Building A Mental Program

A mental program is a curious thing. If you ascribe to the writings of Lanny Bassham and his mental management program, and many professional athletes do, it is essential for peak performance. The premise is based on a simple belief that the mind can be split between the conscious and the subconscious. The conscious can only focus on one thing a time, and will be overwhelmed if you try to hold onto too many things at the same time. We have all heard the phrase, “overthinking it.” That is the result of trying to direct the conscious mind in to many directions at once.

The flip side is that the subconscious mind can direct its attention in many places at once. This is the function of practice, to build the habits and “muscle memory” so that the subconscious will automatically perform what you’ve been trained to do. A performance truism is often, “under stress, you will revert to whatever has been trained and practiced.” I have a pilot instructor friend who used to tell me of the repeated bold face tests and emergency procedure practice that was drilled over and over until it became automatic. This behavior applies in almost every area of the military, from combat drills to my line of work where trainees repeat the same procedures and verbal statements over and over until they can do them without thinking about it.

I will not go into further detail in that regard, as it’s all in Mr. Bassham’s excellent book, With Winning in Mind. Using the writing in that book, and a supplemental article he wrote for Archery Focus, I will formulate my own program.

It had been a while since I read his book, and I was a bit fuzzy on the concept as I went to the range the other day. I recall having an initiation step, and then letting the ‘program’ run its course. Two problems arose: the initiation step (tapping the trigger guard twice with my right hand) proved too awkward, and I did not have a consistent plan on how I was going to follow through.

With that said, there are two distinct rituals I want to focus on today. The pre shot routine, and the initiation.

The Pre-Shot Routine

The routine should be simple enough. Each of my shots has a sequence to it.

  • Sling up
  • Load the rifle
  • Get into position
  • Align sights
  • Check natural point of aim
  •  Click off the safety
  • Control breathing
  • Squeeze the trigger
  • Release trigger after the rifle settles

I did find, however, that I don’t perform this sequence exactly the same way every time. For instance, I may not get back up out of position between shots. I also notice that with Gungnir, I do not re-engage the safety after every shot. This is a bad habit that I will have to fix. Also, within that list, “get into position” does not accurately describe the amount of fidgeting I’ve been doing trying to find my natural point of aim. I suppose that will come with time.

The Mental Program

The mental program itself will encompass several of these physical actions. I have chosen five phases for my program: initiate, feel, see, control, execute.

From my list of actions, it makes the most sense to pick a physical initiation step that is shared between both formats. In this case, I think the act of loading the rifle makes the most sense. Either in letting the bolt go home on the AR, or pushing the bolt forward and locking it on the bolt gun.

The feel step should include mentally rehearsing what a good shoot will feel like. How will it feel to put a shot on target? See the hole through the bull and feel the rush of success.

See includes visualizing the shot happen. What will the sights look like? What does my position look like? What does my trigger squeeze look like? I have to see the result of each of those actions coming together, which is a hit on the target.

Control, to me, is the actual shot preparation.  Control is getting into position, checking NPA, aligning sights, controlling breathing and waiting for the picture I “saw” in the previous step to match.

Execution must be subconscious. During my range session, I did find that my best shots were those that happened almost on their own once the crosshairs were in the correct position. Rather than thinking hard about holding them on the same spot, I just let my finger squeeze through the second stage of the trigger at the instant everything was aligned. Right or wrong, this seemed to work best. I want to continue this trend, and build up my stability during the control phase.

All of that said, I guess a new sequence with the two elements combined would look like this:

  • Sling up (if needed)

Initiate Phase

  •  Load weapon

Feel Phase

  • Rehearse how the shot will feel after a successful hit

See Phase

  • Rehearse what the shot will look like

Control Phase

  • Get into position
  • Check NPA
  • Align sights
  • Deactivate safety
  • Control breathing

Execute Phase

  • Squeeze trigger
  • Release trigger after rifle settles

From my marksmanship goals, all of this will have to happen relatively quickly. Though I suppose the time critical elements are the control and execute phases. In order to keep my conscious mind during all of this, once the muscle memory is built, I will focus on repeating the phrase “aim small, miss small.” I know, it’s cheesy since it came from a movie- but it is oddly appropriate.

I must perform this sequence the same way for every shot. I guess we will see how this works out on the next range trip.


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