Alejandra Zavala: “Let the trigger go and trust”

Alejandra Zavala is one of the first top international shooters I met. From the get go she’s been approachable, super interesting and fun. She’s a positive force. There’s a lot to learn from this mexican Olympic shooter 🙂

During the coronavirus lockdown she’s keeping her high level training at home with dry firing, a lot of physical training (balance and pistol shooting specific strength), meditation, etc. All this with the help of her coach and friend Ericka Lozano, physiotherapist at the Mexican National Center for Development of Sports Talent and High Performance.

What you are about to read is not an exact transcript of the video interview but it comes close enough. To enjoy the knowledge and happines of Alejandra to the last drop (like I’ve done) you will have to watch the video of our conversation 🙂

Don’t forget to follow her on Instagram and Facebook.

PD: the subtitles are open for all of you to edit them and translate. If you can help improve the machine transcription or translate the subtitles to your language you will help a lot of shooters around the world 🙂

There’s a lot to learn about shooting, training and competition in this interview. Thank you Alejandra!

How and when did you start shooting? 

I started as a child. I’ve been around shooters my whole life because my dad and grandpa were shooters. My first competitions were when I was 11 or 12. The first time I shot a pistol I was five. It was at a shooting range with a .22 caliber pistol. My father had to stack a bunch of stuff so that I could support the gun, and he also hugged me and helped me hold the gun, ¡but it was me who pulled the trigger! I still remember it vividly and it was incredible. I obviously wanted to shoot more. It is a sport that I have inherited.

In the beginning I wanted to shoot rifle and my dad insisted that I try pistol… and I cried. I loved seeing how the rifle shooters took all their equipment out, the suit, the boots… Luckily my dad made me try pistol and I’m a pistol shooter now… it is just too much to carry! Dad gave me an air pistol in the garden of our home and all my shots landed in the bullseye. Who wants to shoot rifle any more, give me a pistol!

What made you want to train and compete more seriously? What was your progression like?

I started competing with my local club in Guadalajara, the Club Cinegético Jalisciense which is one of the biggest ranges in Latin-America. I started shooting because of my friends: as soon as they told me that they travelled to the competitions without parents I said I was in!

It was one of the best decisions of my life. I remember the score of my first competition: 333 over 40 shots in a regional championship. It does not look like much now, but I thought it was great and I won the children’s category. I loved it.

After a few more years shooting I liked it and all, but it was just a hobby, fun. Then my dad told me I had to compete more and sent me to Guatemala’s children and youth games in 2000 or 2001. I scored 565 points (I think it was a national record), felt great, and qualified for the final. I had never shot in a final and I won it.

If you compare it with my current level it was not so high, but it was great. I had never participated in a final. The targets kept coming and going while my friends were making a lot of noise, shouting “go,go Ale”. And I was hitting a 10, a 9, 10, 9… Great. A girl from Guatemala and I ended up tied. My first final and I have to do a shoot off! I turned to my friends asking what I had to do, I did not even know that the final was not finished, and they told me to stay put. I took my shot and when the targets came back I could see I had scored a point more, but I did not know if I had won, I was shocked and learned that I had won thanks to the screams of my friends. It was incredible. It was an unforgettable feeling that made me want more, that sensation of doing something overcoming fear and uncertainty. I told myself that if I could win that I could win an Olympic medal XD

A funny thing is that my dad told me when I was boarding the plane to that competition that he was going to explain how to shoot if the wall was in front of me… and I had to do just that in the competition. I was scared, thinking that dad had not explained what to do. Then when I came back home he told me that it was great, comfortable, without anybody to distract you… He could have told me before! I spent the whole competition stressed because of that wall 🙂

My progression was quick. I think I’m talented with the pistol.

What are you most proud of in your shooting? 

I think that something important that we tend to have trouble with as human beings is feeling proud of our own achievements, of what we have done in our lives in and out of sport. I’m proud of my sports career, with its ups and downs, but I would not have made it without the support of the people around me (like my family) who have been the base upon which I’ve developed as an athlete.

What advice has had the biggest positive impact in your shooting? Who gave it?

My dad has always been the base: he taught me and was my first coach. I remember that he left the word PRECISION, with a word for each letter in Spanish: Puntería (aim), Respiración (breathing), Estabilidad (balance)… He kept telling me that the only thing I needed for a good shot was to focus on those techniques. That I could be fearful, in pain, in doubt… but that if I trained I was never going to forget those technique elements that where needed for a good shot and that thinking about them would help me shoot good independently of what I was feeling in that moment. At finals, with my American record, y the Olympic Games… I always remembered this. It has always helped me.

How do you train and how often? What does a typical training day look like? Do you train with a coach or by yourself? 

Outside of the current quarantine I go to the range six days a week. I love being there. Four days a week I work with Ericka and do all the work with bands, proprioception, etc.

Before my first shot I spend 45′ to one hour warming up, playing with balls against the wall to improve my concentration and thought reaction, dry fire on a disk, work my shoulder and arm with an elastic band… We have noticed that to be really fine I need a lot of shots and with this routine I can get there faster with a good balance in my shoulder and body. After this I do a few dry fire shots against a wall, on target and the training programme. It depends where I’m at in the season.

Alejandra Zavala dry firing over an inflatable pillow to make it harder on her balance

I usually do the physical training in the morning before going to the range. Sometimes I do yoga, other times physical exercises… I wake up early. After the first training of the day I eat at the range and then do the afternoon training.

I usually shoot 25m in the morning to take advantage of the sunlight and when I’m done if Ericka is around we do physiotherapy, posture exercises, breathing, reinforcement…

Ericka is my physiotherapist and physical coach. She also helps with technique because we’ve been together for seven years. Work makes the master!

I also trained for a while with Munkhbayar Dorjsuren and learned a lot from her in some workshops in Germany.

We have to stay motivated to train during confinement. I heard Jelena Arunovic say that we should build up courage to train at home because when things go back to normal, would you prefer to start from zero or to continue your training?

How do you manage nervousness through a competition? Can you give an example of a technique you use when things are not going well? 

I don’t think I’m nervous in competition. Nervousness is something negative that scares and can paralyze. I told myself a long time ago that what I have is emotion, something positive. I’m thrilled and happy to be there. My heart and my skin are obviously going to vibrate because I’m doing what I love. Emotion gives me power to do things.

I meditate a lot. I’ve been practicing for years. This is something I learned from my Indian friends. When I’m at a competition and I feel that nervousness creeps in, I close my eyes and say to myself: you are emotioned, feel it, live it, it is part of the sport, just let it flow. The psychologist taught me to take my mind to a place of peacefulness. I can, for example, take my mind there telling myself: “a beautiful day in a beautiful month”. This takes me immediately to a nice memory. When you are at the final you don’t have the time to do this, but my first final was such a positive experience that it helps a lot.

Trust. Something that Munkhbayar taught me was to trust. Everything vibrates, you can’t stop the movement of your pistol, trust your trigger release, let it go by itself and trust what’s coming. I’ve done exercises with my eyes closed with Munkhbayar and I hit the center!

What aspect of the shooting technique has brought you the biggest improvement? How would you recommend people to train it? 

The thing I control the most is that I have good stability, which is helpful. What I have to work on more is trusting my trigger release. Well, that and follow through…

What would you recommend pistol shooters to focus on improving? Can you share one exercise or routine for this? How do you think they should go about it? 

As shooters we should be working on trust and patience from the very start, step by step. If you control your head you can control everything that comes.

There may be techniques to work on them. I’m lucky to be very patient, even though I can lose it sometimes. It is a question of will. Some of the athletes I’ve worked with as a coach have done it easily. It is not just a question of score: tight group, no 8, nothing under 9.7… Progress is not only from 8 to 9. I don’t think of 10 (it is scary) but that I have to hit the center of the target.

What is your shot sequence like? 

My timing is very consistent and natural because of my breathing and concentration.

The first thing I do when I lower the gun is to load, so that I don’t get distracted with the rest. First I check my position and feet, that I have the necessary power in my body for balance; then I lock my arm at 45º (I never check my sights with air pistol, in sport pistol I do); I raise with a breath and arrive over the target with my view on it waiting for the sights to arrive; when I arrive to the bullseye I start taking up trigger with a lot of confidence; y take a small breath and stay relaxed, with little air in my lungs; then I wait for the shot to happen and I should be doing the follow through, which I don’t really do; then I breath out and lower my gun.

In all my trainings I try not to look at the target, which is hard to do. I just verify what I’ve felt.

Which tool or equipment can’t you live without?

My pistol. I can forget my shoes (I’ve shot without shooting shoes for a long while), because then I shoot with any pair of shoes and it is ok. Same thing for the belt, I’ve even taken one from a coach. Actually I’ve even shot with somebody else’s gun because mine never arrived and it was ok. But my pistol is my baby.

What question would you have liked me to ask and what’s your answer to it? 

None, you’ve already asked a lot of questions that nobody else has ever asked. We are talking about what I like. It is great to be asked about how you do your thing.

Who would you recommend is interviewed next?

I see you already interviewed Zorana Arunovic… Anna Korakaki would be an excellent interview. She’s a great person, who manages to have her feet on the ground at her age and position. I admire her.

If you also interview rifle shooters I think you can ask them the same questions. Deepak Kumar from India is an excellent shooter from whom I’ve learned a lot, he’s always zen.

And if you interview coaches go for Jelena Arunovic, Munkhbayar Dorjsuren and Jasna Šekarić.

Alejandra winning the final of the 2016 World Cup in Bologna
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