An Indisputable Relationship

I was watching the 2015 U.S. Open Golf Championship this past weekend and something unusual happened: quite a few players criticized the putting greens. Basically they complained that the balls were not rolling true. This was observable even on TV. And, yes, they were all playing the “same” course so the competition was “fair,” that is not what their complaints were based on; their complaints were that the scores weren’t meaningful, that is they were not reflective of how well a golfer played.

Putting is a very complicated task. A golfer must judge the path to the hole. Is it flat or is it sloped? Are there multiple slopes? Does the grain face toward or away from the golfer (this affects the speed of the roll). Is it uphill or downhill? Then the golfer has to visualize a path the ball might take to the target, a path which is speed dependent. (I once saw a golfer sink four putts from the exact same point using four different ball speeds on four different paths (faster putts are straighter). And this is complicated by the fact that as the ball slows down (as it does the entire way to the hole) it “takes the break” more and more.

The course being played was a new course and the golfers had very little prior information. Golfers take copious notes of green conditions in their “yardage books.” Now they are even given “green guides,” that golfers of old would have loved to have, guides that graphically show the slopes on the greens, but sometimes greens don’t “read right.” Golfers see the path breaking to the left and their ball rolls to the right. These inconsistencies are the subject of notes as they gain experience. These, of course, were lacking in a course new to them.

So, what were they bitching about? They were bitching about the fact that the balls were not rolling true, meaning the ball would roll along a well-read path, at the right speed, and then take a slight jog off line for no reason visible to caddy or golfer. This, in effect, takes some of the putting (roughly half of the strokes in a round) out of the area of skill and puts it into the realm of chance.

You are by now wondering what this has to do with archery. We have little that is similar to these complaints (although we do complain enough to keep up) especially since archery golf seems no longer to be played. Possibly the closest we have to golfing situations is field archery. And the only thing comparable to putting surface conditions we have is wind. Irregular winds can wreak havoc with a round score. And, such do inject chance in the place of skill.

“My point is it is a fundamental principle of coaching that our most important job is to create ‘an indisputable relationship between an archer’s expertise and his results.’”

But this is not the point. My point is that a critical concept for archery coaches is displayed by this: that, as John Holden put it in his book on archery equipment (Shooting Straight, 1987), there needs to be an “an indisputable relationship between an archer’s expertise and his results.” Putting, like shooting arrows, is a largely subconscious effort. Like archery, golf does a lot of conscious planning (golf more so) but when it comes time to shoot, it is a matter of “feel” and this is the realm of the subconscious mind. We ask our subconscious minds to block out irrelevant information but to suck up relevant information. So, we spend time on the practice facilities judging the “speed of the greens” or the “wind at the targets.” And how do we do that? Golfers putt and seeing the result of a putt, putt again, and again trying to accommodate their putting stroke to this week’s surface, be it fast or slow. Archers do the same thing. They shoot and then aim off and shoot again. For golfers and often archers, everything is different about this venue from last week’s venue, but the variations in wind and light are the ones archers focus on. We don’t, for example, usually have to worry about the size of the targets as they have been made standard, just as golfers always are putting toward a standard 4.25˝ cup.

My point is it is a fundamental principle of coaching that our most important job is to create “an indisputable relationship between an archer’s expertise and his results.” If a student shoots an arrow correctly, but the arrow is bent, the result is not a consequence of their execution. What can that archer’s subconscious learn from that? Answer: nothing good.

The bow and arrows teach the archer. We, for example, spend very little time observing any student- archer’s performance. I coach a team of about 12 archers. In a two-hour practice that means that I spend an average of 10 minutes observing each archer. But their subconscious minds are observing 100% of their shots. Even if you coach an individual, they spend many hours in individual practice between lessons, no? (I am convinced that a part of Korea’s success in international archery competitions stems from the fact that each archer is being observed to a much greater extent than ours are.)

By focusing on creating “an indisputable relationship between an archer’s expertise and his results” for our archers, we are ensuring that when our student-archers do something, the arrow and target are giving them “good feedback,” accurate feedback from which they are learning to correct and/or minimize their mistakes. Just like golfers who want greens that give their subconscious minds “good feedback,” archers want the same from their venues and their equipment. It is a coach’s primary job to get our archers into adequate form and execution with equipment set up so that the feedback it provides from shooting reinforces positive improvements and not confusion.

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