the biathlete and the “psychology” of the last bullet

Five targets 11.5 cm in diameter. Five bullets in the rifle magazine to “whiten” these black discs 50 meters away. But a heart that beats at 180 beats per minute and legs burnt by the lactic acid produced by more than thirty minutes of effort on skis… Going over the firing line in a biathlon is a paradoxical exercise and, above all, a strong one. voltage. Even more when it is a question of shooting a last ball which can be synonymous with faultless and possible victory, but when you feel the panting breath of an opponent at your side and the cries of the public.

This situation, Anaïs Chevalier-Bouchet experienced it on the mass start (mass start) of Grand-Bornand (Haute-Savoie) in December 2017. The French biathlete was in the fight for the podium before approaching the last shot. She remembers : “I take out the last ball, Justine [Braisaz-Bouchet] win and I’m sixth. If I don’t miss her, I think I’m right behind her. » Julia Simon remembers a painful experience at the world championships in Antholz-Anterselva (Italy) two years ago: “I was 18 out of 18, and then I finished at 18 out of 20, that not only cost me the victory but also the podium. »

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Each time, the two young women were betrayed by parasitic thoughts when pressing the trigger. Thoughts that all biathletes, without distinction, have experienced during their careers. Like Emilien Jacquelin at the Worlds in Pokljuka (Slovenia), in February 2021. The “Lucky Luke” of French biathlon sprays everything, during the second prone shot of the mass start: five balls, five errors. The Dauphinois will finish the race in tears, dead last.

Everyone has their own method

How to overcome this moment of the race when the mental takes precedence over the physical and the technical aspect? There is no miracle recipe, everyone has their own method. For Julia Simon and Simon Desthieux, it’s about hanging on to a technical point in their shooting, focusing on the finger, the aim, the way they are going to “enter” the target. “And I think about it with every bullet so as not to get out of my shot”, slides Julia Simon, the biathlete from Les Saisies (Savoie).

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Quentin Fillon Maillet and Emilien Jacquelin have their own thing: they focus on their breathing. “I try to work on relaxation, hypnosis to get to know myself better”explains the first, leader of the Biathlon World Cup, who sometimes shoots six balls in training to demystify the fifth. “Breathing puts me back in the present moment and makes me forget what is at stake”, completes the second, runner-up to “QFM” in the World Cup standings.

For Anaïs Chevalier-Bouchet, the solution is to attack. “When I get in the lead on a last shot, I’m in automatic mode. I settle down and I leave the carpet. I don’t remember what I did.” debits the one to whom the coaches have sometimes reproached for shooting a little too quickly. Among young people, his coach hammered him that “the last ball, we put it”. Since, “It’s something that goes through my head all the time”.

“You lose your lucidity”

Preparing for the particular exercise of the last ball is not easy. Patrick Favre, the shooting coach of the men’s team, tries to put them in difficulty in training. “Sometimes I tell them: “Come on it’s the last shot, if you put it, it’s the win. If you don’t put it on, you’ve ruined your race.” »

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Anaïs Chevalier-Bouchet explains, for her part, working on the last balls with different shooting intensities, fast or more calm. “The goal is to get out of your comfort zone and have the keys to know how to manage it in a stressful situation. » Nothing worse, enrages the Iséroise, than taking your time for a last shot and missing it.

But all the biathletes of the French team admit it, it is futile to want to reproduce in training situations with pressure and emotions as strong as in racing. Patrick Favre offers an explanation for this “psychology of the last ball”: “It’s because you don’t stay focused on your last shot, you think about winning and you lose your lucidity. Instead of thinking about the first nineteen bullets you put in the target, you tell yourself that you must not miss the last one. professes, with his Val d’Aosta accent, the placid coach of Italian nationality.

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If there is one who does not contradict Doctor Favre’s diagnosis, it is Simon Desthieux. The biathlete from Bugey (30 years old) has let slip a package of victories – and podiums – on the last missed balls. He had to wait for the 243and race of his career, in Nove Mesto (Czech Republic) in March 2021, to feel the vertigo of the highest step. Today, he manages ” better and better “ this high-stress situation: “I have more experience. »

Sunday, February 13, it will be necessary for Simon Desthieux, like all the Blues, during the Olympic pursuit on the icy and windy site of Zhangjiakou. Because the weather also plays a major role when releasing the last ball.

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