There’s very little that we do in sports or other physical activity where controlled breathing doesn’t help – and shooting is no exception.
Chances are if you’re reading this, then you’re probably breathing. It’s not something that you have to think about (Thanks autonomic nervous system!) but the ‘control’ part of it comes into play when engaging in specific activities like sports or anything else that requires physical exertion. As a rule, we’re normally taught to exhale during execution. That would include everything from heavy lifting, to swinging a bat to throwing a ball or a punch. This helps to release tension from the body and to focus our energy, in an effort to generate power and fluid movement
When it comes to shooting, we’re not going for physical power so much as we are for the other benefits of proper breathing. These would include decreased stress and muscle tension, reduced fatigue, sharpened mental focus and improved visual acuity. All of these elements ideally lead to more accurate and consistent targeting, no matter what you’re shooting at. Optimal oxygenation and mindful breathing allows you to have better control over your body’s movements and your firing technique.
A good example of how controlled breathing works would be in the sport of biathlon. Competitive
athletes cross country ski at a high level of effort and then are expected to stop quickly and shoot targets (both standing & prone) accurately in order to avoid penalty laps. You can imagine how difficult it would be, with your heart pounding and your muscles tense, to control yourself enough to perform well. Luckily, this can be achieved with some mental discipline and purposeful breathing techniques. This obviously takes a great deal of skill and experience to master, but the same principles can be applied to the average shooter. By breathing deeply (with proper timing) and consciously calming yourself, you’ll likely find that your accuracy and consistency will improve.
There’s a good reason for the common saying ‘ Take a deep breath’ in stressful situations or where concentration is necessary.
The Downside of Poor Breathing
It’s quite common for participants in various sports to hold their breath while executing – and the act of ‘forgetting to breathe’ can have a negative effect on performance in a variety of ways. If breathing is too shallow in shooters for instance (upper chest only without the diaphragm), the full benefit of the oxygenated air for your body isn’t fully realized and it’s more difficult to create a timed gap for your shot due to the constant movement. Shallow breaths do have some benefit as relief though if your shot gets delayed. On the other hand, holding completely full or empty lungs for any extended period can cause increased tension within your body and an elevation in heart rate. Neither of these outcomes will be very helpful if you really need to make your shots count.
The Respiratory Pause
In shooting terms, this is the optimal time to pull the trigger. There is a natural respiratory pause between exhaling and inhaling that experts say is when your body is the most relaxed and stable. Breathing deeply is important, but it is not enough. You need to be highly aware of the rhythm of your respiratory cycle and know when the timing is right. Keep in mind though that this is a small window of opportunity. At a maximum you’re probably looking at between 8 – 10 seconds before your body starts to react. This timeframe can be longer for highly trained athletes with greater levels of fitness.
As far as the process goes, it’s important to inhale deeply while engaging the lower abdomen in doing
so. Hold this for a few seconds to promote calm and to take full advantage of the oxygen. Then exhale completely, without actually forcing the last bit of air out of your lungs (which can cause tension). There is a saying that if you can slow down your exhale, then the inhale will take care of itself. Some competition formats don’t always allow the luxury of controlled pauses, but this should be your default in most cases. Also be aware of your shot follow-through and the need to avoid jerking the trigger or rushing after your shot.
It’s Also a Mental Game
With most any high-performance athlete, the psychology of preparation and execution is key to optimal performance. The same can be said for shooting when it really counts. Obviously it isn’t the end of the world if you don’t get your grouping as tight as you’d like at the range, but if you’re competing or have a challenging shot to make while hunting, then it matters more. The ability to calm your mind and body during a challenge is critical in these situations – to almost visualize the air (and the tension) leaving your body as you exhale. It’s also important to focus on the task and not the results. Putting additional mental pressure on yourself by dwelling on ‘What if I miss?’ doesn’t help. If you can eliminate the external ‘noise’ and compartmentalize your thoughts, then you’ll have a better chance of success.
Proper breathing technique should be something that you practice just like any other aspect of your shooting routine. It can definitely help to work with an experienced instructor to get some tips and insight. This will likely take some trial-&-error to get it right, but the results are worth it.
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