Angus's musings; thoughts about archery

This is an infrequently updated column of my thoughts about archery. I shoot mainly target archery, and the (very) occasional field round, so my comments are somewhat slanted that way. If you have any comments about these articles, please email me at angus@harlequin.com. Current articles are:

Comfort and Joy

What's the best style? Is Jay Barr's style better than Sebastian Flute's?

These are the sort of questions that we hear beginners and people not generally knowledgable about archery ask all of the time. We, as archers, know that it is all personal, and that we shouldn't copy other people's style. So what do we say when people ask for help with their style, or when we know we need to improve our own style? We can change everything to try and make it closer to the model we think is best, but often the results are no improvement. I have come to believe that there is one fundamental principle which should be followed when examining any aspect of an archer's style, and this is comfort. Put simply, you cannot repeat shot after shot the same, unless each shot is comfortable.

At any competition, you'll see archers who have strange draws or rituals, who twist or contort their shoulders or head or hands as they prepare for the shot. They'll say `I need to do it to settle my shoulder', or something similar, if you ask them about it. What these people are doing is fixing the symptoms, not the problem. The problem is they are trying to follow a style model that isn't comfortable. As an example, look at tab design; when I learned to shoot, the good archers all used tabs with finger separators, because `they stop you from pinching the arrow'. This is an entirely reasonable thing to want to avoid. It took me four years to realise that this piece of wisdom wasn't appropriate for me, because it was not comfortable; I had lumps or bruises from the finger separator rubbing, and my string hand was tense. Now I shoot without a finger separator; my string hand is more relaxed, and I don't have lumps or bruises anymore.

If every movement you make when shooting is comfortable, you won't be forced to make the wrong movements. If you have to make awkward movements to settle a shoulder or whatever, you'll do it slightly differently each time, trying to avoid the discomfort. In archery consistency is everything; finding a comfortable style allows your subconscious to get on with the job of shooting the arrow, while your conscious mind can concentrate on other things (these other things may be the topic of a future article).

And now the second point; joy. What has this got to do with archery? Quite a lot actually. Whatever level you shoot at, if you don't enjoy archery, you will not perform to your best. If you're enjoying yourself, you'll be more relaxed, and the physical motion of shooting will take less effort. You'll also be in a more positive frame of mind, which will improve your shooting greatly. The times when I have seen this most in evidence are when the weather is poor; in these cases, the archers who do archery for its own sake (rather than because they like beating their friends or rivals) tend to do better, as they don't mind the reduction in scores as much. They're happy to keep shooting arrows all day, and will do the best that they can under the conditions.

So what can you do to enjoy archery more? You can start by setting realistic goals. If you shoot 1200 in practice, you can't expect to shoot 1250 in a competition, with the additional pressures involved. In fact, if you're only shooting 1200 in practice, you can't even expect to shoot 1200 in competition all the time. Setting score goals can be very destructive, because you're always at the mercy of the weather, so another thing you can do to enjoy archery is to avoid setting score goals when you're likely to be disappointed by the weather. I rarely go out with a particular score target for a whole competition; once it is underway, however, I try to set goals for each distance that I can just make if I shoot a bit better than I am doing at the time.

There will be some people out there who will laugh if I say that the descriptions above relate to myself. A look back at my recent progress may be interesting. When I started archery, and especially when I realised I could be good, I became extremely competitive. The more I competed, the more I wanted to shoot big scores and to win; how I got there didn't seem important. The upshot of this was that if I started a competition and wasn't reaching the score I was after, I would retire. At the start of the 1994 outdoor season, I couldn't shoot the scores I was after in competitions, and after a couple of attempts I gave up in disgust, and didn't shoot for the rest of the season. When I picked up my bow again, it was because I wanted to shoot arrows more than anything else; I was finding myself loosing imaginary arrows while waiting for the kettle to boil, or following through whilst making my dinner. This is the point I was trying to make about enjoying archery; I now shoot because I want to, rather than because I feel I have to, or because I am desperate for a score.

Postscript: After writing the article above, I saw the Jay Barrs Video ``The Mental Game'' at a training weekend. Strangely enough, the words that he used when describing positive affirmation were almost exactly what I said: he suggested the phrase ``I am comfortable and enjoy (achieving whatever task or goal you have set)''. So maybe there is something in it after all.

Rhythm and Motion

You'll see the same thing written in article after article about archery. If you want to shoot a recurve bow well, you must shoot with continuous motion. But that is only half the story; you must also shoot with a consistent rhythm.

Consistent rhythm allows you to train your subconcious mind into a good shot pattern. If your subconcious is trained into a good shooting pattern, it will help you through the times when you get nervous or tired, by doing the right thing for you. The subconcious isn't good at taking account of altering circumstances, that is the job of the concious mind. There are two important ingredients to achieving a consistent rhythm; setting up the shot consistently, and keeping the motion going all the way into the follow-through.

Let's consider the set-up. This is different for each person, so I'll tell you how I try to set my shots up. There are four parts to my set-up: positioning the string fingers, positioning the bow hand, pre-tensioning, and breathing. Of these four, breathing is by far the most important. A consistent breathing rhythm is essential for a consistent shot rhythm; I'll write some more about this in another article sometime, for now observe that it is easier to exert muscle power when breathing out (ask any martial artist about the kiai, or Jimmy Connors about his grunts), and that when you run out of oxygen your aim gets shaky (compare the results of exhaling before drawing and aiming and of inhaling before drawing). The breathing rhythm controls the rest of the set-up; my breathing rhythm is natural, but with slightly deeper breaths than usual. On the first breath, I position my string fingers. On the second breath, I set the bow-hand and take a little of the tension. After that, I will wait for the wind to drop or stabilise, taking a bit of tension with each inhale, and slackening it with each exhale. I draw as I exhale, slowing the draw and exhale part of the way to set the sight pin over the target, and then continue drawing and exhaling to the anchor point and through the shot.

So how do you go about training yourself to shoot with continuous motion? The most obvious thought is to count to yourself as you draw, anchor, and shoot. Don't! You will almost certainly find that you draw up and wait for the count, then haul through the clicker and explode in any direction except the one you wanted to shoot in. Instead of counting, find a word or words that you can repeat to yourself, which make you think and feel motion. When you start drawing, start repeating the words to yourself, and keep repeating them until you have shot the arrow, followed through, and the arrow has hit the target. Don't stop repeating the words when you release, this will lead to forward or sideways loosing. You haven't finished the shot until it has hit the target, so keep the bow-hand up, keep looking at the target, and keep extending the muscles like you're trying to pull a very long arrow through the clicker.

I'm sure that the name ``anchor point'' makes it harder for some people to achieve continuous motion. The name implies something solid, rooted, or immobile, which is exactly what should not happen to the shot. Let's call it the alignment point instead; it it where you align the shot, as you continue to draw. When you reach the alignment point, the sight pin should be close to the centre of the target, so only tiny movements are needed to be spot on the middle. Your rhythm should have enough time from reaching the alignment point to adjust the sight pin so it is on the centre of the target, but not enough time that you start wandering off the centre. You must believe that continuous motion is more important than aiming, to avoid flinching if the sight pin isn't exactly central. It really doesn't matter if you shoot with the sight aimed a bit off; your subconcious doesn't like things being different, so it will correct it for you.

Learning how to come down is important. If you find yourself out of rhythm, you will have to take concious control of the shot, in order to come down safely. How will you know when to come down? The answer is, when it crosses your mind for the first time. If you shoot with a consistent rhythm, as soon as your rhythm is disturbed your concious mind will be alerted. In my case, if I hold too long I find I have finished exhaling without shooting, and the need to inhale alerts my concious mind to come down.

Finally, when you are practicing to improve rhythm and motion, start by shooting at a blank boss. Pick any spot to shoot at, but shoot from far enough away that you can't see exactly where the arrows are landing. When you have worked on a blank boss for a couple of weeks, try making a huge target centre and shooting at that, and slowly reduce the size of the centre to a bit less than the normal proportions. If at any time you find that you are slowing your rhythm to aim harder, go back to a blank boss for a day or two. Remember, you are trying to train your body and mind to make the shot automatic and consistent, and you can only do that by repeating the same shot time after time.

Good luck!

One Step at a Time

This musing was prompted by part of a seminar given by Rick McKinney that I attended. Rick was talking about producing a good performance in a big event, and about expectation levels. He said that at world championships and major internationals he had problems with the first ends of the tournament, when he would be nervous and charged up. He would start out expecting to shoot 50 or more for each end at 90m, but would actually shoot around 42 or lower, and then have to try harder to make up points later.

Do you recognise this? How many times have you shot great ends in practice or sighters and then terrible when scoring starts? How long does it take you to recover? It's all to do with expectations; you are pressurising yourself to perform under conditions which you do not normally practice under (heightened stress and nervousness).

Rick's solution was to realise that the expectation to shoot 50 for the first end was unreasonable at first, and to reset the goal lower (for example, to 45). Making that goal is not only more achievable, but it gives a positive boost to the psyche at the start of the competition, which helps create a positive attitude for the rest of the competition. When that goal is achieved most of the time, set the goal a little higher. Don't try to raise your expectations too high in one go, or you may get frustrated with not achieving anything.

I'm trying to apply this method to my own goals. I want to shoot 1300 Fitas. I initially assessed how I was shooting (approx. 1230s-1240s), and then drew up a table like this:

	90m	70m	50m	30m
1230	277	308	307	338
1240	280	310	310	340
1250	283	313	312	342
1260	287	315	315	343
1270	290	318	317	345
1280	293	320	320	347
1290	297	323	322	348
1300	300	325	325	350
Now at each tournament, my score goals are to shoot the next row on the table higher than my average for the previous few competitions (note that I have other goals as well as score goals; I am working on form, or aiming, or testing new equipment, or something else each time). If I am averaging 1240, I want to try and shoot a 1250. To do this, I only need to increase my average 90m and 70m by 3 points each, and 50m and 30m by 2 points each. This is less than half a point per end at the long distances! So far, I have always been able to identify where I could gain a couple of points on a distance, so now I can work on improving my form and reset my expectations accordingly.

When I make the improved distance score, I put a tick beside the entry in the table to note that I have achieved this goal. When I make that score regularily, I reset the goal to the next one in the table. Each time I put a tick on the table I can see that I am getting closer to the 1300 Fita at the bottom of the table. When I get close to the bottom of the table, I'll add more goals at the end. I've broken down my main goal into achievable sub-goals, against which I can set my expectations accordingly.

The other revelation about that part of the seminar was that I didn't realise that Rick McKinney ever shot ends as low as that!

Simplify, Simplify, Simplify

When faced with a form problem, how do you solve it? Obviously, this depends on what the form problem is. Or does it?

The first thing to do is to find out what the problem really is, not what the symptom is. For instance, if you are hitting your bow arm and hurting it when you loose, the problem is not that you don't have a bracer, it's probably poor alignment or shoulder position. When you do find what the real problem is, several solutions may present themselves. In the example above, you may be able to lower your front shoulder position, you may be able to alter your bow hand position, you may be able to use a side anchor, or even open your stance.

You need to look at the potential problems which could arise from each solution to your problem, and weigh them against the original problem. In the example, altering your bowhand may introduce torque and cause a bad follow-through. Using a side anchor may make the anchor point and alignment hard to find, and opening the stance may twist the back and make the back muscle action less effective. Lowering the shoulder, however, puts the bones into alignment, and reduces muscle use and fatigue.

What's different about this solution that makes it the most attractive? It is simpler. Before the shot, you are standing up straight and relaxed. Your shoulders are naturally down. Why raise or push them forward during the draw? When you raise your bow to the target, you just need to raise your arm, not your shoulders.

The principle of choosing a solution that simplifies the shot will almost always pay off in the long run. A simpler shot is easier to maintain; there are less things to remember when preparing the shot, there are less actions to execute to make the shot, there are less chances for you to do the wrong thing. A simpler shot is usually quicker and more comfortable too!

The benefits of simplicity should not be underestimated. If you are not shooting many arrows each day, it is easy for minor changes to slip into your form. If you keep your form simple, it is not only easier to remember what you should be doing, it is easier to detect and correct from deviations. All an archer needs to do to be consistent is to pull the string back and let it go. What's complicated about that? Occam's Razor is one of the sharpest tools I've ever used to solve a problem.

Notes from a Rick McKinney Seminar

Here are some notes from a two-day seminar given by Rick McKinney that I attended early in 1997. Rick McKinney is a three-times World Champion, Olympic silver medalist, and former world record holder. The seminar package included a ForMaster, stretch band and an autographed copy of Rick's new book, ``The Simple Art of Winning''.

Rick was very personable and forthcoming, willing to answer any question, and has a wry sense of humour (OK Rick, I'll stop analysing you! :-)). The seminar was not very well attended, so I had a great opportunity to ask Rick as many questions as I could think of. These notes are rather unstructured, I asked questions whenever I could think of them.

Mental Development

Mental skills which the archer must develop include relaxation under pressure. Fear of succeeding and fear of fear are common causes of underperforming. A mismatch between committment and expectation also causes a great deal of frustration; Rick advised to decide what level you aspire to, and set committment to that level. He said that while he was World Champion, he ate, slept, and breathed archery. Shooting was his primary activity, finding money to live off was secondary.

Relaxation techniques are useful to help focus imagery.

Reaffirmation prepares for the feelings of success, and helps alter comfort zones. Breaking comfort zones involves imagining improvements in small increments. Don't set unrealistic expectations.

Focus training on a small target face teaches concentration.

Work on goals one point at a time. Set practice goals for form, equipment and mental training. Shooting a lot of local tournaments helps normalise the tournament environment, and retain the competitive feeling.

Mental program should have a backup, just like physical. If one technique fails to work, you should not collapse mentally, but should be able to use another technique to cope.

Rick recommended Lenny Basham seminars, Edge seminars and tapes, Franklin Planner, and ``In pursuit of excellence'', by Terry Orlick.

Form

Rick advised staying close to classical form, but adjusting for personal physique where necessary. He said his own non-standard stance was a habit developed as a result of over-bowing as a child. The less muscle used in making a shot, the better. Archery involves fine motor control, not gross movements.

On bow hand positioning, he suggested that the pressure anywhere on the thumb side of the ``lifeline'' is good, the other side is bad. Low versus high grip is a personal choice, but try both to find out which suits best. The feeling of trying to touch the target with the bow hand should be maintained, to keep the shot balanced and avoid over-drawing. However, the front arm should not be pushed towards the target. The front arm reaction is just that; a reaction. The sideways reaction of the bow tends to be anticipated. A slight sideways reaction is natural (since the front arm supporting the bow and the draw force on the string are not on exactly the same line), but keep reaching (not pushing) towards the target.

Using the tips of the string fingers used more muscle to draw the bow, which is worse under the ``less muscle the better'' principle. Starting in the first joint tends to creep onto the tips at full draw. Starting all the way into the second joint may be hard to release. He suggested starting in the middle of the finger, slipping to the first joint on first and third fingers, and the fleshy pad on the second finger at full draw. The third finger is the ``grouping'' finger, it doesn't help much in the draw but does affect groups. Very few of the champions use two finger or lazy first finger draw. Callouses should be trimmed and kept smooth to avoid cracking. Placing the thumb at the back of the neck is alright if it is not used to push against.

The clicker is more than just a draw check, it is a release command, which eliminates confusion between the conscious and sub-conscious mind.

The head should not be held rigid. The anchor point is independent of head position, and should be set before the head is moved to the string. The string should touch the nose rather that press in, to keep it consistent. If a kisser button is used, it should touch the top teeth.

The shoulders should be kept down. The upper back muscles should be used rather than the lower back (latissimus dorsi), because the lower back muscles tend to pull the release and bow arm down on release. The draw should be made in line rather than out and then in, to reduce muscle fatigue.

When aiming, the visual picture you see is history; the subconscious is already reacting to it, so let the subconscious do its job and don't aim consciously or you will over-correct. Continuous motion is vital, any way of occupying the conscious mind to prevent it from interfering is OK.

Physical Conditioning

Most good shots are done between heartbeats. The fitter you are, and the lower your heartrate, the more likely that you will be able to shoot between heartbeats.

Rick recommended light weights for weight training.

Equipment

Rick recommended Angel Dyneema for bowstring material. It has a softer feel and is not as heavily waxed as FastFlite.

On stabilisation, he suggested setting up primarily for a nice feel, and secondly to slow the reaction of the bow.

Rick is a strong supporter of Spin Wings. The spin-wings are colour-coded for stiffness, so don't mix them on the same shaft (the dye is what changes the stiffness). The colours are, weakest to stiffest, white, yellow, blue, red, black. He said that vane clearance is more important than stability. Faster arrows also need less fletching, and thinner vanes are more criticalon the whole. Vanes should be placed as close to the fingers as possible without touching. Vanes should be group tested against each other to determine suitability.

Use a spotting scope to look at arrow placement, not score.

Micro-tuning is primarily for centre shot.

Tune and fletch for big competitions. Tune two weeks before, fletch one week before. Setup bare shafts, shoot them to remove fliers, then fletch them. Use the good ones for tuning.

A/C/Es should last 2-3 years at about 4000 shots/year (I've personally not found this to be the case). A/C/E weight codes are C0-C6 from lightest to heaviest. Limbs should last for more than 100,000 shots. Change for sponsorship or poundage reasons, they won't wear out normally.

Problem Solving

There is a great tool that can be used problem solving in archery; the checklist. Most problems encountered during competitions are recurrences of problems that have been solved in training. Write down not only what the problem is, but where the arrows fall (e.g. groups low left, or spread high-low), and what to do about it. When you have a problem in competition, check your equipment first; it's easy to do and will eliminate one source of problems. Next look at your problem checklist, and see if the symptoms match a problem you've already dealt with. While you're working on a problem, move your sight! Don't lose points just because your sight is ``right'' and your form is wrong, move the sight until you can fix the form problem, then move the sight back.

Trivia

Some other snippets of information came up during the seminar. On poundage: I think Rick confirmed that Denise Parker had shot 1348 with a 27lb bow and 1614 X7 arrows. He also said to watch out if Denise got back to shooting, because he thought she would improve on her previous achievements. Watch out, she's back now!

Apparently Butch Johnson's name for arrows in the blue and black are ``smurfs''.

Rick's flinches when he was demonstrating the effects of poor clicker use were so good that I flinched at them too! Having seen Rick shoot since then, I can confirm that he can do some incredibly wild looking shots, and still hit the middle! :-)

Separated by a Common Language

This article is being written with Scottish Archery, the newsletter of the Scottish Archery Association, in mind. I have been living, working and shooting in California for the last year and a half, since the end of 1996. This article is a comparison of archery in the U.K. and the U.S.A., as perceived by me.

It may come as a surprise to many Scottish archers, but the facilities for archery in much of the U.S.A. are on the whole worse than in Scotland. Archery is even more of a minority sport, Justin Huish's success in Atlanta notwithstanding. What archery there is tends to be bowhunting and field; target archery is only practiced by a few. It can be quite difficult to find places to practice where 90m can be shot! I have not come across a single school playing field which is used for archery practice, I attribute this to the more specialised nature of fields here (they are usually laid out and kept for baseball or American football), and the liability issues. Most field courses have a practice range, but usually not longer than about 60 yards (they measure in old units here too).

I am fortunate in being able to practice at Golden Gate Park, in San Francisco, which has a permanent outdoor range with 90m available. However, it is not really more than just a field with some hay bales, I have to take a target capable of stopping carbon arrows with me when I practice. (If you're in the Bay Area with your bow, come and shoot at the park; it's out by the Dutch Windmill a few blocks from the Pacific Ocean.)

Target archers also get the short straw when it comes to buying equipment; most archery pro-shops do not stock target recurve bows or suitable arrows (I've even been asked what A/C/E's are!), or any other target accessories. Mail-order is available and prices for American-made goods are cheaper than in Scotland, usually the same in dollars as in pounds, but foreign-made goods are either impossible to find or are astronomically expensive. There is a thriving word-of-mouth market between target archers, selling each other gear for which they have found a distributor.

There appears to be a considerable amount more traditional archery in the U.S.A., partly because of the bowhunting aspect. There are also a number of very good compound archers shooting field and 3-D who have never shot target competitions.

Fita Stars are much rarer in the U.S.A. than in the U.K., unless you are prepared to travel huge distances. I am fortunate in that Sacramento, the closest venue where Fita Stars are held, is the venue for two Fita Stars in the year. It is an hour and a half drive to Sacramento, apart from that I have to start thinking about flying to tournaments because of the distance. A typical Fita Star will be a single Fita over two days, with possibly a third day for elimination rounds. I have gained a lot more experience in the elimination rounds since coming to the U.S.A., shooting against members of the Australian and Mexican teams in major competitions and against Jay Barrs at the U.S. Nationals (he won). The U.S. National outdoor championships is a great tournament, a week of Fita, eliminations, serious and fun team tournaments, and traditional should you want to shoot that too.

I expect that readers in Scotland are now thinking of California and imagining perfect weather all the time; maybe this winter's floods and rain (courtesy of El Niño) will have changed that idea! While the weather is nice on the whole, the heat and sun have to be taken seriously. It is very easy to get sunburnt, heatstroke, or dehydrated if precautions are not taken, and even mild symptoms of these will ruin your shooting. Having shot in the California's central valley, Arizona, and Michigan during summer, I have now learnt how to cope with both excessive heat (the central valley can reach 110°F or more for days on end in California's summer) and humidity. For a fair-skinned person like myself, the cost of factor 50 sunblock needs to be factored into one's archery costs!

Trying to make a comparison of the standard of archery in the U.S.A. and the U.K. is hard. My impression is that for its size, the U.S.A. does not have as many good archers as it should. The top American archers are better than the U.K., but this is quite a small number of archers. There appears to be more depth in the U.K., but not the same standard at the very top. I am surprised that on my worse score of the last two years, I came 17th shooting as a guest in the U.S. target trials, the competition used to select the team for the world championships. It is interesting to note that the scores required to be eligible for selection to the U.S. team are much lower than for the British team (I believe in was three 1200 Fitas last year for the gents). The N.A.A. will pay expenses for travel to the selection tournament if a higher score is achieved, I think the score was 1250 last year. This is a big consideration given the size of the U.S.A. and the travelling distances involved.

One of the pleasures of shooting in the U.S.A. is that I have had a chance to meet and shoot with people who I have only heard of through the pages of archery magazines. I have shot with and talked with many top archers, grassroots archers, and archery personalities, and have found them all to be open, friendly and forthcoming. Don't believe everything you read about them in the magazines, though! I'm sure I will have a few choice stories to relate, but not in print!

Sadly, I hear the same sort of complaints about the N.A.A. as I hear about G.N.A.S., although the complaints do not have the same intensity as the current problems with G.N.A.S. The usual topics of the complaints are team selection, finance, placement of national championships, and so on.


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Last modified on 16th June 2008 by angus@harlequin.com