Firstpost Masterclass: Olympian Suma Shirur explains the science behind 10m air rifle shooting

In this edition of Firstpost Masterclass, Suma Shirur explains the various technical and mental aspects of 10m air rifle shooting.

Shubham Pandey May 18, 2020 08:45:58 IST
Firstpost Masterclass: Olympian Suma Shirur explains the science behind 10m air rifle shooting

File image of Suma Shirur.

Editor's note: Professional sport is as much a scientific pursuit as it is a recreational wonder. What appears routinely mundane is a result of the hours spent honing the craft and deciphering the body mechanics till it becomes a monotonous muscle memory. In Firstpost Masterclass, our latest weekly series, we look at precisely these aspects that make sport a far more intriguing act than we know.

India has come a long distance in shooting. And has a long way to go. With young shooters emerging, India's future, surely, looks bright across different events. The rise in last few years has been rapid, but it all started with a handful of shooters working their way up two decades back. Among few of the stalwarts who took India to great heights in shooting is Suma Shirur, who won various medals across her lengthy career, in Asian Games and Commonwealth Games. She had also finished eighth in the final of the 2004 Olympics in 10m air rifle. Currently, Shirur is High Performance Specialist Coach of Junior Indian rifle shooting team, using her experience to polish young talent to put them on a global map.

Today, in Firstpost Masterclass, we have her speaking on technicalities of sport, science behind it and how art goes hand-in-hand with shooting among other things.

Tell us about your journey and how did you get into the sport?

I started shooting about twenty five years ago. My getting into the shooting was almost by accident. It was really just by chance. I have always been a sportsperson and I have always enjoyed sports in school, so I used to participate in every sporting activity, whether (it was) kabaddi, kho kho, badminton, table tennis, basketball. I just enjoyed it. After my 12th, I was doing my graduation in Chemistry, and unfortunately, there was no sport in college. That is why I joined NCC, hoping that they might have some activities (related to sports). In our very first training camp at NCC, (I discovered) they had rifle shooting. That was the first time I held a gun in hand. We had a small exercise. They gave us about five to ten shots to shoot.

In the very first go, I had a very small group on the target. At the end of the day, I kind of became a little hero in our group and then in college. People started thinking that she is good at shooting. Seniors guided me to a shooting range in Mumbai - Maharashtra Rifle Association. They told me I could go there and check out what shooting is all about. So, when I went there, that is when I got introduced to shooting. That is when I came to know that shooting is an Olympic sport. And that I could start training there. That is how I got into shooting. It was almost by chance.

Why did you choose 10m air file?

Actually, I started with 50m. When you are in NCC, you start with the .22 rifle. So I was initially a 50m shooter. As I started looking towards competitive shooting, and training for competitive shooting, that is when 10m air rifle was also introduced to me as another event. It happened to me much later. It happened after my 50m three positions training. And it was only before I started competing at the national championships. I pursued 10m longer than 50m. I have also represented India in several World Cups, and several competitions, as a 50m three positions shooter. I used to do both actually. But after I had my first kid, that is when I had to make a choice because the shooting range was two hours from my house.

I used to live in New Bombay and it was a two hours journey every day from my house. I actually travelled four hours every day for shooting. I did that for almost ten years of my life, all the way up till the Olympics. So, after my first kid, I had to make a choice. Because I could no longer travel so much. Even later, with my little one at home, I really could not afford to spend four hours travelling for my sport. So, that's when I decided that probably I should make a choice and instead of doing two events, I should rather do only one and give it all and get to the highest level. So, that is when I made that choice.

Firstpost Masterclass Olympian Suma Shirur explains the science behind 10m air rifle shooting

Indian shooter Suma Shirur takes aim during the final stages of the ten metre rifle section of India's 51st National Shooting Championship in 2008. AFP

Is it a norm to start with 50m and then take up 10m? One tougher than the other?

There is nothing easy or tough about say 50m or 10m events. Both actually complement each other. If you are a 50m shooter then I think your strength of the position and the feeling of your position actually helps you with the 10m. If you are pursuing 10m rifle shooting then the precision with which you are into the aiming and triggering that you need in 10m rifle shooting, that precision helps us with the 50m rifle event. So both events actually complement each other. I think it is always better to do both.

So when somebody is starting out, how do you get to know that the child is good in shooting and in which event?

It is very difficult at the initial stage to find out who is good at what. Shotgun ranges are completely different. Rifle and pistol are shot at the same range. And it is also a lot more popular because it is simply a lot more accessible. There are very, very few shotgun ranges. Shotgun shooters are shooters who have access to the range and they know someone who is a shotgun shooter. By and large, in our country, rifle and pistol shooting is more popular because there are a lot more ranges. We have a lot more 10m ranges in schools and colleges.

When it comes to deciding whether I am good at rifle or pistol, I think, generally, everyone starts with rifle shooting and then they decide whether they want to continue in rifle and then they switch to pistol. So most of the pistol shooters do know the basics of rifle. Otherwise, some shooters know by instinct that they want to do rifle or pistol.

Firstpost Masterclass Olympian Suma Shirur explains the science behind 10m air rifle shooting

India's Anjali Bhagwat (R) and teammate Suma Shirur pose with their air rifles after the women's 10-metre Air Rifle shooting event at the 14th Asian Games in Busan in 2002. AFP

There are small technicalities in the sport which matter a lot. Can you shed light on the techniques of air rifle shooting?

Technique is just one aspect of the whole game. I always say that to have a good performance, there are various aspects that give us a good performance. Technique is definitely one of them. The other aspect would be the equipment. See, shooting is a very, very technical sport. Whether we like it or not, we need to accept that good equipment makes a difference when it comes to performance. It is a technical sport and a lot of innovations keep happening across the world and we need to be abreast with technology. Also, our health and fitness. Apart from that, our psychological conditioning and environment at home and the range, all these elements together are responsible for helping us with a good sports performance.

When it comes to technique, there are a lot of aspects that are responsible for a good shot. To begin with, it is the outer position. That is the way you take the position. There is a lot of science involved in that. The most important thing is eye position where the position is generally based on your bone structure where you are using your bone structure as a load bearing framework. Once you learn the outer position, then it comes to the inner position. When it comes to inner position, it is about how you feel your muscle groups within this outer framework. You have to master your inner position. Once you have the inner position, then it comes to final aspects of the game which is aiming, triggering, and follow-through. This completes the entire journey of one single shot. Once you master this, after a certain level, then you can try out various things that will ensure strengthening of your command in a single shot.

Could you give some example to further explain the outer position and inner position?

When it comes to the outer position, if you have a look at the nationals, we have roughly 2,000 to 2,500 shooters in every event. Each shooter has a different outer position. The basic science is that the way you take your outer position in which the forces are balanced. The weight distribution of your foot, the way your hips are aligned, shoulders are aligned, the way your elbow is resting on your hip and the way you take your grip. This is everything what you see from the outside. Each shooter generally develops their own outer position. What is common is the inner position, the command that every shooter has in his or her inner position. They need to maintain it for a long time.

We have a 60-shot match. So, if I want to shoot 60 perfect shots, I need to repeat the same movement 60 times, in the same manner. So If I had to repeat something in the same manner 60 times, I must have a command over how I do it. There has to be a certain procedure with which I do it. So, I must have a command of single shot procedure. It is called a single shot routine. Once I had a command over a single shot routine, I will be able to repeat it 60 times.

Firstpost Masterclass Olympian Suma Shirur explains the science behind 10m air rifle shooting

File image of Suma Shirur.

Breathing is considered to be very important in shooting. Could you speak about that?

Breathing is another important aspect in your inner position. In fact, it is the breathing that creates a certain harmony in our shooting. It is our breathing pattern that eventually gives us enough air during our aiming and triggering. That is the time (aiming and triggering) when our lungs are empty, we have to completely exhale. Of course, there are many shooters, who inhale.

I would always say it is better to completely exhale. In your final phase of aiming and triggering, you need to have enough air. So your breathing cycle regulates shooting.

Did you use to exhale or inhale?

I used to exhale. When you exhale completely, it lowers your centre of gravity and it is the best state for shooting. When you completely exhale, you have that certain amount of time when you can hold on to that state. It varies from 3 seconds to four seconds. Some shooters have very good lung capacity. It could be seven to eight seconds also. It really depends on a shooter. That is the time in which you have a very smooth trigger release. And that gives us a good shot. Breathing is extremely important.

Is the decision of inhaling and exhaling an individual choice?

Everything is an individual choice, eventually. How you do it. How you feel. What you are comfortable with. How you maintain position. Apart from that, there is science in the game. And when you look at science, it is always better to exhale. So, I would always say that if you want a long and strong career, it is better to establish your basics, based on the science of the game.

Shooting is very exhausting as it is a mental sport. It's all about focus. You are focussed and there is almost no physical exercise involved in it. So how does physical exercise become important for a shooter?

For a layman, when he sees a shooter, he thinks, there is no physical effort. But in reality, there is a lot of effort. And there is a lot of physical activity that is not seen from outside. Because the most natural aspect of the human body is movement. If I have to control the movement, hold my body steady, at the same place for a long period of time, I need a lot of muscle endurance. That needs a lot of strength. For that, you need to have good fitness. We have had shooters in the past who have not been very fit. But that is an exception and not the norm. I would rather say that it is important to maintain fitness. You don't need fitness like an athlete but you need muscle endurance and that will come through basic fitness. To maintain the position for a long period of time. So, from outside it looks like there is no activity. But internally, there is a lot of work being done with the muscles.

If I have to given an example. My kids used to play both football and shooting. They loved playing football and enjoyed shooting. What I observed and got feedback from them (was) that they felt more tired after shooting. They would sleep early on the days when they were shooting, which gave me a good understanding of the game to me. Eventually, you need good muscle strength to keep it (body) at the same place, without any movement. It really needs a lot of energy (to do that). And that made them tired more easily while shooting than performing other physical activities. So though there is no physical activity from the outside, it is the mind and body together at work that causes a lot of fatigue.

Does height play a role in shooting?

Yes. It is believed that it helps if you are shorter because it lowers your center of gravity. That goes beyond what shooters say and coaches believe. There is nothing that confirms that all shooters are not good shooters. We have had very good tall shooters. If you look at the science, if you are shorter, you are better. But in reality, it does not completely prove it. As long as you are able to balance yourself and you are trying the right settings in your rifle, I think it should not be a problem.

In previous years, I would say, tall shooters were not doing as good as shorter shooters because there were a lot of restrictions in the setting of the rifle. It was always difficult for the tall shooter to make the right kind of setting on their rifles. But with time, technology and rules of the game have really changed. Now, it does not really hold true because you really have a lot of settings you can do on the rifle and also cater to the tall shooters that we have.

Shooters should make most of the time, do dry training at home, do your holding and build your inner position, in a way, that once the lockdown is over, you should come out fitter and stronger as a shooter.

Speaking again from the mental aspect, is it easy as a coach to spot where the problem lies in the shooter, whether it is a technical issue or something to do with the mind space? How do you work that out?

I think a good coach can definitely find out and locate issues. Especially a good coach who has a lot of experience. I agree shooting is a sport that involves mind but beyond that, there are many elements that come to technique. The coach needs to have a command over the subject. Sometimes, it is not just the mind but simply other elements like the position of the rifle.

In a period like this where the shooters are not really as active as they should be because of the situation we have at our hands, what are your suggestions for them? Should they relax a lot? What should they do?

To all the shooters who are undergoing a tough time in this lockdown period, I would say there are various elements that lead to good performance and training for certain elements can be done at home definitely. Especially, when it comes to health and fitness, and some elements of your technique, can be trained at home. A shooter can get himself/herself fitter in this lockdown period. Most of us are training and travelling so much for various competitions that it is very difficult to find a calm time to actually up your level of fitness. This is, I would say, a blessing in disguise for a lot of the shooters, who have been wanting to work out but have not found a suitable window in their shooting calendars to actually invest time and effort in a good work out. So I think this is the time and I would reiterate that most of the shooters should use their time to increase their fitness. Nowadays, with so many apps, you can do so many fitness exercises in a small space.

Apart from the fitness part, when it comes to technique, the outer and inner position, a lot of it can be built up in this period at home. I would like to go back to my time when I was shooting, to explain it in a better way. When we started shooting, pellets, ammunition was not so easily available as it is now. So, we would do dry practice for the whole year. And now as I look back, I feel we were in lockdown for an entire year because we never had pellets and ammunition to train with until one day before the Nationals. And we never had so many competitions. But because of this, we developed such strong inner positions, that it really helped us stay in the game at a very high level for a long time. I would say, instead of complaining, shooters should make most of the time, do dry training at home, do your holding and build your inner position, in a way, that once the lockdown is over, you should come out fitter and stronger as a shooter.

There are shooters who are involved in some art or the other. Creating art involves a lot of conflict, and perhaps self-doubts, but sport requires clarity of thought. Do you think being involved in artistic activities is a distraction for shooters?

I think distraction can be good for the shooters. When it comes to art, I would say art is a very constructive distraction. It helps you engage yourself with a process. It definitely is more calming and helps you in your concentration. It creates a certain level of calmness of the mind, which I think, it is a very good thing for shooting. For those shooters, who like art or are interested in art, it is a great thing. And for those who are not, I would advise using a paint brush and engage in colours, it is very good for the mind.

How do you spot a talent?

It is very early to say at the start how far a shooter can go. But after three years, it becomes very evident. What is important is that a young shooter should enjoy the process. And if they enjoy training, enjoy the hours of training, most important is if they are able to stay concentrated, that is a good indicator of a shooter in the making. But all said and done, shooters change with time and age. I have seen some shooters mature after a certain age. They turn 18 and they are completely different people. They become much better at shooting. So it is very difficult to predict who can do well and who cannot. Only time decides which shooter is good and which is average. As a coach, I really enjoy shooters who are good at concentrating and enjoy the process. It makes easier for a coach and I think these are the shooters who are able to stay longer in their career.

Is there a particular age to start a career in shooting?

A shooter can start at any age as long as we have the fire and motivation to go through the arduous journey of rifle shooting and competitive sport. I think they can start at any age. But if you look at the recent trend, shooters are really coming in at young age and the average age in air rifle shooting has come down to 18 and 19. The whole sport has become a lot more younger. But having said that, there are many examples of shooters who defy that. Yes, the average age has become lesser but I still believe anyone can start and try competing at any age, as long as they have fire in the belly and motivation.

You have played in an Olympic final? What was the pressure of playing the final?

I qualified for the Olympics with a world record score. 400 out of 400. That was the best period of my life. The journey to the Olympics was very long and it took me ten years to reach that level. The whole journey made me really hungry and desperate to give a good performance. That deep down hunger I had helped me perform.

We have a range of shooters going to the Olympics and we are hoping some will be playing in a final. What tips will you give to deal with the final's pressure?

I think when it comes to pressure, I am not worried at all for our shooters. In the last two years, they have been through a lot of pressure, in getting quota places, staying in top rankings. That itself has been a huge pressure for more shooters and they have been able to stand up to the pressure. I believe they have trained themselves to handle that pressure. What would be the most important thing out there is to find the levels of concentration. The one thing that separates the Olympics from all other competitions is the kind of media attention it gets, the attention of the entire world is fixated on one day. To find concentration amid that chaos, would be challenging. Just find that concentration on that day, everything will take care of itself.

Any stories from 2004? Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore clinched the silver, which was celebrated all over the country, do you have any story from the celebrations?

Yeah, 2004 was the first year when we had some great performances and in 2004, Abhinav Bindra made it to the finals and I made it to the finals and finished 8th. Both of us were happy to make it to the finals. But we were also extremely unhappy that we could not make it to the podium. I remember both of us sitting and talking and actually sharing our grief after my match and we were watching Rathore's match. As we were talking, slowly we realised 'oh my god, is he going to win it?' And then he actually went on to win his silver medal. We took our grief away and congratulated him. That is a good memory from 2004 Athens.

In 2008, Abhinav Bindra did what he did. We need to speak a little about him. You have been his friend and contemporary. What makes him special?

For Abhinav, the most important aspect was his commitment to the game. He did everything there was. There was nothing he did not try. Nothing he did not attempt in his career. He invented new ways to make himself better. His concentration, perseverance, willingness to go all out to gain perfection is something that you don't see in shooters. When he won the gold medal, in my mind, I said to myself, thank God he won it. He deserved to get it.

And all that he did after winning was just one smile.

Behind that smile, there were years of hard work and dedication.

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