How Indian shooting is turning to data analysis to return to the Olympic podium

Bhopal: Team India at the shooting World Cup followed a routine.

At the firing line, the shooters would do their thing. A few yards behind them, the coaches hawkishly watched every shot, every movement, making tiny interventions when necessary. And behind the coaches, a bespectacled, grey-haired man walked around with a thick file in his hand. It is a dossier on every Indian shooter: their competition analysis, respiration rates, skin temperature, muscle tension, heart rates and even their wellness and nutrition data. “I am looking for numbers in everything,” says Dr Pierre Beauchamp, Indian shooting’s High-Performance Director.

In a sport of decimals, India has turned to a numbers man. Beauchamp has played ice hockey and coached teams. He’s worked with footballers and golfers, speed skaters and skiers. And his philosophies have been applied by the US Navy Seals and scientists at NASA.

It might not be rocket science but the septuagenarian is handed a task which seems no less tough: to return among medals at the Olympics in shooting, a sport where Indians finished on the podium at three back-to-back games between 2004 and 2012. “I knew what I was coming into. I have worked here before,” he says, referring to his brief stints with Abhinav Bindra and Heena Sidhu a decade ago.

A lot has changed in a decade and despite the emergence of an army of gun-toting teenagers as well as heavy funding, medals eluded India at the Olympics. For Beauchamp, the resurgence is all about data, data and data. “I am heavily interested in data analytics,” Beauchamp, who joined the Indian team last April, says. “We are looking to get into data management and converting data into usable information for coaches and athletes.”

Early into the conversation, the Canadian rattles off a couple of revealing numbers. At the Bhopal World Cup, India finished second behind China in the overall tally – winning seven medals compared to China’s 12, but the Chinese won 8 out of the 10 gold medals on offer, seven more than the hosts.

But Beauchamp isn’t obsessed with these figures. “We were concentrating on qualification-to-podium finishes data… how many athletes qualify for the final and how many end up on the podium. In Cairo we were at 50 per cent; here, it was 84 per cent. So that was an improvement,” he says.

At a home World Cup, and in a depleted field, this stat comes with a caveat. And so, unlike the past World Cups where every medal was celebrated with the same fanfare as the World Championship or Olympics, Beauchamp isn’t overly excited with the seven podium finishes. He is conscious that his task is just getting started.

“In the high-performance programme, we normally have 30 people in a department in each sport. Here, we were starting from scratch. So that makes it difficult. I work as a team with Raninder Singh. We are trying to develop new ideas, new interventions,” Beauchamp says.

Ideas from golf

Some ideas, like the shot cycle routines, have been borrowed from golf, where he’s worked with the PGA Tour, the Canadian Tour and Canada’s national team. “You analyse the pre-shot, execution, follow-through and loading phases. You look at the times involved in those phases, then you look at the breath cycle and the time of triggering. You put all that together and you get an individualised shot cycle report. That serves as a blueprint for coaches and athletes,” he says.

Throughout this week, Beauchamp has been focusing on the execution phase, trying to understand the time taken by a shooter for their best shots. “So if they are normally taking 14 seconds to shoot 10.8s and 10.9s, that’s their signature best time. You look at other times when they are shooting in 10 seconds, 8 seconds. Why did they rush those shots? Then, you need to look at the breathing patterns and heart rate. We do that not in competition but off-site. I have built physiological software to measure all of that. So we know exactly what the shot-cycle signature is for each athlete for the best triggering.”

This is in addition to monitoring the heart rates, skin temperature, respiration rate and breathing pattern during a match, details that the likes of Bindra relied on to reach their best. After each match, all these parameters are scrutinised jointly by the shooters, coaches and the high-performance director.

It’s the kind of data analysis that hasn’t been attempted in Indian shooting before, at least not for the whole team together. And some in the federation believe this could be the missing piece in the jigsaw. “We have some of the most talented shooters in the world and we have tried different strategies in the past to prepare for major tournaments. But there has never been proper planning and use of data, which can help us in making important decisions,” a National Rifle Association of India official says.

Bindra, the mentor

While Beauchamp is setting up a high-performance unit and doing the number crunching, he has turned to his former ward Bindra to mentor young shooters. Beauchamp hasn’t asked a lot from the Beijing Olympics gold medallist; just to take time off his busy schedule, spend a day with the shooters and guide them.

Rudrankksh Patil, who became the first Indian since Bindra to become the 10m air rifle world champion, has been one of his first mentees. “Abhinav has been so very gracious,” Beauchamp said. “He has offered to be a mentor for some of our athletes. We have already sent some of our athletes to Abhinav – Rudrankksh has had a day with him already. He has talked with them and spent time with them, and we will ask Abhinav to do more mentoring and as performance advisor to myself.”

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