Breathe. Shoot. Repeat


Photo: Ivan Tan

By Becca Spinks

This article is reproduced with permission from Issue 17 of Sure Shots magazine. © 2016 Sure Shots Magazine. Originally published June 2016, Issue 17. All rights reserved. sureshotsmag.com

Breathe. That one word seems so simple and so obvious. Air comes in, CO2 goes out, and we remain upright and conscious.  Breathing is, unfortunately, an often-overlooked fundamental of shooting. Try to remember your first time shooting a gun at the range. Chances are you were so focused on perfecting your grip, stance, sight alignment, sight picture and trigger control, that you may have caught yourself holding your breath a time or two. Reduced oxygen quickly leads to mental and physical fatigue, and consequently, a dramatic decrease in the quality of shooting performance. Breathing is an automatic bodily function. It is not an option if we want to stay alive, and it is not usually a conscious decision. So why, when faced with pressure to perform in a stressful environment, is it so hard to remember to do?

When we are feeling threatened, nervous, or just plain stressed out, the result is the activation of the sympathetic nervous system, also known as the ‘fight or flight response’, which is a physiological reaction to an event we perceive as being a threat to our survival. This reaction results in a surge of the hormones adrenaline and noradrenalin, which prepares the body to move and react quickly. As a result, some bodily functions, such as heart rate, are increased, and other functions, such as digestion, are decreased. Other physiological effects include dilated pupils, flushing, shaking, and even tunnel vision. These negative effects often result in a loss of fine motor function and hinder our ability to think rationally. Although this trait evolved to help us survive life-threatening dilemmas, anyone who has given a big speech or performed at an important sporting event can attest to experiencing the fight or flight response in a relatively innocuous setting.  For these situations, correct breathing can mean the difference between success and failure. In a critical situation, however, correct breathing can mean the difference between life and death. First responders such as firefighters and police are taught a technique known as ‘tactical breathing’ which is meant to calm them down in high-stress situations. By learning to breathe correctly under stress, a cop can help keep his hands from shaking in a hostile situation, and a firefighter can build up the nerve to run into a burning building to save a life. The sequence for tactical breathing is as follows:

  1. Breathe in through your nose to the count of 4.
  2. Hold your breath to the count of 4.
  3. Breathe out through your mouth to the count of 4.
  4. Hold your breath to the count of 4.
  5. Repeat until you feel your body and mind relax.

Another breathing technique commonly taught to athletes is known as “power breathing”. Power breathing is simply exhaling for twice as long as you inhale. Inhale through the nose x1, exhale through the mouth x2. Sounds simple, right? Breathing techniques such as tactical and power breathing work by causing your body to switch from a sympathetic nervous system state (fight or flight) to a parasympathetic state (rest and digest).  Because the fight or flight response can be experienced across a range of extremes and in non-life threatening situations as well as critical ones, average citizens can also benefit from learning and applying these breathing techniques. Athletes and performers may use them to relax before an important event, and people who suffer from severe anxiety can use them as a form of daily meditation to reduce stress levels and allow them to regain some normalcy over their lives.

What does all of this have to do with casual shooting, you may ask? The answer is EVERYTHING. During practice at the range, many people experience a sympathetic nervous system reaction. They may notice an elevation in heart rate, sweaty hands and a loss of attention to their surroundings. The severity of these effects is generally proportional to experience, however, even the most highly skilled shooters may fall victim at times. In a self defense situation, these effects are amplified to an extreme level. Fundamentals such as grip and sight picture become much harder to execute perfectly. Tunnel vision, which is a momentary loss of peripheral vision while focused on the immediate threat, is another side effect of sympathetic activation which can lead to dire consequences, particularly in a defensive shooting scenario.  Training under stress is a great way to gain experience in performing under pressure, thus negating these effects should the unthinkable occur. And one of the main tenements of training under pressure is – you guessed it – learning to breathe! Indeed, proper breathing can be the key to retaining control in a critical situation. By reducing the sympathetic response, we are able to calm our emotions and regain our ability to think clearly, perform well and respond appropriately to a threat. After a stressful event, proper breathing can sharpen focus and minimize negative thoughts and emotion. For example, after a defensive shooting has occurred, it is important to remain calm and aware of any other potential threats in the vicinity. Consciously focusing on breathing can also improve your ability to remember the situation accurately and communicate the details appropriately to authorities.

In a competitive shooting environment, being able to calm yourself before and after each stage is critical to performance. Many athletes utilize a personal mantra to repeat in their heads prior to a performance. Consider coming up with your own mantra to remind yourself to relax and breathe. Consciously focusing on the breath while performing breathing exercises pre-performance is a surefire way to relax the body and the mind, and prepare yourself for an excellent run. After your run, you should use your breath to help calm yourself down quickly. This will allow you to troubleshoot if necessary, focus on areas for improvement, and mentally prepare yourself for your next stage.

When practicing at the stationary range, consider taking your time and utilizing your natural respiratory pause. Your natural respiratory pause is the second or so between the end of your exhalation and the beginning of your next inhalation. This pause is where you are at your most stable point physiologically, and where you can make your most accurate shot. It is common to see shooters, both beginner and experienced alike, burn through magazines and ammo much too quickly during stationary shooting practice. Over such a high volume, the breath often gets forgotten, and the result is a gradually widening spread on the target.  To practice mindful breathing at the range, try the following exercise. Take a deep breath while loading a single round into your magazine and placing it on the table. Exhale slowly while taking one step back from the table. Inhale again as you step up to the table, load the magazine, chamber the round into your gun, and place it down on the table. As you exhale, take a step back from the table again. Finally, take a deep breath while stepping up to the table and picking up the pistol. Exhale slowly as you bring your sights onto the target. At the respiratory pause, gently press the trigger to the rear. After the shot, take a short break of several breaths, then repeat this exercise several times. Try to execute each of the motions in a single breathing sequence, either inhalation or exhalation. It may sound complicated at first, but this technique will soon become second nature. The result should be an increase in mindfulness of your breath, and eventually, a prettier target.

Part of what makes breathing techniques so easy to master is that they can be practiced anywhere!  Try using some of these methods the next time you are in a long line at the grocery store, stressed at work, or stuck in traffic. Getting used to breathing more effectively in your everyday life will naturally translate to calm, focused, and proficient shooting, no matter the situation. There, now… Don’t you feel better?

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