently I asked a friend of mine, a well-known bluegrass musician, if he ever suffered from stage fright. His answer surprised me when he told me early in his career he was unable to get on stage without having a near panic attack. Eventually, he overcame this problem and what helped him most was the advice of a mentor. He has stuck to it ever since.

Before I get into the details, I’d like to talk a little about performance anxiety. It is normal to be apprehensive in a situation in which a person is to be judged by others in public. In the case of competitive shooting, not only are your actions in public view, but they are posted for all to see. It’s scary because there is no escape, no Plan B that can be invoked when something goes wrong. This is true of a lot of endeavors. One of the most common names for this problem is “stage fright” for the reasons mentioned.

The elements present, public exposure and limited choice, are there in many different ways and not in your power to change other than not showing up. The other confounding aspect is that what you are doing is usually linked to something you really enjoy and/or are good at. While you may not have a choice when your teacher tells you to give a talk in class, you do when you enter a match, and that makes it all the more difficult to work with performance anxiety.

In the end, there is not that much difference in how stage fright feels between being placed in a situation you don’t like and one you are attracted to. The sudden onset of severe anxiety is still there, and the feeling of helplessness that accompanies it can be devastating. But in the case of shooting sports, it is the result of a conscious choice.

Stage fright, which is horrible at times, is what my friend had to deal with when he asked for help. The advice given to him was to play the music as best he could but not to try and exceed his abilities. While this may seem simplistic, there is a kernel of truth to it and, as my friend attested, it can be very helpful.

My friend is very bright and organized, so the advice he got led him to a realization he was letting the potential problems he worried about take over his normal way of dealing with problems and playing music. After a while, he was able to get his mind to accept the stress and focus more on his music while continuing to use the experience on stage to improve it.

If this sounds familiar, it’s the general advice given for skill building of any kind. Build the skill, automate it and then focus on the results, not the internal process.

Learning to deal with performance anxiety is a skill like anything else. Skills have to be learned — there are no quick fixes for any problem — but many people fail to realize this. Instead, stage fright seems to bring out all sorts of specious advice. My favorite is “picture the audience naked”, which I know doesn’t work because another friend of mine told me about her experience playing for a square dance at a nudist event. Believe me, it is an interesting experience but it does not affect stage fright.

What does work is learning as much about why performance anxiety happens and using that information to garner skills that deal with it.

It’s important to note the effects of match pressure vary with the individual. Everyone feels it, but some are not as affected as others. This is partially a genetic trait, but life experience has a lot to do with how you respond to the kind of pressure that brings on this problem. Since each of us is different, we can’t rely just on generalized memes; we have to look at what happens to us and proceed from there.

This doesn’t mean having deep insight into our psyche, but it does mean we have to have an accounting of how we respond. Does our heart rate go up so high we feel faint or can’t function due to severe tremors? Do automatic thoughts of failure happen before the first shot? Do we lose all sense of rhythm? Does our body tense up so much we crouch over? Do we lose visual focus? Do we lose concentration? These and other questions have to be answered before we can get on with the business of dealing with match pressure.

The most vulnerable time is the first few shots of a match because we have not established a feel for the course or competition. In shotgun competition there is no other force holding back a good performance except for the shooter. This is true of any sport that does not have a direct opposition by another team or person. (It’s also true of aspects of some sports, such as field-goal kicking and free-throw shooting.) Because of anxiety in the beginning, shooters become internally concerned with technique, resulting in the undoing of those qualities that work so well in practice. Anxiety causes shooters to look at what is going on internally and takes the eye off the prize, literally. These first shots, which count the same as all the others, happen under special conditions brought on by initial anxiety.

Since all of these things happen in a match situation to everyone, an objective detailing of what happens to you and how much it affects you is needed. An easy way to grade this is to use a scale of one to ten regarding all the things that happen to you because of performance anxiety. Once this baseline is established, you can keep track of how well your solutions work as you try them out. Recognizing and detailing these instances can be difficult because the effects of anxiety are painful. However, it is vital to find ways to overcome them.

One of the best ways to use this information is to find solutions to each problem and incorporate them into a pre-game ritual of some sort. The whole idea of putting on a game face is to shift your brain and body into an altered state before you compete. This is very similar to the idea of a pre-shot ritual in which you set yourself up to make the shot and the shot comes automatically. You induce an altered state that promotes a good shot. The problem is to be successful in the initial shots, you have to have a groove to begin with. That’s what a solid pre-match ritual does.

If you observe professional athletes coming off the bus prior to the game, you will notice that most of them are listening to music (or something) on personal devices. Over the years, they have found they can control their anxiety and mental state by doing this. Coaches have found teams can develop an altered state of focus in the locker room before the game by intensifying the concentration through group rituals. It appears there is a multi-step process going on. By the time the game starts, each athlete is ready and the team is aligned with the game plan. These rituals are predictable and reproducible and, in turn, they set the stage for a peak performance. Just before the game, the athletes warm up using the same techniques each time and are ready to play.

In individual sports like shooting, this process can start well before the match, even weeks before if it is an important match. By knowing how pre-match jitters affect you, you can develop ways to deal with the automatic thoughts and physical effects. These include having techniques of relaxation, visualization and self-talk that work available. Learning to shoot within your capabilities — the advice my friend got — is also very important.

We each have certain abilities, and we train to shoot well in our elected sport. But we don’t all have the same capabilities, so we are not all able to shoot a perfect score, even if we can shoot all the shots. An initial miss can change the way we think about ourselves and our abilities causing a degradation of score and performance even if that miss was not due to anxiety but to skill level. This is one of the dangers of match stress — that it can cause an initial result that is unexpected (even though it should be if you are not perfect) ruining the rest of the session. Knowing what your capabilities are helps avoid the false premise that a first shot miss is a disaster instead of an indication of your skill level. If you always miss the first shot, then part of your practice should be to learn how to deal with it or improve enough so it doesn’t happen.

Performance anxiety does not last that long, but it can be detrimental in the time it is present. This is why you have to learn to deal with the effects by finding solutions and preparing yourself for its presence by developing a pre-game ritual that lets you focus on those solutions you have. Once the stumbling block of stage fright is over, your training and abilities take over and, if you slip into a zone, even better.

It takes time and experience to find out how to deal with performance anxiety. Every time you compete, you need to record and analyze what happened. The very first part of any match is the key to the rest of the match. Once you get going, you should be able to handle anything that comes at you better than when the match starts. If you are prepared to get over this hump, you will find your preparation will carry on throughout the match.

There are a lot of things to consider, and what works for one person may not work for another. Finding out how others handle this problem can be helpful. My advice is not to picture the officials naked, however, as you try their solutions and modify as needed for your situation. Every time you shoot, you will find another tweak that helps.

Ignore this advice at your peril. SS


Dr. Keyes has written over 250 articles on mental training for Shotgun Sports and is author of the book Mental Training For The Shotgun Sports available on page 50. He is a former physician for the U.S. Shooting Team, retired Colonel from the Army Reserve and a veteran of Viet Nam and Desert Storm. A Tennessee state pistol champion and coach of several national championship teams, he is retired from his practice in Victor, New York. You can e-mail him at michaelkeyes12@gmail.com.

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