By Paul Fender
Working on your mental game is important if you compete, and should be incorporated into your training program. My good friend Paul Fender & I have shot many tournaments together at the local “Novelty” level and more competitive State and National levels. I’ve always been amazed by his nerves of steel, so was quite amused to hear the story behind the skill. Paul graciously offered to write the story up for the blog – I hope his method is helpful to you – it recently helped him become a World Champion!
Nico and I have frequently talked about Target Panic (TP). We’ve also talked about something that can become related to TP. Let’s call it Tournament Nerves (TN?) or a case of the jitters. Many new shooters will stay basically recreational. Others will go on to hunting and competing.
I myself don’t seem to have TP. Sure, once in a while I’ll have a shot that I should have let down, but I’ll flinch, or pluck, or even get stuck with a sight picture that I just can’t get on target, but no big deal. There is one thing though that I can talk about from my own experiences and that is having a case of the jitters at the start of a tournament.
I have competed at many levels, from local events to the International level. Sometimes, for whatever reasons I may have, a particular event will be exceptionally important to me. I’ll find myself all jumpy, and itchy and irritated. My head will be full of crazy thoughts. “What if I screw up? I sure hope I don’t drop too many points! What am I even doing here? This sucks!” Maybe it only works for me, but I actually have a “method” for dealing with the negative feelings and the negative self talk. What’s interesting is that how I handle it actually grew out of a specific event in my life many years ago, and it wasn’t even archery related.
One evening I came home from work very tired. Ate dinner, went to bed early. Next thing I know, I’m shaken awake by my wife Annette and daughter Ashley. In hoarse stage whispers they were telling me, “Paul! Paul! Get up! There’s somebody in the side yard!” Naturally my first reaction was “Huh? Er…ah. What?” Once it penetrated what was going on I jumped out of bed, and yelled at everybody to call the cops, turn on all the lights, and make as much noise as possible doing it. At that point, not knowing what else to do, I grabbed a decorative Katana sword that I have hanging on the wall, and went charging outside, yelling the whole way. Rounded the corner of the house just in time to see where a bunch of bushes in the hedge were shaking and heard somebody running down the street.
Now, I don’t know if you noticed, but there is a step missing from that whole sequence of events. Yep. You got it! Picture this, crazed, over weight white guy running around the yard waving a Samurai sword and yelling. As Annette later pointed out, I was really kind of lucky. Good thing it took a while for the police to show up. They might have arrested me!
By now of course you’re wondering what on Earth could this possibly have to do with Archery, or having a bad case of Tournament Nerves? Just bear with me, I’m getting there.
During that whole little episode, I was honestly truly terrified. If I had had my way about the whole thing, I would have locked myself in the closet with my wife and daughter. Although what I did was rash, foolhardy, yes, even stupid, I none the less did what I needed to do, despite being scared out of my pants. Literally. It redefined what the word “bravery” meant to me. Being brave does not mean being without fear. It means being afraid, but still doing what needs to be done anyway.
The first time I had a bad case of Tournament Nerves, I realized that I was afraid of looking foolish. I was afraid of failing. I realized that it came down to the fact that in reality I had only 2 choices. Step up, put my reputation on the line, and shoot, or go home. So, knowing that it would be a cold day in Hades before I just packed up and went home, I stepped up. I thought of what my understanding of bravery means. I just had my fears, didn’t try to ignore them, or stuff them deep down, or pretend that I didn’t have them. I just had them. I went on to do what needed to be done anyway. Funny things happened. Following my shot sequence, thinking about what I was really doing there, shooting a bow, nothing more, nothing less than that, and a few targets in, my fears had given up on torturing me, and had left me. It was so weird in that I actually didn’t even consciously notice the transition.
So what is there to say about Tournament Nerves? Have the fear. Don’t try to “handle” it. Be brave. Cut through the confusing babble and realize that you, just like every other one of us has only two choices. Once reduced to its bare essentials, it becomes easy. Shoot or go home. And once you get to that point, I’m willing to bet that you too will choose to step up and shoot.