Shooting in the zone

Vision without action is daydreaming. Action without vision is a nightmare.

— Old Chinese proverb

Taped on my computer is a quarter-size orange dot that used to sit in the middle of an archery target bull's-eye. In the dead center of the dot is a 3/8" hole that was made by an arrow.

I enjoying shooting almost anything, but my real love is traditional archery. I am an instinctive shooter; no sights whatsoever. I prefer a 30-year-old recurve bow and Port Orford cedar-shafted arrows.

I recall the shot that perforated the orange dot. I was 40 yards from the target. I nocked the arrow, took in a breath, focused on the tiny orange spot, drew the bow to my anchor point, held for a moment and, when it felt right, I released as an unconscious action. The arrow sailed those 40 yards like a gust of wind and struck home dead center.

I've shot hundreds of thousands of arrows over decades. The feeling as I walked up to the target on that occasion was ecstatic. A perfect shot. Regarding the arrow, almost immediately the thought came up, "Can I do it again?"

Some 70 million people worldwide partake in shooting sports.

Often maligned, defamed, stigmatized, negatively stereotyped, and called a lot of not very nice things, people who partake in shooting sports have to be a hardy lot to endure as much adversity, unless, of course, you live in Switzerland, where target shooting is the national pastime and there are more shooting ranges than golf courses.

If someone asks you why you like to shoot at targets, I'm sure that you can come up with a lot of decent answers — practice for hunting; relaxation; fun; competition; self-defense practice. All are valid, but there is something else about shooting that pulls at our soul.

It is what all shooters seek to do, so it's time to admit it. We are seeking perfection.

My perfect-shot reminder is like a mount of a Pope and Young buck, or a trophy won at a meet. Such memorabilia have more than a sentimental value.

Research has shown that before a performance situation, if you can quietly sit and recall past positive experiences when you were "in the zone" and you performed at your best, you will be more relaxed, focused and positive in what you are about to participate in, and more likely to be successful.

The more vividly you can recall such positive events, the better.

Here's a test of that:

Hold out your arm, make it as strong as you can and have someone test your muscle strength by pushing down. Now think about a series of past successes and have them push down. Shake your arm, and put it out again as strong as possible and think about times when you really screwed up. Now see how strong you are.

Positive memory recall is one of a number of different ways that images in the mind's eye of a shooter can be used to aid performance.

Harnessing mental imagery

If you watched the Olympics earlier this year, you may have seen many athletes with headphones, lying down with their eyes closed prior to a competition. Sometimes they are simply listening to mood music. Other times the tape may use imagery and positive affirmations to help direct the mind in mental rehearsal.

Mental rehearsal is one of the most popular and successful applications of mental imagery. Sports psychologists have been teaching athletes to visualize performing their sports with perfection for more than 30 years.

Many golfers, basketball players, field-goal kickers, volleyball players, divers and gymnasts, as well as archers and shooters, now use visualization to improve their performance.

One quick way to illustrate the power of imagery is to hold your arm out in front of you and have someone put downward pressure on the arm to test your strength.

Once you have established raw muscle strength, again extend your arm and imagine a beam of white light shooting out of your fingers and striking a target on a wall. Hold that image of your arm being like a flashlight and have someone test your arm strength again. You will find that it has increased considerably. The applications are obvious.

A typical practice begins with sitting in a quiet place with your gear. To help establish positive imagery, bring with you some photos of you or someone you admire, performing what you want to practice. Study the pictures until you feel your muscle-memory sensing how you would carry out the act you want to practice.

Now relax. You may use any number of techniques — breathing, mental imagery, autogenic training and/or the Jacobsen muscle relaxation method.

When you are relaxed, hold your bow or firearm in your hand and imagine how you would shoot each shot perfectly, going through the shooting process in slow motion.

You may focus on one particular aspect of shooting, or the entire process from nocking the arrow to release. When you visualize shooting in your mind's eye, follow the shot through to the bull's-eye.

Perfection begins with a powerful positive image of success.

When you actually are ready to shoot at a range, begin with a positive visualization before you start to shoot. If you make some bad shots, stop, take a breath, let it out slowly, and do a positive visualization before taking your next shot.

Controlled daydreaming

Remember when the teacher caught you day dreaming in class and you were embarrassed or reprimanded?

When we are not immediately focused in the here-and-now physical reality, the mind can wander anyplace, imagining almost anything.

With "controlled daydreaming" you can turn boring or stressful situations into more relaxed and positive experiences that put you in a better mental state.

Controlled daydreaming can be a tool to help improve your performance.

To relax, right before shooting think of a peaceful, tropical island or perhaps a secluded glen in a forest with a spectacular waterfall. Such thoughts can put you into the "alpha" relaxation state, which is where the zone of peak performance unfolds.

If you have some problems with shooting consistency, you may find James Swan's DVD "Conquering Buck Fever With Sports Psychology" helpful for shooting with gun or bow.

James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.