Is it Them or Their Equipment?

There are two times during which it is important for archers to determine the causes of poorly shot arrows: during competition (right after having shot a poor arrow) and when they are considering equipment upgrades because they think their equipment is holding them back. We look at both of these situations. Here. Now.

Troubleshooting Between Shots
Real time trouble shooting between shots is a necessary skill for archers. If you start doing something wrong, should you just keep practicing it or should you correct it before shooting more arrows? This sounds like a dumb question because the answer is obvious, but we believe this is the source of the difference between archers who get good basic coaching when they begin and archers who do not. Archers who learn on their own are predisposed to making mistakes and then practicing them until they are very hard to fix (the dreaded “bad habit”).

“For any particular “bad” shot, there are three possible causes:
the archer, the archer’s equipment, or the archer’s environment.”

This is critical when archers are just getting started and a lot falls on the shoulders of coaches to nip bad habits in the bud. But as archers progress, they need to develop their own skills at troubleshooting. During competition, or a practice round, or even just practice everybody shoots arrows that don’t land where they should. For any particular “bad” shot, there are three possible causes: the archer, the archer’s equipment, or the archer’s environment (wind, twigs overhanging the flight path of their arrows, sun in their eyes, etc.). If they have a poor shot and guess wrong as to its cause and make a correction based on the wrong source of the problem, they are just going to make another mistake, and another, and another. . . .

Archers will learn how to do this troubleshooting but, as we have insisted before, experience is a brutally tough teacher. Coaches can make this experience much easier by providing a little instruction. The first thing an archer needs to check when troubleshooting is whether or not you they were the source of the problem. They have a couple of techniques available to help with this task: one is to be able to replay the previous shot in memory. This is worth spending some practice time learning. Students take shots and then pause after each one to remember what that shot looked and felt and sounded like. Often they will get a clue from such a replay as to what they might have done wrong. You can pair up your students and have them shoot an arrow and immediately close their eyes. They need to then tell their shooting partner where on the target they think their arrow hit and whether they think they did anything wrong. After some practice, archers can recall the position of their aperture (or arrow point) in their sight picture upon release, the feel of the bow in their hand, the feel of the tension in their back upon followthrough, a truly amazing amount of detail. And it takes only a little practice to achieve this.

Another technique is for archers to maintain a mental checklist of their personal “most common mistakes.” These are generally categorized according to where the arrows miss (Why I Generally Shoot High, Why I Generally Shoot Right, etc.). If your archer shoots a low arrow, their mental check list comes to mind and if they did any one of the things on that list it will generally jump off the list! It helps if you can get them to write these things down in a notebook.

The reason that archers need to check themselves first is because short term memory is volatile and if they put it off, they will lose the memory of the feel of the shot quite rapidly.

Generally it is easiest to check one’s shooting environment. For example, at most target competitions pennants are placed on top of the target butts to help archers gauge the wind. The archers on the shooting line use them to gauge the wind at the target and there are often bushes or trees along side the range to help gauge the wind in between. It is highly unlikely that they would have missed a wind stiff enough to cause a significant miss, but they can double check this. People have used binoculars or spotting scopes to discover their arrow impaled a bird on its path to the target, so strange things can happen. In NFAA field shoots, bystanding archers tend to watch arrows fly because if one hits an overhanging obstruction (like a twig or leaf), a remedy is available.
Checking one’s equipment generally requires an archer to look at their bow to see if anything has moved (smart archers use a fine pointed marker to mark the positions of bow sight extensions, clickers, compound bow eccentrics, anything that moves—this is something you can teach them). Have them rap their bow and limbs with their knuckles and listen. Loose parts will rattle or buzz. Have them check knobs that tend to loosen to see if they are still tight. Have them wiggle things like their sight bar, their arrow rest, and other critical parts to see if they feel loose. If they find something loose, could it be the source of the problem? If not, they need to keep looking. (This is quite hard to learn so most of this is learned by trial and error.)

This troubleshooting skill is not just for problems. Champion archers compare their assessment of a shot with the outcome (from binocular or spotting scope checks of every arrow). If it felt like a good shot and it scored as expected, the next shot is just a “do over.” If it felt good and scored poorly, then troubleshooting as described here begins. If it felt like a poor shot and scored poorly, that is to be expected. The absolute worse case scenario is the shot was awful but scored well. What? One gets lucky and this is the worse case scenario? Yes! Your archer has just imprinted his/her subconscious mind that shots that score well can be improvised. While this may be true on very rare occasions, it is not true in general, so archers must really focus on getting back to their practiced, regular shot as soon as possible, and the one shot they can easily replay in their minds, the one they just messed up, is not a good model.

So, archers have to think their way through a competition and their conscious thinking has to be confined to the time between shots, otherwise it will distract the archer from making good shots. Assessing shots and troubleshooting them is a vital skill for consistently high quality shooting.

Now let’s switch our focus to a broader aspect of “is it them or their equipment?”

Managing Equipment Roadblocks
When an archer comes to you and says “I think my equipment is holding me back!” (or some equivalent), what are you going to say? What we think you should say is “Well, let’s look at you and your equipment.” Now this may not be possible during a group class and may require a private lesson on the side. Coaches may choose to do a cursory once over and if something obvious is found (bent arrows, for example) you could deal with that during class and, if nothing is glaringly wrong, maybe a private lesson will be needed. (Obviously if the student is underage, parental approval is needed to set up and pay for such a session.)

First Things First
We like to at least make a cursory equipment inspection to rule out obvious problems like a rotated or bent arrow rest (very common), or mismatched or bent arrows or a broken bow string (Only one broken strand will cause the string to stretch, continuously!). If nothing glaring is found, move on to assessing the archer. The archer is primarily responsible for accuracy (contrary to what equipment manufacturers suggest, but give them a break, they are just trying to make a living) so the place to start is with the archer. Start by asking your student to shoot some arrows at a quite close target. Observe their grouping: where is the group located, are there “fliers,” how small is the group, is the group “round”? If there are fliers, remove those arrows and ask them to shoot again. If there are no fliers upon reshooting, possibly the removed arrows are defective.

Have them then shoot at a substantially longer distance. Often young and physically weaker students have to hold their bows at a very high angle to shoot longer distances (short draw length, low draw weight, heavier arrows all limit arrow speeds). This higher angle often distorts their form sufficiently to degrade their scores/group sizes). At this longer distance you need to examine their grouping as you did before. If the archer and his/her equipment are okay, we expect that they will be able to shoot round groups, centered on the target, and that their group sizes would be proportional to their distances. So if your archer shot at ten yards and 40 yards, the group at 40 yards should be four times as wide and four times as high than at ten yards (four times the distance means four times the group diameter).

If there are significant flaws in the form or execution, a prescription for drills to correct those flaws (Drills are available in the Coach’s Guide to the AER recreational Archery Curriculum.) needs to be given and then another check after sufficient practice has occurred is also necessary. (Doctors who don’t check back after they treat us for something are considered very poor doctors. Same is true for coaches.) If you feel their form is solid and execution consistent, then their equipment is probably responsible for any variations from these expectations. (Note The most common need is for arrow adjustments but young archers can and do outgrow their bows.)

“The world of archery equipment can be baffling to archers,
so the help you give them will be greatly appreciated.
If not, you are free to charge the ungrateful ones more.”

If their groups are round and centered and proportionally sized, the archer may be complaining that his/her groups are larger than they have been. We hope that if your archer is at this stage of awareness he/she has learned to keep notes. One of the handiest ways to keep track of group sizes is to use the target circles. If using standard FITA targets, phrases like “holding the red,” or “holding the 6-ring” to indicate that the vast majority of arrows are in those rings or closer to center. (If a group is a little off center, one can use one’s imagination to determine which ring it would fit in it were moved to the center. This isn’t an exact science. This also assumes a fair degree of consistency, so records of shooting are very helpful.

A lot of archers have phones with cameras in them, so one way to keep track of practice shooting is to start with a fresh target and then take a picture of the target after practice, which shows where all of the arrow holes are. (Obviously labeling the picture with date, numbers of shots, etc. would also be helpful.)

One of the things that trips up young archers is that target face sizes change with distance. Obviously shooting at the same target face, say an 80 cm FITA target, at two different distances would be comparable but what if one distance were shot at an 80cm face and another at a 122cm face? Here is a cheat sheet showing the diameters of all of the rings on four different sizes of FITA Targets.

If World Archery/FITA could have just seen fit to make the biggest target 120 cm, all of the target sizes would be perfect simple multiples of one another. (The 122 cm target is almost exactly 48 inches wide, which was the standard target size for centuries.) As it is, they are close to being simple multiples for these purposes.

Digging Deeper
If an archer is stalled in making progress, or getting worse, there is a cause. If you can’t find a form or execution cause, we must look deeper. One place to inspect carefully is your archer’s finger tab. A well worn tab will usually show a fairly precise dent in its top layer from where the string presses (over and over and over). If there are two such dents, then maybe there has been a change in the way the string hand has been positioned on the string. This changes a great deal in that the archer’s string finger pressures are changed, as well as is the draw elbow position and any number of other things. If the tab “tells” on the archer, ask them to use a back up tab or new tab and to place their fingers very carefully. Hopefully, the old finger position was drilled much more than the new one and they can “recover their shot,” so to speak.

Another possible sleuthing tool is to provide other arrows. They don’t necessarily need to be an exact match to the archer, they just need to be close to a good match and consistent. These arrows won’t impact in the same places as the others but, if the archer’s grouping improves, you know that it is time for new arrows.

Recurve bows, especially ones with very light drawing limbs are somewhat notorious for either “fatiguing” or “breaking down.” Recurve bow limbs are laminated and if there is a flaw in one of the laminations, the limb will bend more at the point of the flaw, further weakening that spot. Well before you can detect the flaw by eye, the bow will become unstable and poorer groups result. Of course, you should check to see if the brace height and tiller are within manufacturer’s specifications. If you don’t have access to the manufacturer’s specs, we provide common values for these measurements for various length bows in the appendices of the Coaches’ Guide to the AER Recreational Archery Curriculum.

If you can borrow another pair of limbs, swapping out your archer’s limbs for the different ones should show if there was anything wrong with the original pair. If you can’t find another pair of limbs, borrowing a different (but similar) bow and asking your archer to shoot groups for you may be telling.

Most archers overrate the role of their equipment in their performance. Consequently many have equipment far better than they can benefit from (they “over bought”). You need to be able to determine when their equipment is substandard but also if it is too advanced for them. Kids trying to shoot grownup bows that are too heavy for them is one simple example. And high end equipment can be temperamental (archers say “critical”) and require an expert to shoot it well, in which case it is providing an archer of less prowess no benefit and actually becoming a barrier to progress.

The world of archery equipment can be baffling to archers, so the help you give them will be greatly appreciated. If not, you are free to charge the ungrateful ones more.

A Note on Defective/Flawed Arrows
Some factors affecting the behavior of arrows can be quite hidden from view. For example, aluminum arrows that have been bent and then straightened a number of times will stop grouping with the other arrows of the set. (When an aluminum tube is bent the metal on outside of the bend is stretched and the metal on the inside is compressed. Look at any knuckle on your fingers: the outside surface has extra skin to allow for the stretch and the inside surface has creases to facilitate the compression/buckling that occurs there. Put on a pair of gloves that are too tight and you will have trouble bending your fingers as there is no extra material allowing for the stretching at each knuckle.)

Similarly carbon arrows can crack on their inside surfaces and thus weaken the shaft even though there is no visible flaw. Two arrows can also look the same but weigh quite different.

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