Note Sorry about this being so long. I didn’t feel I could make the point otherwise and I didn’t want to split it arbitrarily. Steve
As a coach I am a professional advice giver. My clients are trying to get “better” and their definitions of that term are various to the point of contradiction, but at least we have some very clear indicators of “better,” competition round scores being the most obvious.
I also found myself in a recent comment saying “I am never satisfied with the ‘I just like it better’ approach to equipment recommendations. I much prefer for there to be reasons as to why such changes might be advantageous.” In archery, though, there isn’t a lot of “there” there when it comes to foundational reasons for believing why something is better than something else.
Allow me to address two topics in this regard: equipment changes and then form/execution changes. The question is: how do I tell if A is better than B?
Making an Equipment Change: Is It Better?
I am going to take the easiest and most likely to be profound change to examine: a change in arrows. Our starting point is you have a perfectly set up bow and arrow system that you have tuned to a ne’er thee well. You shoot excellent scores with this rig, but there is no such thing as perfection, so you want to explore whether some element in your equipment could be made “better.” The argument is that “better” equipment, in the hands of a skilled archer, results in better scores. I do not think this principle needs to be proven. It is not only self-evident (Look at how much better these straight arrows group, compared to the bent arrows I was shooting!) but the history of archery equipment development offers countless examples. As just one, the inclusion of carbon fiber into arrow shaft designs have made for lighter, stiffer arrow shafts that have in turn resulted in higher scores. For another, modern string materials have improved arrow speeds and equipment consistency and have also improved scores.
But this does not justify a switch from what our archer is doing now to another arrow. Typically, for elite archers, these changes are stimulated by offers of support from a different arrow manufacturer, but can also be stimulated by the previous manufacturer going out of business. Whatever the cause, we need some way to tell if a new piece of kit is better than the old.
We do have testing metrics that stand in capably for round scores. One of these is group sizes. If our archer shoots round groups centered on the target face, we can use something as the metric score (scoring rings divided into tenths and scoring down to the tenth as an easy way to measure group sizes.
There are considerations we need to make in addition to simple testing. Very few archers are so consistent that their scores do not vary from day to day or even group to group on the same day, so what ever test we come up with are best done “side-by-side” in time and location. For our arrow test, we would have to keep everything a constant, especially the bow, and as much as we can the archer, so the new arrows would have to be fletched identically to the old and adjusted so they are tuned to the bow in its current configuration. Then, our archer can shoot an end with the A Arrows and an End with the B Arrows, measure both groups, then shoot the BS again and the As again, then measure the groups. After many groups being shot, with no advantage given to one arrow over the other (which is shot first or second, etc.) you may come up with a result.
What if after many rounds, the average of the A Arrows was an average metric score of 8.9 and the B Arrows was 9.0. Is one better than the other? It seems easy to declare the Bs the “winner” and be done, but really this is a “too close to call” result. If you were to repeat the whole process the next day, you might get A: 9.1, B: 9.0. Maybe a difference of 0.5 in metric score average would be definitive.
So, let’s say that the old arrows scored better in the test than the new? Does that tell you whether the old arrows were better? This is a conclusion that many make fairly easily but I would not. The reason is that archery equipment is fairly idiosyncratic: small changes in configuration can sometimes make large differences in performance. I remember when Rick McKinney was heavily into the development of his McKinney II arrow shafts. On a particularly hot summer day (in Central California where 100+ degree days were fairly common) Rick spend many hours shoot his arrows with different fletches, down to comparing whether the new arrows grouped better with 1.75˝ Spin-Wings or 1.5˝ Spin-Wings. Arrow manufacturers make recommendations regarding best point weight and fletching for various applications (Rick’s company, Carbon Tech, also makes hunting shafts) but arrows targeting the elite competition set, need to be very refined, hence all of the “testing” out in the brutal sun.
Still, little is proven in these test. For our archer, if the old arrows had an advantage of 0.5 in metric score average, I wouldn’t say they were “better” per se, but that the new one’s didn’t seem worth the time and effort to explore. A great deal of time and effort went into the old rig, and to redo that process, I would want a better indication that better scores were in the offing.
I do not want to sound pessimistic, just that one has to be wary of “promises for better performance.” If you look at professional archers who are supported by a bow manufacturer, especially on the compound side, they have to switch bows every year or two as their sponsor brings out new models, yet, their round scores stay roughly the same. Basically, the differences in equipment from year to year are very small, the adjustments the archers have to make to “operate” the equipment well are also small.
This is on the elite end of the scale, of course. Large improvements in score are available to less accomplish archers using equipment not as well-designed and built.
There is something to say for making changes. My best friend was a sponsored archer and he got new bows fairly frequently and he stated that this actually helped him. It got him excited about having a new piece of equipment. It was necessary for him to “go back to basics” to create a good setup and tune, and the setting up process got him shooting someone more than he might do otherwise. So, new equipment can keep an archer’s head in the game.
My point here is: determining whether such changes are “improvements” or just “changes” is not easy. Think about how you would similarly test a new long rod stabilizer or arrow rest in the same manner as the above and you will see what I mean.
Making a Form Change: Is It Better?
As a coach, people perceive me as an arbiter of “right” and “wrong” when it comes to form and execution. The impression I got from my coach trainings reinforced this. You can even see this in archery instruction books which include drawings or photos of archers in “right” positions and “wrong” positions.
One must be very careful giving advice because just because something is not being done in a textbook manner does not mean it is wrong. There are too many champions showing off their medals whose form and execution include well-known “flaws.”
Before Making Suggestions of Changes Before a suggestion for a change is made, my hope is that I can link what my client is doing is the cause of some problem. A classic example of this is I had an older Recurve student ask me for help with a problem that was so frustrating to him that he was considering quitting. He was getting “high flyers” on short targets that barely stayed on target.
It took some discussion and observation to discover the problem. This student had been a gymnast as a youth and was quite thick through the shoulders. Because he had learned from “the books” that his draw elbow need to continue to move around toward his back, he was focussed on doing just that. When I observed him shoot, it was clear though that before the release of the string, his draw elbow, which was arcing around normal, reached a point where it changed direction and moved straight down. When this happens, it changes the angle the string fingers make with the bowstring, increasing the force of the top finger and reducing that of the bottom finger, a recipe for, you guessed it, high flyers, at a minimum vertically stretched out groups.
We can all swing our arms back around toward our backs, but that motion is restricted by the muscles creating it. The muscles in this situation are the famous ones, responsible for “back tension.” Those muscles bring the elbow around by contraction, but there is a limit to that contraction and then the movement stops. This archer’s muscles were large enough that his “stop” was just short of being in a state of good alignment. When the motion “around” was stopped by those muscles, the archer’s desire for continued motion resulted in more motion, just in another direction.
Unfortunately, all issues are not as clear cut.
What to Do? What to Do? Once a problem is diagnosed, then there is the problem of what to do about it. Too often, recommendations come in the form “try to conform to the normal way of doing things.” This the “you were doing things wrong, try to do them right” prescription. In the example given just above, the problem was created by . . . (wait for it) . . . trying to do it the right way in the first place. I have had more than a few students tie themselves into knots “trying to do it the right way.”
We settled on an approach in which he shot with his draw elbow just short of line. Some very, very successful archers shot this way. And, sure being “in line” is superior but if the archer can’t get their, what is “next best” is the real question.
The first major coach I ever heard address this situation directly was Coach Kim of Korea. He talked about how “standard form” was the place we started everyone, but then every archer departed from that to create their own personal form. He summarized this with one of the most profound teachings I ever received from a coach, Coach Kim said “Everybody same, everybody different.” We are enough the same to all start with the same suggestions for beginner’s form and execution, but because we are all unique, the form we end up with will be similar, but will depart from the starting point.
It is a coach’s job to help with that transformation.
How to Find Out if A Change is “Better”
Form and execution changes have a different set of metrics, ones more difficult to work with than those of equipment changes.
Consider an archer who switches from his former form to that of Coach Whizbang. After a year of training he says “I feel I am a much better archer now than before.” But, is he? How can we tell? Is he just flattering his current coach? Is he slamming his former coach, who he fell out with? Did he make any equipment changes in the past year that could account for more success?
Lets say that this archer had a 4% increase in a particular round score. Is this an indication that Coach Whizbang’s teachings are “better” than the former coaches? To answer this question, I would want to know a great deal more. First, did this archer’s scores improve last year with his former coach? If we find out that his scores did improve last year, on that same round, by 5%, would that effect your conclusion? One of the limiting considerations of such changes, which all take considerable time to implement, is time. (This is the old “you can’t step into the same river twice” trope.) A true comparison would be with what the archer would have achieved had he not made the change and that person is no longer available to do any testing.
Feelings Having qualified my answer ahead of time, I do want to say that the archer’s feelings are not to be disregarded as being somehow not measurable. One of my students had the opportunity to visit another coach recently and he came home with different form. Whether this will translate into what his goals are (better scores) remains to be seen, but I am very positive and have told him so as he says his shot now feels more stable. From my viewpoint his shot now is more dynamic and fluid (he had a tendency to try to control his shot minutely and that is now less evident). His feeling of the stability of his shot alone is encouraging and worth my recommendation that he continue to pursue these changes. (How dare another coach take one of my students and make him better! Hey, it takes a village.)
Conclusion: Is There a Best?
Is there a best? A best piece of equipment? A best archery form? Of anything?
The whole idea is not only wrong, it is hurting people who listen to discussions of such things. When people have protracted discussions of who was the greatest of all time (LeBron, Michael, Wilt?) only time is wasted on a silly question. But when archers are looking to implement form and equipment changes, the results can be negative to the point of people quitting the sport. Things are worth exploring . . . or they are not. If they are worth exploring, serious archers will expend considerable time and effort exploring their choices.