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The Pros Explain How to Master the Mental Game

The Pros Explain How to Master the Mental Game

Each season brings a new crop of high-performance bows, crossbows, new accessories and new — and supposedly innovative — strategies for outsmarting our quarry.

But one thing doesn't change: as soon as that quarry comes into view, a hunter's heart starts pounding. The effects of what is often called Buck Fever vary. Some hunters become quivering piles of goo, utterly incapable of shooting an accurately and ethically placed arrow.

Veteran NFL kicker Adam Vinatieri believes that practice in all kinds of conditions will build confidence to get the job done in crunch time.

Others seem to relish the rush. They get nervous, but that doesn't keep them from making their shots count. It's possible to evolve from an ineffectual hunter to an efficient and effective deadeye, but the preparation starts long before the hunt.

Mr. Clutch

If there is a bowhunter one would expect to be absolutely unflappable when staring down a Booner whitetail, it would be Adam Vinatieri. This is, after all, a guy who has trotted out onto the football field at the end of a Super Bowl with the game's finality resting squarely on his shoulders. And he has cooly nailed the game-winner. Twice.

But Vinatieri, a 20-year NFL veteran who has been called Mr. Clutch for his ability to end games with his foot, said he still gets amped every time he sets his eyes on a good deer while hunting.

"The day you see that big buck walk under your stand and you're not excited or a little bit nervous, you need to do something else," said Vinatieri, who grew up hunting in his native South Dakota. "You should be nervous and excited. That's why we go out and hunt."

But there is a difference between a healthy amount of excitement and getting a case of the shakes so bad that failure is almost assured. For Vinatieri, efforts to ensure that he doesn't get overly jittery start long before he sets foot into the woods. Confidence is critical, and the foundation for confidence is practice. Just like he spends a lot of time kicking balls through the uprights, Vinatieri spends plenty of time with his bow in his hand.

"The more prepared you are, the better," he said. "And that doesn't mean starting the week before the season, but year-round. Every day, go out and shoot a dozen arrows. It doesn't have to be a lot — just enough to keep your form."

He tries to take thinking out of the equation.

"The more you practice, the more comfortable you are," he said. "Your body just learns the mechanics and you don't have to think about it. Everybody asks me, 'What are you thinking about when you are kicking?' I've done it so many times I can't tell you, 'This is my thought process.' It's just second nature."


That said, Vinatieri believes it is important to maintain a high level of concentration at all times while practicing. "I never go out and practice and think, 'This kick means nothing,'" he said. "Because every kick means something. It's getting you better, and prepared for the season."

That same approach translates to shooting. For that reason, Vinatieri also avoids the temptation to practice only in fair weather. He kicks when the weather is crummy, and he tries his best to shoot his bow in all conditions.

"It's smart to climb up in a tree wearing what you're going to be hunting in, and if the weather is crummy, that's OK, too," he said. "I think all of it goes into confidence on that October day when you're actually presented with the situation."

Beyond practicing, Vinatieri also doesn't want to have to worry about his equipment. He learned that lesson on a football field when, as a rookie, he ended up blowing out his only pair of kicking shoes while warming up prior to a pre-season game against Green Bay. He had to borrow shoes — and kicked well enough to make the team — but it wasn't fun.

"To this day, I never go to a game without two pairs of shoes," he laughed. "And I probably carry way too much stuff hunting." As prepared as he may be, Vinatieri isn't perfect. He's missed kicks and he's missed shots at deer, but it's not a good idea to get caught up in prior kicks or shots.

"If I miss a kick, I hope I get a shot on the next possession," he said. "It's the same way with bowhunting. If you miss, you stay out there and hope you get another opportunity. The next deer that comes by may be even bigger."

Embracing the Rush

Levi Morgan knows all about shooting under pressure. A competitive shooter since he was five, Morgan has drawn back his bow with more than a set of trophy antlers and a freezer full of venison on the line. The multi-time national and world champion 3-D shooter rarely fails to succeed. But the host of the Name the Game hunting show hasn't always been a cool customer in the moment of truth.

"When I first turned pro I would get so nervous," he said. "And I would try to talk myself out of it." But the more Morgan said, "I am not going to get nervous" to himself, the more nervous he got. "And I lost a few tournaments that way," he admits.

Then Morgan started reading about the mental approach to sports, including a book by 1976 rifle gold medalist Lanny Bassham, who wrote With Winning in Mind. The message was clear: Focus on the positives, and focus on the steps needed to get the desired results, not simply on the big picture. Instead of going into a tournament thinking he had to shoot a specific score to win, Morgan would break the event down into pieces.

During a 2016 desert bighorn hunt in Mexico, Morgan missed a ram on what should have been a slam-dunk shot after eight difficult days of hunting. He put the disappointment behind him, got another chance at a big ram on the hike back to camp and made it count

"Like, I had to get so many X's per five targets," he said. "Those little steps were more achievable. I was trying to reach benchmarks throughout the tournament instead of focusing on winning or losing at the end."

Again, the focus was on succeeding, not failing.

"If you watch a sports team that has a lead and then starts playing not to lose, they lose," he said. "When you're trying not to fail, nine times out of 10 you're going to fail."

He also came to relish the nerves.

"I learned to embrace that feeling, and to accept that I was going to get nervous," he said. "But that's why I'm out here — to feel that. And the same goes for hunting." Morgan focuses on the specific steps he needs to take to make the shot. And he prepares to get to that point by visualizing possibilities long before a deer shows up. He tries to imagine every possible scenario.

"If a deer steps out in a shooting lane and I have five seconds to make that shot, I've played that scenario out 100 times in my mind," he said.

Confidence is also critical. Morgan, one of the most successful pro target shooters in the world, knows he has the ability to hit his target. But that ability didn't come without lots of work. He often tells hunters that the best way to gain shooting confidence is to practice outside of their comfort zone.

"If you have a shot on a huge buck at 10 yards and your heart starts hammering and you have not even considered what it would feel like, you are definitely on shaky ground mentally," he said. "You are stuck in your conscious mind and it doesn't function well in such scenarios." - Steve Ruis

"If you feel your max hunting range is 40 yards, move your target out to 60 or 70 yards," he suggests. "When you start shooting good groups, come back into 40. When you move back to 40 it will feel a lot shorter and you will feel like you can't miss."

Morgan cautions shooters to not get too caught up in specific brands of gear. "Anymore, all the bow companies, the arrow companies, the release companies are all making good stuff," he said. "It's not about not having a good enough bow or arrows. It's about setting them up right."

Trying to shoot a bow with improper draw length or a too-heavy draw weight is asking for trouble. "In perfect conditions you might not notice," Morgan said. "But when you get nervous and things start to change, that can have a huge impact on how you shoot." As successful as he has been both in competition and in hunting, Morgan is still human.

"No matter how prepared you are, you're still going to blow shots," he said. "I've lost $60,000 on one arrow." Recently, on a difficult desert bighorn hunt in Mexico, Morgan finally got a shot at a nice ram after eight days of brutal hunting in rugged terrain.

"He was bedded, 30 yards away and had no idea we were there," he said. "And I missed." That was a tough one to swallow, but Morgan did his best.

"You have to pick yourself up and stay positive," he said. "I'll be danged if we didn't find another ram on the hike back to camp. I heart-shot it at a distance much farther than what I just missed at."

A Coach Weighs In

Steve Ruis is a longtime archery coach, author of a number of archery books and currently edits Archery Focus magazine. Trying to help a hunter or shooter prepare to overcome nerves can't be as simple as offering a list of tips.

"A list of tips of things to do at the moment of truth is not a good approach," Ruis said. "The tips will probably flee from the mind of the hunter as soon as his heart starts beating 100 beats per minute."

As a coach of youth shooters and the archery team at the University of Chicago, Steve Ruis urges his students to visualize success.

Ideally, preparation starts with experience. Many generations ago, preparation for hunting began at an early age, and hunters gradually graduated from dreaming of accompanying adults, to tagging along as an observer, to finally being allowed to carry a bow. In an age when that long development is no longer applicable, Ruis believes that physical practice is important, but that visualization and imagination are also critical.

"If you have a shot on a huge buck at 10 yards and your heart starts hammering and you have not even considered what it would feel like, you are definitely on shaky ground mentally," he said. "You are stuck in your conscious mind and it doesn't function well in such scenarios."

Like Morgan, Ruis believes that it's much better to visualize success than failure.

"One needs to put oneself into the picture succeeding," he said. "It's like the young baseball player imagining coming to bat in the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded."

That young athlete doesn't imagine himself striking out. He imagines getting a walk-off hit. In that same vein, a hunter who imagines that arrow flying true has a much better chance of seeing that actually happen than the hunter who draws back worrying about the possibility of a miss.

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