To an observer, there is nothing exciting about a 10 metre air rifle shooting event. A person with an air rifle tries to hit bull’s eye on a target ten metres away. That’s it.
So you’re unlikely to think that air rifle shooting needs strenuous work-outs. Why should it? But you’re wrong. It turns out that shooting is a difficult sport to train for. Abhinav Bindra, India’s first individual Olympic gold medallist in the sport, tells us why.
Small is stable
“Shooting is a sport with very specific physical demands,” says Bindra. This means no bulky muscles. “Big muscles are meant for big movements,” he explains. “But shooting is extremely precise and needs very small movements.
Physiologically, the hands of very muscular people tremble much more than those of lean people. So if you build a lot of muscle, there’s a lot more tremor. You don’t want that.”
So Bindra concentrates on something known as ‘static stability’. “It’s very hard to work on. It means that I have to train to be absolutely still.”
Shooters also need to have a very fit cardiovascular system. The heart can’t beat fast out of nervousness or excitement. At the same time, as this is a reaction-oriented sport, you don’t want your heart-rate to be very low either.
“Before the Olympics,” says Bindra, “I used a biofeedback programme to detect my optimum state between being muscularly relaxed but also having a sharp enough reaction time to trigger at the right moment. I must have spent about 200 hours on that.”
Every day, Bindra does an hour of cardio training and an hour of jogging in a swimming pool. Then it’s six hours of target-practice – balance, posture-correction, aiming and triggering.
In shooting, there is no margin for error. “One little mistake and you’re out,” says Bindra. “You have to be focused, you have to be in the moment. In that sense, it is a very mental sport.”
So he is focused even in the gym. “I have to get the right muscles to activate when I’m exercising. So I use sophisticated neuro-feedback systems where I attach sensors to various muscles to see how much they are firing.”
Electrodes that are attached to Bindra’s fingertips plot a graph of his concentration levels on a computer screen in front of him. This tells him if he is focusing on a certain task enough and helps him make improvements accordingly.
When a shooter participates in a competition, there’s an adrenaline rush, the muscles tense and the heart rate shoots up. “This is where training kicks in. I get nervous but I don’t try to defy it. I try to be patient, take deep breaths and work my way through the situation. If I fight it, it gets worse.”
Muscles are not the only definition of fitness, says Bindra. “Real fitness is a combination of a healthy body and a healthy mind.”
Participating in any sporting event requires dealing with a tremendous amount of pressure. It’s a skill that needs to be specially developed. Here are a few tips for honing your concentration, by Vikram Agashe, former mind coach to Abhinav Bindra.
Breathing: Breathing is a bridge between the mind and the body. When you are focused, your breathing is calm and even. When you are agitated, the breathing becomes uneven and shallow. So control your mind by controlling your breathing. “Practice breathing all the way down from the stomach,” says Agashe. “When you are aware of your breathing, you are aware of everything.”
Self-talk: Done right, talking to yourself will help you stay focused on the task at hand. “Think of the situation you have to handle, anticipate your thought process and plan what you will say to yourself,” says Agashe. Formulate replies to negative thoughts like, ‘What will happen if I fail? What if I can’t do it?’ and say them aloud (or in your mind) at the moment of pressure. Talk to yourself whenever you are faced with a crisis.
Visualisation: Close your eyes and visualise the process that will help you to reach your goal. “For instance, in the context of rifle shooting,” says Agashe, “Start from the moment you enter the shooting range. Visualise yourself picking up the rifle, the feel of it on your shoulder and your finger squeezing the trigger.” However, do not visualise yourself hitting the target and winning the medal as you will then focus on the result and not the process. You can apply this technique to any situation in your life.