I was coaching yesterday. As was typical I had two youths building their shots and an adult needing technical help (tuning arrows). It occurred to me that I hadn’t mentioned, often enough I suppose, the role of tension in building a shot. So, in this post, I will.
If you read high level descriptions of how to make a shot, the descriptions are incredibly detailed, down to which muscles are involved and how tense they need be. Some beginning serious archers seek out these descriptions as a guide to building their shots. As a coach, I really pay little attention to those descriptions for a number of reasons. For one, these “instructions” are for adult athletes in high levels of fitness. For another, these are elite level mechanics being addressed and I don’t think they are appropriate until an archer is at or near an elite level.
To build solid archery form, I focus on the basics. The underlying principle is the same as with doctors: first, do no harm. What I mean by this is do not have your student-archers learn anything that will need to be unlearned later. This is a big problem with trying to learn elite archery form without the body or experience to make it work. Instead of doing what the form requires, we do what we can do which is different from what is needed. Those “bad moves” then need to be unlearned later and more correct techniques learned.
As far as I am concerned consistent accuracy is built upon what I call the Three Pillars of Accuracy and a “Tension Free Shot.” The Three Pillars are: relaxed hands and good full draw body position with proper muscle use. If one’s hands are tension free the bow will shape them accordingly. The string or release hand will be pulled into the flat-backed shape desired and the bow hand (and wrist) will be positioned and shaped by the bow. Obviously this entails learning how to place the hands correctly. Similarly getting into good full draw position without the engagement of the proper muscles will not serve as we end up with a static shot.
Then the goal is to remove all unneeded muscle tension from the archer’s body to provide a relaxation baseline, a tension free shot. For example, the deltoid muscles in the upper arms need to be tense in order to hold the bow (and our arms) up in position, The muscles in the upper forearm need to be tense to wrap the fingers around the string or release aid. But nothing else in the hands, wrists, and arms needs to be tense. We want these relaxed when shooting.
In order to acquire consistency, we need to shoot from the same body configuration. Tense muscles are necessarily shorter than relaxed ones, so if your upper body is tense, your draw length will be shorter than if the unneeded muscles are relaxed. The classic case that demonstrates this is the young Recurve archer just beginning to shoot with a clicker. If they get tense at all in their upper body, because of competition pressure or whatever, it shortens their draw length and makes it harder to get through their clicker. When they struggle getting through their clicker, they get even more tense, try “harder,” making it even harder to get through their clicker. Some young archers have melt downs around this positive feedback loop. They need to be taught that if they begin to struggle with their clicker, their first response needs to be to relax.
So, I teach them that we start building championship form from a state of maximum relaxation (of unneeded muscles) because: the relaxed state of their body is consistent plus they can “find relaxed.” What I mean by “find relaxed” is using relaxation techniques (shaking hands and arms; tensing muscles, then relaxing them, etc.) they can create a state of relaxation they can learn to recognize and find again. But how one creates a state in which a muscle group is 37% tense is beyond me.
Everything is then built off of this relaxed form foundation. Then as their interest and commitment grows, they can experiment with adding muscle tension to their shot. Does flexing one’s core muscles produce a steadier, more consistent shot? Well, the relaxed shot is the baseline from which group sizes and round scores are had and then attempts to shoot with a flexed core proceed from there. Same with using an open stance that requires a twisted torso to get the shoulders back to square (compound) or pointed at the bow (recurve). Try the new form element and see if things improve. If so, keep going. If not, go back.
In contrast to this is see way too much mimicking of adult form by youths. But youths don’t have the musculature to take advantage of all of the elements of an adult shot. Then they shoot for years and end up thinking that their shot is “correct,” which they have little reason to believe as they haven’t tested elements of their shot against any baseline. So, I see JOAD archers shooting from an open stance even though their alignment is weak. I see them shooting heavy bows (metal risers) when their upper arm muscles (deltoids) don’t fully develop until they have their adult musculature, so their form is distorted.
By building a basic, relaxed archery form, they will develop consistency faster and will have a foundation to build a more advanced form from later, should that form be desired.
A relaxed foundation cannot be built using a bow too stout (being overbowed), too heavy, or a form too complicated. All of these things lead to the engagement of muscles that are unnecessary and because archery is a feel sport, the feel of their shot is being built on a false basis. (Too heavy bows lead to raised bow shoulders, leaning away from the target, etc. To stout bow leads to gymnastics being exhibited to get the string back, and so on.)
I think the KISS principle applies here.