For Biathletes, Lots Of Reps—Plus Some Fun—Leads To Automaticity On The Range
by Alex Abrams
Dani Aravich competes in biathlon at the 2021 WPSS World Championships. (Photo: Luc Percival)
Steph Curry follows a strict routine that has helped him become the most prolific 3-point shooter in NBA history.
The Golden State Warriors guard attempts at least 250 shots per day, and around 2,000 shots a week. He has practiced his shooting so much over the years he can catch a pass and get off a shot without any hesitation.
Para Nordic skiers who compete in the biathlon train to be just as accurate with their air rifles as Curry is with his jump shot. They practice throughout the year, aiming to get to where they’re able to ski long distances and then hit all their targets during the shooting portion of the biathlon.
Gary Colliander, the associate director for high performance for U.S. Paralympics Nordic Skiing, estimated that team members shoot on average around 500-1,000 rounds per month when they’re training full-time.
Colliander said they’ll average around 6,000-12,000 rounds per year. The goal is for them to feel so comfortable with their shooting that it becomes second nature, resulting in them not hesitating before pulling the trigger during a competition.
“In the early part of the season, we do break (shooting) down like I would imagine a basketball coach would do. Break it down a little bit and rebuild it,” Colliander said. “The goal is to basically get to the point of what we like to call automaticity, where you don’t have to think about it.”
Colliander said standing and sit skiers will often spend more time during the offseason in the spring and summer at the shooting range, working on their shooting mechanics. They’ll usually do less target practice once the race season intensifies in the winter.
Athletes who are new to biathlon tend to practice their shooting at a slower, less stressful pace in the offseason. This allows them to focus on hitting their targets and not worrying as much about trying to aim while their heart rate is up like it would be during a biathlon.
Of course, shooting 500-1,000 rounds in a month can get monotonous. So coaches have to get creative to make target practice more fun.
“You’ve got to be interesting and fun, right? If you’re doing the same thing 12 months after 12 months after 12 months, it gets pretty boring, so we’re doing games,” Colliander said.
“We like to think of these athletes also as shooters, not just biathletes. So, we take some things from the shooting world that may not relate specifically to biathlon, but shooting is shooting,” Colliander continued. “At the end of the day, you’re holding onto your rifle, pointing it at the target, lining up your sight and squeezing the trigger.”
To change things up, skiers will sometimes shoot at targets that are smaller than the five black circles they usually aim at during practice. They might also use different shaped targets or ones placed more than 10 meters away, the distance they shoot at during a biathlon.
Colliander said athletes must aim differently with their air rifles when they’re trying to hit a target from a longer distance.
“Like anything else, you’ve got to find new ways to teach things, to deliver things, to keep it interesting and fun and challenging,” Colliander said.
If it’s a windy day in the offseason, coaches have been known to blow up balloons and place them around the shooting range for skiers to try to shoot. It’s not so easy to do, though.
“If the wind is blowing, you can aim at a balloon, but you have got to take (the shot) right away before the wind blows it away to teach them to not spend too much time on the target,” Colliander said. “Because when you’re getting into the racing season, they don’t spend a lot of time aiming at the target. It’s a pretty quick process.”
Things get even more interesting and competitive if there are quite a few athletes practicing at the shooting range at the same time on a windy day.
In addition to the wind blowing the balloons around, all the athletes are aiming at the same balloons.
“You have got to get it before they get it, so it’s fun,” Colliander said. “It becomes a competition.”
Alex Abrams has written about Olympic sports for more than 15 years, including as a reporter for major newspapers in Florida, Arkansas and Oklahoma. He is a freelance contributor to USParaNordicSkiing.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.