When I re-launched the Everyday Marksman site in 2018, I thought it was important to have a core topic area around Mindset. Inspired by the work of Lanny Bassham and others, it’s important that I kept at least some focus on the idea of training the mind to perform just as much as practicing marksmanship and buying gear. Over time, many of the interviews I’ve done and books I’ve read also referenced the importance of mindset.
I’ve gone as far as making sure that “mindset” is one of the primary corners within the pyramid of performance. It’s every bit as important as physical capability as well as technique when it comes to success.
But, to date, I’ve yet to actually dig in and provide a thorough definition of what I mean when I talk about mindset. Today I’d like to rectify that oversight and plant a flag in the ground of what I mean when I start talking about the mindset question.
Before I begin, I’ll point out that I’m keeping my scope narrow. There is a lot of fantastic work out there regarding things like growth mindset, habit formation, and other important aspects of a healthy mental state. These are all great concepts, and I encourage you to look into them. For simplicity sake, I am focusing down to only the aspects that most impact performance of a given task. That’s not to say that those other aspects don’t impact performance, they do, but those effects are tangential compared to the ones I actually want you to focus on.
All good? Sweet, let’s get going.
It Starts With Three Circles
I recommend reading Lanny Bassham’s, With Winning in Mind. It’s a book that changed my perception of training and development. One of the core tenants is this interlinking of three circles: the conscious mind, the unconscious mind, and the self-image.
Per Lanny’s definition, the conscious mind encompasses everything that you are thinking about while performing the task. For beginners and novices, their minds are busy considering every aspect of the action they’re performing. It’s all new to them, and nothing is automatic. The novice focuses on making sure they grab the magazine correctly, inserting it into the well without missing or getting hung up, and must look down to find and actuate the release controls. When aiming, they mentally think about every step of the firing cycle including breathing, sight picture, trigger control, and position. Step-by-step, they think about everything they were taught they had to do to succeed.
The long-term goal is reaching a point where the conscious mind is silent and focused only on the outcome (i.e. “hit the x ring”).
The subconscious mind encompasses what you might call, “muscle memory.” It’s the stored motor pathway within the brain that recognizes the pattern and requirements, and executes the task without any further consideration. Lanny says that you build the subconscious mind through repetition, practice, and visualization. This is important: it means practicing a task the exact same way every time to build consistency.
After all, consistency is accuracy.
Like a champion power lifter or Olympic weight lifter, every repetition looks exactly the same. Regardless of the weight, the setup is the same, the approach to the bar is the same, grip is identical, and the mechanics of the movement are all exactly the same every time. This is the result of thousands of hours of practice doing the same thing over and over. It’s become subconscious, and the lifter only has to think of the outcome: lift the weight.
The third circle is the self-image. It encompasses everything about how you view yourself and what you believe you are capable of. This is the circle that separates champions from the skilled.
Most people are more than capable of learning and practicing a skill to the point of technical mastery. However, if that person does not believe that they are the kind of person who wins championships, then they lose to the person who does.
It’s this third ring, the self-image, that the Martial Marksman is most interested in developing. It’s the source of his aretê, his sense of excellence. As such, this is the starting point for our mindset foundation.
Your Aretê is Your Self Image, So Earn It
In May 2023, my friend Justin Fields published a post on his site (Swift, Silent, Deadly) titled, “The Value of Doing Hard Things.” He highlighted three primary reasons to take the harder path:
- To build an appreciation for life
- Proving yourself
- Building resilience in the face of adversity
As I read through Justin’s post, I found myself nodding along in agreement. These are all good reasons to elect hardship from time to time. The simple truth is that the path to excellence is never easy. Excellence demands a price to be paid. Moreover, it may very well not be safe, either. We call it something daring because it involves risk.
The desire for safety stands against every great and noble enterprise.Tacitus
Risk means danger. It means being uncomfortable, it means creating stress you otherwise wouldn’t have to face. The fact that you do it of your own volition is an important factor.
The Importance of Stress
All systems and organisms tend towards a state of homeostasis. Defined by the Oxford dictionary as, the tendency toward a stable equilibrium between interdependent elements. For years, I worked under the assumption that working towards this harmonious state was desirable, that it meant everything was working as it should.
That may be true in the broad sense. We typically define a state of “health” as the absence of abnormality and disorder within the body. We need and want our hormones, catabolic/anabolic process, and other systems to be in balance. Most of the time.
However, I also think we take it too far. The phase, “Fat, dumb, and happy” comes to mind. If we exist in a constant state of happy harmony, without stress or conflict, then we tend mentally struggle, become unwell, and suffer a myriad of problems. Put simply, in the absence of struggle (aka the agon), we grow weaker.
Consider the example of a wild forest. For decades, the focus was on the prevention of forest fires because they could be so damaging to the existing flora and wildlife. Over time we realized that our outsized efforts to prevent fires resulted in fires that were more dangerous than ever before and actually harming the forests we sought to protect. Instead, the practice shifted to smaller controlled fires to help burn out dead materials and make room for new life to spring forth.
Applying it to Yourself
The mind and body work much the same way. You don’t get bigger and stronger from lifting a weight in isolation, it happens when you recover from lifting that weight and the muscle has adapted to the stress. Then you continue exposing the muscle to controlled doses of stress to keep progress going. If the stress stops, the body decides it can save the energy and resources for other things- and the muscle shrinks. The catch is that you must continue choosing to do the hard thing, and the body responds by improving.
This cycle plays out over and over in almost every system I can find. Whether it’s the positive effects of temporary fasted states (also a stress), the mental clarity experienced during and after times of strife, and the exhilaration of competition. All of these represent controlled doses of stress that disrupt homeostasis and force you to adapt positively.
So Where Does Mindset Fit In?
Let’s bring this back to the point of developing your self image and sense of excellence. In the end, your self image is not something that you can fake your way to. It is the culmination of your experiences and what you believe you are capable of achieving. If you don’t believe it, then it will not happen for you.
So what’s the best way to actually build up this self-image? That’s simple, but not easy. Odd how much that seems to be the theme lately.
The Martial Marksman’s mindset is one that dictates pursuit of excellence in all things. He rejects mediocrity because he knows it is a creeping force that slowly erodes the value of his work and training. He is not happy with only maintaining homeostasis, but seeks opportunities to introduce controlled stress and see where he stands.
Decrementalism and the Drift to Failure
Hat tip to the guys at Building the Elite for what I’m saying here, as it came from their book.
Decremantalism describes a downward spiral of standards and quality. Its effects are so subtle that you probably wouldn’t even notice it. Yet with every decremental step, you progressively normalize this new deviation from the standard. Then, when it has gone on long enough, you realize how far you’ve drifted from where you started. Hopefully, that point isn’t when you’re suffering a medical emergency, or your life is on the line in a defensive situation.
When you rationalize the creeping tyranny of “good enough” into your training, what was once a noticeable and temporary deviation slowly becomes the new normal…What matters is not the individual deviation. It’s the gradual shift in baseline behavior that becomes the problem. Missing a single workout or having a single junk meal, in the big picture, really will mean nothing. But if you look at where you are now compared to the standards you set for yourself when you began this process and realize that you’re now OK with things that you never would wold have called acceptable in the beginning, then you’ve fallen victim to decrementalism. The creeping, banal evil of mediocrity.Building the Elite
This is what I mean when I say that the Martial Marksman focuses on excellence and rejects mediocrity. He is fully aware of this decremantalism cycle, works tirelessly to expunge it from his training and matters that are important to him. That’s not to say that he does this for everything all of the time. That’s not possible (see principle #5 of the training philosophy: play the long game). But, he does prioritize.
Tying it Together
I’ve covered a few concepts in this episode. The chain here is that the most important mindset attribute we’ll continue discussing is the self-image. In turn, the self-image is the end result of what you believe about yourself and your capabilities. The Martial Marksman believes in his own excellence because that’s what he trains for and organizes his life and habits around.
The final question is how do you actually build this up? What is the process for actually building the self-image?
This goes back to the idea of homeostasis. The Martial Marksman intentionally seeks opportunities to challenge himself and improve. When he is successful in his endeavor, he decides on whether to up the stakes and pursue the next level, or to focus on another area that needs attention. These challenges look different depending on the task.
The most basic way to challenge yourself is to pursue and maintain a consistent physical training program. When you commit to the goal of excellence here, then you automatically organize other parts of your life around it. You will get better sleep, control your diet, set specific and measurable performance goals, and then crush them. If you don’t do these things, because the homeostasis of your other life habits gets in the way, then you have a clear indicator that you have failed to commit. The weight on the bar does not lie. You either execute the plan and lift more weight over time, or you fail to do so. No excuses.
As you improve, you’re also teaching your mind that you are the kind of man who sets goals and achieves them. You learn that you are capable of successfully doing difficult things. This is your self-image improving, and it carries over into other parts of your life.
These are the building blocks of a Martial Marksman’s self-image. Success begets success, and with it the confidence that he can succeed and do even more. But, again, it takes effort. It means choosing to do the difficult things that nobody else wants to commit to.
Lastly, I’ll point out that these building blocks are situational. While true that a sense of, “I’ve done hard things before, so I’ll get through this” has merit, it’s not a direct carryover. For example, becoming an excellent rifle shooter does not automatically mean that you will succeed in a survival situation (unless, of course, you need to shoot at something with a rifle). Knowing that you have the mental tenacity to stick to something and overcome is valuable, but it’s not the whole picture. Becoming skilled at survival situations requires a different set of building blocks, challenges, and commitments.
For that reason, you need to consider all of the appropriate skills and capabilities and address them individually. That’s a topic for another day.
One More Thing
To sign this one off, I leave you with one more item. Training principal #1 says to Train for the Target.
Much of what I’ve said here relates to setting objectives and pursuing them. Remember, though, be careful about what measures of success you choose and how you pursue them. It’s easy to let the measure of the thing become the reason we do it. In the past, I’ve called this becoming a “gamer.” It turns out that there’s actually a name for this: Goodhart’s Law.
When a measure becomes a target, it stops being a good measure.
Don’t optimize for the test. It’s important to have a goal, but know the larger purpose of the goal and how it fits into your overall journey as a Martial Marksman. Once you’ve identified the goal and how you’ll measure your progress, then keep the goal as your goal, discarding anything else that distracts from that goal.
This is easier said than done, but a better example of mental tenacity and focus there is not.