How To Start Archers in the Mental Game

This is such a great question! I asked the questioner if I could blog on it to give the best possible answer I could. Here’s the question:

Good afternoon Steve,
My friend suggested I reach out to you for help regarding being able to coach my NASP kids about the psychological aspects of archery, and how I can help them overcome certain struggles. I started with the NASP program in September, but it was only volunteering in a P.E. class at a couple of the high schools where I live. The kids loved it so much, so they took it to the school board, and we are now in the second week of having a competitive archery team. I’ve been shooting for just over two years, and have found recently that their questions are difficult to answer because I struggle with the mental side of archery myself. (Really, who doesn’t? It’s such a mental game, yet we love it so much!) So, my question to you is, how do I coach them effectively when their struggles are also my own? Any advice would be much appreciated.
Thank you!

* * *

I asked this very same question when I first started working with Lanny Bassham of Mental Management Systems: “where do you start on the Mental Game?” And at the time both he and his son Troy answered simultaneously “You start with the parents!” Lanny has a new book out on this very topic I am reading and will review in Archery Focus soon.

Since I do not think you have this option as a NASP (National Archery in the (U.S.) Schools Program) Coach, I will respond differently. :o)

The first thing you need to do is educate yourself. I am working on a book covering all of the mental skills available to archers and coaches, but I don’t recommend you wait for that as right now I am beginning to suspect I might be dead before it gets finished. A very good place to start is with Lanny’s first book “With Winning in Mind.” Another good starting point is Troy Bassham’s “Attainment.” Both are available on and some bookstores. Both of these worthy gentlemen were very highly decorated rifle shooters, so these books are not tailored for archers, which I think is a good thing. They do have some archery specific materials they created based upon the work they did with us and quite a few good archers, including Brady Ellison. (They have some good YouTube videos posted, too.)

This will get you started and then, with practice and further study you will have more to share with your students. (A maxim we favor is: you can’t give what you do not have.)

To get your students started right I suggest three things: monitoring self-talk and the Rule of Discipline for them and for you: distinguishing between things to be done in an archery shot and things that just happen.

Monitoring Self-Talk
I am not going to be going on at length on this topic. I will just hit the highlights. (Try clicking “Mental Training” on the word cloud (over in the right margin) and that will bring up all previous posts with that tag; you may find some of immediate use.)

Self-talk is “what you say to yourself about yourself,” usually in the privacy of your own mind. We often say rather nasty things in this mode: “I am so stupid!” or “I always score poorly on the last end.” Unfortunately these can be interpreted by our subconscious minds as suggestions or commands! Gulp! Such comments are usually made out of frustration and are rarely true.

Here is an example I use often:

At a competition it starts to rain: Archer A thinks “Oh no, there goes my chance for a personal best score! I hate shooting in the rain!” while Archer B thinks “Oh-oh, here comes the rain. I am glad I brought my rain suit. My score will suffer but so will theirs and if they get bent out of shape, they’ll do even worse. I could win this thing!” Which do you think will do better from then on in this tournament, A or B? It should be obvious.

This is not a form of self-delusion or hypnosis. It is just a “looking on the bright side of life” approach to archery. Out on a field range, you approach a target that has challenged you in the past, should you dread it or think “I’ve been working really hard recently and today I might just set a new personal best on this target. Let’s see!” It works. Do not allow yourself the all too ordinary negativity we are accustomed to think about but look forward to new opportunities to test and prove your skill.

The Rule of Discipline
Archery is all about training your subconscious mind to perform under the gaze of your conscious mind. If your students follow this rule, they will learn faster than anything else they can do, because basically this rule says “don’t shoot shots you know are wrong.” If you go ahead and shoot shots you know are not right, you are telling your subconscious mind it is “okay to not follow the plan,” it is “okay to improvise” and this we do not want. Here the rule 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.

If their conscious mind doesn’t focus on what they are doing “now” the shot will be bad. But it is the subconscious mind that is in control of all of your muscles, so it needs to be trained as do exactly what needs to be done and to not deviate from the plan. A deviation from the plan results in a letdown and a loss in energy; this your subconscious mind interprets as a bad thing and so is corrected. The conscious mind often does little else but insist on a letdown when something seems wrong.

The Difference Between Things To Be Done In an Archery Shot and Things That Just Happen
Beginning archers often confuse things that happen naturally in the course of an archery shot with things that are to be done. They end up trying to do something they should not and it produces poor results and frustration.

A good example of this is the finger release of the string. This is not something that is done, this is something that happens because of previous things that were done. The bowstring is pulling the archer’s fingers back toward the bow itself. This is because the archer pulled the string away from the bow and the bow is designed to resist that. When the archer wants the arrow to fly, what he does is he stops holding the string and the string leaves of its own accord, flicking those pesky fingers out of the way.

The muscles used to make a hook of fingers that wrap around the string are in the forearm near the elbow. When they relax, off the string goes. The rest of the forearm and hand need to be as relaxed as possible. This is so the string can easily flick those fingers out of the way. If the muscles in the hand are flexed, the fingers are stiffened and will resist that clean movement which will make the release of the string sloppy and the shots done that way poor scoring (they will tend to be low and left of where they are wanted on the target).

Yes, that is me and yes, I am posing.

If the archer tries to do something like move his/her fingers really fast away from the string, bad shots occur because the fingers are stiffened and the archer is not fast enough to move the fingers that far so you get the same result as above, a bad one. (A Coach’s Tell for this is the fingers will spread as the string hand moves out and away from the archer’s body rather than straight back away from the target (see photo).)

The loose of the string starts a cascade of things that mostly just happen. The archer only needs to keep his/her arms raised. The rest happens by itself.

I saw a proposed NASP curriculum that had archers touching their string shoulder with their string hand at the end of the shot. This is a bad idea because this is something that is done. And most people can only touch their shoulder with the fingers on the same side by dropping their elbow toward the floor. Since we do not want this to happen during the shot, it can’t happen until after the shot, so it has no affect on the shot. But, if that elbow drop creeps backward in time into the shot, it will result in high to very high shots. It is something I abhor; it is a useless motion that masks what we really need to pay attention to. We can do a shoulder touch really well and think we made a good shot because of that, but since it doesn’t affect the shot, that is an illusion which is not at all helpful.

Confusing “something that happens” with “something to do” results in bad shots. Bad shots result in discouragement. Understanding what is needed to make a good shot, what to do and what happens because of that, is partly a mental skill for coaches: you need to instruct them so.

There is lots to learn here, so if you have questions … any of you … fire away.











Filed under For All Coaches

2 responses to “How To Start Archers in the Mental Game

  1. Veronica-Mae Soar

    When it comes to the loose, the Japanese master of Kyudo will say that it is like snow falling on a branch. The branch bends lower and lower until, in an instant, the snow falls from the branch. You cannot tell when it will happen. The loose is like that. The person watching cannot tell when it will happen, but it happens when everything is just right, and the ‘snow’ falls from the ‘branch’. Another simile is that of a small child holding a toy who is offered another one. He does not let go of the toy he is holding he simply reaches tor the one which is offered.


    • First, you have to explain to the people in the tropics what snow is and then you have to combine that protocol with a clicker! LOL

      The feeling of a clean loose of the string is like that description of our poetic friend form Japan, it just falls away. Welcome to the community!


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