Shooting star Issy Bailey talks success, studies and the psychology of sport…

I didn’t really choose shooting – it just kind of fell in to place. I was in rehab after my injury and had quite a lot of other injuries besides my spinal cord, so I found it really difficult to engage in some of the more physical sports that were on offer as part of the rehabilitation programme, like wheelchair rugby or wheelchair basketball. Someone suggested I try shooting – and I just took to it. The coach at the time saw that I had potential, and I’ve been shooting for 10 years now.

Mentally, it’s a very taxing sport – there is a lot of psychology involved; a lot of repetition and precision, and a lot of time to think through the smallest of details. So it’s really important that you find ways to switch off.

I’m a big advocate for staying in education while doing sport – for my undergraduate degree, I chose to go to Exeter University where doing sport – I played a lot of hockey - was very much encouraged. Now I’m hoping to do a PhD in literature at Loughborough university. I’m not sure what my next move will be after that; I just know that’s what I’m good at, and as long as I keep all those doors open, I know that opportunities will come my way, as they always do, if you keep moving forwards.

It’s sort of inevitable then that I enjoy reading to unwind and take my mind off shooting. It gives me a mental break from what I do - shooting is psychologically very demanding, so being able to switch off and focus on something else is really helpful. I really enjoy reading modern classics – particularly PG Wodehouse’s _Jeeves and Wooster _series - but I don’t think of reading as an escape, more an opportunity to take a break and refresh my mind. It’s also pretty grounding and provides me with a degree of familiarity when I’m travelling – which we do a lot. Last year I was away for more than half the year.

Focussed - Issy in training

My coach Sonal is a former athlete, so she understands deeply the mental side of shooting and helps with things like breathing exercises and visualisation, which are really important. Focus and mental control are crucial – and the last thing you need is to feel overwhelmed by pressure. Self-talk is a big deal too – if you have a lot of negative inner chatter you need to know how to redirect your thoughts in a positive way.

When I played hockey, I could almost play on autopilot - in active sports, you can feed off the adrenaline and release it through psychical activity like running, tackling and passing the ball. If you miss a tackle you can try again – you can right that wrong, or your team will pick you up, or you can be a teammate picking someone else up. There’s no time to reflect. Shooting is so different – you’re on your own, you have a lot of time to remain still and think, to analyse, and repeat exactly the same action 60 times, focused on a target up to 50 metres away – that’s about half a football pitch - where every millimetre counts. Mental strength is everything.

People expect that all you do is eat, sleep and dream gold medals. While that’s lovely and it is what some athletes genuinely do, it’s not the only reason I do the sport. I have a lot of respect for people that stay in sport – especially Paralympic sport – for different reasons, like promoting equal opportunities in sport for people with disabilities. Encouraging that growth to continue around the world is a really big thing; showing people the benefits of being in Paralympic sport is key. I’m a big advocate for equal opportunities and that’s vital to hold on to.

We can be blinded by the Paralympics as a measure of success, whereas actually we need to remember what it represents and hold on to those core values – because only then will it keep being a force for good in the future.

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