Biathletes’ Tips for Managing Stress

From the Headmaster's Desk, February 28, 2018

Last week I spoke about the Winter Olympics and inspiration that we can derive from them. As these games come to an end, I wanted to take inspiration from what is, by far, my favourite Olympic sport:  the biathlon.

I love the biathlon because it is the ultimate combination of an intense aerobic sport – like running, cycling or swimming, although in this case it is cross-country skiing – with an incredibly high level of skill: shooting a rifle.  Such a combination, that requires careful skill and precision, as well as extreme aerobic exertion, is rare.

In case you don’t know, the biathlon is where you race on cross-country skis as fast as you can.  Then you stop and shoot at a target the size of a digestive biscuit that is 50 meters away.  If you miss, you have to ski penalty laps before you resume racing.  Oh, and you have to carry your gun on your back as you race with skis.

I read an interview with some of the best biathletes from the Olympics, and they talked about how stressful their event is: you race so hard that your heart is beating close to 200 beats per minute, then you have to hold a rifle steady and shoot.  It is seriously stressful.

Here is a clip of Martin Fourcade, a Frenchman, who is the most successful French winter Olympian of all time.  He has seven Olympic medals and five golds, including three at these winter games.

In this clip he is narrowly leading a German rival as he comes into the last shooting.  Imagine the pressure – you’ve just been sprinting as fast as you can on skis, your rival is right next to you, and if you nail these five shots then you will win a gold medal.  If you miss, well, you let your whole country down.

Given that we’re thinking about pressure and stress this term, I thought we should consider what we can learn from the biathletes.  Here are a few pointers from Olympic biathletes, which might help us manage stress in our own lives.

The first bit of advice is to be prepared.  You can manage the stress of an event before it even starts.  Olympic biathletes ski the course on the days before the race so that they know it and there are no surprises.  They identify markers or signposts that let them know how far they are into the race, particularly when they are coming to the shooting range.  They visualise the race and are ready for different scenarios, so the real thing is less stressful because they have already imagined experiencing it.

The second bit of advice is to exhale slowly.  Controlling your breathing, even if you’re not in the Olympics, helps to reduce stress and increase alertness.  Biathletes use controlled breathing techniques that help to calm themselves as they switch from sprinting on skis to holding their rifle still and aiming at the target.  Their main trick is to exhale slowly;  this calms you and moves you from rapid, rushed breathing to taking control of a stressful situation.

Next, biathletes are mindful.  By this I mean they focus on the task at hand.  One recounts that the situation is very stressful – you ski into a gun range, the person ahead of you just hit all their targets, the announcer says your name over the loudspeaker and makes a comment like, ‘Let’s see if this racer can hold it together’.  The fans are screaming and you could start wondering about a medal.  You have to expect all these distractions, be ready to block out all these distractions, and just focus on the task you’ve done a thousand times.  ‘There’s my target, here’s my trigger, this is my process, slowly exhale, and take the shot’.  It’s the same thing that rugby kickers do when they stand quietly before kicking a penalty – they are just blocking out distractions, and focussing on something they’ve done a thousand times.  A respectful stadium will be quiet so they have fewer distractions – but the kicker needs to focus, even if the stadium is booing and hissing.

And the fourth tip is similar:  one must also focus on the task at hand, rather than the outcome.  One biathlete says that you’re most vulnerable if you’ve hit four targets and you let yourself think:  if I hit this fifth one then I win the gold medal.  If you think this, then you’ll miss.  Just focus on the task.  There’s the target, here’s my trigger, this is my process, slowly exhale, take the shot.

Finally, compete against yourself, nobody else.  Biathletes say you must focus on your own process and tasks without worrying about how others are performing.  Let go of what everyone else is doing, and focus on your own work.

Thinking of that clip of the Frenchman holding his composure and making those final five shots we watched this morning is extraordinary; he made it look easy.  Some say he is the best in the world, but he also makes mistakes.  Earlier in the week he missed two of his final five shots, had to take two penalty laps, and then won gold in a photo finish.  It was very different from the relaxed finish you saw above.  So, bouncing back from failure is yet another lesson we can learn from the biathlon.

Have a very good week, look after each other and stay warm.  And if you’re stressed, take a deep breath and focus on just one step at a time.

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