Sharpening Your Mental Sword

I don’t know why, but the thrill of learning something new always gives me a rush, especially when a new level of understanding is achieved. One might dare to call it an addiction, because it does seem like a drug I cannot get enough of. I believe this is why I gravitated towards a career in software engineering because there is always something new to learn, some new technology, some new platform or framework and occasionally a new way to solve a problem. Even though I’m not as deeply involved in day-to-day programming as in the past, I like to keep my skills sharp and find “side projects” and perform code reviews to make sure I’m up-to-speed with the latest and greatest. One thing that surprised me recently was that one of my other passions, competitive skeet shooting, would also open my eyes to new ways of thinking.

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For those of you who’ve developed software, when you learn a new concept and that light bulb flashes your world is forever changed. You start to look at the world, and everything within, in a different light (pun intended). For me this happened when I first learned how to design data models and relational databases. Once I gained proficiency in relational data modeling, I noticed that every online form, printed sales invoice, questionnaire I looked at I started breaking down the tables and columns of how I would store that data. The same thing happened when I learned object-oriented programming (OO) and Java. Soon thereafter, I started looking at the world as objects, and attributes and methods that can be performed on/by those objects. It’s hard to explain unless you’ve been through it and these “level of understanding” events only occur every now and then.

After 20 years in software development, experiencing these epiphanies time after time with each paradigm, I thought my days of wonderment were over until some grad students working for my company opened my eyes to graph databases and graph modeling; I devoured the concept and no longer view the world in relational sense, but in uber-relational sense as a graph. My next wonderment will be machine learning I reckon, and my mind is still coming to grips with computer vision, Haar classifiers, training computers, other forms of AI, and … you get the point but it’s an endless rush for a knowledge junkie like myself. Much to my welcome surprise, the same eye-opening phenomenon recently happened in my pursuit to improve my skeet shooting, a seemingly low-tech passion of mine.

Last Winter, someone recommended I try out the local trap & skeet club as they have voice-activated throwers. This sounded awesome and I did visit one day in January and the rest is history. Two 8-10 week leagues, the 2nd I shot on two teams, and 4 registered competitions in my first 6 months and you could say I’m hooked. As with anything I try, I want to do my best and always improve. I’m fortunate to be surrounded by so many experienced shooters, some national and state champions, and they are always willing to share their knowledge of the sport. I’ve learned at times consuming that wealth of knowledge all at once can be detrimental, and by my 3rd competition (also days after switching to a new competition gun I wasn’t fitted to), my scores dropped considerably. I’d watched videos, read articles, tried every tip recommended and was a mental wreck by the time I picked up the gun. I didn’t give up and afterwards I sought professional fitting and consultation, took a few weeks off, and regained confidence in my new gun.  Since then, my scores have rebounded, I achieved personal bests in practice and competition, and just won 1st place in my class in my 4th competition. It was during and after this latest competition I had yet another epiphany in mental discipline.

It didn’t all sink in on Friday after I scored an 80 out of 100, which is not bad for someone 6 months into the sport. I was just happy to be comfortable with my new gun, and back in the 80s. My first competition with my hunting gun I scored an 84 which was awesome. My second competition I scored an 88. My third, however, I dropped down to 61. You can imagine how good an 80 felt. It wasn’t until the next day that everything “clicked”, and even moreso, the night following revealing my new level of understanding.

On Saturday I had an intense level of focus throughout the round, but only on two things:

  1. Visualize my shots and breaks as the person in front of me is shooting
  2. Tell myself “I break this all the time” as I step onto the pad

It was an amazing round and everything just felt right and I scored an 88 (23, 20, 23, 22) after 4 boxes of 25. I matched my personal best and won my class for the event. Without that blip in the 2nd box, I would have easily been in the 90s and likely soon advance to the next class. It now all feels within reach and I “know” that I belong in the next class.

The week prior I was practicing on a Sunday and a seasoned pro joined my friend and I and took time to give us pointers at each station. What stuck with me was that he visualizes his shots beforehand, commits to his hold point, look point, break point, and by the time he steps on the pad to shoot he just lets his body run the routine he’d already planned out and rehearsed. Of course as he tells us this, even with our distractions, he scores a perfect 25/25. The second round he shot with us, about station 5, he missed one shot and immediately explained he didn’t commit to his break point. That was the only shot he missed all day. After the round he broke down some “to-do’s” for each of us and mentioned a trainer/author we could look into down the road to work on our mental game.

The only missing piece to his advice was what to occupy my conscious mind with so it doesn’t interfere with my subconscious mind from “running the program” during my actual shot. Thankfully on Friday a lady from Utah, also a seasoned pro, told me that she just thinks of one thing when stepping onto the pad which is “I hit this all the time.” Saturday, once I put those two pieces together, everything just seemed easier and consequently I broke more targets. I was so excited on the impact of mental focus of the game that I looked up the name of that author, Lanny Bassham, and found he had a book called “With Winning In Mind.” I downloaded it and nearly read half on Sunday, and finished it by late Monday night.

After nearly half a year of shooting, practicing, competing and the wealth of advice others provided, this book finally put all the pieces in place and I learned about three components of the mental program:

  • conscious mind
  • subconscious mind
  • self image

The book describes the subconscious mind as a submarine and it does all the work. Your conscious mind is the periscope that reports back on what’s going on in your environment. The final piece is the self image, and this is the “engine” that propels the submarine, or subconscious mind. All three must be in harmony to perform your best and this applies to everything in life, not just shooting. This new level of understanding I found was that to train and positively “imprint” your subconscious mind so it can perform the tasks you need both physical practice and just as important, visualization. The visualizing step helped me condition my subconscious mind so it could perform. The advice about telling myself “I hit this all the time” actually kept my conscious mind occupied to not interfere with subconscious doing what it already knew how to do, but also worked on my self image so that I allowed myself to be better.

Everything started to “click” by Saturday and I knew I was onto something.  Now after reading the book, it is clear how each piece of advice I’ve received fits into this proven framework on mental management. The book also covers goal setting and discredits popular practice of outcome-oriented goal setting and instead focusing more on attainment of goals by looking at the process to achieve the outcome. It asks you what you need to become in order to achieve the outcome. In my case, my goal may be to advance to the next level but to do that I need to become a more consistent shooter. To become a more consistent shooter, I need to clearly define my goals and practice my mental routine until it becomes like a reflex at every shot. I now “know” that I can hit every target and I need to become the person who consistently breaks more targets and maintains mental focus. If I do that, then my goal of advancing will come automatically.

As an entrepreneur, project manager, financier, etc. this “work backwards” approach to planning is not foreign but I’d never seen it explained so well. Now, similar to when I saw the world differently when learning data modeling, object-oriented programming, and graph modeling, I’ll forever see process, goals, and mental focus to attain the goals in a whole new light.  You must first become in your self image what you need to achieve your goal. Then occupy your conscious mind with positive thoughts and let your subconscious mind do the work you trained it to do. Regardless of who you are or what you do, I would recommend reading this book and trying the concepts in your everyday life.


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