The Olympic sport of shooting is defined by control. And at the core of that control lies the act of breathing. A rudimentary act, and done carelessly, but enter the world of shooting and suddenly, breathing ‘correctly’ is everything. Breathe from your chest routinely, and lose control of your shot. Breathe from your stomach, and miraculously even the anxiety of competition finds it tough to breach mental barriers. Breathing defines an athlete in most sports, but takes a special place in shooting.
At the ongoing shooting World Championships in Cairo, the International Shooting Sport Federation (ISSF) has its first real test of a set of rule changes across different Olympic events in shooting. While most of those rule changes are aimed at making the sport more broadcaster friendly, some of them have essentially changed the essence of the sport, in particular the 50m rifle three-position. And at the crux of that change, lies an athlete’s breathing. In particular, their ability to maintain a steady, calm rhythm of breathing as they navigate a new changeover time scenario where everything must go to plan so that their breathing is within their control at the start of their event.
Nikhil Latey, a physiotherapist and sport scientist who has worked with shooters and athletes from different sports in the past, says that there are two basic tenets of breathing that make for a good shooter.
“The first thing shooters have to do is to breathe from their belly, the diaphragm. That does two things – one, you use fewer muscles. You are getting more air per breath and you breathe less number of times. And the amount of stress on your body comes down.
“Secondly, shooters tend to hold their breath for 30-35 seconds when shooting and this is achieved through training. You can’t hold your breath when your lungs are full of air since that creates pressure. That further increases anxiety levels which further increases the need to breathe. If you’re taking 30 seconds to shoot, you are now distracted by the fact that you need to take a breath again,” explained Latey to the Indian Express.
Why has breathing suddenly gained importance in three-position shooting?
Indian 50m rifle three position shooter Anjum Moudgil has seen many iterations of her sport. She came into shooting when men and women were supposed to take a different number of shots over kneeling, prone and standing. Then the rules changed in 2018 and women were also asked to take the same number of shots as men. And now, at the start of this Olympic cycle, the event has taken yet another turn and transitioned to a sixty-shot finale with ranking series elimination and a final shootout.
Known as the marathon of shooting, the 50m rifle 3P event used to be 120 shots, across three positions of kneeling, prone and standing over two hours and 45 minutes. Now, the event has been reduced to 60 shots per shooter, 20 in each position. The shooter has to hit these 60 shots in 90 minutes now.
The reduction in time has meant that there is a reduction in changeover times for the shooters as well. What used to be a seven-minute changeover time has been reduced by a minute. But that loss of one minute has been a major aspect of training for the Indian 50m shooters at the national camp before the World Championships.
“Athletes now have to practice transitioning from one position to another in a set time. Earlier more time used to be given to change your gear between the three events. Now, athletes have to change 10 different moving parts for one event, and then make six new changes for another event. All this while, they’ve to keep their heartbeat steady. It’s like asking Usain Bolt to run a sub-10 second 100m sprint but with a low heart rate,” says 50m national coach Joydeep Karmakar, who finished fourth at the event in the 2012 London Olympics.
Anjum Moudgil detailed her six-minute changeover from kneeling to prone position to the Indian Express. It starts with the heavy shooting jacket and trouser, all strapped onto her at different levels of settings, having to be removed. Then she has to pick her rifle up, and place it on a table. From there, she has to take out and keep aside all her ammunition as well as the rifle stand from her box. She then begins to adjust her rifle settings, starting with the butt of the rifle, and then the cheek positions. The sights are then changed, specifically for prone and then she tinkers with the setting of her rifle here and there until the perfect combination clicks are reached.
The prepped weapon is then kept back on the table, the shooting jacket is then put on and Anjum moves to her shooting lane and takes position. There she has to take anywhere between five to 15 shots to test the settings of her weapon. She has to do all of this while maintaining the same level of breathing. This process has been meticulously written down in her diary. It has been achieved after continuous hours spent on ranges in India and then perfected over tournaments across the world. Ask her how many adjustments she has to make to her rifle and pat comes the reply, ‘six’.
While memorising and perfecting her seven-minute changeover allows for a smooth transition to her next event, the loss of a minute in that process can disrupt the flow and steady breathing of the shooter. This is 15% of time for a regimented process that has suddenly been chopped away. Miss a slight process during the changeover and panic ensues. The extra effort and anxiety that comes with a shortened time can end up affecting the shooting scores of the athlete. There is also the scope for missing a process and making a mistake.
“At the Baku World Cup, I had to remove a component when changing from prone to standing but that went unnoticed. Once I took position and started aiming, that’s when I realised the sights were up and down. I had to immediately come back and once you’re wearing your shooting trousers and jacket again, its not possible to really bend down.
“Things like that only take a minute but it was an important minute because I had to then set my rifle again and things like that can happen to any shooter anywhere,” said Moudgil from New Delhi, a few days before leaving for the World Championships.
It isn’t just the changeover times that have affected breathing. 120 shots in just under three hours meant that the 50m rifle 3P event was a test of endurance. Earlier Indian shooters would train for a leg going numb in the middle of the competition, or would have to deal with a sore thumb while shooting. The focus of shooting was constantly disrupted. Now, that focus has been re-jigged towards other crucial aspects.
“We used to train for 60 shots, so we could have an easier time hitting 40 in competition. Now that that has become 20 shots, we can focus on different matters like our breathing pattern, or our triggering and our follow-through,” said Moudgil.
The 50m rifle 3P event is one where India is expecting to win quotas. Karmakar and Moudgil’s objective though, is a lot lesser. Keep the breathing under check and qualify for the final first.