Phil Coley: Anxiety

You know when you get to a stand you suddenly get sweaty palms, your heart rate increases and you don’t want to lose? It’s the fear of failure. Almost all have experienced it. The fear of failure creeps up on you, and when it does catch up with you, you struggle to shake it off.

You’re on for a straight with only a handful of targets to go and it then gets you; you miss the next target or even two targets. Knowing you are out, you manage to successfully hit the next two. Does this sound familiar? It is very common in clay shooting and other sports.

So what really happens? I am lucky to be able to explain this in clay shooting. My research has revolved around looking at the body and the mind, using heart rate as a psycho-physiological measurement. I use a software programme I have developed over many years that records the data – giving profiles and readings on an individual. This is then plotted against a trend of similar shooters. In simple terms, I have researched hundreds of shooters in all disciplines and can plot specific patterns in heart rate trends. Those who come on our Masterclass sessions are able to take advantage of this.

Let’s look at the sudden change in thought patterns. The human brain on average only uses about 5% of its capacity, some use it more, some use it less. But that means there is a lot of capacity doing nothing. When you are asleep, your brain function and heart rate will slow down and we experience fluxes in sleep patterns – some of us dream or even have nightmares. These are triggered by various bodily responses. Children going through growth spurts or puberty experience a range of bodily reactions and mind responses including dreams.

So, without wanting to get too technical, you can see that the powerful computer you carry with you from birth is always looking for information and filling a void. Anxiety is normally triggered by a response, or a fear.

In your clay shooting you need to stay in the groove or avoid negative thoughts or anxiety creeping in. It will affect all shooters at different levels of their learning. Those just starting out in the sport will be very conscious of what they are doing, disappointed if they miss, but very conscious of the process of learning to shoot. Those at the top level in shooting are far less conscious of what they are doing as it is a learned response. It is those shooters striving for the next level that are most likely to be caught out by anxiety. That is

not to say a shooter on the brink of winning a World Championship won’t experience anxiety, but the strongest mentally will come through it.


Let’s look now at what you can do with a number of situations as examples:

Fear of Failure – this is the most common, fear of missing the next target, or on for the straight. The thought process is along the lines of ‘not missing’ or ‘don’t miss’. This adds pressure and leads to missed targets.

Solution: Self-talk through the round, positive mental imagery and relaxation techniques. The key is to use a self-talk programme through a round, keeping your mind occupied on the correct words.


Negative Thoughts – the thoughts that occupy your mind at the wrong moment, usually occurring when you concentrate too hard. The concentration is normally based on thoughts such as ‘don’t do this’ or ‘don’t do that’.

Solution: The negative thoughts can be stopped by self-talk or avoided by the right levels of focus, following a preparation routine, with relaxation and then a readiness program using self-talk.


Missed Target – when you miss a target for no reason at all –  this can be from a simple mounting mistake, non focus or too much focus.

Solution: Refocusing on your routine and being able to separate a negative reinforcement from a positive response. In simple terms you need to use a relaxing word or a hook to bring you back to shooting the next target.


Phil Coley is a leading sports psychology expert in clay shooting, holding a Masters Degree in Sports Science and working with clay shooters from around the World in all disciplines. Phil is a Brand Ambassador for Eley & Promatic.

Get your free Clay Shooting Success Handbook by Phil Coley, in association with Clay Shooting Magazine here

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