Mind over body

Research suggests you could boost your scores by ten per cent with some simple breathing exercises.

Just imagine for a moment that you could improve your competition scores by around ten per cent at a stroke. There’s no need for extra practice or coaching, no messing around with chokes and cartridges or tweaking your gun fit. Just spend a few minutes each day breathing in and out, in time with an app on your phone, and you could add 10 targets to your usual score out of 100.

Sounds too good to be true doesn’t it? And yet that’s the clear, unequivocal result from a scientific study by PhD student and shooter Seren Evans, who carried out the research in the final year of her BSc at Bangor University, in 2018.

She worked with Olympic Trap shooters at Fauxdegla Shooting Ground in north Wales – and her three ‘guinea pigs’ improved their performance on average by 2.7 clays per round of 25.

Seren emphasises that this is a preliminary study with a small sample – but the results were very positive and point the way to further research. Indeed, it’s something you could try for yourself easily, using a free phone app. You’ve nothing to lose, it could improve your scores… so why not?

Looking for a different way to improve your shooting? Then try managing your breathing

So how does it work? Seren explains that it’s all about heart rate. When we’re stressed or under  pressure, our heart rate increases – it’s the ‘fight or flight’ response which helped ensure our ancestors didn’t all end up as a snack for sabre-toothed tigers. Trouble is, evolution couldn’t foresee the requirements of modern life, so nowadays that response can make us more stressed at work, or undermine our performance at a clay competition.

A certain amount of ‘competition nerves’ can help your performance. You become sharper and more focused, and reactions improve. But for most of  us, it doesn’t stop there. As your turn to shoot approaches stress levels build, your heart rate continues to rise, and performance suffers. Your body is actually working against you.

PhD student Seren Evans, who carried out the research, enjoys a round of Sporting

The key to Seren’s research, then, is controlling your heart rate. There is plenty of scientific evidence to show that athletes can learn to control their heart rate. By doing so, they reduce stress and anxiety levels, and improve their performance, particularly in competition when the pressure is on.

The obvious way to do it is to connect the athlete up to a monitor so they can see their heart rate in real time, a technique known as biofeedback. With guidance and practice, they learn how to lower the rate by mind over body, allowing them to control the heart in the stress of competition.

Research has shown, though, that you can get the same effect without even knowing your heart rate, simply by following a controlled pattern of breathing. That opens up the possibility of lowering your heart rate in competition just with breathing exercises, with no need for intrusive wires, sensors or anything else to monitor.

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