Helping Your Students with … The Mental Game

(from the May-June 2014 issue of Archery Focus magazine)

Note There is a great deal of talk about the Mental Game of Archery but almost none on how to get students started. Here’s two cents worth.

***

For beginning archers, the physical aspects of the sport dominate. There is probably very little room for anything else in their  minds. The phrase “archery is 90% mental,” is often heard in archery instruction circles, which is not at all true, although it is close to the truth when it comes to archery competitions. To become a good archer, many hours of practice, building muscles and  technique training and additional hours setting up and testing and tuning equipment all have to happen so that on competition day, the equipment and form and execution are unconsciously dependable. The remainder of the day is largely determined by our archer’s minds: how focused they are, how confident, how consistent they can maintain our performance, etc. So, how do you start helping your students with their mental games? When do you start?

The Mental Game of Archery
It wasn’t that long ago that there wasn’t any mental game recognized. Some archers did it, but most just practiced shooting arrows and making their equipment perfect and hope for the best. Today, all elite archers incorporate mental training in their practice and competition. Many young archers compete and win without a mental program but as they get older, they shouldn’t expect to be doing any “winning” when they are giving away such an advantage. Practice . . . mentally? Yep, do you ever expect them to do something well without practicing?

Getting Started A key to shooting well is your archers must focus their conscious thinking upon what they are doing “now” during any shot. If their mind wanders onto their stance while they are at full draw, for example, the outcome will be a bad shot. They must “pay attention” to what is happening . . . right now.

You probably know why. Archery is a repetition sport. If their minds wander it will (at least) change their timing and such shots will occur at a different pace than the previous ones. We want each shot to be their best shot and the next shot to be just like the last one. We know this from the fact that it is easier to do something you have just done than to do it new for the first time. It is more effective to “copy” the last shot than it is to make up a new technique while shooting the next one.

So what are they supposed to “focus on?” This is the role played by their shot sequence. Basically this is a list of everything they do to take a single shot. Their shot sequence puts names to things they will need to refine physically (improving their technique) but also it is a list of where their attention needs to be while shooting. When they are nocking an arrow, they need to pay attention to where the nock goes on the string, the sound and feel it makes when it slides into place, they need to pay attention to the way the “index vane” points, and they need to check how the arrow sits on the arrow rest (and under the clicker if they use one). They need to do this consciously (in practice) to train their subconscious mind to do it subconsciously (whenever they need it done) just like learning to tie their shoes or ride a bike (and later to drive a car). Conscious attention is needed to develop unconscious competence. Doing any of those things wrong can cost them points (e.g. if the arrow is sitting on the bow’s arrow shelf instead of the arrow rest, their shot will be low, very low).

The next thing they need to learn is the “Rule of Discipline.”

The Rule of Discipline If they follow this rule, they will learn faster than anything else you can do. Basically this rule says “don’t shoot shots you know are wrong.” Here it is in all of its glory:

If anything, anything at all—mental or physical—intrudes from a prior step or from the environment, you must let down and start over.

By following this rule they will train your subconscious mind to monitor their shooting and “urge” you to letdown when something is not right, even if you do not notice it yourself! While they are shooting, they are shooting by “feel.” Their eyes are focused on their sight or the target and not upon themselves. If their conscious mind doesn’t focus on what they are doing “now” the shot will be bad, so all they have is how the shot feels at the time. With repetition, they can learn how a good shot feels and use that as a guide to make this call, but the word “feel” is almost the total opposite of conscious thinking, so we use our subconscious minds to monitor those.

We train our subconscious minds what to pay attention to by paying attention to it consciously while practicing . . . and that is exhausting. If you think about how you learned to tie your shoes or ride a bike, it was really hard at first but now it is almost effortless in comparison. That is because you now do these tasks subconsciously.

There has been some misunderstanding regarding the Rule of Discipline. It is not if the coach sees anything wrong, they must let down, but whether the archer thinks there is anything wrong. Beginning archers wouldn’t be able to get off a shot if they had to do it perfectly in the eyes of a coach. What constitutes “right” and “wrong” for an archer evolves as they gain understanding and develop the feel of their shot and the Rule of Discipline helps them develop that “feel” and understanding.

… And the Training?
You are dreading asking them to practice one more thing, aren’t you? To practice their shot sequence, start by using the appropriate terms for the parts. Ask them to make a list of the parts of their shot. Go over it with them. This has physical as well as mental benefits, so they won’t get antsy. From time to time, focus consciously on one of the tasks (not every single one, you’ll wear them out).

For the Rule of Discipline . . . have them use it. Every single shot. If they don’t know how to do a “let down,” demonstrate it for them (note the differences for indoors and out) and have them practice it a couple of times and they will be an expert in no time.

And, don’t worry, there’s more, . . . but only if they want to get better.

Coming Attractions
We follow on from here with the introduction of policing one’s self-talk, it being easy to teach: what it is, how to change negative self-talk into positive, etc. Then comes shot rehearsals/imagery, being the practice of imagining a perfect shot just before raising their bows.

There is much, much more. You can teach these things to your recreational archers as well as your competitive archers. There will be no harm done as the recreational archers just won’t do things they don’t find fun, and you don’t know what will trigger the conversion from a recreational archer to a competitive archer. It may just be that there is some serious, performance enhancing stuff being done here; archery is not just flinging arrows and hoping to win a medal.

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