Those heartbeat numbers in archery? Don’t stress too much about them

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Oh Jin-Hyek looked absolutely at ease at the start of his Round of 16 match with Indian’s Atanu Das at the Tokyo Olympics on Thursday. His heart rate when he took his first shot of the match was 108 beats a minute (BPM) – about as much as you’d expect from someone out for a walk in the park, which is perhaps what Oh – a legend of the sport , with two Olympic gold medals – expected his match with Atanu to be.

At the same time, Atanu’s heart rate was 144bpm. He knew he was in for a fight. We know these stats because of a helpful feature that has been introduced in the TV coverage of the Olympics archery event – a special camera that tracks changes in body temperature and skin colour to measure heart rate, and thereby measure stress levels in the athlete.

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It’s a great device – though it won’t give a reading if the archer moves and the camera can’t lock in on their face – and goes a great way in demystifying the athletes and the technique behind the sport. Over the past few days, fans have been watching archers about to take a critical shot and try and gauge their level of stress.

But the numbers carry a caveat: higher stress levels need not adversely impact performance. On Wednesday, Atanu’s wife Deepika Kumari saw her heart rate spike from the low 90s early in her match against USA’s Jennifer Mucino Fernandez to over 170 in the deciding set and over 180 before the winning shot. Fernandez stayed in the 120bpm range throughout. When it mattered though, Deepika shot what she needed to shoot – enough to win.

Coaches, athletes, physiologists and doctors will all agree about the benefits of a low heart rate in precision sports – not just archery but also shooting. This is fairly intuitive, because the heartbeat adds variability to an archer’s release or the direction they are pointing the bow.

“A raised heart rate is not an economical way of functioning. Think about when you are angry or excited. Your hands start shaking. Your cheek muscles start getting activated and that’s not what you want in shooting or archery,” says Dr Ashok Ahuja, former head of sports medicine at the National Institute of Sport, Patiala.

Calm archers are generally more accurate. “We are always taught that the best time to shoot is between heartbeats. So a lower heart rate helps to reduce the chance of the release happening during the heartbeats,” says Dharmendra Pradhan, former coach of the Indian archery team.

A lower heart rate also means shooters will have more opportunities to shoot at the ideal moment. A heart rate of 60bpm, for example, translates to one beat per second, whereas a rate of 120bpm, for example, means there are 2 beats per second. That means the gap between heartbeats is longer, more or less double, for 60bpm than it is for 120bpm. What that translates to for the archer is that it gives them a longer window of time to get that perfect shot.

Indeed, while the heart rate is front and center due to the magic of TV, it is only one – outward – manifestation of anxiety. That anxiety is something that is absolutely natural, according to sports physiologist Dr. Nikhil Latey.

“It’s your basic fight, flight freeze response,” says Latey, who has worked for many years with Atanu and Deepika as well as the Indian shooting team. “

That response is preprogramed in us and has been honed over aeons. If you are walking in a jungle and you step on a twig. Your heart rate goes up, you muscles heat up and you are ready to fight or run away. When you are stressed, you have stress hormones released, your blood pressure rises, your heart rate rises and you have literally gone from third gear to fifth gear.”

Sidhu will vouch for it. “When you are shooting in a competition, your heart rate is up, you blood pressure is through the roof, sometimes even your vision blurs,” she says.

All precision athletes face this even though their face portrays absolute calm. “I just learned to fake it,” 2008 gold medalist Abhinav Bindra said on a podcast recently.

While that response is natural, and would work perfectly if suddenly faced with a tiger in the jungle as our ancestors might have, it’s not very useful when trying to target a yellow circle a little less than 10 inches across, from about 230 feet away.

“The whole exercise of precision sport is based on the interplay of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system. The first one is instinctual – alertness when faced with stress. The other – is how you calm down. That’s the role of the parasympathetic nervous system. It has to slow down the whole process of freaking out,” says Ahuja.

There are multiple methods to deal with this. Physical fitness does not help as much as you might think. Endurance athletes have some of the lowest resting heart rates in the world, in the range of 40-44 bpm, but that doesn’t translate into shooting prowess. “Believe me we have tried. If it worked every shooter and archer would be a cross country runner,” says Ahuja.

Indeed, Tarundeep Rai, who lost over 20kg in the course of the lockdown and now sports six-pack abs for the first time in over a decade, never saw his recorded heart rate drop less than 166bpm – the equivalent of a man running uphill – during his R16 match against Itay Shanny of Israel. In contrast, Korea’s Kim Woojin, who stands at 5′ 11′ and weighs a hefty 90kg, never saw his heart rate tick over 74 bpm – a number that is lower than what the average person his size would record if he just stood up.

The trick, says Ahuja, is mental conditioning. It’s something Atanu has been focusing on after the 2016 Olympics, where he was eliminated by Korean archer Lee Seung Yun.

“For the last two years of my career, I have specifically worked on improving my mental pressure as it was one of my weak points. I specifically focus on exercises such as Pranayam or just staring at the wall for four to five hours, without being distracted at any cost,” he had said prior to the Olympics.

The Koreans are masters of this, which is why they have won every gold on offer so far in Tokyo, and 29 in all Olympics since 1972. They prepare by immersing themselves in situations they expect to be competing in. Ahead of the Tokyo Olympics, they prepared a replica of the shooting range they would be competing in. They had the announcements made in English and Japanese – like they would have been expecting to hear. They played in shouts and cheers on speakers too.

In fact, they had used the same camera technology present in Tokyo in their training to measure heart rates. In a video posted on Korean Archery’s official YouTube channel, Oh’s median heart rate in a match against Lee Woo Seok, the 2014 Youth Olympic champion and a major rival for a place in the Korean Olympic team, was 92 bpm. For what it’s worth, Oh’s wasn’t even the lowest heart rate recorded in the video. Double Olympic champion An San’s was a scarcely believable 62 bpm.

While a low stress level is something that all shooters aspire too, the very best can work through high levels of it too. “Every archer tries to keep their sympathetic system under control,” says Latey. “Once someone like Atanu starts feeling the adrenaline coming in, he’ll start taking deep breaths to try and control it. But once the stress levels start spiking it’s almost impossible to control it.”

In fact a little bit of anxiety is important too.

“You need some amount of stress response in competition. Of course if it’s too high for too long your reactions will go haywire. But if it’s too low, you aren’t ready for what’s about to come next,” says Latey. “It’s great if you have a low heart rate throughout your match. But that’s not the only thing that makes a shooter special. The absolutely phenomenal shooters in the world learn to get comfortable with this level of discomfort. They learn to cope with it.”

That was true on Thursday – you could see Atanu breathing in and out in a deliberate manner just before release. In a match in which he knew he had to be at his very best, his stress levels very clearly very high. But as the match progressed and he matched the Korean arrow for arrow, Atanu’s HR stayed in the 130s range while that of Oh steadily rose. During the shoot-off, the Korean’s heart was beating a frantic 144 times a minute.

And Atanu? The special camera never did record his heart rate before that winning shot. Perhaps just as well. It would be unfair to reduce Atanu’s clutch shot and his moment of magic to just a number.



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