October 23, 2023

You might think that after more than 120,000 registered targets and who knows how many tournaments, I wouldn’t get nervous. But at times, I do – and so does everyone else. If you’re going to shoot your best when it counts, you’re going to have to learn how to battle through your nerves. Like most things in our game, it takes practice.

One of the best remedies for nerves comes only with time – experience. The second time you’re in a shoot-off should be a little easier than the first. If you’re at a multi-day tournament and leading your class after the first day, it’s not so intimidating if you’ve been in that situation before and gone on to win. I competed in many world championships before I broke through and won my first in 2016.

Yet there are other ways to combat pressure. Make sure that you’ve got confidence in your equipment – a tournament is not the time to be experimenting with chokes, ammunition, or new shooting glasses. Make sure you have confidence in yourself as well. Do everything you can to prepare for a shoot, including putting in the work necessary to succeed. Do your best to be in good health and condition, and try to block out any distractions from work or home while you’re on the course.

Once you start shooting, you can fight nerves through a consistent pre-shot routine and to be disciplined in making a detailed plan to shoot every station. That helps you occupy your mind and, if executed properly, will help to crowd out negative thoughts and the doubt that starts seeping into your mind after a bad station.

Vincent Hancock, whose three Olympic gold medals almost surely make him the best international skeet shooter of all time, talks about shooting smarter through preparation.

Speaking a few years back on Justin Barker’s old “Behind the Break” podcast, Vinny talked about how he battles nerves while competing at the very highest level. “I’ve really been able to hone my craft and really focus on trying to be as perfect as I possibly can,” he said. “… (I)f I can break it down into small manageable chunks and learn those chunks very, very well, where I’d never make a mistake, then when I go into competition mode, it just makes things even easier.”

Once he hits a competition, he says he focuses on mechanics down to the smallest detail, and then doing the same things repeatedly. “I’m clouding my mind with (positive) thoughts,” he said. “Those positive thoughts don’t allow you to focus on the nerves, and the nerves will come into play as negative thoughts.”Ultimately, he said, “Think positive. Just do one step at a time, a thing that you know you can accomplish, like getting your feet set, getting the proper hold point, getting your eyes settled, and then making a good move.”

Of course sporting clays is very different from skeet, in that we have so many different targets at varying ranges and angles. But Vinny’s advice is rock solid no matter what game you’re shooting. Ultimately, he does everything he can to prepare, and once the match begins, he focuses on his effort, not his result.

That’s a key part of all of this. If you put in the work and concentrate on your process and effort, the results may even exceed your expectations. Besides, it’s not helpful to go into a tournament thinking you must shoot a particular score or win your class. You might shoot better than you ever have, and someone else shoots just a tiny bit better. You can’t control that – but you can control how you perform, and focusing on the process of shooting well is essential to good performance.

Obviously, your mindset can play a big role in this. Some of it is an inherent part of your personality, but if you don’t have the right mindset, then your chances of handling pressure aren’t very good. It might help to try to put it everything into perspective – after all, sporting clays is a pastime for most of us. We all have far, far more important things in our lives, or at least I hope we do.

I’m not saying that’s it’s easy to let things go. I’ve been working on my own mindset for the last year or so, reminding myself that I really have nothing left to prove to myself or anyone else. I’ve had a great career and would be proud of what I’ve accomplished even if I never shot another target. Yet my brain doesn’t really work like that. I still feel as if I have to win, and that’s why I’m still out there.

This article is adapted from Anthony I. Matarese Jr.’s new book Straight Shooting: A World Champion’s Guide to Shotgunning.” It is available through his website


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