Pressure. I remember being introduced to this concept when my high school physics teacher began the day by blaring the popular Queen melody for the entire classroom. (I honestly think Queen explained the concept better than any textbook.) Since then, as my shooting career has picked up, the meaning of pressure has morphed into something a bit more personal—something emotionally charged, having power to change my entire outlook on success or failure.
Pressure is great! (…sometimes)
At my most recent match, Winter Airgun Championships, I definitely heard pressure talking to me from the passenger seat. Many people talk about how good pressure is, and that you just have to use it to “make you focus more”. I got my first big break in shooting using that method (in fact at this same match several years ago). I had no idea how, but it seemed like I just couldn’t stop shooting well, even when my hold during the finals terrified me (and probably everyone around me who could see my gun moving). While it can work sometimes, I know that method doesn’t always work for me. I’ve learned that I can’t depend on adrenaline to focus; I must simply decide to focus and then do it. (If you don’t believe you can do it, click here for some help.)
Pressure can make every bit of movement, every breath, and every thought—so much more real. My awareness sky-rockets. It’s like I’ve been brought to a cliff and told to walk along the edge of it. Theoretically, it’s simple, even easy, to put each foot where you want it to go.
Pressure exists, like it or not.
But I don’t agree with people who advise others to just ignore pressure, using the logic that a match is “just like practice”. In a sense, yes—if someone is making up excuses as to why they “can’t” shoot well at a range (for no reason other than they’ve never shot well at that range before), or something of that sort, then there is definitely a healthy dose of reality they could use. Target size, distance, etc. remain the same between (approved) ranges.
However, the fact is that if you put me on the edge of a cliff and tell me to walk on its outline, it’s just not the same as walking along the cracks of a sidewalk when no one’s watching. The task is the same, but the execution is not. Since I’m human (and unfortunately not Force-sensitive), I am quite aware of the risks involved in my situation. One wrong step, and there’s no way to recover from failure. When risk increases, awareness of possible failure also increases. For example, if I have declared that it is my goal to become a more consistent shooter, then it raises the stakes at every match since I now have a reputation to lose.
As I always say, I learn something at each match. So what did I learn at this past match? During those three days, I was extremely aware of my expectations for myself. But I learned that knowing about pressure doesn’t necessarily have an impact on my performance. Step one: build a solid position and shot plan. Step two: execute. I know of a number of top-ranked shooters (and other athletes, for that matter) who the world expected to win gold, and they did. They’re not ignorant of their goals and expectations; rather, at some point, they decided to face them.
So the pressure of expectations (whether of success or failure) is not your magic potion to make you concentrate on each shot. You make the decision to be focused or distracted. Each shot is a choice. That’s why watching a shooter in a final that continues to place center shots is so exciting—because you know that the shooter is pushing to an invisible limit, an edge that they are so acutely aware of. Every moment, they are making the choice to stay focused on the task at hand—trying to focus more than the shooter next to them, yet without thinking about the shooter next to them. It’s like taking a journey to the center of the earth, except it’s a journey inside your own little bubble. At first, you see everything around you, and you notice the ground, buildings, and people—and then you make a decision to descend (and begin your shot process). Every time you descend, you can only think about continuing your journey. But if you lose focus for just one moment, you’re where you first began–corralling your thoughts back inside your bubble–and the entire process must be repeated.
My ultimate goal in every match is to push my limits; to find that edge I can stand on. Only when I move on to that next place mentally do those initial thoughts of pressure become irrelevant; only then do I stand on the right ground to push myself and test my limits.