Competition Stress

Competition Stress– Understanding and Harnessing this Powerful Force

By Mark V. Lonsdale

    Stress is both a psychological and physiological condition that plagues not only athletes and soldiers but also every one of us in our every day lives. However, the added pressure of high-level competition seems to manifest these stress related problems in more dramatic and quantifiable ways. Even for the super-cool champion who appears to have iced-water running through his veins, stress is still a significant factor when entering any major competition where the stakes are high – for example, making the national or Olympic team.

    Over the years I have trained with numerous athletes who have racked up excellent scores in training and demonstrated considerable skill in their field of endeavor. But then these same promising sportsmen were unable to reproduce that performance on the big day. I have also seen superbly trained and equipped combat personnel freeze when required to go in harms way. Lacking any injuries or other reasonable explanations, the probable cause of their failures can often be attributed to fear, match nerves and stress.

     Fear, a close relative of stress, is an interesting phenomenon, often triggered by unfamiliar circumstances or a confrontation with unknown forces. For the athlete, this can equate to participation in a match format that is not familiar; against opponents of possibly superior skill; and in conditions that are not favorable. There can also be a more tangible fear of failure or not making the team.

    To remove fear from the equation, it is best to add an element of realism to the training process so that training sessions directly reflect match conditions. To do this prior to a big tournament, the archer should practice shooting the entire match in the same format, under similar conditions and with the same time limits. In this manner, and by using the same equipment, the archer should be able to gauge his or her expected performance while developing a familiar “comfort zone” with that particular match format.     

    Now to address the effects of stress. Looking first at the more physical aspects, match stress and nerves can be manifested on several levels ranging from shaky hands or wobbly knees, all the way up to totally uncontrolled body shakes. In some extreme cases, the nervous individual can simply go catatonic as seen in the classic state of stage fright where the aspiring thespian forgets his or her lines and is frozen on the stage like a deer caught in headlights.

    So to combat stress, we need to first understand what causes this very real physical reaction? We are all familiar with the physiology of the Flight or Fight syndrome found in the human condition. Under situations of extreme stress or fear, our primal survival instincts kick in and our body energizes itself to either run from danger or stand and fight. This is often manifested in the individual who exhibits almost super-human strength to save a loved one, or the quiet soldier who risks his own life in combat to save his squad or platoon.

    This burst of adrenalin driven energy and strength can be of great value in some sports such as power-lifting or judo, but equally detrimental to athletes who participate in precision sports such as archery or target shooting. Where the weightlifter or fighter has a physical and dynamic outlet for all this adrenalin and energy, the archer and pistol shooter is trying to remain exceptionally calm and steady.

      Archery and shooting are sports where whoever can move the least is often the winner. Unfortunately, when competition stress creates adrenalin and over stimulates the nervous system, the only outlet is shaking, which in turn creates a loss of confidence and even more stress. At times like these, probably the best remedy s to go for a run or get some vigorous exercise to burn off that nervous energy. 

     Since shaking and tremors are physical problems, as seen with accelerated heart rate and shallow breathing, they can often be reduced through physical means. A conditioned athlete will have superior cardio-pulmonary responses to stress in that his or her heart and respiratory rates will remain slower and blood pressure lower. Therefore, having an active and healthy life style is an important first step in stress reduction for everyone, not just athletes.  

       Another physical symptom of nerves is indigestion and the feeling that one will throw-up. This again is the body’s need to empty the stomach so that the blood being used for digestion can be better utilized to Fight or Flee from perceived danger. So obviously, heavy meals before competition are not recommended, particularly foods high in fat and protein which can be difficult to digest In addition, food or drinks that contain caffeine or excessive sugar are not going to help the situation.

    However, not eating is also a problem causing lack of energy, weakness and loss of concentration. Reasonable amounts of bland foods and carbohydrates are excellent in the morning or prior to competition and may absorb some of the gastric acids and help settle the stomach. Several light snacks during the day, such as fruits, along with adequate hydration, can also have a beneficial effect supplying the energy required to concentrate and compete, without overloading the digestive system. 

    Now we get to the more complex psychological or mental aspects of stress control. As humans, we frequently play mind games with each other but the ones we play on ourselves can be the most destructive. For some reason, we persist in dwelling on and wrestling with the problems of everyday life without actively working to solve these problems. We hate our job, but we don’t quit. We are in a destructive relationship but we don’t leave. Our car is unreliable but we don’t get it fixed. We don’t shoot well in competition but we don’t practice either. You get the idea….

    All of these problems will continue to occupy our conscious thoughts until we correct them. For the athlete, it is critical that both personal and professional lives are kept in order so as not to arrive at training or enter a competition with a myriad of mental distractions. From personal experience, I know that it is difficult for me to enjoy and benefit from a training session if I am neglecting work commitments. The solution is to first clear my desk and then go the range with a clear conscience.

    There are however bigger problems in life such as personal tragedy, death or illness in the family, an ugly divorce, getting laid-off from work, etcetera. We often have no control over these, so must simply try to work through them. However, in many of these cases, having a healthy outlet and distraction such as physical training or archery can actually be cathartic (even though performance can be expected to suffer).

    To be successful in competition, one needs to be not only a problem solver but also a positive thinker. This may sound overly simplified but it is true. You must think positively. As the old adage goes, “If you think you can, you probably will. If you think you can’t, you probably won’t. But in either case you are correct!”

    The other quote that I like is the one from Rick McKinney’s book, The Simple Art of Winning, “We literally become what we think about most of the time.”

    Along with a positive attitude, confidence is an important component of stress reduction. Not the arrogant confidence of the big ego, but the confidence that comes with having laid a solid foundation for the trials ahead.

     Developing confidence begins with being well prepared. When you know that both you and your equipment are in the best possible condition, then you will enter the competition arena with a level of confidence that is unmatched by less prepared competitors.  

    The first step towards becoming better prepared is to remove any possible excuses that you may be able to conjure up for not performing well. These cover the full gambit from personal fitness and finances to equipment and training. The solution:

  1. Get into good physical condition for archery.
  2. Make sure you have the best equipment available.
  3. Ensure that your equipment is tuned and working at its optimum performance.
  4. Know how to set-up and tune your own bow and arrow combinations.
  5. Make the necessary time for training and travel.
  6. Work towards getting the financial resources need to train and compete at a national level.
  7. Get a coach who will not only help your form but boost your confidence.
  8. Enter each competition with a realistic expectation of where you will place.
  9. Only expect to win if you can consistently shoot championship scores in practice. And even then, do not focus on the winning, just the shooting.
  10. Think of every competition as a learning experience and do not fixate on the glory.

    So the next subject is competition mindset. That delicate balance of confidence and focus that can so easily be disrupted by personal demons or the words or actions of others.

    The novice competitor will often ask his or her coach, “What should I be thinking about when I am shooting?” Answer: “Exactly the same as what you think about when practicing by yourself.” Stance, breathing, draw, aim, release hand, follow-through. It is important to lockout all the other distractions and get into the moment.

    Drawing on the zen philosophy again, launch each arrow like it is the only arrow. To quote from a kyudo text, “Whether one thousand arrows or ten thousand, each one must be new.” In other words, do not dwell on earlier good or bad shots, and do not think about the shots to come – only the one that is nocked, drawn and ready to release. Thinking about earlier bad shots will only erode confidence, and while it is acceptable to draw confidence from a good series or end, this should not give a false confidence in future performance. Stay focused and stay in the moment.  

    As stated earlier in this article, the mind games that we play with our selves can be extremely destructive. One of these is self-imposed pressure. We put pressure on ourselves to shoot better, to score higher, to impress others, to win and to make the team. Unfortunately, performance in precision shooting sports such as archery generally deteriorates the harder we try. This is where one must differentiate between “trying” and “focusing.” When we try harder to do something, we are focusing on the outcome and not the act. Without concentrating on the act, performance deteriorates which continues to create stress. This in turn makes us try harder, only resulting in additional loss in points and more stress. A vicious cycle that must be interrupted by stepping back from the abyss, taking a deep breath, relaxing and returning focus to the act of shooting not the hope of winning. 

    Anyone who is driven to win at a national or international level is probably very motivated, bordering on being an over-achiever. It takes confidence and determination to win, but too much determination, unsupported by a structured and comprehensive training program, can simply be manifested as destructive stress.

    The important aspect of harnessing this determination is not to set unrealistic goals or make unattainable claims. To boastfully claim that one will win a specific tournament, only puts the proverbial “monkey on his back” and creates additional stress. Remember that everyone likes to see a braggart fall flat on his face, just as the crowd likes to see a quiet and humble man or woman win gold.

    At the risk of contradicting myself, it is however important to have confidence that you can win in a specific tournament. This confidence should be derived from hard training and knowing that you have been consistently shooting scores that are capable of winning this match. If you cannot shoot winning scores in practice, then it is unreasonable to expect to shoot winning scores under match pressure. It is then better to go and just shoot the best you can and enjoy the experience. By removing the stress of “having to win”, you may in fact shoot the best score you have ever shot and actually win.   

     Lastly, it is important to surround yourself with equally positive thinking friends and training partners. A healthy support network of non-judgmental friends and family, who will continue to love and support you whether you win or lose, can be a major asset to a competition shooter. Just as they can share the joy of your successes, they will be equally supportive and encouraging during the slumps and all too frustrating training plateaus. But when its all said and done, it is your own mindset and attitude that will make or break you as a competitor. So think positive, stay focused, train with a purpose, and the golds will take care of themselves.  


Mark V. Lonsdale is a national and international Judo competitor and coach; a former top ranked international pistol shooter; and a current nationally ranked extreme long range rifle competitor. He is currently the Director of the Specialized Tactical Training Unit (STTU) and published author on performance development and training.

Competition Goals


By Mark V. Lonsdale

Note: This article was first published in 2001 so some of the gear has changed.

So you want to go to the Olympics in 2024? Or maybe just score better on a club level? Well read on and see if you have what it takes to become a champion.

Many people carry around grand dreams and high hopes, but only a few make any effort to bring those dreams to fruition. Predictably, many of the dreamers who actually begin the quest will eventually give up on their dreams in the face of perceived adversity.

Meanwhile, more pragmatic individuals would simply like to improve their scores in their sport of choice, whether it be golf, shooting rifles or archery, but are also often not willing to make the necessary commitment. A commitment that can range from a few more hours launching arrows to an all-consuming passion. So if you want to set long–term goals such as competing at the Olympic games, or even just win at a state or national level, then you need to understand what it is that separates the champions from the masses and the “also rans.”

Dreams and goals are both positive forces, but both need to be tempered with a healthy dose of reality. This reality consists of some serious thought about personal motivation and the necessary commitment to achieve any given goal. This is assuming you have a reasonable level of fitness, coordination, and the financial resources to go the distance.

Archery is one sport where most people with some athletic ability can go for gold, but even putting aside the costs of equipment and travel for the moment, most have little concept of the huge time commitment necessary. However, on a more up-beat note, don’t ever let someone tell you that, “You can’t do it!” or that your dreams are just that, dreams. Do what most great men and women have done by rising to the challenge and prove these timid souls wrong. In other words, don’t ever quit until you decide it is time to quit.

So, the first step on this long but hopefully fulfilling journey of many small steps is to become a serious student of the sport. Read and study everything you can find about archery, especially books like “The Simple Art of Winning” by Rick McKinney, and “Total Archery” by KiSik Lee and Tyler Benner. Also study the posts on the USA Archery website; subscribe to reputable magazines and read every article by anyone of note; and study videos of past National, World, and Olympic champions. Concentrate on studying the top archers with the most orthodox form, for example the Korean women. Look for top shooters you can model yourself after, but be aware that there are a number of world class shooters with very unusual styles, so the recommendation is to stay as close to standard form as possible until you are experienced enough to make educated changes.

The next step is to get paper and pencil and rough out a training program that is realistic and within your time and budget requirements. Yes, writing it down is the first step to making it a reality and the key word here is realistic. If you draw up a training program that simply will not fit within your work and family commitments, then you will quickly begin making excuses to skip training. To stay focused and motivated, it is better to start light and add hours or days as you adjust your home and work schedule to suit – and you had better have a supportive and understanding wife, husband, girlfriend and employer. (Note – Having a wife and a girlfriend is not recommended!)

Let’s look at the other areas of commitment.

Equipment To begin with, if you have top-of-the-line equipment, the same as that being used by the national champions – then you have eliminated one big variable and several excuses. You cannot blame the gear! Also consider the fact that the $2500 you may invest in that new Hoyt Axis, complete with FX limbs, Easton ACE arrows, Sure-loc sight, Doinker stabilizers, Cavalier accessories, etc, is going to be a small fraction of the cost of the time that you will put into training and travel.

Just owning the best gear is not enough. You must learn to tune and maintain that equipment so that you will have greater confidence in using it. Confidence is every bit as important as motivation, enthusiasm, and skill.

Coaching Do you have access to a good coach to help you work on your basic form. Are you willing to spend some money to get the best coaching you can get? Without a coach to get you off on the right foot, you may spend many hours just reinforcing bad habits and not progressing. The value of a good coach cannot be over emphasized, and their time has real value ($). What you learn from a good coach will be the foundation on which all your training must stand.

Training Time Shooting in your back yard once a week, or club practice once or twice a week, and an occasional Sunday tournament is just not enough to progress at a reasonable rate. Conversely, vast amounts of undisciplined or unstructured training has less value than smaller, frequent amounts of carefully structured training.

Now if you are into archery for the sheer pleasure of shooting or the social aspects of the sport, then once a week may satisfy your needs. But if you have aspirations of winning at a state or national level, then you had better be prepared to train at least three times a week plus get coached at least once a week. That “three times” will grow to “five or six times” when you approach the top level performance.

It is better to train five times a week for one hour, than to try and train once a week for five hours. But whatever your training schedule allows, each session should be carefully planned with specific training goals, form analysis, and periodic coaching.

Training Goals This is where Eastern philosophy comes into play again—specifically the proverb about a long journey being many small steps. If you head to the range with your shiny new Axis and high dollar ACEs and immediately expect to shoot 10s consistently at 70 meters, you may quickly become discouraged. If you cannot shoot consistent 10s at 30 meters, you should not expect to be hitting 10s by anything except luck at 70 meters.

So, taking small steps, stay at a distance where you can build your confidence by tearing out that 10 ring. Then back up 10 meters and work on that distance until you get the same result—all the time analyzing your form. Over a period of time, allowing your accuracy and consistency to be the guiding light, you will find your way back to the longer ranges where you will have to deal with the additional challenges of wind and atmospherics.

Also use this time at the shorter distances to experiment a little with bow tuning, accessories and modifications to your form. But remember to keep it simple and only make one change at a time so as to be able to gauge its beneficial or detrimental effect on your scoring.

Competitions There is no substitute for shooting in competition if one aspires to be successful competitor in any sport. Participation in a single tournament has more training value than ten training sessions practicing on your own, and the lessons learned are invaluable. It is only through exposure to progressively more demanding competitions that an individual can learn to control match nerves, perform under pressure and gauge personal ability and improvement.

One secret to progressing in competition is to compete with both yourself and others. Set yourself goals such as first being able to shoot the same scores in competition as you do in practice. This does not mean matching the occasional personal best, but holding scores that you can shoot consistently (This is where your training journal becomes invaluable).

You can also pick one individual who routinely just out shoots you and set a personal goal of beating him or her. This will give you the feel of shooting man-on-man and prepare you for the pressure that comes with the newer Olympic format.

When you pick someone to try to beat, this may mean learning about their training schedule and then committing to train just a little more than they do. In this way, you are motivated to train a little harder and smarter.

By keeping your goals small, you will frequently meet and surpass these way-points and at the same time build inner confidence.

Travel If you do not have the time or finances to travel, you will probably not gain the experience necessary to make the big time. Even if you are not a national level shooter, it is still highly beneficial to shoot in national competitions to get a feel for the big time. The more big matches you can get under your belt, the more you will learn to control nerves. Be assured that a large percentage of target archery is psychological.

These tournaments will also give you the opportunity to shoot along side the best archers in the country and learn from their successes and mistakes. Watch them like a hawk and video every move they make for future study.

Apart from competing within the United States, a motivated competitor should take every opportunity to attend foreign competitions to gain international experience. Instead of taking a vacation to sunny Cancun, consider attending a tournament in Europe. These can all be found on the NAA and FITA websites.

In addition to tournaments, one should be prepared to travel out of state to participate in training seminars, training at the Olympic training facilities, coaching clinics, and anything that will improve your knowledge, fitness, form and ability.

To conclude, if you are not prepared to commit to a significant amount of time and money, not to mention physical and mental anguish, then your journey will end long before you reach your goals. And if that goal is on the same level as the 2024 Olympics, then the commitment must be of the same magnitude—enormous!

Part 1 has covered training commitment in broad strokes. Look for Part 2 for the blueprint to developing a realistic training program that will take you where ever you truly want to go.

Dare To Dream, Train Smart, Stay Focused & Never Quit


Mark V. Lonsdale

About Shaft Shooters


There is no substitute for diligent practice

“…an hour’s earnest practice each day for a month will make one begin to feel like a bowman, and three months of such work will make him a fair shot at thirty or forty yards.”
— Maurice Thompson, The Witchery of Archery, 1879, p.157

Shaft Shooters was launched in 2000 to document research and findings related to athlete development and high performance training with a focus on archery. It has since grown into a platform to share information of everything from traditional barebow archery to Olympic recurve competition development.

“The history of the bow and arrow is the history of mankind.”

Fred Bear
Black Widow PSR-II takedown recurve

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Many of us never took a lesson, at least until we wanted to advance in archery competitions or improve bow hunting skills. As a kid, my first exposure to bows & arrows was Robin Hood movies and TV shows. So, as with children everywhere, my imagination was sparked and I learned by imitation and trial & error. I made my first bow from a stand of bamboo behind the house, and the arrows were thin bamboo or dowel.

The only informal lesson was my Dad showing me the difference between pinching the arrow, as I had been doing, and going to split-finger shooting. I didn’t shoot a real recurve bow until my early teens when I attended a shooting and hunting Game Fair, where they had an archery booth. Thanks to my prior practice, I was able to hit 5 out of 5 balloons. I was now seriously bitten by the archery bug. Thanks also to the encouragement of the man working the booth, I ended up buying an old Shakespeare bow from him and then saved up to buy three real arrows from the local sporting goods stores.

It wasn’t until a decade later that I began seriously studying bow shooting, bow hunting techniques, and another decade to purchase my first Black Widow recurve. This was followed by informal 3D shooting, plus more recurves and stick bows. Then ultimately, in 2000, a Hoyt Axis and coaching in Olympic target archery.

To wrap this up, for most people, archery is a long journey from imagination, to imitation, to experimentation, to actual study of the craft. But now, with considerable exposure archery has received in movies such as the Hunger Games and Lord of the Rings, there is ready access to organized archery clubs and schools. This makes the journey from novice to a level of proficiency quicker and more satisfying – and there is little more satisfying for an archer than seeing an arrow thunk into the gold rings. So do your kids and teens a favor and enroll them in lessons. Learning the correct form and techniques from the start will make archery more enjoyable and prevents developing a lot of bad habits.

Black Widow PMA-III take-down recurve with Easton Legacy shafts

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