Can You Control Your Thoughts?

Quite some time ago I was participating in an archery camp at the Olympic Training Center in California. One of the activities was a simulated USAA/WA tournament which I was very happy to participate in as I came up through field archery and, at that point in time, had not participated in a formal USAA event.

The coaches handicapped the whole affair as we had quite a wide variety of archers. The targets were sized and placed at distances appropriate to our style and demonstrated skill. I was the only Compound Unlimited archer so my target was farthest away.

After the mock tournament, we had shoot-offs. I was tied with another participant who was some ways down the line from me, but we were told we were going to have a one arrow shoot-off, closest to the center wins. I was to shoot second, so I prepared to take my shot thinking “I don’t want to know what he shot, I just want to shoot a good shot,” just execute my process, as it were.

The coach running the exercise spotted the shot my competitor made, walked up to me and, I swear, with something of a smile on his face he said “He shot a 6!” quite loudly. Instantly the thought entered my head “I only need a 7 or better to win,” along with an image of a target face with the gold and red rings painted “acceptable” (don’t ask me how that is done). Argh!

Shouldn’t a somewhat expert archer be able to control his thoughts better than that?

Uh, no … but I am glad you asked.

We do not “create” our thoughts through a conscious effort. There is some subconscious process involved but I do not think even that is voluntary. Our thoughts are generated outside of our control. In computer lingo, they are “pre-fetched data.” I can’t prove what I can say, but this is what I have learned so far:

One of our greatest mental powers is of imagination. By using it we can consider the past or the future. Animals which have no imagination live in the present moment, reacting to stimuli but not anticipating them. Our imaginations allow us to consider scenarios; for example “Was that movement in the tall grass due to a zephyr of wind or is there a predator creeping up on me?” We can imagine both. Since wind zephyrs are not particularly harmful, the safest choice is to assume it is a predator and move away from it. This is a survival function that other animals, or at least most other animals, don’t have.

In order for this to work, though, all of those scenarios need to be “in mind.” This is where our thoughts come from and why. They are necessary and you must, and your student-archers must, learn to deal with them.

Dealing with Unbidden Thoughts
So, there I was on the shooting line, thinking thoughts I did not want. They were thoughts of the future and an archer needs to operate in the now, like the good animals we can be … from time to time. Then, I took a deep breath and tried to “shoo” those thoughts away, but now I know there is a better way.

An archery shot can be broken down into parts. One such set of parts is “pre-shot, shot, and post-shot.” Each of these has a routine. We are in a skill-based, repetition sport, so routine/habit is our friend. To execute a good shot we need to launch our routines, the latter two follow on the heels of the first, but how does the first get going? These routines exist in long-term memory, so we have almost no control over them other than to run them. It helps to have a “trigger” for such routines. Golfers are notorious for these: before they take a shot or a putt, they will twirl their club, or pull on their ear, or tuck their shirt into their armpit. All of these inconsequential actions are routine initiators. They are like a switch that says “go.” For my shots, now, I drop my hand onto my quiver and gently rattle the arrows on the top tube … and he’s off! Since all of my practice shots are made in the “now,” that’s where I am when my routine is running. This is why if I note I am not in the now, I will break off that shot and start over. I never give myself the license to shoot any other way. It is not an option.

This is why you must be consciously present while you are shooting, even though there is little to do consciously. You are “there” consciously to watch for mistakes being made, without thinking about making mistakes; you are just watching. As mentioned, if you observe a mistake being made, by you, a thought will come into your had, unbidden, to feed your survival tool, your imagination, and when this happens, you really need to let down. This you an learn to do. So can your students.

 

 

 

4 Comments

Filed under For All Coaches

4 responses to “Can You Control Your Thoughts?

  1. So did you get a 7 or higher? I’ve got to know the ending! 🙂

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  2. Stephen Williams

    Here’s one for the “can’t control your thoughts” list. I complete both barebow and recurve. I tend to actually score better barebow vs. recurve, but when shooting for score, I tend to be reasonably under control shooting recurve, but have panic attacks shooting barebow !?-O Everything I know tells me I have nothing to worry about shooting barebow, but, well, there you go. Damn subconscious.

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    • If you are shooting with a clicker when shooting Recurve, that is a trigger that tells you “It is okay to shoot now.” In Barebow, there is no such device allowed. If you are struggling when to shoot, it can be nerve wracking.

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