Seven Mental Skills of Champion Shooters: The Structure of Decisions

Previously I’ve mentioned that there are seven essential mental skills for shooting success, all of which are learnable and teachable :

  • Precision Visualisation Skills
  • Positive Self Motivation
  • Powerful Goal Achievement Strategies
  • Emotional State Mastery
  • Positive Mental Attitude
  • Strong Concentration & Focusing Abilities
  • Positive Self Image & Unshakeable Self Confidence

All these skills of the SPORTS MIND can be learned and improved with some simple mental training techniques.

I have spoken of Visualisation, noting that it is the most important mental skill for shooters, and that to direct your shooting performance effectively you want to use clear visual images with feeling, not words, and that visualisation works because it has a measurable, physiological effect on our body. I also noted the importance of getting into the right mental state to visualise, outlined six specific visualisation applications for shooters, and gave some simple tips for getting the best out of your visualisation sessions.

I introduced the important topic of motivation and said that motivation is an energy – an energy which is influenced by how you communicate with yourself. I noted that there are basically two simple motivation strategies : positive motivation and negative motivation. Negative motivation moves you away something you don’t want to happen, while positive motivation moves you towards something you do want to happen.

This led to a discussion about goals and how to attain them, and about the role your thinking, (notably what questions and statements you are making on regular basis), has on your ability to achieve your goals.

I then provided a summary of some concentration and emotional mastery techniques for successfully coping with pre-performance nerves, anxiety and competition pressure – and I emphasised that the important positive emotional states necessary for optimum performance, (such as one-pointed concentration, enthusiasm, tenacity, motivation, and even happiness), are influenced by three important factors: your physiology, your ideology, and by the environment, and shooters can master their emotions by understanding and mastering these three factors. I also discussed the importance of a positive mental attitude and provided a simple ‘optimism’ test.

In the last issue I spoke about the challenge of excellence and how to turn self doubt into self determination. I want to digress a little in this issue and speak about the structure of decision making in sporting performances with a view to making better decisions as both a performer and coach.

The Structure of Thinking

As many readers no doubt realise by now, the theoretical basis of all the Sportsmind material comes from the science of what is known as Neuro-Linguistic Programming.

NLP is a powerful new human performance technology, that has provided elegant tools for improving human performance in the areas of management, education, sales and counselling – as well as sport. Essentially, NLP is about modelling excellence – identifying the cognitive strategies and emotional states that provide the means by which anyone achieves success in any endeavour. NLP is essentially the study of subjective reality – it studies the mental processes of people who are excelling at something, be it sport, sales, management, or whatever.

Neuro-Linguistic Programming

NLP originated from the work of Richard Bandler and John Grinder when they pooled their considerable talents to observe and model the therapeutic techniques employed by superb psychotherapists such as Fritz Perls, Milton Erickson, and Virginia Satir. What resulted was an effective model not only of excellence in psychotherapy, but also a unique model of human behaviour, and a specific technology of human behavioural modelling and behavioural change, based on a specific theory of the structure of human subjective experience.

Essentially the NLP theory of behaviour suggests that behaviour is a consequence of mental processes, or strategies, and that these strategies have an identifiable structure and content.

Human cognitions can take the form of one of five sensory components – visual, auditory, kinaesthetic, olfactory and gustatory, (that is, we can see something in our mind; we can hear something or talk to ourselves; we can feel things internally; and we can experience smells and tastes mentally), and these specific mental representations of experience link together to establish behavioural strategies, which then direct our behaviour – and our sports performances.

Behaviours as Mental Processes

A behavioural strategy is simply the specific sequence of sensory systems used in a mental process to achieve a specific behavioural outcome. In other words, a strategy is just a combination of sensory ‘steps’ that results in a particular behaviour – or in sport, a particular performance. All our external behaviours and performances are driven by internal mental processing strategies – much in the same way that specific computer programs enable a computer to do mathematical calculations, search a database, or type these words on the page.

This is an important recognition, because for most people, behaviours (and hence sports performances) just seem to ‘happen’ to them automatically – there is little sense of personal choice or control in the matter. Some days you shoot well and other days you don’t!

However, I believe YOU are primarily responsible for your own subjective experiences – for your own thinking – and through this, your own performances. If you have a ‘good’ shoot, it was because your behavioural strategy – your mental processes – were appropriate. Even though at times it seems like something ‘just happens’ to us – like getting nervous before a big event, or even such supposedly intangible experiences like feeling happy, or feeling worried – all these behaviours are a direct consequence of an ongoing mental process over which we DO have control.


One way to talk about and visualise strategies is to liken them to using a telephone. Imagine our sensory systems as like the numbers of a telephone : the way we join them together results in different outcomes (different behaviours and performances), in the same way that ringing different sequences of numbers on the telephone will get us different towns and different people.

So all human behaviours, (and hence sports performances) – including motivation, desire, decision making, concentration, creativity, and so on – are a result of sequences of ‘thoughts’. All thoughts are represented in terms of one of the five senses, with the primary building blocks of thinking being the Visual (V), Auditory (A), and Kinaesthetic (K) senses. So every behaviour can generally be described as a sequence of Visual, Auditory, and Kinaesthetic steps – and this is called a mental processing strategy.

For example, a very simple motivation strategy might be :

Visual (Picture my goal) —> Auditory (Tell myself to go for it) —> Kinaesthetic (Feel good about it) —> Do it!

Some strategies are much more effective than others, and being able to identify an individual’s strategies – and change them if they are ineffective – can greatly assist them in achieving their desired outcomes.

There are important criteria in such behavioural strategies which identify whether or not a particular strategy is ‘well formed’. Strategies which adhere to these criteria are more effective in securing a successful outcome – be it in making a good decision; learning a new skill; motivating yourself to do a task; or whatever.

For example, it’s easy to recognise that obtaining information from all our senses would be important – you can see things you can’t hear, you can feel things you can’t see, and you can hear things you can’t feel. Consequently it would make sense to include all sensory systems in one’s strategies. However, it is clearly observable that not everyone does this – some people make decisions just on how they ‘feel’ (kinaesthetic) about something; others attempt to learn by simple rote repetition (auditory); or attempt to motivate themselves without any clear images of the desired outcome. (visual).

Consider the process of making decisions – an essential element in successful shooting. In order to make a decision about something, (for instance about buying a new car or a new dress – or when to pull the trigger on a shot), an individual may first talk to themselves about it, then get a feeling about what to do, and then act upon the decision.

Thus the decision making strategy can be represented as :

A —> K —-> Decision

However such a simplistic decision making strategy relies only on two of the three sensory systems, and consequently an individual using such a strategy may well miss important information. In addition, there is no external check in this strategy, and no looping to consider and evaluate additional information.

Decision making strategies can be improved by ensuring that both internal and external sensory checks are made (i.e.. visually checking the ‘reality’ of the situation as opposed to relying on how you ‘imagined’ things were; or obtaining verbal feedback from someone rather than relying on what you ‘thought’ was their meaning; etc.), and by including an evaluation loop with reliable comparisons prior to the making of the decision, as in the example below :

V —-> A —-> K + / – = —-> Decision

<————————— ?

In this instance, the individual first thinks about the possibilities in a visual way. For example they may look at the situation and compare what they see externally with an internal visual remembered image of a previous success. They then think it through verbally, talking it over to themselves in their mind. This internal discussion is then evaluated by their feelings. Does it feel right to do it or not? If the feelings are clear and strong in a particular direction (either definitely positive or definitely negative), they will exit the strategy and make the decision to go ahead or not. If the feelings indicate some uncertainty about the action, then they will recycle through the strategy – look at it again, talk to themselves, get a feeling – until a evaluation feeling is reached.

Consider how this may be relevant to your shooting? How do you make decisions? What senses are included? What are the mental steps you go through?

Since any and every behaviour can be usefully represented as a sequence of identifiable sensory based steps, these steps can be learned, and reproduced, to effect a similar behavioural outcome .

What this means is that if you can recover the thinking process you – or someone else – used in a previous top performance, you can replicate that thinking process to repeat the performance.

Further, maladaptive behaviours, (for example pre-performance anxiety, unconfidence, etc.), can be reduced to their component parts, and specific interventions designed to ameliorate the problem, quickly and effectively by changing steps in the negative and limiting mental strategy.

The challenge of course is to identify these mental steps accurately – particularly when, for most people, the strategies have been operated so frequently as to have become completely unconscious.

There are ways to do this, particularly for coaches to recognise, through the development of an awareness of some specific non-verbal signals which can reveal an individual’s internal processing steps.

In the next issue I will discuss these sensory awareness techniques for coaches and provide some practical suggestions for developing non-verbal sensory acuity.

About Jeffrey Hodges B.Sc.(AES) M.Sc.(Hons)
Jeffrey Hodges is a performance consultant to elite athletes, sporting teams and corporate clients. He is the author of the widely acclaimed “Sportsmind – An Athlete’s Guide to Superperformance Through Mental & Emotional Training” and “Champion Thoughts, Champion Feelings”; creator of the Sportsmind performance enhancement workshops and audio tapes; and Director of the Sportsmind Institute for Human Performance Research.

He is a NLP Master Practitioner and Associate Trainer, and his Sportsmind programs have been endorsed by the NSW Dept Sport & Recreation, and recommended by top sportsclubs and successful athletes. Jeffrey has competed in many sports, notably Volleyball, Squash, Soccer and Golf, and currently trains in Aikido, holding a black belt.

Some of his clients to date include :
Australian Rugby Union
St. Joseph’s College
Woodlands Golf Club
Financial Institutions Remuneration Group (FIRG)
Societe Generale
Qld. Swimming
Network for Fitness Professionals
North Sydney and Penrith Rugby League Clubs
Qld. Athletics Assn
NSW Netball Assn
Northern Inland Academy of Sport
Victorian Soaring Assn
Orange Agricultural College Equestrian School
Qld and NSW Departments of Sport and Recreation
Qld Academy of Sport
and the RAAF.

For more information, contact :
FLAXTON Qld. Australia. 4560.
PHONE 61 7 5445 7994
email :
website :



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