This study explored the hypothesis that the presence of anxiety symptoms is less related to simulated basic rifle marksmanship (S-BRM) performance than is cognitive disruption. The sample was comprised of 82 Stryker Brigade Soldiers at a large military post in the Pacific Northwest. Simulated rifle marksmanship was assessed using the Engagement Skills Trainer and anxiety scores were assessed using the Sport Anxiety Scale (Smith, Smoll & Schutz, 1990). Multiple regression results showed concentration disruption, but not cognitive worry or somatic anxiety, to significantly predict S-BRM performance. These findings suggest that the presence of anxiety symptoms is less important for S-BRM than the ability to maintain focus and to avoid being distracted by those symptoms.
The notion that precompetitive anxiety can have either debilitating or facilitating effects on performance is perhaps best summed up by Canadian Olympic Basketball coach Jack Donohoe's famous quote: "it's not a case of getting rid of the butterflies, it's a matter of getting them to fly in formation" (quoted in Orlick, 1986, p. 112). Here Donohoe is suggesting that the mere presence of anxiety should not be a performance issue - since all performers feel some degree of arousal before major competitions. Donohoe is referring to the notion that top basketball athletes are able to manage these symptoms in ways which allow them to perform to their potential. Indeed, sport psychology researchers have postulated that excessive anxiety disrupts attentional functioning, and numerous investigations of this hypothesis have offered strong support for this contention (see Janelle, 2002 and Williams 2008 for reviews). This literature also suggests that achieving elite performance in sport depends not only on perfecting the biomechanical efficiency of required movements but also on the proficient utilization of psychological resources which allows for effective cognitive processing and control of attention under conditions of high stress.
This seems especially true among marksmen, where it is intuitive to suggest anxiety symptoms can have a large impact on performance, either due to the influence on cognitive functions (e.g., with distracting thoughts) or somatic processes (e.g., with increased and/or erratic heart and ventilation rates). Either form of anxiety may result in minute changes in the stability of a rifle, which can result in increasingly large deviations in shot location proportional to the target distance. Studies examining the idea that anxiety amount and type may negatively influence shot quality among marksmen are not new and tend to support this hypothesis. For example, Gates (1918) conducted an early examination of expert and novice shooters and found novice shooters' performance was negatively affected by dwelling on thoughts which were distracting (e.g., "I can't seem to control myself" or "There, I moved again") relative to the thoughts of their more experienced peers. More recently, Tierney, Cartner, and Thompson (1979) found negative relationships between self-reported nervousness about firing and record-fire scores for female military shooters (r = -. 19, p < .05 ). Similarly, Sade, Bar-Eli, Bresler, & Tenenbaum (1990) found that highly skilled shooters reported significantly lower (state) anxiety scores than did moderately skilled shooters.
While the relationship between marksmanship score and the intensity of anxiety symptoms seems apparent, the question of whether some marksmen can allow the "butterflies to fly in formation" is still relatively unexplored. The role that concentration disruption plays in the presence of anxiety symptoms among military marksmen is also unexplored. Further, very little is known about how these particular variables influence the shooting performance of military personnel. However, understanding this relationship is essential to training and preparing Soldiers for the demands of shooting in hostile and stress-inducing contexts where inattention to the task, perhaps due to fixating on anxiety symptoms or "choking", could have catastrophic consequences. …