Let’s face it, we all get nervous sometimes–male or female, veteran or newbie. Unfortunately, women are more self-conscious about it and we sometimes allow this slight nervousness to grow into anxiety, even fear. Some women dread it so bad that they give up shooting after just a single try! The other day Beth and I went to a small local IPSC match after work. It was indoor, very informal, and we knew many of the people there. Yet, since both of us hadn’t shot in a while, we were a little nervous. How come? Well–it is normal, people, simple physiology! Here are just a few of the things that happen in your body hormonally when you are under intense stress or anxiety (I’m not saying all of these will happen or that they’ve happened to me per se, just that they can):

  • Release of hormones: such as cortisol and epinephrine, which cause a variety of physiological changes, including giving you nausea, loss of appetite, immune system suppression, and many of the symptoms listed below.
  • Hyperventilation: you know, taking rapid, super-fast, shallow breaths and pumping so much oxygen into your bloodstream that you can see stars. This causes lightheadedness, dizziness, and problems with vision – none are good, especially considering you are about to handle a firearm.
  • Diversion of blood flow: in addition to hyperventilating, when you are in a fight or flight mode, your body diverts blood towards your major organs, such as the heart and brain. No, unfortunately you don’t get any smarter; but you may experience tingly and/or cold extremities. So, if you can’t feel your trigger finger, there’s the reason!
  • Survival brain mode: during a state of panic, the brain reverts to a primitive state of survival mode, which limits your memory, attention, concentration, and complex decision-making. This helps explain why all your plans for the stage vanish as soon as the buzzer goes off.
  • Dissociation: when you mentally separate yourself from your surroundings, kinda like spacing out or going on auto-pilot. This may not be as dangerous if you’re more seasoned or have received good muscle memory training – your body will know what to do even if you’re “out of it” of sorts.
  • Muscle tension: when your muscles are so tight, you think you can’t move. This is also the reason you’re clenching your jaw.
  • Racing heart: normal heart rate in adults is considered between 60 and 100 beats per minute. When you’re under pressure – it will be higher – let’s say, in the 120 range. If you hit more than that – you’re really freaking out and your heart is trying to pump super hard to deliver oxygen to your muscles (‘cause you’re so freaked out, you can’t move, remember). This means that you probably also have increased blood pressure.
  • Dilated pupils: so that you can respond to danger quicker.
  • Sweating: this is to cool off the body in preparation for exertion.
  • The “Shakes”: you know what that is, I won’t bother to explain.

While there is plenty of research on competitive anxiety and various tips from pros out there, here are just a few things I’ve found help me calm my nerves and enjoy the sport. This is what works for me but I hope it helps you too:

  • Breathe: trivial as it sounds, this really is my best weapon against hyperventilation. Long, deep, slow breaths–in through the nose, out through the mouth. I close my eyes while I do this and repeat as long as I need to. Don’t hold your breath in between!
  • Relax these muscles: there are two ways you can achieve that. I usually sit down and one by one “order” the various muscle groups to relax. I start with the shoulders, then arms, abdomen, etc. If you can’t do that, you can force them to relax by flexing them and holding for about 5-10 seconds. When you let go, they will naturally be more relaxed.
  • Process vs. outcome: fortunately I don’t have that problem, but many women are so focused on how they will perform that all they can think about is their score and how they will undoubtedly screw up. While I don’t think about scores too much, everyone wants to do well. So, instead of focusing on the final result, I order myself to think about the stage and compile my game plan to the best of my ability. It is important, however, not to be too set into it because things don’t always go according to plan. So, if you think you’d have a problem with that – then don’t even visualize your plan and instead focus on simple things. My hubby, for example, likes to chant to himself “sight picture, trigger control” over and over again right before shooting. It allows him to focus on the basics, which ironically helps him the most.
  • Meditate/listen to music: This is not always easy to do, especially if you have “the walking scoreboard” guy around (those who have read John Pride’s The Pride Method, Mind Over Matter will know what I’m talking about). People may consider you rude or reclusive but if you need a quiet moment alone in your own universe–plug in those ear-pieces, crank up the iPod, and rock out/space out for a few minutes.
  • Think about/look at something else: Regardless of whether it is a picture of a tropical island, a cute kitten, or Johnnie Depp naked–whatever relaxes you is what you need to visualize. I personally take a look at the screen saver on my phone, which has a photograph of my daughter’s most charming smile. Tell you what–the world could be coming to an end but that smile will always make me smile, remove me from the stress of the present, and allow me to forget I was ever anxious!
  • Chew gum: seriously, a friend of mine gave me this tip and it works!
  • Share: I think this advice only works for women as men typically see competitive anxiety as something shameful. Women feel better when they share, when they have a sense of community with others. For example, the other day when I got “the shakes” a little, I told Beth I was nervous. “Me too” she said with a big smile and immediately I felt better – I am not alone!
  • Smile and ride: If all else fails, I just embrace my adrenaline rush and ride with it. After all, this excitement is the whole reason I got into shooting sports to begin with. My philosophy is that if I am good enough to be safe, I’m good enough to compete!

Know the symptoms of competitive anxiety and practice these (or other) coping techniques to minimize your chance of freaking out right when it is your turn to shoot. This list is by no means exhaustive but these are some of the things that help me control my nerves and enjoy myself more on the range and off. If you have any other tricks or tips, please do share!

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Image from Charles and Clint on Flickr Creative Commons

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  • Lori

    Very useful. Thanks!