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Willpower: the Shooter’s Nemesis

How do I summarize my 7-month-long entrance into the Army? Time flies when you’re having fun. And if you’re not having fun–well, they’ll make you have fun. Day 0 of Officer Candidate School, our cadre literally collapsed his lung from yelling at us about how marvelous push-ups in the pouring rain are. I’ve had a lot of people ask me how the whole experience was, and if I’m being honest I’m still not sure (probably since I’ve subconsciously blocked out most of those memories). All I can say is I’m happy it’s over, but still glad I did it.

While my biggest frustration with the past 7 months is how much of my life was wasted doing absolutely nothing (I still hear “welcome to the Army” on repeat in my brain), one thing Basic Combat Training (BCT) teaches everyone about is discipline and willpower. I constantly got in trouble for smiling and laughing (some of the stories I have you just can’t make up), but the biggest challenges were the simplest ones–like not falling asleep when you’re absolutely exhausted. In the countless hours of silence and contemplation I was so kindly granted, I realized how much I could relate this concept of willpower to my own shooting.

Maybe you’ve experienced this: a relatively young shooter rises up out of nowhere to suddenly have a wildly successful performance at a major competition. At the next competition, they sink back to the level they began at, usually running out of the range with tears streaming down their face. So was that first match a fluke? In my eyes, absolutely not. A match like that shows an athlete’s potential, which is never a bad thing. That kind of match happens because of a perfect storm of mechanics combined with a sudden burst of willpower. The only problem is that willpower can be tricky and unpredictable, and very difficult to replicate. So is there an alternative? Something more controllable and predictable, and easy to replicate? Yes, there is, and it’s called discipline.

So what’s the difference?

  • Willpower: (noun) control exerted to do something or restrain impulses.
  • Discipline: (noun) a system of rules of conduct or (verb) to train oneself to do something in a controlled and habitual way.

Essentially, willpower is an emotional response: realizing that there is an innate desire to do (or not do) something specific, and then calling on an even stronger emotional power to resist the initial impulse. In BCT, willpower was resisting the urge to laugh while eating lunch from the front leaning rest. Discipline, on the other hand, is following a set of rules or habits that were already put into place–a premeditated remedy to an existing problem. This is more similar to standing in a formation every morning until the cadre decide it’s time to wake up.

Willpower is a short-term solution to performing well. A shooter that depends on willpower believes that luck plays the biggest role in a match. This athlete was likely labelled a “natural” shooter based on one result, and it’s hard to keep him or her on the range long enough to have a meaningful practice. On the surface, willpower seems like way less work, since the only actual work involved is during the competition. But I’m on a mission to prove otherwise! I’ll show you how ultimately, discipline is a way better route to take than relying on willpower. And since I know I’m not the only lazy one around here, all I have to do is show you how willpower is actually a lot more work than self-discipline.

I was surprised by the amount of recent research covering the subject of willpower. A current popular theory is that the brain is like a muscle that is exercised while using willpower, and consequently is worn out by excessive use. In one study, there was a room filled with the smell of freshly baked cookies. Participants were divided into two groups; one group had to eat radishes, while the other group could eat a cookie. Both groups then had to perform a challenging mental exercise. Those that ate a cookie spent 11 more minutes on average at the challenging exercise than those that ate radishes. Survey says–if you use willpower to accomplish a task (restraining yourself from eating a cookie), you have less willpower to accomplish the next one (sticking with a difficult exercise). My gym people can easily relate when thinking of max reps in the weight room–each rep is harder than the last one.

This makes sense when looking at the common path followed by many suddenly successful athletes, since it explains why it’s so difficult to call on that same burst of willpower again in such a short time. As ridiculous as it sounds, I used to eat a square of dark chocolate as part of my pre-match routine. This was mostly to make me happy when I had to shoot airgun, but I also thought it might give me a boost of willpower. Did it work? Who knows…but I will say I certainly don’t regret the chocolate.

The willpower depletion theory might also explain why those who regularly consume caffeine generally don’t perform very well when they suddenly deprive themselves of caffeine right before a match. While a sudden burst of energy isn’t ideal for match conditions, it also takes willpower to break a habit. And when you break a habit right before a match, it often doesn’t end well.

So if willpower can be depleted, how is it refueled? That seems to be the ongoing question in psychology today. Scientists have experimented with everything from monitoring glucose levels to changing the amount of sleep given to test subjects, but as of yet there’s no single proven source of willpower. There is, however, an interesting relationship between energy levels and willpower. We know that at certain times when your body is low on energy (i.e., when you’re sick, doing a VO2max test, or when you’re carb-deprived), your willpower is less than normal. That explains why people get cranky when they have a cold or are on a diet.

The fact that energy levels seem to be closely connected to willpower output also explains why many sports psychologists emphasize awareness of your energy level as you enter a competition. In my experience, willpower in a competition is used when compensating for some fundamental that is lacking (hold, trigger control, etc.). Maybe your hold is all over the place, but it you try just hard enough, you can time the shot to land in the 10 ring. I’ve noticed that there’s a sweet spot for willpower during a match when you’re facing an issue. Too little, and you don’t overcome your problem. Too much, and you run into a host of other issues, from your position breaking down to exhausting your mental game. It’s like your brain doesn’t have the mental capacity to execute a shot routine, problem-solve your position, and simultaneously exercise the exact amount of willpower needed to compensate for any weaknesses in your game.

To summarize: willpower probably gets depleted over time (but we don’t know how exactly), it may or may not be directly correlated with energy levels, we aren’t entirely sure how to get just the right amount of it in competition (but we know we need it), and chocolate’s effect on it is still unknown. I imagine that by now, any other solution to shooting well sounds more reliable than using willpower. While I don’t think you can really train yourself to have a larger source of willpower, I do think that there is a skill in there that can be developed, and it’s much more closely related to discipline. Since increasing your threshold for discipline significantly reduces the need for willpower in a specific moment (say, the last shot of a final), I’ve learned it’s way more efficient to spend time and energy building up your discipline.

So now that you know why discipline is a better route to take than relying on willpower alone, how exactly can you work on discipline in shooting? Stay tuned for the next blog, where I’ll cover some common (yet surprising) areas most people need work in discipline, as well as tips on how to stick with it.


P.S. If you actually powered through that entire blog, I’m impressed! And if you’re  interested in even further reading on the studies I mentioned, check out the following links: