Expectations & their impact on performance

Everyone, from the novice shooter to the world champion, will often experience difficulty at some point in their competitive life in terms of delivering the performance that their training and capability leads them to expect. I believe that this “weight of expectations” delivers increased pressure and the increased pressure leads us to make mistakes. Whether the mistakes manifest themselves in muscle tension, loss of concentration, or other factors is inconsequential. The fact is the mistakes occur & the score suffers as a result.

One example of this weight of expectations can be seen in a recent performance on the international stage. Sonia Pfeilschifter from Germany has always found winning an Olympic medal elusive. Whilst she is a world champion many times over and multiple world cup winner, the Olympic crown has been her nemesis, and one that she desires most passionately. Three weeks prior to Athens I saw Sonia shoot 400 in a friendly international air rifle match we had at her home club in Germany. She did this in about 30 minutes and I have seen her shoot 398 or more on many occasions. Yet in Athens, the “weight of expectations” (her own and others) caused her to fire an “8” for her second business shot. Whilst she finished with 396 and made the final, the gap was too big, and the pressure too much, for her to catch the medallists.

A second example is from a discussion I had with a top Russian shooter. She had won two world cup events in earlier in the Olympic year, so she must have been reasonably confident going into the Olympics. For a Russian, a win in the Olympic Games is basically a ticket for financial security, so there is a lot riding on the outcome for them. This shooter has scored over 106 points in an air rifle final in Russia, yet at the Olympics, she struggled with her final scoring many low 10’s and one or two 9’s.  When I asked her about it, she told me her heart rate had been so high she found it hard to relax and release the shots. Despite a high heart rate, she was still able to score 102.5 as her superior technique held up in the heat of battle – not enough to move up in the placings, but still a respectable result.

Some may argue that it is the importance of the occasion, or match pressure, or shooting outside our comfort zone, or other factors that create this failure to achieve what our training would lead us to believe. For sure these all contribute, and for some and at different times these will be more of a factor than the weight of expectations. For example when we drop our last shot in a 10 shot string, this is not the weight of expectations, but rather the increased pressure from thinking about our result and perhaps achieving something that is a rare occurrence in Australia (in air rifle & 3P Standing/Kneeling). But I believe the weight of expectations is a most significant factor in failing to live up to our training results.

Let’s consider two scenarios:

Shooter A consistently achieves a minimum result of 394 out of 400 in training. She has a strong technique, but has yet to produce a good result in competition. She arrives at her next competition with strong training results, a coach/family who expect her to shoot well and a little voice in her head that tells her she has never done it before. In the competition she starts out well with good sighting shots and commences the match strongly with a 99. In her next string she seems to take longer to release each shot, has several attempts at some and she scores 95 with a string of 3 x 9’s in a row. She finishes the match ok with 2 x 98 for a result of 390.  What happened? She was trying to make every shot too perfect. Instead of sticking to her normal shot process, she started shooting consciously. She failed to take each shot decisively when the hold was a 10-ring hold, but tried to “make sure” with a 10.5 ring hold. Once she started the match and was on track to achieving her expectation score, she started trying to “make sure” that this would be achieved.

Shooter B has started to do well in training recently. He has not yet achieved a really strong technique, but has started to believe his training results will bring him a good placing in his next competition. He starts his next competition with high expectations of a personal best performance. His expectations combined with the match pressure cause an increase in tension and a poor start to the competition. Once the competition and personal best performances are lost, he relaxes a little and starts to shoot more like his recent training results. In this case, the skill level is not yet strong enough to support the expectations of the shooter.

Without a doubt it is disappointing when we don’t achieve in a competition what we are scoring in training. At various times in my career I have been both shooter A and B. When I was shooter B, I used to think that it was match pressure that caused my poor performances in standing. However once I had built a stronger technique, my performances also increased, even though the match pressure was still there. When I was Shooter A in my early days as a prone shooter, I often used to shoot 100 after 100 in practice at 20 metres. I’d shoot a match & start thinking about the 100 that I was going to get after only 3 shots. I’d over-hold on the next shot, get a 9 or 2×9’s, and then finish with all 10’s feeling rather cross with myself for losing my concentration and thinking about my score (again!).

It is only natural to have expectations about our performance. The challenge is how to avoid these expectations putting so much pressure on us that we can’t function as we would in training. Here are my top four thoughts on how to deal with “weight of expectations”:

  1. Build technically strong positions
  2. Focus on shot process, not results
  3. Ensure you don’t use muscle tension to force the rifle onto the target, especially in left arm & right shoulder.
  4. Find ways to create pressure in your training and see if your position holds up.

Key message: A technically strong position will survive match pressure & the weight of expectations

© Kim Frazer, December 2004