Timothy R King Ph.D. Clinical Counseling
Bryan T. Karazsia, Ph.D. Psychology
We’ve all heard the clichés: practice makes perfect, luck occurs when preparation meets opportunity, and many shooters and hunters abide by such principles. When hunting monster Whitetails, we typically think of preparation and practice as scouting deer, planting food plots, and shooting at the local range. While these preparations are vital to successful hunts, everything in hunting boils down to that crucial moment when a buck steps into the shooting lane that you’ve so deceitfully cut. During this precious moment of truth, hearts race, breathing patterns change, legs and hands shake, and palms sweat. Here’s the key question: are you prepared to make a precision shot under these conditions? Years of psychological research have revealed that individuals can develop skills that can improve physical performance, and this article will explain how they can be applied to shooting in the field.
Before discussing any actual techniques and how they apply to hunting, it is important to understand that each of these techniques are skills that need to be developed over time, just like the skill of shooting. You simply cannot expect to successfully alter your mental and physical states of being without having practiced and prepared beforehand. The hunting off-season is not only a time for planting food plots and honing in your shooting skills, but it’s also a time to exercise your mental muscles.
One of the most important aspects of Psychology that can help your shooting is concentration. You may have heard athletes talk about The Zone: a period of intense concentration that feels almost like a dream. While in such a state, athletes are focused, confident, and fully aware of their situation on the playing field. The late Michael Mahoney, a past member of the US Olympic Sports Psychology Committee and Registry, stated that intense concentration occurs when an athlete is completely focused on a specific task and free from any internal or external distractions. This heightened level of intense concentration will lead to peak performance. When to applying this concept to white-tail hunting, two questions come to mind: What should we focus on, and How can we become better at focusing?
A discussion about what to focus on is extremely important. You may have the best concentration skills in the world, but if you’re focused on the wrong thing, you will be less likely to succeed under pressure. If, in the past, you have made a poor shot at a monster white-tail, the images of that arrow sailing over the buck’s back may be engrained in your memory. If so, you are dwelling, or concentrating, on the wrong thing, and you’re likely thinking about how you might fail again in the future.
You need to develop a type of ‘selective memory.’ You control your thoughts and what you choose to concentrate on. If you’ve failed, don’t dwell on it. Instead, think about all the times you have succeeded (either in the field or at your local range). Rather than focusing on what not to do, replace those thoughts with positive ones by concentrating on what to do. Stay focused on a vision of your arrow slicing the lungs of that buck.
While hunting, it is very easy to get distracted by both internal and external cues. Some of the external cues that can distract us include the weather and antlers. Hunting under extreme weather conditions can be very physically demanding, and it can also capture our concentration. Before we know it, we are dwelling on thoughts of how cold we are instead of focusing on making a perfect shot. Also, once a buck walks into view, (especially a monster buck) his antlers can just as easily be a source of distraction. If you’re focused on the antler spread instead of the vital zone, you’ll be more likely to misplace your shot.
Internal cues can just as easily distract us from the target of concentration. As a buck approaches, our body changes states. We become excited and highly aroused. Our hands and knees want to shake, and our breathing patterns become irregular; we get distracted. Other internal cues that may distract us, even when a buck is not in sight, include unpleasant thoughts or memories. If you’ve had a difficult day at work, you might dwell on it while hunting. Dwelling on anything negative will decrease your chance of success.
We encourage you to, over time, develop a clear vision of a perfect shot from many different angles. During the off-season, spend time in a tree stand visualizing a buck walking into your shooting lane. Practice shooting at a 3-D target during these visualization rituals. Try to mimic hunting situations, and practice under these conditions. Then, when you’re not practicing physically, you can reenact your perfect shots mentally. Every Olympic athlete understands the power of positive mental imaging. It was Major James Nesmith that shot a 76 round on the golf course after being held prisoner of war for years during the vietnam war. He had lost a ton of weight and was very feeble. When asked how he managed to shoot a 76 in the physical condition that he was in, his answer was that he played golf every day in his mind and then he said, “You never miss a shot in your mind.” The same thing is true when you practice shooting in your mind in the off season. You will hit the kill zone 100% of the time. Doing so will help you to concentrate under the extreme conditions of a monster white-tail hunt!
So far, we’ve talked about what to focus on (and what not to focus on). It’s time to discuss how to concentrate, especially under moments of intense pressure. Remember, concentration involves being free from any distractions. One of the best ways to remain focused, especially when you catch yourself becoming distracted, is through the use of positive self-talk. These simple cues can remind us of what we need to focus on, and they can be either instructional (“squeeze the release”, “pin on the vital”) or motivational (“relax”, “visualize my shot”). It is important that these simple reminders be short and meaningful to you so they will prompt your desired response, leading to a successful result.
Another way to increase your ability to concentrate is to practice relaxation strategies, such as deep breathing exercises. Developing a relaxation routine during the off-season will help you control yourself when you’re under pressure. It will also alleviate internal distracters. You want to practice staying relaxed physically while maintaining high levels of concentration. Your mind should be focused and alert, and your body should be relaxed with loose muscles.
You also need to learn to ‘turn off’ your internal distracters, such as doubt, worry, and fear of failure. The best way to prevent yourself from thinking negatively is to replace anything negative with something that is positive. If you’ve recently shoulder-shot a buck and you can’t seem to stop thinking about it, remind yourself of successful shots you have made in the past. It may help to look at a picture of yourself with a buck you’ve harvested in the past or to watch your favorite hunting video to cue these positive memories. You will perform better in the future if you develop your ‘selective memory.’
Finally, when in the crucial moments of truth, learn how to channel your energy into specific focal points. Once you identify a buck as a shooter, you should be looking at and thinking about nothing other than the deer’s kill zone and making an accurate shot placement. If you’ve practiced concentrating in the off-season, you will be able to intensify your level of concentration in the field, allowing yourself to become totally immersed in the process of making a successful shot and harvesting the King of your Hill!