How Can You Tell What is Better? (Or What is Best?)

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?

No.

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.

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6 Comments

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6 responses to “How Can You Tell What is Better? (Or What is Best?)

  1. Tom Dorigatti

    I agree with most of what you’ve posted above.
    Some additional comments are necessary when it comes to making an “arrow change”. Few, if any archers will make VALID comparisons between the old and the new arrows!
    That is to say, that IF there are ‘changes made’ to berger button settings, tiller, nocking point, etc to “tune in” the new arrows, then any comparisons between the new and the old are invalid unless the bow setup is put back to the settings for the “old arrows” so that they can be shot again. Then, you have to re-set the bow to the “new settings” and run the comparison again.
    Switching back and forth like this is time consuming and getting exactness is very difficult to do.
    “ProActive Archery” calls for measuring, marking, and documenting any and all settings and changes made to any equipment setup or personal form “change.”
    In addition to this, most shooters will conclude that something is “better” if results are immediate and for one or two rounds. They don’t take the time to document for several complete rounds and practice sessions or take photos of the targets for comparisons of what it is now and what it used to be.
    Same with form changes. I like the adage I learned years ago, “ANYTHING new works great…ONCE or TWICE.”
    Form changes case in point, a personal one. I am able to shoot either left or right handed. I am left-eye dominant and shot all my personal best scores indoors and outdoors right handed. I could easily obtain and hold the “transfer” of back tension right handed at an AMO drawlength of 27 3/4″; the right elbow lined up, and was up slightly, but not overly high. Shot great that way for many years.
    Then, I was forced to go back to left handed shooting. For a month or so, I was shooting very well and the physical problem “went away” because I was holding the bow with the other hand and the shakey hand was holding the release aid. Anything new works great…ONCE or TWICE! Well, it wasn’t long before the old bad habit that forced the changeover to right handed came back with a vengeance!
    I had some coaching, went to a couple of seminars, even taught some seminars concerning holding the transfer and getting that elbow in line with the arrow.
    Here’s the TRUTH of an issue that drives home a point. I had my left handed bow set for what for me was comfortable, but still couldn’t execute the shot or maintain the transfer (Same problem I’ve always had left handed) in a reasonable amount of time (5-6 seconds). The coach told me my drawlength was too short and my elbow was out of line. We increased the drawlength 1″ and that elbow didn’t come around any farther at full draw. We increased the drawlength another 1″ and the elbow STILL didn’t come around. We increased the drawlength to the maximum module that I had for the bow and the limit of the cam (30 1/2″ AMO) and that elbow STILL wasn’t in line with the arrow at full draw. So, we increased the length of the d-loop opening 1/2″, 3/4″, and 1″. ALL of this to no avail. No matter what drawlength we set up, I was (and still am) unable to bring that left arrow around to be in line with the arrow! There is no way on earth I should be shooting 30 1/2″ AMO drawlength, and in addition, there is no way I can hold the transfer any better by increasing the drawlength even by 1/2″. I come in “short” no matter what. In addition, Taking into consideration I have a short humerous (upper arm), I shoot with a bit higher elbow that many archers.
    I don’t have the answer as to why I cannot bring the elbow around even with an increase in drawlength of 3+ inches…but it will NOT come around.
    Obviously, maintaining the transfer at the 30 1/2″ AMO drawlength setting was next to impossible because I was more than fully stretched out and was likely getting the “length” by hyper-extending the right side shoulder and locking the bow arm and raising the wrist in my bow hand. The other side (left side) was getting nowhere!
    “Everyone is the same, everyone is different.”

    I can relate one final thing about arrow changes…and it counters what I said about putting things back to old settings to test for a working change and then putting it back to the new settings to test the new setup.
    I was shooting reasonable groups at 65 yards with 1714 aluminum arrows and 7% points out of my spare bow. They weren’t as tight as my primary bow’s groups however. So, I walked up to the car and pulled out a new set of 1814 arrows with 7% points. The arrows were considerable heavier in weight and spine than the 1714.
    I left my site set at 65 yards from the setting of the 1714’s and figured the heavier 1814’s would shoot low, even in spite of that small diameter difference. Expect the unexpected!
    My first group at 65 yards with THAT bow and 1814’s was at the top of the 3-ring and the arrows were slapping each other! I did this several times to verify it, because the poundages and all settings I could measure between the two bows were the same. Yet, one bow was shooting a 1714 superbly, and the other one shot 1814’s even better!
    I obtained new site settings on that bow with 1814’s and while my score stayed much the same, the x-ring count went way up.
    Conclusion? For whatever reason, for that particular bow, the 1714 was just a tad weak for it, while the 1814’s were right in the “Sweet spot”. The gain in yardage was 7 yards, even with a heavier arrow and group tightness was amazing!
    So, I went and got the primary bow that shot 1714’s well and tried 1814’s out of that bow. Wrong move. That bow would NOT shoot the 1814’s anywhere near as well.
    “Even if the bows are set the same, they are different.”

  2. Michael Holden

    I remember a guy stating that x10s were loads better than aces, they added 100 points to his score. Hmm, I was dead impressed that a man in his late 60s was shooting a full double fita star and getting 1200. But that means he was only shooting 1100 with aces….I’d shot a pair of 1230s that weekend, with aces, it ain’t the arrow. Setup? or perhaps the placebo effect.

    • Most comments like that have to be taken with a grain of salt. It might have been just a manifestation of the Hawthorne effect, or it could have been Archer BS™.

      I have had equipment upgrades that wowed me, but very, very few. The main difference between ACEs and X10s is mass. This makes for tradeoffs, of course. The ACEs are lighter and faster and spend less time in the wind. The X10s are heavier and slower and send more time in the wind, but are affected less because of the greater mass (inertia).

      It is possible, I suspect to tune the same bow to these two different arrows, but extremely difficult. More likely, the bow was tuned to the new arrows (many changes) and new scores shot. So the arrows were not compared under the same conditions. One aspect of the X10’s being heavier is that you would need to hold your bow higher at each distance. This distorts “normal” form more that had one been able to adopt a more level form. In any case, there are so many variables, the proffered comparison is usless.

      There is also the “new car effect” … if one goes out and buys a new car and it is not to their liking, they will rarely grumpble about it because they would be just saying, in effect, “I just spent a lot of money on a lemon!” No one likes to display bad judgment.

      On Sun, May 21, 2017 at 12:03 PM, A Blog for Archery Coaches wrote:

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  3. thanks for such an informative post. Archery is a good recreational sport and it can help to shape the mind and the body positively. So we are here to guide and serve Archery in Pakistan with skilled and experienced coaches.

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