Other Pointers

Aiming Artists: Petra Zublasing

Živa Dvoršak

Jan 6, 2023

One of the greatest pleasures of competing is meeting amazing athletes. Although we may be rivals on the firing line, we enjoy talking and learning from one another behind the scenes. In a series of interviews, we aim to share a few insights that the big names of shooting have to offer.

We begin our Aiming Artist series with Petra Zublasing, a double Olympian from Italy, who seemed to have retired from the shooting scene completely, but is now dipping her toe in coaching waters. In a discussion with Živa, the 2014 air rifle world champion explains her overall sports philosophy, shares a useful mental hint for moments of panic, and invites us all to construct a ladder.

Writing notes: yes or no?

This is a hard question because I never took notes. Well, this is not true, I always took notes but I never ever looked at them again. I also have quite a big brain that keeps information very well and I trained every day, so that I knew exactly where and what I wanted to feel. When I took notes about how I felt, then I would go back a day after and I did not understand a word, because how do you write down a feeling?

But when I teach, I tell athletes to take notes, because most people cannot remember what they did yesterday and most people cannot remember where the sling is supposed to be and where the sights are supposed to be. And we do not all have the money to have three of everything. So, when they shoot 3P, I want them to start with only one basic set and have to change everything when changing positions. This is how they learn to handle the rifle and what happens if they unscrew something and maybe they sometimes unscrew the wrong things and I’ll come and help. But overall, they need to write stuff down.

I really like for the people to overall get an idea of what they’re doing so that they would not have to write things down, because that is how I used to do it. But I realized that that’s not how other people’s brain capacity works and so I teach a mix of writing stuff down and then visualize on it a lot.

What exactly do you mean by visualizing a lot?

There will be two parts to visualizing. The shot will be broken down in steps which would be the shot process, but the main part about is how you feel. It’s not so much about doing one step and then the next step and then the next step, which you can write down, but how you feel in all of these. that is something you need to create. So visualizing is being able to feel the way you feel at the range – without your stuff, without your rifle, without the range. The closer you get to what you actually feel, the closer the shooting gets to what you imagine! So these two need to come to a common point and once you get there it’s quite easy and I feel like you have to write less things down because then you already know; but to get there, there are many steps and many changes.

Anwriting things down helps in the beginning of the season or after a longer break. You can go through your notes and picture the steps and find the feelings faster.

Yes, you find the feelings fast, and also you are not so passive about it. So if I go to the range to a big match and I’m already anxious and scared of it – because we are all scared, this is something that does not go away, it’s an evolutionary trait that kept us not get eaten by lions. We remember that the last time we came around that corner, we almost got eaten by a lion. So we get scared in expectation of something – like a match or an outcome or something that we cannot control in the future. This is a passive reaction we have. This “happens to you”. But visualizing is something I make happen. I’m not going to the range and hoping for the feeling to be right, but I start at home and visualize and start creating this feeling that I want to have today. I used to do it right as a would wake up before matches and then as I kept the feeling on the bus ride and when I was preparing, people always told me I looked mean, but I was very very focused on just keeping that feeling that I wanted to have alive. That’s something active, something that I can do right now: before I wait for the feeling to happen, I make it happen. And I really like that “things don’t happen to me”. Competitions don’t happen to me. Excitement might happen, but I am in control and I quite like that. So for me this was a very very big part of training.

I created a clean and easy to follow method (with no open spaces to freak out) for setting up. I call it scaletta, which is Italian for a ladder. You do one thing at a time and then you let it go

How did you cope with this pressure that comes up when the RO starts the match or when everything actually starts to happen?

When the pressure starts, you need to have a position that can handle that excitement and pressure. But if your everyday trainings are really relaxed and then you go into a high-pressure situation, it’s not going to work out too well, because you are totally different than you were at home when you are at a 10 m range. While 10 meters are 10 meters at the world championships or at your home range, you might not feel the same, so you need to build a position that’s not passive and then we go back to being active or passive. Your positions need to be such that can sustain pressure and sustain more excitement, but that is also not completely relaxed. I always tried to create positive tension while shooting, because between no tension and I’m-freaking-out tension in the match there’s a big gap. But between me creating positive tension and freaking out (which is a little more tension), the gap is a lot smaller. So the technical part is big and I definitely did a lot of technical work.

The second thing I created is this very clean and easy to follow method (with no open spaces to freak out) for setting up. I call it scaletta, which is Italian for a ladder. You do one thing at a time and then you let it go: You check your feet and then you check your hips and then you check your shoulders and then you go into your butt plate and you grip your grip and then continue with your left hand and then you pick the rifle up and you check your balance and then you go. We are overly excited for shooting and feel this pressure that comes from “Start!” and shooting “for real” (because there is a big difference between match shots and sighters. I made my ladder and it was clearer to me what I wanted to do, step-by-step by step, and the less I would go into over-controlling everything. Because, you know, your brain wants to be really sure everything is done and wants to control everything; with this ladder method you do one thing at a time and that thing only. But don’t leave steps out!

Would you follow the ladder during practice, as well?

Yes, absolutely, it’s something you need to do even while dry firing, even in your imaginations, you need to visualize your ladder. So first, figure out your ladder. Most people agree with me on this, but then they get to the point where “and now I aim and I shoot” – aiming is one step for them. But aiming is a lot more than that. There is still at least six steps between the start of aiming and the start of firing – what do your eyes do; when do your eyes start doing it; when does your finger start doing something. Go one step at a time, because if you say “OK, now I start aiming”, you have at least eight seconds where your brain can go everywhere, because you have no clear idea and you’re not in control of that aim and you’re just waiting for the right image to happen or you’re just waiting for the rifle to not move. It’s not just aiming and firing, there’s not just two steps and you need to be really clear about this and visualize it every day, every dry fire. 

Petra Zublasing coaching two shooters in kneeling position small bore rifle

What would you advise beginners who are still learning, building that ladder, building steps and getting familiar with competitions on how to cope with pressure? Do you have any SOS exits?

I have an SOS plot. Because of how our brain works, once we are overly simulated, there’s no reasoning with it, then it’s the run from the lion part, there’s no “calm down, please”, nothing much is happening.  When you’re afraid and when you’re already gone in panic mode, going back to “Oh, I’m going to do my next step of the ladder« is not possible, you cannot manage it. You fall off the ladder!

That is why I have an SOS thought. Usually, I take an example from the 3rd Harry Potter movie, where there is a scene where a professor opens a door of a closet, and a thing comes out that turns into your worst fear. Then students have to use the Riddikulus spell and imagine something they like doing. Here comes a spider with roller skates and stumbles all over the place, or they imagine Professor Snape with grandma’s clothes on. I always say pick something, pick a thought that comes to mind easily, that you can see it immediately and that is totally ridiculous. Then I tell the story of a huge container ship crashing in the ocean in the 1990s. There were tens of thousands of rubber ducks on board and after 30 years the ducks are still swimming in the ocean, stranding on beaches everywhere. This generally gets my kids giggling and when I tell them they need an SOS thought, they need to just have a cut, a break, which gets your brain out of that panic state and then start with your ladder again. Rubber ducks floating in the ocean are perfect. Check out the video, it’s quite funny.

This is something that has nothing to do with shooting and can be very easily imagined: you can visualize all these yellow rubber ducks just floating up and down in the sea and that stops you panicking and then you go back to your ladder. Because you cannot go back to your ladder when you’re in a panic mode. Uncomfortable is fine, but panic lacks reason, that’s where we’re being stupid. So if you can’t think about anything else, think about rubber ducks and then go back to your ladder when you feel better. Rubber ducks make you smile and your brain will see that there’s no reason for running away, you’re not in danger.

hundreds of rubber ducks floating in the ocean
Image source: https://www.ranker.com/list/rubber-ducks-friendly-floatees-ocean/nathan-gibson

You mentioned that you are not a big fan of setting goals. Why is that?

Yes! What do you do when you achieve your goal? What do you do if you achieve your goal and your backup goal? Okay, you make a new one and go. But how do you feel after you achieve your goal? Hugely disappointed. So this is one of the biggest problems, for example, in winning the Olympics: you are really sad about it. Olympic winners confirm this. I have won a lot of competitions and I’ve never been happy just because I won. People have cried for me and I always thought this was silly, it was nice and thank you, but there is a lot of sadness when you reach a goal. Because what do you do next? And then, what do you do next when you reach the next goal? We always have this small peak, big down, small peak, big down. And what happens if you don’t reach your goal? You keep on going. So it’s almost better to not reach your goal than to reach it. And who tells you that your goal is achievable or not achievable? How do you set the goal? Is it big enough, is it small enough? It’s quite complicated. Goal setting is almost a science.

Many years ago, I bought a strange book by Shaun Usher: Letter of Note: Correspondence Deserving of a Wider Audience. In it, Queen Elizabeth writes to Eisenhower when she was 19, describing her recipe for scones, it contains Virginia Wolf’s last letter to her husband before she kills herself, and all kinds of letters of over the past 500 years of correspondence. One letter really stuck with me, in which someone asks their friend what to do with his life. He has a house and a wife, which were his goals – what to do now? The answer he gets is “I am not in any position to tell you what to do, but you need to pick a lifestyle and follow it.” And over the years I actually found this resonating in many other things I read –you need to pick a method and like it. It’s not necessarily about the outcome. The 10 will come. You know, we are here to shoot nice tens, pretty tens and that will come. If the method is right and if you are the right person and you like the person you are when you are following that method. It’s the same with a lifestyle. Create a life for yourself that you like, not the goal that you want to achieve. This is my overall idea of life, but also in shooting – be the athlete you want to be. Now, how do you be that athlete? Be the athlete that you want to be when nobody’s watching. It’s not a goal, it’s who are you and what do you do and to what method you stick. And you can plan this much easier. Because you can say “OK, I want to be an athlete who does not swear when they shoot a bad shot.” That’s easy to do. “I want to behave like a champion.” Look at all the champions and see what they do and copy them until you do it. “Fake it until you make it” comes in play here – start being who you want to be, even if you don’t feel like it. The same thing goes for “I want to be a confident shooter”, because confidence is a big thing. How do you start being a confident shooter? You start faking it. You behave like a confident shooter and you might become one. Meanwhile you sh*t your pants, but that’s okay too.

You know, you might win, you might lose. You win lots and you lose lots. In my career, I was one of the most successful shooters consistently. I looked at my ISSF charts the other day, how much do you think, percentage wise, I won? 3 %! I lost or shot badly or did not win (although I shot well) for 97 % of my career! And if you look at this, I would have to be crying and say I had a bad career. I had a great career! I was one of the most successful athletes there was, but I only won 3 % of the time. So, if my goal would have been winning a lot, 3 % is not a lot. But if I look back on my career, I was great because I really liked the way I shot, the way other athletes treated me; people who won told me that they didn’t deserve to win because I did – because I was just overall a really good athlete. So winning is not the right goal. Goals are complicated and I’d rather go for lifestyle.

Looking back on your career, you were very successful both before and after the rules changed (when the finals went from 0). Now you started coaching. What are your thoughts on these changes?

I think the overall principles haven’t changed. Sport is still not fair: we still believe that the best athlete will win, but this is very rarely true. The athletes do not make the rules. We tried to fight it for many years, but it’s still like this. The only way you’re making sure that you are in some way a part of the game, because sport is a big game with arbitrary rules, is to really do the best to be the best. The best in learning things and being curious about things. The rules went back to 0 and it took a while for everybody to get used to them, a little flexibility, but my way of working didn’t change, because I still wanted to have a very clean process and very good routine. So I wasn’t really necessarily stuck on the fact that I shot 20 shots or 40 shots or 50 seconds or a minute and 15 seconds. It just meant that I might have to have a faster shot process, but the work was still the same. So the work didn’t change. And now when I coach, the work is still the same. So, shooting in itself has not changed. What has changed, yes it might be a little less fair, because you shoot in the morning and I shoot afternoon. And even now you might not win being the best, which was the same 8 years ago, and now it’s even more important that your goal is not winning. Now the goal is having your best day when it counts. And for me, for example, it was like that at the Olympics in Rio. I had my best match ever at that Olympics! That, for me, was my success. And when you get there, to that point, you can really be OK and very happy about yourself. When I teach now, I try to make shooting easy, because the easier it is, the more shooters can deal with everything else. Because you need space in your mind to deal with rule changes, with unfairness, because unfairness hurts, it’s something that you can feel physically – my heart hurts when unfair things happen. You can even just take that extra energy from easy shooting or you free up some from your technique and you put it into just checking the wind, because you are stuck in a bad relay. And so as a coach, for me it’s important to make shooting the easiest I can, giving the most mental tools, tactical tools that I can for them to make it through that unfairness. The world is not fair, sport is not going get any fairer, but shooting has not changed. Overall, shooting has never changed. The process has never changed. The ladder is still the same. It might have shuffled a little, like one step comes lower and the other goes higher, but overall shooting is still shooting.

Petra Zublasing coaching juniors at the firing line with a journal in her hands

Do you like being a coach?

I had a really hard time coming back to shooting, because I didn’t end it on a good note with the federation, with the world. Sport’s not fair and it can be very hard, mentally and physically, and I actually only got back because I got bullied into teaching a few 12- year-olds. And now, seeing them improve and wanting to save them from some mental damage that I suffered during the years, that’s what actually made me think. In shooting, we know so little about exercises that are more specific for aiming or for different muscles or for process or even just talking about scary things like emotions. I have 12-year-olds who say they don’t have any emotions, when we first start speaking about them. And I feel like that has gotten me back to coaching and I do really enjoy it.  Overall, I have to say it’s giving back some of what I know, what I’ve accumulated over the years, running all over the world, talking and chatting and being really annoying to people that then became my friends and taught me some more. Because that’s what my career was like – I ran around the world and bothered people to tell me what they know, because I wanted to know and now I’ll give some of that back and I’ll give it back to whoever wants to and if that’s a 12-year-old, I am happy about that too.

Petra Zublasing

Petra Zublasing (1989) is a former Italian rifle shooter. A two-time Olympian from London and Rio, she collected 15 medals from the highest-level championships, recording her greatest success as a World Champion in air rifle in 2014. She also set several world records. Despite being considered one of the most consistent athletes, she is more proud of how she shot and who she has become during her career.

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2 thoughts on “Aiming Artists: Petra Zublasing”

  1. Watching her coach a junior at the Olympic Training center during a match, on fixing the Juniors kneeling problem, while Petra was in record fire was amazing opportunity to see a human athlete.
    Watching her compete was always enjoyable. It always looked like she was enjoying it as well.

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