“The Mental Game” in Gun Africa

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My article, The Mental Game, was published in the October 2016 edition of Target Times.com, the sport shooting supplement of Gun Africa. The article is an introductory guide to the mental game for sport shooters, although police and military personnel may also find it of use. The magazine is available at various book and department stores, but will be available online free a month after publication date.

Click the link below for an unabridged pre-publication version of the article:

The Mental Game for Sport Shooters

 

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Paul Harris Fellow

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I was recently afforded the honour by the Rotary Foundation of being named a Paul Harris Fellow. My name was put forward by the Benoni Aurora Rotary club for three decades of service to children and adults with cerebral palsy, first as psychologist and for the past seventeen years as school principal.

It was wonderful to be recognized for something that was close to my heart for many years, but the reality is that at Muriel Brand School I was but part of a dedicated team of teachers, psychologists, therapists, medical and support staff. The award is really theirs and I pay tribute to them.

At the awards ceremony I became aware once again of the wonderful and selfless contribution the Rotary Foundation makes through numerous clubs in many countries. I listened in awe at the large number of significant projects run by just one club, Benoni Aurora. It was once again clear to me that Rotary International is a huge power for good throughout the world. This is made possible through the efforts of individual members who put service above self, as well as by teams united by a common vision.

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Just start … !

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For heaven’s sake, just start!

Imagine you are a sportman intent on improving your mental approach to your sport. So, you are motivated, you have set SMART goals, you are ready. But day after day passes and you don’t start on improving your mental game. Welcome to the real world where people find that mental work tends to be much harder than physical work. Prof. Daniel Kahneman popularized the dual processing mind model in which System 1 is the intuitive, automatic, sub-conscious and fast system. System 2 is the rational, conscious and slow system. System 2 is hard work and humans avoid using System 2, instead defaulting by preference to System 1 rules of thumb (heuristic) decision making. So, what we are trying to ensure in optimizing your mental game, is to be mostly in System 2 for the training, planning and preparation phases, but mostly in System 1 for the execution and competition phases. First is just to get started.

Let’s use a hypothetical example: Peter (an imaginary person) is a typical average level practical pistol shooter, who struggles to move to the next level. This could be any other sport or even work environment. Practical shooting is used as an example because it is a unique sport which sets high demands of both System 1 and 2 mentation.

Peter has had some coaching and even a completed a workshop on improving his mental game. Despite all this, he is not quite sure how to actually start his programme and …, well the sport and movies on TV are hard to resist. He realises that nothing happens by itself, but what now?

Here is some advice

1. Peter should start by making a written checklist of exactly what has to be done. This he should do from course notes if he has taken a workshop, or from wherever he gets his information, whether books by champion shooters, YouTube videos, or whatever. The reason is that people who do not know exactly how to proceed, often seem immobilized by all the decisions that have to be taken, a form of analysis paralysis. Read about checklists in The Checklist Manifesto, by Atul Gawande.

2. Now that he knows what needs to be done, the next step is choice architecture; increasing or decreasing the transaction cost of factors in his life so as to enable him frictionlessly to attend to his sport practicing. He should increase the transaction cost to watch TV or YouTube sport by ensuring that it is more difficult to access these activities (be creative). For household peace, others in the household may unfortunately also have to be considered!

3. He has already decreased the transaction cost to do his physical and mental practice by drawing up the checklist. Next would be to ensure that everything needed to do his dry firing (simulated shooting without ammunition), his live firing and his mental preparation is immediately and easily available, in such a condition as to be immediately usable. This would include the equipment, the checklists, the physical and mental programmes, arranging the environment and circumstances. The less your mind has to work in order to get started, the more chance you have of actually starting.

4. In actually doing the physical and mental practice, System 2 has to be engaged. Developing those expert heuristics is hard physical and mental work, there are no short cuts. You then have to be mindful and focus, exercise engrains heuristics and heuristics become habits. Wrong heuristics become wrong habits. Having to correct and relearn wrong actions is much more difficult than doing it right the first time.

5. Procrastination is a bastard. There are many ways to deal with it, but for now just get started with energy. Rush into the task and just do it! Once you have momentum, it will become easier.

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Transaction Cost

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 Professional athletes often have full time mental coaches or sport psychologists to assist them with their mental game. Amateur athletes typically do not have this luxury. A cost effective way for them to acquire the necessary mental knowledge and skills is to attend training workshops, such as that offered by Making Sense.  A last mile problem often arises, however. Even well motivated athletes who know how to improve their mental game, often procrastinate.  To start an action, technically called initiating behaviour, is an important function of the prefrontal cortex (the uniquely human part of your brain). Getting started is often the most difficult part of a new venture and this post addresses that.

People who attend workshops and lectures typically do not retain much of what was taught and apply even less. The main reason for this is simply that life moves on. Other things just become more salient, they don’t apply their mind to the material taught and simply forget. To address this, it is important for presenters of workshops to follow up and keep nudging their students.

Let me now introduce the concept of transaction cost, which I believe may help you to manage your environment so to assist you to actually apply yourself to the mental game. Transaction cost, as applied here, derives from choice architecture or nudging, a sub-discipline within behavioural economics. So …, how does it apply to you? (Read about choice architecture in Nudge, by Thaler & Sunstein).

Consider an analogy from physics, Newton’s First Law of Motion. This states that an object will remain at rest or in uniform motion in a straight line, unless acted upon by an external force. One such a ‘force’ is friction, which will tend to resist an object getting into motion, or will retard an object already in motion. Now; you are that object and the motion you desire is starting and keeping on with your training programme and your mental game. The friction is factors in yourself and in your environment that is preventing you from accomplishing that. The manipulation of these factors through increasing or decreasing transaction cost will increase the probability of you starting and continuing your physical and mental training programme.

An example of manipulating transaction cost is where a school tuck shop makes it difficult to access sweets and cold drinks by storing it out of sight, requiring kids to specifically queue for it at a single counter and to specifically ask for it (increasing transaction cost). The more healthy equivalents are displayed prominently and easy to access at a broad service counter (decreasing transaction cost). Believe it or not, it works; consumption of the unhealthy stuff goes down and of the healthy stuff goes up.  OK, it’s not quite that simple, you also have to prevent the kids bringing unhealthy stuff from home and face angry parents who believe it’s their children’s basic human right to be eat whatever they want to and to be obese and unhealthy.

So in your physical and mental training programmes, decrease the transaction cost by knowing exactly what has to be done and writing it down in checklists. Further decrease the transaction cost by specifically scheduling your training activities and ensuring that all equipment is immediately at hand and that the training environment is ready.

On the other hand, increase the transaction cost of activities that will draw your attention away from your training. Lock the TV room and leave the laptop at work (or lock it away). Use TV and the internet as rewards for after good training sessions. You will know which other activities interfere with your training, find ways to increase the transaction cost on these.

The concept of manipulating transaction costs applies to many domains. So, whether you are an athlete, a businessman, a school principal or a parent, look in your environment where you can adjust the transaction cost of activities to get more of what you want and less of what you don’t want. There are some ethical issues here that we’ll look at in future posts.

 

 

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