Biathlon: Competition Formats and the Mental Game
Jake Brown, who wrote this blog back in 2019 during his first season of World Cup level biathlon, is now a member of the US Olympic Biathlon Team headed to Beijing. Keep an eye out for him in the Olympic coverage! He is one of four US Olympic biathletes who have trained at our neighboring Craftsbury Outdoor Center as part of their Green Racing Project team. Watch for GRP athletes Susan Dunklee, Clare Egan, and alternate Hallie Grossman, too.
At the essence of every biathlon race is a singular challenge for the athlete: That of steadying the mind and body amid the most difficult physical conditions in order to shoot five targets with a competition rifle. No matter the race format, when an athlete enters the range he or she must calm the mind and focus on closing the five targets which stand fifty meters downrange. While shooting accurately and skiing fast is always important, some race formats place greater value on ski speed, while others emphasize accuracy, and still others stress shooting speed. Each race format is different in its own way and uniquely challenges the mind. The following are the seven competition formats contested on the International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup.
About the Individual: The most traditional of the biathlon events, the Individual format is the longest of the biathlon races: a 15km competition for women and a 20km competition for men. Athletes ski five equidistant loops and enter the range to shoot five shots at the end of each of the first four loops. The Individual is not unique merely because of its length. Instead of skiing a 150m penalty loop for each miss as is common in most of the other formats, a one-minute time-penalty for each miss is added to an athlete's finishing time. As penalty laps usually take no longer than thirty seconds, the Individual places a greater emphasis on shooting accuracy than do the other formats. The Individual is also the only four-stage race that alternates prone and standing positions: after the first and third loops the athlete must shoot in the prone, or laying, position, and after the second and fourth loops, the athlete must shoot in the standing position.
The Mental Game: Because the Individual arguably places the greatest importance on shooting accuracy of all biathlon events, it is often called "a shooter's race". A better moniker may in fact be "a mental race". The threat of a 1-minute penalty makes each of the twenty shots extremely important, and with added importance comes added pressure. It is therefore essential to have a strong mental approach to shooting in such an event. For some athletes, this means focusing on one specific aspect of the shooting process. For instance, always remembering to squeeze the trigger slowly, or to breathe consistently. For others, this means finding a distraction from the pressure. If you tend to let your own thinking get in your way to success, try singing "Row, row, row your boat" in your head and let muscle memory do the rest.
Some lucky athletes may not feel the pressure as much and can successfully focus on each shot individually, alone from all the others, and without distraction. The truth is, you have to try and find what mental process works best for you. Above all else, you cannot be afraid to succeed. It often takes a risk to be successful. So, go for it.
About the Sprint: The Sprint is the shortest individual event contested in international biathlon competition, at 7.5km for women and 10km for men. The name is deceiving: this is still quite an endurance event! Like the Individual, the Sprint is contested in time trial format with athletes starting in thirty-second intervals. The Sprint is unique, however, as there are only two shooting stages: one prone and one standing. Again, athletes shoot at five targets for each shooting stage, which appear in a row of five small black dots downrange.
Videography: Ethan Dreissigacker
As in all biathlon races, when a target is hit a white paddle flips up to cover the black target, so that after the shooting is completed the athlete can see exactly how many missed targets s/he has. This is important in the Sprint because, unlike the Individual, athletes must ski a 150m penalty loop for each missed target. The goal, of course, is to leave the range with a "clean" target, with all five black targets flipped to white.
The Mental Game: Because there are only two shooting stages, ski speed is especially important in the Sprint. Faster athletes may be able to make up for a miss or two by gaining time on the course. And because the Sprint is in a time-trial format and there is always the possibility that an athlete starting near the back can knock off another athlete's top time, athletes must push the pace from start to finish. To have a chance for the podium, it is important to have a strong fighting spirit on the course, especially on the final loop. Don't let that fool you, though. At the World Cup level, shooting accurately is still incredibly important. Because the pace is faster during the shorter Sprint event and the skiing is more aggressive, it's especially vital to be able to calm the body and mind when entering the shooting range. Some coaches refer to this transition from skier to shooter as "the cut," where the mental approach changes from an aggressive, spirited fighter to a cool, confident cat. Learn to make this switch consistent by choosing a place or object that you always look at before shooting that triggers "the cut" in your own mind, and start by taking deep breaths from the diaphragm and reciting a cue-word to yourself. "Calm" may be a good one to start with. Regardless of the exact word or process, find a "cut" that helps you flip the switch from frenzied skier to steady shooter.
About the Pursuit: The Pursuit is unlike any other competition format in that its start order is contingent on the results of the previous Sprint competition. How does this work? Well, say biathlete A wins the Sprint, finishing 12 seconds ahead biathlete B and 26 seconds ahead of biathlete C. For the Pursuit competition, biathlete A will be the first starter with biathlete B starting 12 seconds behind and biathlete C starting 26 seconds back. The first of the athletes to cross the finish line is the winner. So by performing well in the Sprint, an athlete is rewarded with not only a great result in one race, but also an excellent starting position for a second. The Pursuit is like the Individual in that it is a race with five skiing loops (but slightly shorter at 2 km each for women and 2.5 km each for men for a total of 10 and 12.5km, respectively) and four shooting stages. It is like the Sprint in that for each missed target an athlete must ski once around the 150m penalty loop before continuing on the course.
The Mental Game: With the winner of the Sprint out front, all Pursuit racers must have a hunter's mindset. In fact, the Norwegian word for the Pursuit competition is Jaktstart—literally, hunt-start. And with four shooting stages, much of the hunting is done in the range. It may help to enter the range with the tactically assertive mindset of a hunter. Worrying about being caught from behind is a fearful mindset that does no good in a pressure situation such as shooting; the best athletes focus instead on pursuing what is in front of them, whether a target downrange or an athlete further up the track.
About the Mass Start: The Mass Start is what it sounds like: a race in which all athletes begin at the same time and the first to cross the finish line is the champion. The Mass Start is a four-shooting stage race and at 12.5km for women and 15km for men is slightly longer than the Pursuit. Like the Pursuit, the order of the four shooting stages is prone after the first lap, then prone again after the second, followed by standing stages after both the third and fourth laps. Athletes must ski a 150m penalty loop for each missed target before continuing onto the race loop.
The Mental Game: Unlike the Sprint or the Individual, the Pursuit and Mass Start events result in many athletes shooting on the range simultaneously. Each athlete is just one in a line of shooters. In such a setting it can be tempting to take a peek at a competitor's target or allow your ear to listen for the *klack* of an errant miss by an athlete to your left or right. An experienced biathlete, however, is trained to focus only on her own target. Think of it as a tunnel: once your head rests on the cheek-piece and your eye looks through the peep-sight, the tunnel of vision you now see becomes your entire world. This new world of five black dots popping from a white background is, right now, the only thing worthy of your attention.
About the Relay: The biathlon relay is contested by teams of four athletes of the same gender. Each athlete races a mini-sprint (6 km for women and 7.5 km for men with one prone-shooting stage and one standing-shooting stage) before tagging off to teammate, or, in the case of the anchor leg athlete, fighting to the finish line. The relay is contested in a mass-start format, with all teams' first leg athlete beginning simultaneously at the crack of the starter's pistol. Unique to relays are spare rounds: each athlete carries a total of six extra rounds on his or her rifle stock. After shooting the five bullets from the magazine, an athlete must attempt to hit any missed target(s) by using up to three of these "spares." For example, if an athlete misses her second shot but hits the other four, she must hand-load a spare round into the chamber and fire at the missed target. Hopefully she hits, but if she misses, she'll need to load another spare. And so on. If after using three spares the athlete has not yet cleaned the target and black dots still remain, she must ski one 150m penalty loop for each target left black before continuing out on course.
The Mental Game: For the relay, the addition of spare rounds lessens the consequence of a missed shot. For an experienced biathlete, loading a spare will usually take between seven and ten seconds, much less that the twenty-plus seconds it takes to round the penalty loop (not to mention avoiding the effort required to ski the added penalty loop distance). With spare rounds available, much of the pressure of a threatening penalty loop is lifted, which allows an athlete to shoot slightly faster. However, the script flips when an athlete gets down to what are commonly referred to as "pressure spares," that is, when the number of spares remaining match the number of targets remaining. For example if an athlete misses three shots straight from the magazine, he will already be using his pressure spares. A miss with the first pressure spare and it means at least one penalty loop in his future. These situations where one shot can result in podium or failure for an entire relay team are some of the most pressure-filled moments in all of biathlon. To take on the pressure it once again it may be helpful to focus on the fundamentals. Breathe deeply, aim at the center of the target, have a slow trigger squeeze, and see the target close—a hit.
About the Mixed Relay: The Mixed Relay is identical to the Relay except that teams consist of two women and two men, as opposed to four same-gender athletes. Although the IBU has varied the relay order on occasion, the most common Mixed Relay order begins with the women (each of whom race 6 km) and finishes with the men (who race 7.5 km). As in the relay, each athlete shoots one prone stage and one standing stage and may use up to three spare rounds per stage to clear the targets. A 150m penalty loop must be skied for any remaining target left black.
The Mental Game: As in the Relay, the Mixed Relay is a long race with lots of movement up and down the standings. Some teams may put their fastest athletes first while others may put their fastest athletes last. Furthermore, teams may consist of athletes with a range of experience and abilities. Add in the volatility of shooting and you have a race where no lead is safe. Even if you are the second leg and are behind by two minutes, gaining one minute may be enough for the third and fourth-leg skiers to close the gap on the leaders. Teams can come from minutes behind to reach the podium; therefore it is important for athletes to remember to stay focused on performing their best, not on how far ahead or behind they may be.
SINGLE MIXED RELAY
About the Single Mixed Relay: The Single Mixed Relay is the newest of the IBU events and first appeared on the IBU World Cup in 2017 and at the IBU World Championships in 2019. The event is contested over eight total shooting stages and 13.5km by teams of one female athlete and one male athlete. Like the Mixed Relay, the start order may be varied. The first starter skis a 1.5km loop, shoots prone (with three relay rounds available), skis any required penalty loops at a shortened distance of 75m apiece, skis another 1.5km loop, shoots standing (again with three spares available), skis any necessary penalty loops, and then immediately takes his or her teammate. The second athlete does the exact same pattern of skiing and shooting and tags the first athlete after their standing stage. Once again the first athlete goes back out on course, skiing the 1.5km loop twice and shooting prone and standing after each loop in the same manner as before. Finally the second starter skis the anchor leg. Instead of finishing immediately after the standing stage, he or she races a final 1.5km loop to the finish. In this way the second athlete races a total of 7.5km while the first races a total of 6km.
The Mental Game: With such brief race loops, many shooting stages, availability of spare rounds, and halved penalty loops, the Single Mixed Relay highlights the world's fastest-shooting biathletes. To excel in the Single Mixed requires a need for speed: it is essential to practice fast and controlled shooting if an athlete desires to be successful in such an event. To do so it helps to minimize unnecessary movements. Focus on keeping the barrel stable while re-bolting. A biathlete should be able to re-bolt and keep the sights motionless. This allows him or her to minimize the movement required to align the sights with the next target, thus saving time.
In whichever race format you compete, ski fast, shoot the center, and enjoy the challenge of biathlon!
Ed. Note: The Concept2 SkiErg gives you options on the Performance Monitor to simulate racing and provide the challenge of biathlon!