Jun 4, 2024
Information & Education

Buck Fever to Calm Under Pressure: Special Forces Techniques for Overcoming Stress and Anxiety

In rural South Dakota, where I grew up, hunting starts at age 12. It was pheasant season, and I was somewhere around that age and on one of my first hunts with my dad and a group of his friends. I’d been through the standard hunter safety course and had practiced skeet shooting on a range, but I wasn’t ready for the jolt of excitement when my first pheasant took to the sky before me. 

I brought my single-barrel 20-gauge up as quickly as possible, sighted the bird's trajectory, and fired. In my rush to make the shot, I didn’t seat the butt of the shotgun properly in the pocket of my shoulder - it was too low and unstable. The instant I pulled the trigger, the recoil of the shotgun slammed it back into my face, the hammer splitting my upper lip open. 

Though it’s faint now—this was over 25 years ago—I still have the scar. It’s a reminder that slow and smooth is the way to go regarding weapons and that mistakes happen when speed is prioritized over technical quality. 

About a decade and a half later, I arrived in Iraq, working on a private security contract for the US Department of State. One of our first check-in tasks was to shoot the qualification course at the weapons range, consisting of timed rifle and concealed pistol courses. This was a high-stakes event for those on the bubble with their shooting skills. Shooting below the required score could result in dismissal from the contract and a ticket home. 

It was 2011, and except for the State Department’s two-month qualification course that I’d just completed, I hadn’t touched a weapon in three years since I’d left the Navy. In the Navy, I’d been a SWCC, a Special Warfare Combatant Crewman, part of a special operations unit specializing in small boats and maritime operations. I’d had considerable weapons training, and it was interesting to see how much of it remained. 

While others on the range in Baghdad that day struggled to pass the minimum standards, I was disappointed to have only shot a perfect score with the pistol. I’d somehow dropped a single round with the rifle. 

As it turned out, these shooting scores were how we were sorted into teams. As the week's top shot, I was placed into a team with others with similar performances. They were nearly all former special operators. Our medic was an Air Force PJ. Our team leader was an Army Green Beret. Our marksman was a Marine Scout Sniper. Most of the ground team, the guys “walking the diamond” around the person we were protecting, were former Army Rangers. As a SWCC, I was a driver. 

While we all came from different backgrounds, we shared something in common. Where others struggled to shoot reliably under pressure, we did not. This had little to do with raw physical fitness, sitting in cold water for prolonged periods, excellent beards, or anything else that special operators are known for. It came down to how we’d been trained. We’d spent a lot of time learning how to execute a skill at a high level and then maintain that skill under stress. 

This brings us back to the scar on my lip, the result of combining a lack of training with stress, excitement, and urgency. 

What is “buck fever”?

In hunting circles, the underlying phenomenon that led to my first painful learning experience as a hunter is known as “buck fever.” It describes the overwhelming surge of adrenaline (aka epinephrine) and excitement that hunters experience when they first spot game, particularly a prized buck. This rush can trigger a cascade of physiological and psychological responses that impair performance, leading to missed shots or poor decisions.

At its core, buck fever is a stress response. When a hunter encounters game, the body's fight-or-flight mechanism kicks in, releasing adrenaline. This surge can cause various symptoms, including increased heart rate, impaired reasoning, rapid breathing, trembling hands, and tunnel vision. These physiological changes can severely impact fine motor skills and cognitive function, crucial for making a precise shot.

Manifestations of buck fever include:

  1. Physical Symptoms: Trembling hands, shaking legs, and an accelerated heart rate can make it difficult to aim steadily. Due to the sudden spike in adrenaline, some hunters might feel lightheaded or experience shortness of breath.

  2. Cognitive Impairments: The excitement and pressure can cloud judgment, leading to rushed decisions. Hunters might forget essential steps in their shooting routine, like correctly seating the butt of the rifle or adjusting the scope, similar to what happened to me during my first pheasant hunt.

  3. Emotional Reactions: The intense excitement can cause hunters to lose focus, resulting in a scattergun approach rather than a calm, methodical one. The emotional high of spotting a buck can also lead to overconfidence, where hunters take shots beyond their skill level or without proper preparation.

Understanding buck fever is crucial for hunters, especially those new to the sport. Recognizing these symptoms as a natural response can help develop strategies to manage them, ensuring a more composed and effective performance in the field.

Training to get it right, and training so you can’t get it wrong

The same stress response underlying buck fever affects military personnel in combat. 

As Brasidas of Sparta put it nearly two thousand years ago, “Fear makes men forget, and skill that cannot fight is useless.”

In the chaos of a firefight, what feels like familiar skills can degrade and become unavailable or unreliable. Much of military training has evolved to help reduce this stress-induced reduction of motor skills and cognitive function. 

What sets special operators apart from more conventional forces has surprisingly little to do with highly advanced shooting techniques. Yes, they can shoot very accurately, but that’s only one part of the picture. They’re using many of the same fundamental techniques that we all learn in our first week or two of training, and they’re doing them very well. But what sets them apart is that they’re not faltering in those basics under stress and fatigue. 

Successful people across many different fields have echoed similar ideas. 

Charlie Munger, an American investor, businessman, and philanthropist best known as the vice chairman of Berkshire Hathaway and Warren Buffett's longtime business partner, famously said, “It is remarkable how much long-term advantage people like us have gotten by trying to be consistently not stupid, instead of trying to be very intelligent.”

His focus on avoiding mistakes or figuring out how not to lose before worrying about winning led Berkshire Hathaway to become one of the most successful companies in history. 

Proper, rigorous training improves the overall quality of a skill, but just as importantly, it helps us retain it when we need it most. 

So, to avoid buck fever, we must not just train so that we can get things right. We also have to train until we can’t get them wrong. 

Stress Inoculation Training

The training model used to prevent skill degradation under stress is Stress Inoculation Training or SIT. This approach ensures that skills are maintained even under high-pressure conditions.

Critically, SIT isn’t how skill is enhanced. It’s how we learn to retain a skill we’ve already developed so we can still reliably execute it under stress. This is the “train until you can’t get it wrong” part of the process.

Stress Inoculation Training involves three main phases:

  1. Conceptualization Phase: This phase involves educating the individual about the nature of stress and its effects on performance. Understanding how stress impacts cognitive and motor functions is crucial for developing strategies to manage it. This phase often includes identifying personal stress triggers and recognizing early signs of stress response.

  2. Skills Acquisition and Rehearsal Phase: During this phase, individuals learn and practice coping strategies to manage stress. Techniques such as controlled breathing, visualization, and positive self-talk are commonly used. The goal is to equip individuals with tools to control their physiological and psychological responses to stress.

  3. Application and Practice Phase: This phase involves gradually exposing individuals to stress in a controlled environment, allowing them to apply the coping strategies they've learned. The stressors are progressively increased to simulate real-life high-stress situations. This step-by-step exposure helps build resilience and ensures the individual can perform under pressure.

For example, in a military context, SIT might involve simulated combat scenarios where soldiers must perform tasks while under physical and psychological stress. The repeated exposure to stress helps soldiers become accustomed to the sensations and pressures they will face in actual combat, making their responses more automatic and controlled.

In hunting, SIT can be applied by creating realistic hunting scenarios that mimic the stress and excitement of spotting game. By repeatedly practicing in these controlled yet stressful environments, hunters can develop the ability to manage their physiological responses, such as increased heart rate and trembling hands, ensuring that their motor skills and cognitive functions remain intact.

The Science Behind SIT

Research supports the effectiveness of SIT in enhancing performance under stress. SIT helps in the following ways:

  • Improved Stress Resilience: Repeated exposure to controlled stressors helps individuals develop resilience, reducing the impact of stress on performance. This resilience is critical for maintaining composure and making sound decisions under pressure.

  • Enhanced Cognitive Function: SIT improves cognitive flexibility, allowing individuals to think clearly and adapt to changing situations even when stressed. This adaptability is crucial for tasks that require quick decision-making and problem-solving.

  • Retention of Motor Skills: By practicing skills under stress, individuals ensure that their motor skills remain sharp and reliable. This retention is vital for tasks that require precision and coordination, such as shooting accurately in high-stress situations.

Practical Application for Hunters

To prevent buck fever, hunters can incorporate SIT into their training regimen. Here are some practical steps:

  1. Simulate Real Hunting Scenarios: Practice shooting in environments that mimic actual hunting conditions. This could include practicing in varying weather conditions, different terrains, and with distractions present.

  2. Gradual Exposure to Stress: Start with low-stress scenarios and gradually increase the stress level. For example, begin with target practice in a calm, comfortable setting, then add environmental stressors that simulate the real-life hunting conditions, such as:
  3. Use of Coping Strategies: Incorporate controlled breathing, visualization, and positive self-talk during practice sessions. These strategies help manage the physiological responses to stress and improve focus.

  4. Reflect and Adjust: After each training session, reflect on what worked and what didn’t. Based on these reflections, continuously adjust the training plan to improve stress management skills.

By following these steps and incorporating SIT into their training, hunters can develop the resilience and composure needed to retain skills and perform effectively under the pressure of real hunting situations, thereby minimizing the impact of buck fever.

Motor Learning

This brings us to the “train until you get it right” part of the process. In other words, skill development. 

The mechanics of shooting a rifle or shotgun are all motor skills. 

Motor learning is the process of acquiring and refining skills through practice and experience. 

Much of what separates expert-level skill from average performance can be explained by how experts deliberately move through—and back into—the different stages of learning. 

Good hunters must understand that simply going through the motions isn't enough; the quality and structure of practice significantly impact skill development.

Stages of Motor Learning:

  1. Cognitive Stage: This initial phase involves understanding the basic mechanics of a skill. For hunters, this might mean learning the shooting fundamentals, such as proper stance, grip, and aiming techniques. Mistakes are common as the learner tries to grasp the basics. Whatever you’re learning takes up all of your focus, and you don’t have mental room for much else. Mistakes are large and frequent, and you can only think in small steps at a time.

  2. Associative Stage: In this stage, hunters refine their technique through repetition and feedback. They recognize errors and adjust, leading to more consistent performance and smaller errors. Muscle memory starts to develop, making movements more automatic. This frees up cognitive space so that you can think in larger “chunks” of tasks and hold other information in your mind as you work through a process.

  3. Autonomous Stage: The final stage is where the skill becomes second nature. Hunters can perform tasks with little conscious thought, allowing them to focus on higher-level strategies and decision-making. At this point, skills are performed smoothly and efficiently, even under stress. This is where the skill goes from something you’re learning to something you simply do. Think, for instance, of the last time you drove a car or typed on a laptop and thought about the individual steps of that task or how to get better at it. 

While the autonomous stage of learning seems like a good place to be (Don’t we want to just shoot instead of thinking about how to shoot?), it can also be a trap. 

Once we’re in this final stage, more effort or repetition doesn’t typically improve our proficiency. Since this is the “good enough” stage of learning, it’s also the point at which we stop developing a skill and begin displaying it - going through the motions. 

The key piece of this is that the point at which this happens is entirely arbitrary. We often automate skills and stop improving them much earlier than we theoretically could. And, as soon as this happens, our skill level is fixed. 

In many domains, performance slowly degrades over time due to the absence of negative feedback loops. 

This leveling off of skill is known as the hypothesis of par or tolerance. It’s “good enough” land, and once you’re here, you could easily spend years going through the motions of a skill without getting better at it. 

This is why many people don’t have ten years of experience in their field. They have one year of experience, repeated ten times. 

Experts avoid this trap and find ways to shift back to the second stage of learning as needed so that they can consciously develop their craft indefinitely. 

This brings us to deliberate practice, where Malcolm Gladwell got it wrong. 

Deliberate Practice and the Myth of 10,000 Hours

The concept of deliberate practice is often misunderstood, especially in the context of the "10,000-hour rule" popularized by Malcolm Gladwell. 

While the rule suggests that 10,000 hours of practice are necessary to achieve mastery, this is an oversimplification. The quality of practice is far more important than the quantity. 10,000 hours of going through the motions won’t make you an expert. It may even make you worse, yet more confident. 

The late researcher K. Anders Ericsson coined the term deliberate practice to describe the type of training that distinguishes the best in their fields from the also-rans. While practice quantity is important, it only really matters when the time spent training is structured effectively. 

Key Principles of Deliberate Practice:

  1. Specific Goals: Deliberate practice involves setting clear goals for each session. For hunters, you need a purpose beyond going to the range and shooting. For instance, you may practice in various environmental conditions or do specific drills to work on isolated mechanics of a good shot, like a smooth trigger pull without recoil anticipation.

  2. Focused Attention: During practice, hunters must maintain a high concentration level and avoid distractions. This ensures that each repetition is meaningful and contributes to skill development. The quality of our attention sets the rate of our learning. 

  3. Immediate Feedback: Receiving feedback on performance is crucial for improvement. Hunters should seek feedback from experienced mentors, use video analysis, or employ training aids that provide real-time data. This is why tools like steel targets on a weapons range or a spotter who can instantly see holes in paper targets are so useful. The more clear, frequent, and immediate our feedback, the faster we learn.

  4. Frequent Repetition: Repetition is essential but must be combined with variation to avoid plateauing. Hunters should practice different scenarios, such as moving targets or shooting from different positions, to develop a well-rounded skill set. 

  5. Gradual Increase in Difficulty: Practice sessions should gradually become more challenging to foster continuous improvement. This could involve introducing time constraints, adding physical exertion, or simulating stressful hunting situations. Any increase in training difficulty must match an increase in proficiency so that we’re constantly staying at the edge of our ability, safely making and learning from small errors and earning our success. 

Physical Fitness

Physical fitness is crucial in enhancing resilience, interoception, and performance under stress, all of which are vital in overcoming buck fever. 

Regular physical training improves cardiovascular health, muscular strength, and endurance, which helps hunters manage the physical demands of tracking and shooting game. 

A well-conditioned body can better withstand the rigors of the hunt, reducing fatigue and allowing hunters to maintain focus, composure, and cognitive function even during extended periods of activity. This physical resilience directly translates into better stress management, as a fit body can better handle the physiological spikes in adrenaline and cortisol that accompany stressful situations.

Moreover, physical fitness improves performance under stress by fostering a robust stress response system. Fit individuals tend to have lower resting heart rates and more efficient cardiovascular systems to quickly recover from stressors. This rapid recovery is essential in high-pressure scenarios, such as spotting game, where maintaining steady hands and clear thinking is critical. 

By incorporating regular physical training into their routines, hunters can develop the resilience and interoceptive skills necessary to manage buck fever effectively, transforming the physiological arousal of the hunt from a hindrance into a performance-enhancing asset.


Interoception is the ability to sense and interpret internal bodily signals. It’s our ability to answer the question, “How do I feel?”

This skill is vital for hunters as it helps them manage physiological responses to stress, such as those experienced during buck fever.

In one study, researchers sorted people based on resilient personality traits. Then, they underwent brain scans during a stress-inducing experience: restricted breathing.

Those in the low resiliency group showed lower attention to their bodily signals. When they were warned that their breathing might be restricted soon, they were less adept at anticipating what that would feel like. This lack of anticipation led to a disoriented state once their breathing was compromised, with their brains scrambling to catch up and make sense of what was happening.

More resilient people had higher levels of awareness of their internal states. They were better at anticipating what an uncomfortable experience would feel like. Their brains had less work to do when challenged because they weren't caught off guard. What they felt in the moment matched how they'd expected to feel. The physiological feedback caused by restricted breathing didn't throw them off balance. 

This highlights the importance of awareness and mindfulness during training and of incorporating physical training into preparation for hunting. 

The more we pay attention to what's happening in our bodies, the better we can calibrate our internal sense of exertion and develop "non-judgmental self-awareness," or the ability to feel and accept the sensations of physical stress without emotionally reacting to them.

Developing Interoception:

  1. Mindfulness Practices: Meditation and mindful breathing (including paying attention to one’s breathing during exercise) can enhance interoceptive awareness. By regularly practicing mindfulness, hunters become more attuned to their internal states and better equipped to manage stress.

  2. Body Scans: Performing body scans involves mentally checking in with different body areas to notice sensations without judgment. This practice helps hunters identify areas of tension or discomfort and address them proactively.

  3. Physical Training: Doing physical activities that challenge the body, such as strength training or endurance exercises, can improve interoception. Hunters learn to recognize how their bodies respond to exertion, adjust their actions accordingly, and feel more comfortable with physical stress sensations.

Benefits of Interoception:

  1. Improved Stress Management: Hunters who develop strong interoceptive skills can better anticipate and manage stress responses, leading to more composed and effective performance in high-pressure situations.

  2. Enhanced Decision-Making: Hunters can make better immediate decisions by accurately interpreting internal signals. This includes knowing when to take a shot, when to wait, and how to adjust their technique based on their physical state.

  3. Increased Resilience: Resilient hunters can remain calm and focused despite physical discomfort. Interoception helps them recognize and accept the sensations of stress without becoming overwhelmed, allowing them to maintain performance under pressure.

Stress Mindset

A final, critical component of managing buck fever and performing under stress is cultivating a healthy stress mindset. Research has shown that how we perceive stress profoundly impacts our performance and resilience. 

Viewing stress as a challenge rather than a threat can significantly enhance our ability to cope with high-pressure situations. This mindset shift helps to harness the body's stress response, channeling the adrenaline surge into focused energy and heightened awareness rather than panic and degradation of skills.

This is the difference between interpreting the sensations of a big stress response as “I’m excited” rather than “I’m stressed.” 

Being excited means that your body is preparing you to meet a challenge. Being stressed means that you’re facing a potentially overwhelming threat. This significantly affects our stress response, physical ability, and cognitive function during an intense situation.

Developing a positive stress mindset involves recognizing stress as an opportunity for growth and improvement. This perspective encourages us to embrace challenging situations, understanding that they push us to refine our skills and build resilience. In the context of hunting, this means seeing the excitement and adrenaline of spotting game as tools to sharpen your focus and precision.

By viewing stress as an ally rather than an enemy, you can maintain composure, make sound decisions, and execute your skills effectively, even in the heat of the moment. This shift in perspective, combined with deliberate practice, physical fitness, and stress inoculation training, ensures that you're not just prepared to face buck fever but can thrive under its pressure.


Buck fever is a natural response to the excitement and stress of hunting, but it doesn't have to be a hunter's downfall. By incorporating these concepts, hunters can build the resilience and composure needed to perform effectively in the field.

Through thoughtful and consistent training, hunters can transform the adrenaline surge of spotting game from a hindrance into an asset. They learn to harness their physiological responses, maintain focus, and execute their skills precisely. This comprehensive approach ensures that when the moment of truth arrives, you’re prepared to get things right and perform flawlessly under pressure.

Ultimately, the goal is to train so thoroughly that the stress response becomes a background rather than a barrier. By integrating these training strategies, hunters can overcome buck fever and succeed in their pursuits, enjoying the thrill of the hunt without being sidelined by the adrenaline rush.


Craig Weller is a former USN SWCC (Special Warfare Combatant Crewman). He is also certified under the Department of State’s Worldwide Personal Protective Service-2 and spent nearly two years on the High-Threat Protection team for the U.S. Ambassador to Baghdad in Iraq. 

In Special Operations and subsequent private deployments, Craig held instructional and diplomatic security roles in Kenya, the Philippines, Central America, South Sudan, and Iraq.

He co-founded Building the Elite, which provides coaching and mentorship to active and aspiring special operators, law enforcement officers, and first responders worldwide. Go to their website to learn about Building the Elite’s training online programs and 500+ page textbook, available in Kindle and print versions and covers the full spectrum of human performance, from physical training to the mental and emotional factors that produce highly capable, resilient special operators. 

Craig and his colleagues have just launched a new company, Basecamp Kitchen. They make nutrient-dense, high-protein, instant meals from whole foods to help people get delicious meals on the go and support mental and physical performance during long days. 

Want to hear more from Craig? Check out Silvercore Podcast Episode 132 where host Travis Bader and Craig Weller discuss the secrets behind his training program that boasts an astonishing 90% success rate, and learn how to achieve peak mental, physical, and emotional performance. Whether you're an aspiring special operator, an outdoor enthusiast, or someone looking to overcome personal challenges, this episode is packed with insights and inspiration. 

Related Posts

View all Posts
  • Training to Prevent “Buck Fever”

    Read more
  • How to Get a Gun in Canada | Silvercore Outdoors

    Read more
  • How to Store, Transport, and Display your Firearms

    Read more
  • Bear Stew with wild BC morels and black garlic

    Read more