Saturday, 19 April 2014

Mindfulness for rifle shooters

You might think shooting to be a very unlikely sport for a yoga and meditation teacher, but there's been a very strong connection between the two in my life.

Back when I was at university, I was quite seriously into shooting – the variety where you're lying on your front with a target rifle, shooting at paper targets. I started off with an air rifle, then at university shooting .22 calibre (small-bore) rifles at distances of 25-50m, then quickly found it much more fun to shoot outdoors at targets between 300-900m away using 7.62mm (full-bore) rifles.

I remember reading a training manual just as I was getting going with it all, and it suggested that having a body-movement practice such as Alexander Technique, yoga, or Pilates would be extremely beneficial (as I've written about before). Target shooting is a surprisingly meditative sport, involving steadiness of the body, control of the breath, and a strong emphasis on rhythm and repetition – it was good advice!

So that's what got me into yoga in the first place.

And what goes around often comes around – last weekend I went down at the famous Bisley ranges in Surrey to give a workshop on mindfulness to the Great Britain full-bore rifle team.

Bisley range 600yds

GB rifle team in Australia 2011

To me, the application of mindfulness in shooting is obvious, and potentially incredibly useful. It can help us to stay focussed on the present moment and not worrying about the outcome of any shot; it can help develop the focus and concentration needed to perform; it can teach us how to enter that elusive flow state (or "the zone"; see my previous blog article on flow here); and it can help us manage the stress of a competition.

Millennia of evolution have hard-wired us humans to react to danger and stress in a very specific way. If we're walking in the hills and come across a wolf, or beating our way through the jungle and come across a tiger, the body responds by preparing us to either fight or run away (or sometimes to freeze/play dead). This is the famous fight or flight response.

The thing is, it doesn't matter whether it's something small (like missing the bus), something imagined (like being scared of the monster under the bed), or something big (like slipping off a cliff) – we react the same. The body diverts energy from our non-essential systems such as digestion and reproduction to our muscles, and releases adrenaline and cortisol (and other hormones) to help boost our energy, deal with possible inflammation and damage, and focus our concentration.

In an active sport, running around or shouting can provide a good way of releasing all the extra energy and adrenaline that comes as a result of this stress response. However, in shooting you have to find a way to deal with it in a different way – there's no physical outlet. And that's where mindfulness can really help.

Now, traditional sports psychology approaches such as goal setting, positive self-talk, or visualisation all aim to optimise performance by controlling the internal, mental factors that affect performance. They're control-based techniques. However, despite their wide-spread use and popularity, research has found (at best) inconsistent results for these approaches.

In recent years there have been a number of suggestions in the scientific literature (e.g. Gardner and Moore 2004) saying that "rather than trying to control internal phenomena, it's better for athletes to develop skills in present-moment awareness and acceptance."

"[These] control-based approaches may inadvertently result in excessive cognitive brain activity [that] prevent you from automatically engaging your previously developed athletic skills, to appropriately respond to environmental cues, and to maintain task-relevant focus."

And sports coaches often talk about the importance of being in the present moment, focussing on process rather than outcome, letting go of the uncontrollable, significance of letting go of memories of shots, staying in the present, accepting whatever happens without judgment, looking for rhythm in the game, etc, etc.

All these things precisely describe the practice of mindfulness! As opposed to control, mindfulness is a "letting-go-based technique".

As I always say to people, mindfulness isn't something alien to us. We are all mindful, to a lesser or greater extent, every day. The thing is, not everyone is aware how useful it is to be mindful. And once you realise it's effectiveness, how can we then learn how to be more mindful?

What I teach are tried and tested techniques for learning how to become more mindful. A nice, simple, and accessible place to start is by practising this short 3-minute meditation. Try doing it every day (or more) and you'll soon start feeling the benefits. That's what I suggested to the shooting team, so we'll see how they get on!

And if you end up using this 3-minute meditation, let me know how you get on by commenting below.


  1. Get in touch with Mariette Jansen, one of the most popular names when it comes to learning Mindfulness in Surrey