How to Regain Shooting Confidence

It’s a new year. Put bad shooting habits and negative experiences in the rearview mirror and rewire your mental game.

How to Regain Shooting Confidence

Everyone doesn’t finish bowhunting season smiling, with huge antlers or a freezer laden with luscious red meat. Many archers end it with a book’s worth of misfortunes that are like scabs being picked each time they’re questioned, “How was your hunting season?”

A crappy season can be nothing more than expectations outweighing reality. Or, it’s lack of preparation. And more often than not, it’s the mental resurgence of past failures that crushed your ability to perform under pressure. Doubt loomed and with a full count you threw the ball out of the strike zone.

Hellish seasons happen to the best of us. I don’t believe anyone is 100 percent exempt from them. Let’s face it, life happens, altering our mental and physical performance, especially during high-pressure situations.

Fortunately, I’ve been able to avert this and now have been on a consistent winning streak when faced with difficult shot opportunities. If you’ve been failing mentally, perhaps my candidness in the following paragraphs will help you in the future.

Rock Bottom

Everyone handles intense moments differently. Personally, I handle my physical self well — unless I’m cold — during encounters with animals I intend to harvest. However, I’ve occasionally struggled with my mental game. Naturally, my mind wants to focus on the approaching opportunity and allow the bigness of the moment to pick the scabs of past, foiled encounters.

This happened three times consecutively during fall 2016. I launched arrows at a bull elk, a bruiser Kansas whitetail and a Nebraska muley. All were chip shots, but past failures loomed in my subconscious, and all three arrows were clean misses. I hadn’t botched many shots on big game prior to 2016, but the few I had let Daddy Doubt clinch the win. Worse, I could shoot targets at 100 yards with sharp shot execution. My problem wasn’t typical target panic. It was more of a mental overreaction that occurred only when consequences of missing were involved. 

I’ll bet many of you have been or currently are aboard a similar boat. Jace Bauserman (Bowhunting World’s previous editor), you might recall, fessed up to a similar bout he battled one season. I know scores of others, even champion archers, who’ve lost opportunities due to mental breakdowns.

For some of us stubborn souls, change requires hitting rock bottom. I’m not talking about changing past failures. We can’t rewrite history. I’m talking about saying goodbye to failures and rewiring your brain for the win.

Purge the System

When my mental game hit rock bottom, I saw two distinctive options. I could quit bowhunting, or I could eliminate everything negative from my brain by making a few equipment changes. The latter was as easy as breaking up with a lousy, unattractive date. Purging the mental trauma, on the other hand, required months and several positive experiences.

Because I had numerous misses with my 2016 bow — one that always seemed to shoot differently and require routine sight adjustments — I gave it away and got a new one. More importantly, I switched releases. I’d been shooting a thumb-activated release for years. Dozens of critters fell to the bump of that trigger, but I’d progressively lost synchronization between my mind and thumb during hunting situations with that release. After a few failures, the feel of that release in my hand during an approaching shot opportunity started conjuring negative feelings that screamed, “You’re going to blow this!”

It was like moving across the globe from a childhood best friend, but I burned the bridge. I opted for a Carter index-finger release, which helped me start fresh mentally. Ultimately, however, I settled on Spot-Hogg’s Wiseguy, which is now my mainstay. The equipment changes I made are unimportant. What is important is that I made changes and eliminated my associations with equipment I was using when negative experiences occurred.

From there, I suddenly realized I’d previously overproven to myself on target outings — to the point of muscle exhaustion — that I could hit the mark every single time at extreme distances. Even a single errant arrow at 80 or 100 yards caused immense irritation. Why? Because I knew I could hit the mark every time. Fact is, I could do it, but not with exhausted muscles. Shooting too much was probably as bad for my mental game as shooting too little.

Thus, I launched a quality-over-quantity training program with my new bow and accessories. And I’ve stuck with it. Whenever my thoracic nerve starts screaming, I don’t cram in dozens more shots just to prove myself a point. I move up to 15 to 20 yards, execute one more perfect shot and then put my bow away for the day. To the best of my God-given ability, I eliminated all negative aspects that were contributing to my moment-of-truth unbelief.

You know you’ve overcome failure and doubt when you execute a perfect shot during a real bowhunting situation.
You know you’ve overcome failure and doubt when you execute a perfect shot during a real bowhunting situation.

Positive Reinforcement

With my system purged, the only way to truly say goodbye to mental failure is to put wins under your belt. If possible, I suggest starting on something other than a big buck or bull. I launched my road to mental healing with turkeys and hogs. Both are abundant, which reduces lots of pressure. If I took too long and didn’t get a shot off, so what? I’d move on and find more.

My first gobbler that year fell to a well-placed hit. I’d exercised patience and executed a great 18-yard shot. I’ll admit that I rushed my shot on my second tom that spring. But, I ended my turkey season strong when nine jakes spent 20 minutes among my decoys. As I prepared to shoot, I felt my brain and trigger finger synergize.

Next thing I knew, one jake fell in a heap next to my decoy; the result of hitting the exact feather I’d aimed for. Further, I’d just created an extremely positive reinforcement for my mental confidence. No, I hadn’t killed a 180-inch whitetail, but I’d sent a fastball right down the pipe during a live bowhunting situation with real uncontrollable factors. I was so confident that I knew what the end result would be before I even drew my bow. 

I gave my mental confidence even more fuel less than a month later in Florida. At last light, an eating-sized wild boar ambled right toward me and then turned broadside. I felt a momentary urge to push the trigger since the hog was walking, but my confidence overcame it as I followed the porker with my sight pin until the shot broke naturally. My confidence got another boost.

Since then, I’ve made some well-executed shots on numerous bowhunting trophies from elk to mule deer as a continued result of my newfound diligence. My confidence is now higher than it has been in years, and it’s all because I said goodbye to my past failures, incorporated change and ultimately fed my mind positive reinforcements that now help me overcome doubt in the moment of truth.

Keep Winning

Anxiety is a normal emotion we can’t eliminate but that we can manage when faced with pressure. Acclaimed bowhunter Randy Ulmer told me, “Most bowhunters have meltdowns when they’re about to shoot at an animal. I hate to admit it, but it happens to me, too. Some folks suggest ignoring these emotions, but you can’t lie to yourself. What helps me most is that I admit, yes, I’m scared to death, and, yes, my bow will shake. So, I resolve to make the very best shot possible under the circumstances at hand.”

Using Ulmer’s sage advice on top of my other cures, I’ve been winning far more than losing, and that is how I’ve kissed failure goodbye and entered a new realm of bowhunting confidence. Doubt still occasionally whispers, but confidence screams. And it feels great!


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