Clare Egan, an American biathlete, talked about the multiple techniques used to manage the stress of the transition from skiing to target shooting. Adam Pretty/Getty Images
PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Race across the snow on skis as fast as you can. Now stop and shoot a target the size of an Oreo about 54 yards away. If you miss, you’ll ski penalty laps before you are allowed to race to the next set of targets.
Most of us will never try the biathlon, a uniquely stressful sport that demands both physical intensity and emotional calm. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it. Talking to an Olympic biathlete about how she trains for competition can offer a life lesson in managing stress and dialing back intensity and aggression in an instant.
“The physical things are difficult — using all your muscles and pumping your heart as fast as you can,” says Clare Egan, a 30-year-old from Cape Elizabeth, Me. who lives and trains in Lake Placid, N.Y. “But the mental piece is the biggest challenge of biathlon.”
Egan, who competes this week in the team relay event at the Pyeongchang Olympics in South Korea, has had plenty of practice with stress at these Games. She has missed seven of 30 targets over two races, though even the best biathletes have races where the aim just isn’t there. I spoke with Egan as well as a sports psychologist, Sean McCann, who works with biathletes on the United States team, about the mental challenges of biathlon and what the rest of us can learn from the sport. Bottom line, it’s all about preparation, knowing that you are entering a stressful situation and figuring out ahead of time how you are going to deal with it.
Here’s what they had to say.
Be prepared. Egan starts managing the stress of the event well before she starts a race. She always skis the course in the days leading up to the race so there are no surprises. She identifies physical markers — a tree or a flagpole — that will help her recognize that she’s near the shooting range. It’s a small but important step in reducing the stress of competition. “That is going to be a reminder to me that I need to switch from ski mode to shooting mode,” she says.
Exhale slowly. Studies have shown that controlled breathing, even when you’re not competing in the Olympics, helps to both reduce stress and increase alertness. McCann works with Egan and other biathletes on their breathing technique to help them calm themselves slightly in the few seconds they have to switch from racing mode to shooting mode. While their heart rate remains high, mindful breathing helps them slow it just enough to complete the target portion of the competition.
“If you’ve ever tried to slam the brakes on your breathing, it’s pretty hard to do,” says McCann. “One of the ways you can change the rhythm of your breathing is to slow the exhale. It takes some practice, but if you slow the exhale, the inhale will take care of itself. It’s one way to go from a rapid in-and-out to slower breathing.”
Be mindful. Being fully aware of the challenges around you is an important step in managing any stressful situation. About 30 seconds before she gets to the shooting range, Egan looks at the wind flags and thinks about how she might adjust. She begins to slow her breathing. She gets to the range and positions herself on the mat, eyeing her targets.
“The next 15 seconds are the ones where I have to be extremely mindful,” she says. “I have this task I’ve done thousands of times that I’m trying to repeat. I know that I’m going to have distractions. The person next to me hit all of the targets. The fans are screaming. The person on the loudspeaker says, ‘Here’s Clare Egan from the U.S.A. Let’s see if she can hold it together.’”
Mindfulness practices have taught her to accept the distractions.
“For shooting, you need to remove any kind of emotion from what you’re doing,” she says. “There’s my target, here’s my trigger, this is my process, now I’m going to make the shot.”
Focus on the task, not the results. One of the most vulnerable moments is when a biathlete has hit four targets and is about to take the last shot. “‘If I hit this, I’ll win the gold medal’ — as soon as you have that thought, you’re definitely going to miss it,” Egan says. “That extra push or desire to win is not only not helpful, it’s counterproductive. You have to eliminate that from your mind and focus on the task.
Just ask Martin Fourcade, the world’s top biathlete, who missed the shot that would have guaranteed him the gold medal in the final round of shooting in the 15-kilometer mass start race on Sunday. Being Fourcade, he won anyway in a photo finish, but hitting one more target would have made his triumph a whole lot easier.
Egan says her strategy is to replace goal-oriented thoughts (“I have to hit this last shot”) with cue words that help her focus on the things that will get the job done. Words like form, breathing, trigger and follow-through. “You have to eliminate all of that noise in your mind,” Egan says. “I have to use some kind of process-oriented word about how to shoot well.”
“Even if you’ve only done mini-golf, you can understand the concept of following through,” she says.
Compete against yourself, nobody else. “If you’ve ever been to a biathlon race, you get to the last shooting stage and so many people are missing — the pressure is on,” Egan says. “Even the best athletes in the world are subject to the last-stage meltdowns.”
The key to biathlon is focusing on your own process and tasks and not being distracted by the potential outcome or how others are performing. “I think that is a principle that applies to really everything,” Egan says. “I think such a big part of this is focusing on what you are doing. You have to let go of how everyone else is doing, and focus on your own work.”
“If you can do that,” she adds, “you’re going to have a performance you can be proud of, whether it’s giving a presentation at work or a piano recital or biathlon.”