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  • It is not purely mental!

    I had always considered the effects of pressure to be purely mental. In the early days, I used to get frustrated with myself as I realised that coping with my nerves was a major problem for me. I just wasn't used to playing competitive sports. But I thought this was a purely mental issue and couldn't understand why I just couldn't just talk myself out of it or shake it off!

    As I started to read and learn more about it, I realised that the mental pressures were leading to a release of hormones and neuro transmitters into my blood stream. So now there wasn't just a psychological effect, but there was a physical one too. A lot of what I was feeling was down to this physical reaction. And this was one that I wasn't going to talk myself out of!

    Sometimes I would interpret these physical effects (you know the sort of thing, butterflies in the stomach etc) as a negative - something to be concerned about. This in turn would further engage my "thinking brain" which was already in overdrive!

    Eventually, I learnt that these physical effects were nothing to be concerned about and that I could still perform. I use a couple of techniques to keep these effects in check.

  • Does social media help or hinder?

    If "fear of failure" is the big thing that we are all battling, do you think that posting material on FaceBook is going to make that situation better or worse?

    In my view, 9 times out of 10, it will lead to an increased fear of failure. So think carefully about what you what to post and when you want to post it.

    Bear in mind that social media is really about "impression management" - it is more about how people want to present themselves rather than reality. It'll come as no surprise that some people only tend to post when they have done well. But they tend to be very quiet when they haven't. However, this can have unfortunate consequences for others as they start to feel negative about their own performance. If others are presenting a skewed (overly positive) view of the world, any comparison is going to be of limited value at best. At worst, it is going to be very demotivating since everyone else's performance is always perfect!

    This has become an increasingly recognised issue with social media and there is a growing concern about the impact on our youngsters. Be careful not to use FaceBook as the yardstick against which you compare your own performance.

    Personally, I avoid FaceBook altogether during the run up to selection shoots - I just don't find it helpful. And if it isn't going to help improve my scores, then why would I bother reading it or making any posts? In the run up to the selection shoots, I want to be concentrating on no one else's performance other than my own.

  • Uniforms

    Don't underestimate the increased pressure that a uniform with your name or country on it might have on you. It is all back to the "fear of failure" - if I perform really poorly everyone will know who I am because my name is on the back of my skeet vest! Whatever pressure you think you are under, it will double when you put on a uniform!

    My advice is that if your ambition is to do whatever you do to the highest level, then get used to it as you might have to wear a uniform one day. Many shooters have their names embroidered onto the polo shirts or skeet vests. Personally, I think this is a great idea as it gets you used to wearing a sort of uniform as demonstrate a sense of pride in who you are and what you do. It also looks pretty smart too! Treat it as a journey and an opportunity to learn how to cope with new found pressure! This should be seen as one of the pleasures of competing!

  • I am guessing that this is going to be one of the most popular topics on this site. It is an issue that everyone faces and often the first thing that people talk about in terms of the mental game. I suspect that it is often this issue that prompts them to find out more about the mental game in the first place!

    So if this is the first page that you have looked at on this site, then I think it is going to be worth 10 minutes of your time to reading the preceding pages, particularly how we learn and the growth mindset. It will give you an understanding of the learning process and how pressure affects our performance. This understanding will provide insights about how you can perform under pressure.

    We all get nervous, it is a by-product of competitive sport. Our aim should not be to completely remove the effects of pressure, but to reduce the negative effects while making the most of the positive effects.

    If another competitor tells you that they don't get nervous, don't believe them. We all do. I have learnt that I can still perform well when I "feel nervous" so long as I trust in my technique and follow my process (hence my advice to read the pages on "Process" first) - the fact that my heart is pounding doesn't mean that I am going to make a mistake.

    We all respond differently and there is no magic answer or instant fix, so take the time to understand what is causing the pressure and what coping strategies might work for you.

  • The effects of pressure

    Pressure causes two very distinct types of effects - one good; one not so good.

    • Physical - there is a physical response to pressure where our body releases a cocktail of chemicals into our bloodstream. Adrenaline (known as the "fight or flight" hormone) is among them, but there are a number of other neuro transmitters that are also released. And this is the good news bit. Adrenalin, for example, can make you feel more "alert", increases your strength and can increase your visual acuity. So what is not to like?

      The main issue here is that we have learnt over time to associate these physical effects with the more negative effects of pressure. We need to remember there is nothing inherently bad about these physical effects - it is just being "more alert".

    • Psychological - There can be a tendency for our "thinking" brain to become hyperactive. It starts to want to take control of our performance, pondering the consequences of failure, and turning small mistakes into major shortcomings in our abilities. We start to doubt ourselves and our technique. This is will cause a major impact on performance. If you aren't careful, the whole situation can descend into a major meltdown.

    In summary, the physical effects have a potential positive impact on our performance. Think of it in terms of "being more alert" rather than "suffering from nerves". In my personal experience, I have found that I can overcome the physical effects and manage to perform well even when my hands are shaking and my heart is pounding.

    However, it is the psychological effects that are most likely to have a negative impact and be more difficult to deal with. So let's take a look at these in more depth.

  • The psychological effects of pressure

    The question that we have to ask ourselves is why we get nervous and what can we do to control our nerves. For many competitors not being able to control their nerves is the major obstacle to enjoying their sport and ultimately limits their performance.

    We have an in-built system that is designed to look after ourselves and our wellbeing. It is an internal process that runs ensuring that we don't get into situations that might be harmful to us. This cognitive process is deeply ingrained in all of us and can be very difficult (although not impossible) to overcome.

    For example, if we put a 2ft wide plank on the floor and ask you to walk along it - one foot after the other - you would do it without much hesitation. If we now repeat this exercise, but this time the plank is 20ft in the air, the brain starts to assess what might happen if it all goes wrong and may start to interfere with our ability to walk the plank. Bizarrely, this means that it is more likely that we might fall off when the plank is 20 ft in the air rather than when it is laying on the ground.

    In most sports (but not all), there is little risk of physical injury. If it all goes wrong, the worst that might happen is that we might miss a target or the other side might score a goal. So why the nerves? In short, it is the fear of failure. We don't want to embarrass ourselves or make ourselves look stupid in front of our friends, team mates or colleagues. But just like the plank walking example above, it is this fear of failure that ends up impacting our very performance. It just becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    This happens because our internal self-image tends to be overly conservative - it's development lags significantly behind our actual abilities. You'll often hear coaches saying things like "You are a much better golfer/shooter/tennis player (delete as appropriate) than you think you are! Just let yourself go and trust yourself!" In these sorts of situations, the athlete has become the only thing standing between themselves and an outstanding performance. Ironically, this is one of the few things that is under their control. They need to stand aside and let themselves perform as well as they can.

    The way to achieve this is through self-belief - trust in your abilities and techniques and let your sub-conscious play the game.

    Now if you think this is going to be easy - think again! This is a journey and it takes time and effort to get used to performing under pressure. There is no substitute for getting out there and doing it. Like any skill, it needs to be practiced. Sure, there will be "bumps in the road", but what is important is what you learn from these situations and adapt accordingly. You will find record keeping really valuable in this process.

    In many sports, there are different levels of competitions (or tournaments) and this gives new players the opportunities to getting used to playing at ever increasing levels of pressure. This is a real positive approach that provides players with a journey and an opportunity to learn how they respond (and how to cope) with these situations. It is what you learn at each stage (rather than whether you win or lose) that will make the difference in the end.

    Here's a clip of Lanny Bassham talking about coping with pressure in competitions. His book With winning in Mind is well worth reading. You will find it listed in the reading list.

  • Coping strategies

    Be prepared

    There is no substitute for being prepared. Making sure that you are on top of your technique and that you have done everything that you can to prepare for an event, is a great confidence booster and will help you cope with the pressure. Make sure that you keep reminding yourself that you are all prepared. It is a great way of calming your nerves.

    But be aware that the opposite is also true! Our brains don't cope well with unknowns and this can often kick our "thinking" brains into overdrive if we aren't careful! We start worrying about performance and pondering on our potential failure. This is an example of our "thinking brains" going into "story-telling mode". Something that we really need to avoid, particularly during the competition itself.

    So in the run up to the competition, make sure you know the ground, the opponents, the weather conditions. Make sure your kit is complete and you have spares. Make sure you have the right food and drink etc. This list could go on and on.......Just be prepared!

    Face up to the negative self-talk

    Sometimes you just get that thought into your head that you can't do something and you can't shake it off. It might be that you performed poorly in a previous event or you had a bad training session in the run up to a competition. We have all been there. Unfortunately, sometimes these negative thoughts can become impossible to ignore!

    If you are being plagued by such thoughts, my advice is to tackle them head on. Write them down, if that helps. Once you see the thoughts for what they are, you begin to realise just how ridiculous they are! For example, I missed a couple of High 3 targets in a minor competition, just before a major selection shoot. If I listened to my self-talk, I was trying to convince myself that High 3 was a major issue. Yet I had shot this target hundreds, if not thousands, of times before without any problems. Yet my "thinking" brain was trying to convince me that 2 misses meant that I had a real issue. As soon as I realised how ridiculous this was, it became easy to dispel it and move on.

    A variation on this technique is to write down your negative thoughts on a piece of paper and then shred it! The thoughts, together with the paper, are then consigned to the bin where they belong!


    Visualisation is one of the tools most commonly used by athletes to improve their performance. Visualisation allows the athlete to use their imagination to see a future performance in their mind's eye. And it isn't just limited to "seeing" these events, but visualisation can be used to evoke the feelings associated with a successful performance. In fact, the most effective visualisations will include additional sensory information - anything to make the visualisation "feel" more real.

    You can use visualisation in the days and weeks in the run up to an event. Or you can include it in your "process". Personally, I do both. The imagery script that we discussed previously is a form of visualisation and I use this prior to major competitions - I can sit in a quiet space and imagine shooting an entire round of skeet. I might be lying in bed or sitting on the train, but wherever I am, I can shoot a round of skeet!

    You will also see from the imagery script that visualisation is built into the process that I am using during a performance. For example, as it becomes my turn to shoot I run through a pre-shoot routine. This includes visualisation. I stand tall and imagine how I feel when I successfully smashed the target. I then look at the trap house, find my gun-hold, and visualise the flight line of the target. I imagine looking down the gun, locking onto the target, pulling the trigger and "seeing" the target break. Then I do it all again, but this time for real!

    How does this work?

    • As far as our brain is concerned, the imagined event can have many of the same effects as the real event. Earlier we talked about how we learn and through practice our sub-conscious takes over frequently repeated tasks. If we visualise an event before the real event, every time, we are doubling the number of times we are performing the task, thus speeding up our sub-conscious taking over the task.
    • Builds confidence. In reality, I don't need to feel confident all the time. Just the 5-10 seconds before I take my shot will do! If I feel confident, then succeed, it just makes me feel even more confident. It then becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, but in a good way!
    • Blocks out our "thinking" brain. Remember, our "thinking" brain can only think about one thing at a time and if it is thinking about visualisation, then it can't be thinking about anything else. It can't be pondering failure or any other negative thoughts.
    • Readies our body to perform the action. As we visualise the movement, we are sub-consciously making sure that are body is prepared and ready to go.


    Here's a couple of things that I have found that work for me. These techniques are often referred to by different names, so you may have come across these before but as something different.

    • Controlled breathing Inhale for 3 seconds, hold your breath for 2 seconds and then exhale for 5-7 seconds. Repeat three times. The key here is that the exhale is longer than the inhale. This is a tried and tested method for reducing heart rate - you will your heart rate will often drop by around 10%. This is often referred to as Centered Breathing or Zen Breathes. Concentrating on your breathing is a very effective method for making sure that you stay in the present - a key feature of maintaining focus.
    • Progressive Muscle Relaxation Wow! All sounds a bit "New Age", but it is the process of tensing muscle groups in a systematic manner from your head to your toes - one group at a time. I have sometimes heard it referred to as "body scanning". It is a fairly common relaxation technique.

    I have found some good resources on one of the NHS websites that contains audio files that you can download that take you through Progressive Muscle Relaxation and Mindful Breathing. Why not give it a try? You will find the material here.

    Alternatively, if you Google "controlled breathing" or "progressive muscle relaxation" you will find scripts for these techniques on the Internet. So why not record your own audio using a smartphone? You can then use it as part of your preparation.

    Practice under pressure

    You can't really reproduce the same pressure in practice that you face in competition, but we can replicate elements of it. Let's not forget this is a mental skill that needs to be practiced so the more we practice, the better we will become at dealing with pressure.

    Here's a couple of ideas. Why not turn a practice session (or part of a practice session) into a "mini-competition"? My coach and I will regularly compete against each other (and sometimes I win!). I actually bought a trophy and had it engraved. The winner gets to take it home until next time. It just makes it feel a little more real (and he is always super competitive!) so it introduces a little bit of pressure.

    If you find that competing while there are other people watching difficult, then find situations where this happens on a lesser scale and get used to it. This used to freak me out, but then I used to kid myself that they weren't looking at me, but were watching the targets or the weather conditions (even if they really were watching me!). It didn't take long before I got over it.


    Don't underestimate how powerful music can be at influencing our emotional state. It can have an almost instantaneous effect - boosting our confidence, building motivation as well as relaxing our bodies. It is no coincidence that you'll see elite athletes wearing headphones as they are preparing for their major competitions.

    So why not create your own play list? Pick 4-5 tracks that you are going to play just before you compete. They should be upbeat and positive and invoke the thoughts that you find helpful. Carefully selecting the right tracks with the right lyrics can have a profound effect. It goes without saying - the choice of music is personal.

    Personally, I think Spotify is a great solution for picking the right type of soundtrack for a competition. In fact, there are already playlists created called things like "Confidence Booster". If you're lacking inspiration (or just plain lazy), why not start here?

    Get your body language right!

    Stand tall and proud. It will not only make you look more confident, but you will feel more confident too. I know it sounds strange, but if you make yourself look more confident, you will feel more confident as a consequence.

    On a number of occasions, I have seen shooters step up to take a shot and I could tell just from their body language that they were going to miss the target. This is most notable if you have been watching them for a while - suddenly you seen this change (albeit subtle) in their body language that demonstrates that their confidence has suddenly evaporated or they have become distracted. A miss is then inevitable.

  • Updated: 3/9/20

Further information


There are a number of websites online that can provide more detailed information. I have included a list for you to use as a starting point.


You'll find an extensive list of books included on the Further Info pages. They are all readily available on Amazon.


There are some great TED talks available that cover many of the areas discussed on this website. I have included links to many of them on the Futher Info pages.