Getting to the top, and then staying there, takes more than hard work. My Focus, presented by Milk Life, tells the stories of one area that 24 athletes are honing in on in their quest to stand atop the podium at the next Olympic or Paralympic Games.
Sarah Beard has always had a fascination with the science behind athletic performance, especially as it relates to her sport of shooting.
She also has a bit of a unique approach to discovering what works for her and what doesn’t when she’s on the range or in a competition.
“A lot of shooters have a mentality like it’s voodoo magic,” said Beard, 26, of Danville, Indiana. “They don’t want to do anything to mess up their shooting. I have the opposite approach in that I want to know what can mess it up.”
Beard’s focus on finding the methods that lead to the best outcomes prompted her recently to explore the effects of a morning workout on her shooting several hours later. She went to the gym early in the morning and did a circuit training workout, then later that same morning worked on her shooting using a SCATT, which uses a laser to trace the shot, and used that data to see how the workout affected her hold and her trigger control, for better or for worse.
“I guessed that it would help my timing of the shot because before you work out you’ll do activation of some kind, like glute activation exercises, to remind your body how to fire those muscles,” she said. “My hypothesis was that my body would remember the morning and activate the same way.
“It did actually help a lot with that, but what I’ve noticed is that if I do the workout the day before and have a little longer recovery, that’s the most benefit I can get.”
Not too long ago, Beard’s focus was simply on finding her love of shooting again.
Her shooting career had been on an upward trajectory since 2010, when she won a junior world title with the women’s three-position team, as well as a silver medal in women’s prone. That year she also finished third in three-position at the National Junior Olympic Championship.
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From there, Beard collected a number of national championships medals over the next few years in air rifle, prone and three-position, helped Texas Christian University win two NCAA championships and was a four-time NCAA All-American in both air and smallbore rifle.
Then in 2015, Beard finished in fifth place in air rifle at the Fort Benning World Cup, earning an Olympic quota for USA Shooting, and finished second in prone at the national championships and first in both air and three-position.
After not making the 2016 Olympic team, however, Beard was bitterly disappointed. She'd spent every single day of the last quad thinking about going to the Rio Games and earning a medal, she said, and because of that she might have lost the balance between expectations and enjoyment.
She also needed a change, so Beard joined the Army.
She started basic training back in February and then Officer Candidate School in August. Right now, she’s a reservist but will complete her training beginning in February and then be active duty while still living and training in Colorado Springs, Colorado.
Getting out of her typical training routine helped Beard get back in touch with the 15-year-old girl who was in love with the sport, she said. Now she’s finding joy in coming out of practice and thinking about what she learned and what she wants to apply to the next session, rather than focusing solely on her score that day as she had in the past.
“I guess another thing that’s really changed this quad is I’m enjoying the little things in the sport,” she said, “Sometimes you shoot really well one day, then you’re almost afraid of it, like, what if I never do that again?”
That feeling is no longer present, Beard realized after recently shooting a personal best in training.
“It’s like if I never do this again, that was awesome and I enjoyed every second of it,” she said. “What motivates me most is just finding that nice little edge you’re on, whether it’s in competition or super intense training, where you find a balance between trying too hard and not trying hard enough. Where you find just the right spot.”
Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.