Competition Nerve Control From The Experts: Air Rifle

When it comes to marksmanship competition, skills can only go so far – having a strong mental game is also a key part of reaching success. In an effort to gain tips on better regulating the psychological aspects of competitive shooting, the Civilian Marksmanship Program (CMP) asked respected athletes to share their personal experiences from the firing line on what they do to control their emotions when nerves creep in and the pressure is high.

Lucas Kozeniesky, 25, is a member of Team USA’s rifle team. A representative of the United States at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games in rifle, Kozeniesky again earned a spot on the team for the next Olympics in Tokyo, slated for 2021. A six-time All-American athlete, he started his marksmanship career as a junior in 2009 and has since earned local, national and global honors with his performances. He was also a member of the North Carolina State Wolfpack rifle team from 2013 to 2017 – the first ever NC State athlete to garner a place on the U.S. Olympic Team.

A four-time NC State MVP, Kozeniesky led his NCAA team in air rifle and smallbore several times through the course of his collegiate career, racking up record scores, and went on to earn first place overall at the 2016 USA Shooting National Championship in 10-meter air rifle (a title he has earned four times).

In 2019, Kozeniesky was the overall 10-meter air rifle competitor at the Pan American Games in Lima, Peru. He is also a co-founder of Team Winning Solutions, which he created with NC State head coach Emily Holsopple. The organization offers in-person and online coaching, shooting clinics and consultations for junior athletes – an endeavor he is passionate about and has been heavily involved with as he waits for the postponed Olympic Games to commence. Learn more about Team Winning Solutions at https://twsolutions.org/.

In November 2020, Kozeniesky set a new USA Shooting National Record at the Hungarian Open, firing a score of 633.6.

Dealing with Pressure… It’s easier and harder than it looks.

Pressure is a normal and natural response to competition or stressful situations. People feel pressure when they are doing something that matters to them, whether they’re taking a test, walking down the aisle at their wedding, or taking the first shot of a match. For all the shooting folks out there reading this article, you’re probably looking for a small edge in your competition plan to get those few points. I’ve included some things that any person can do, but it requires discipline…which is the hard part.

Before we dive into dealing with pressure, I need you to understand what it is. Pressure is a physiological reaction to stress. Your body is reacting to something in the environment. This reaction includes changes in your heart rate, vision and cognitive reasoning. You physically change. In our sport, we are in a static position and we are competing in a repetitive action. There is not a surge of movement or power, simply picking up a rifle and pointing at the middle of the target; when pressure hits, your ability to do these changes. Let’s talk about what could change.

What changes when the pressure is applied:

Match firing…START. BOOM! Your body changes. What changed? Was it the tension between the shoulders? Did the acuity of your vision change? How about the steadiness of your hands? Whatever the change is, there is usually a perception of difficulty with the competition shots versus what you’re used to seeing during training. Then what do you do? Well…you think about it. Now you have an internal dialogue going about everything that is wrong AND you need to start the competition, ‘Oh boy, I have to shoot a 10 with a shaky hold.’ Regardless of if you shoot a good shot, bad shot or just plain mediocre, it’s a struggle to do so. What do we do? How can we succeed under these conditions? Well, kids, here is where the hard part comes in, and I send out a call to action: Embrace the shooting athlete lifestyle.

Shooting Athlete Lifestyle:

A lifestyle? What? This means that the day-to-day actions that you take will impact the way you handle the rifle under stress. Why? Because the body is what filters the physiological reaction to stress. Your general fitness, how you deal with self-talk and control over breathing are all aspects that impact this ability to filter through the stress. These are things that you can train and work on outside the range and not in competition.

A general fitness program is a good choice for your general health but, when under pressure of a match, your body recognizes that stress and can filter it BECAUSE of the exercise and the body being conditioned to being under stress. With that in mind, this needs to occur three to four times a week, MINIMUM. Over the course of a couple months, the body will learn what it’s trying to do and will accommodate the increased workload of a competition. For those of you who are multi-sport athletes and have a built-in training routine, you’re a step ahead of the program.

Self-talk…is talking to yourself. It is you daydreaming, thinking about a situation critically, and commenting on the body reacting to the environment through the five senses. If you feel something in the position, see something weird in the sights or just straight up have access to the sixth sense and just know something is wrong…then you talk about it. A lot of people let this talk turn into whatever they want. However, this self-talk or dialogue that occurs is a conscious decision and YOU can control your perspective on the situation. When the pressure hits, you can rely on your physical conditioning to remain in control of the body, and then you take control of the mind. Therefore…you are the captain now. Talk yourself through it in a positive way. Rely on the process, give yourself some positive affirmations or just say I HAVE THE POWER. Then you full send that round down range and see what happens.

In other words, be open-minded.

Managing Expectations:

How you perceive the goals you have during the critical experiences is important to your success on the firing line. If your goals are big, scary and right in front of you, that can put an excessive amount of pressure on you and your ability to perform. For example, if I say, ‘I’m going to shoot a 630 today,’ when you’re shooting around a 618, there’s an issue here.

First: it demands a huge step outside the realm of your current skill level. Second: it demands this to happen…RIGHT NOW.

This is not healthy because you are putting so much responsibility on a system that can’t sustain the demand.

Rather, be mindful of what gets you to that 618. The process, the training, the work you put in, the tactics developed – all of these tasks that you completed to get you to where you are now. These tasks, especially the process, become your focus in a course of fire. Therefore, your goal changes to something centered around the process, which empowers you to take control.

If you focus on that process and executing the shots correctly, you’re going to end up in the ballpark of where your average is. Essentially, you did your job right and that is really all you need to do. Run the process the best you can, with an open mind and a full effort and see where you end up.

Dealing with Pressure… It’s easier and harder than it looks.

Keep in mind that everything listed above are aspects of training and competing that are completely in your control. The choices you make impact how well you perform. The discipline you exhibit with these choices will help you maintain control and allow you to be the athlete that you are, regardless of the pressure.”

Ginny Thrasher, 23, a Virginia native now living in Colorado Springs, is a former collegiate athlete and an Olympic gold medalist. Thrasher became the youngest female to ever earn the first gold medal for Team USA. During the 2016 Women’s 10-meter Air Rifle event at the Rio Summer Olympics, Thrasher was a member of the West Virginia University rifle team from 2015 to 2019 – accomplishing individual and team titles at the NCAA National Championships (air rifle and smallbore).

Currently an athlete at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado, Thrasher is hoping to again represent the United States at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, this time, as a smallbore athlete. Learn more about Ginny Thrasher by visiting her website at www.ginnythrasher.com (and be sure to check out her new personally-designed kneeling roll!).  

“People are afraid of nerves…but from my experience, nerves are a good thing! Young athletes often have a belief that if they could just eradicate nerves, they would be much closer to professional athletes. The truth is, no one competes in the Olympics without being nervous. If you prepare for a big competition for months or years and you are not nervous, that is actually a bad sign! It means the competition isn’t meaningful to you. All professional athletes experience nerves, they just have better coping methods and beliefs about nerves than young athletes.

So, why are nerves good?

The main reason is because they activate your sympathetic nervous system, i.e. your fight-or-flight state. When you are trying to perform or feel threatened, your mind triggers your nervous system into this heightened state of awareness and adrenaline. From an evolutionary perspective, this is designed to allow you to protect yourself from danger, such as spearing the lion or running away to safety. This state leads to some interesting physical effects, most of which are very useful when fighting a predator, but not traditionally useful for optimal performance.

In rifle, for instance, that fight-or-flight state increases your heart rate as the body needs more blood moving to your extremities to pick up that imaginary spear. When your heart rate increases, the movement of your gun on the target gets bigger, which can be negative for scores. This is one of several negative side effects of being in this state.

However, not all the side effects are negative. In fact, some are decidedly positive! When in this state, your vision and reaction times improve significantly, which is beneficial for every single shooting discipline!

Recognizing the specific reactions for your body and whether they are positive or negative for your sport can help to assuage some of the fear and negative beliefs behind nerves. Nerves have a role to play in great performance, and learning to expect and accept them at meaningful events is the easiest way to stop nerves from having control over you. When feeling the pressure in a big match, remember that nerves are a good thing, they are your body’s way of saying you’re ready to go.”

Mary Tucker. Kentucky Rifle Photo Day Portraits. Photo by Eddie Justice | UK Athletics

Mary Tucker, 19, is a member of the USA Shooting National Team and the University of Kentucky NCAA rifle team. She began by teaching herself marksmanship, picking up the sport while in high school and training in her family garage using YouTube videos and other online venues. Tucker has competed at several national and international events throughout her career, winning the junior Winter Airgun title and placing second overall in the Open competition in 2018 before going on to claim both categories in 2019. Her freshman year at Kentucky, she earned the Rookie Shooter of the Year and qualified for the U.S. Olympic team – set to travel to Tokyo in 2021 to represent the United States in air rifle.

“Dealing with pressure can be the difference between being a good athlete and a great one, and no one will really have it mastered. The biggest thing that helps me when I am under pressure is confidence. You have to know that you will succeed, and even if you haven’t done it before, you have to believe that it’s, ‘like you to win’ (thanks, Lanny Bassham).

You get confidence from practice – practice more than anyone else and try different things to see improvements. Ask questions to good athletes, and try everything. You never know what may work for you. You have to practice so much, and so well, that you can trust. Trust yourself, trust your equipment, trust your process and trust God. Know that whatever happens is going to happen, so be confident and do what you know you can do.”

–By Ashley Brugnone, CMP Staff Writer

The Civilian Marksmanship Program is a federally chartered 501 (c) (3) non-profit corporation. It is dedicated to firearm safety and marksmanship training and to the promotion of marksmanship competition for citizens of the United States. For more information about the CMP and its programs, log onto www.TheCMP.org.