Interview: 2021 Olympic hopeful Aaron Heading
- Credit: RUDY SIGNORINI
Don Brunt talks to Aaron Heading – one of our most successful Olympic Trap shooters and all-round nice guy – ahead of the Tokyo Games 2021...
DB: How badly has Covid-19 affected your efforts at maintaining your training?
AH: During the first lockdown, I wasn’t able to train at all on the range, so just like a lot of people it ended up being a long spell of doing nothing. Having said that, British Shooting did everything they could to help; they helped us with online training at home so that we could maintain a dialogue with our coaches and work through things together.
When we came out of that first lockdown, it was difficult as we clearly hadn’t shot for a long time and the shoot calendar had completely changed. I only shot three shoots last year, but I was very happy to finish 2nd in two of them, and win the other with some good scores including a 121 ex 125. The next lockdown saw us able to train and Laporte were really helpful in helping me to train at home; they maintained and improved some of my traps and also got the clays to me in what was a really difficult time for them. I will always be very thankful for their efforts.
In the Christmas period, we were able to do training camps, but it was difficult because we were travelling across the country with others while at the same time having to stay socially distanced. Normally on a training camp, we are a close-knit bunch, but we had to eat in our rooms and things like that to stay safe, so it was a big learning curve to be a part of a team when you are trying to not be too close to each other. It became a fairly lonely situation. The social distancing, the short days and the fairly awful weather this winter made it all feel very odd. It’s been tough, mentally and physically.
DB: How did you feel when the 2020 Olympics got postponed?
AH: I’m not too proud to say that when it was announced it did make me rather depressed for a while. I’d been working towards that goal for most of my life. I’d been through the high of the team announcement, and had been performing to a good standard. With it moving to 2021 with a question mark behind it, there were times I wondered if perhaps someone was trying to tell me something. We were all pretty upset. Thankfully, though, my family and British Shooting were incredibly helpful and got me through it. Both Beretta and Laporte were very supportive and helped give me some stability.
Those feelings went on for some time. A lot of weight was lifted off my shoulders when the team was confirmed and it became clear I still had a goal to work towards. That helped me to stop dwelling on what had happened and move forwards in a positive way. It’s still going to be an Olympics 100%, but it will be a bit different to what it would have been... it’s still going to be an incredible experience.
DB: Did British Shooting help you with psychological support through that time?
AH: Yes, 100%. They have some great people helping us and that support is continuing even now to ensure our mental wellbeing. It’s made it harder being a shooting ground owner as well; that’s presented its own worries. It’s clearly affected our income as it has a huge number of people. Investment in the ground has had to go on hold, and we were able to furlough one member of staff but we had to let some people go and that’s really upsetting. You are trying to build futures for other people as well, and you just can’t at this moment in time. The great news is that they want to come back when things resume to a degree of normality.
DB: You’ve been in the arena before at a world-class level – how’s it going to feel this time?
AH: There’s an element of not knowing. It always feels amazing; even the first Commonwealth I did in 2010 felt amazing – after all it’s a culmination of your efforts. It’s euphoric; you’re so immersed in the team for those couple of weeks, you’re in routines, in a cocoon and you just feed off each other. The successes of others lift you up – success breeds success in those situations. Even if you’ve had a tough day, the achievements of others can lift you up.
However, it’s important not to get carried away – getting swept up in the whole “wow I’m here” thing can make you lose focus. Watching other sports that are going on is great, but you need to be quite blinkered as well and the coaches are there to keep you focused on your own event. It’s also important that they are there after the event to help you celebrate the highs and lift you up after the lows.
I think the team structure right now is amazing. We have a number of specialists: someone who analyses our performances in every detail, video analysis, team doctors, psychologists, and having all of those available to us allows us to learn so much about ourselves.
DB: When things get back to normal and the lockdown eases, what sort of program do you have in mind?
AH: My poor wife is going to feel like a single parent for a while, I’m afraid. I won’t be back at the shooting ground for quite some time – she will be running it purely because I’m going to be so busy.
It has been announced that I should be competing at Lonato in April and that’s the start of a pretty gruelling schedule that leads right up to the Games.
DB: When preparing for competition at such a high level, what’s the balance between practice and competition?
AH: You have to be careful – you can train, train, train and end up losing perspective because it’s just not the same as competing. If I think about how many rounds I have put through the gun when we have been able to train, it’s probably 40% of what I would do normally. You can’t do the huge amounts of practice that Double Trap demanded because it was more of a repetition game, whereas with Olympic Trap, if you were shooting on a range all day, you would just fatigue because it’s so much more technical in terms of ability. In an ideal world, I’d like to shoot 1,000 shells a week. Part of the limiting factor now is the difficulty in finding space on the layouts on a training day. Quite rightly, you can only put three people on the line when being coached with Covid restrictions in place, and that’s slowed things down a bit. We’ve gone from an environment where we could just go and shoot to now shooting much lower volumes.
DB: How does it feel shooting with a teammate?
AH: It does feel a bit odd. Mostly we fly together, stay in the same hotel and spend time together. We also shoot together. It’s not awkward though, you build up a companionship. You are in that team together. You know that they are going through the same emotions at the same time as you, and it brings you closer together.
DB: Before a big shoot, do you ever think about who is ‘on form’, and who might be your main competition?
AH: You have to just focus 100% on what you are doing. There’s no point wasting energy thinking about it. Everyone’s performance can change from shoot to shoot. I’ll never forget the performance from Ed Ling a few years back – he went from second from bottom at a World Cup to second overall at the next event which was the World Champs. It just goes to show that nothing can be taken for granted.
DB: Do you allow yourself to imagine what winning gold would feel like?
AH: Absolutely. It was always my dream as a 10- or 11-year-old boy. It’s what you’ve worked towards, it’s what all this has been for. I think of it in terms of stepping stones: there’s many people who have had that dream, I’ve just been lucky enough to have stepped on more of those stones than some of the others.
DB: When did you first pull the trigger?
AH: I was nine years old, with my dad. It was in our back garden at home and I shot some clays from an old Laporte hand trap with a 12-bore Investarm. I’ve still got the gun and it got used a couple of years ago when some youngsters came to the ground. I started shooting a bit of DTL around the age of 10 or 11 and it was by accident really that I tried Olympic Trap. When I was 12, dad was working close to Southern Counties SG, and we had the guns with us. We went along to see if we could shoot anything and there was a selection shoot on. I entered and at the end of the first day I was third in Juniors; I finished third and had a qualifying score. Because of that I had a chance of being in the GB Team, so I went to the next selection shoot and made the cut there. Since then, I have been in the team every year for 21 years and have shot for Great Britain every year.
DB: One thing that people say about you is that you are a genuinely nice guy; some people seem to suggest that you can’t be 100% competitive if that’s your outlook. What do you say to that?
AH: As with most things in life, it’s about balance. I always try to treat everyone with respect, and that comes from how I was brought up by my family. As far as I’m concerned, you should treat the target with respect. I’ve always said you can be a champion while still being a good guy; some people don’t think that way, but it’s the way I have always been. I’m a great believer in what comes around goes around, and I’ve met some great people and have some great friends through doing this. It’s a good feeling that I know if I was to run into trouble in most parts of the world, there would be someone in that country I could call who would help me.
DB: So, a tip for us mere mortals… what do you do when it’s all going wrong?
AH: It’s important to take a step back. Don’t push harder as it often doesn’t work. Instead, look for a different perspective. It is a little different between disciplines such as OT vs Sporting, but it’s also very similar from a mental perspective. I remember times when I’ve had a problem with a bird at competition, but then in training it’s been fine. Often, that change comes from giving yourself a minute to ask yourself what you are doing. Pause, analyse, and then go back with a clear head. Never give up, never go home, otherwise, what have you learned?
You can learn a lot from watching what someone else does, but you can’t learn anything if you are behind a steering wheel on the way home. Also, nine times out of 10 you kick yourself when you are behind a steering wheel on the way home because you know that if you had stayed, you could have turned a negative into a positive, or at least laid the groundwork for changing things the next time you shoot.
DB: Is there anything you would like to add?
AH: I really would like to reiterate how thankful I am for the organisations and companies that help me, not just through physical sponsorship, but also people I know I can pick up the phone to when I need to talk. GMK, Beretta, Fiocchi, Laporte, British Shooting, and UK Sport through lottery funding all make a huge difference. Of course, my family has been massively supportive and my lovely wife Natasha and my beautiful son are a big part of our team. Without their help and support, I wouldn't be where I am today, and I never forget that.