I had a fairly full day of lessons yesterday and a couple of things came up that were instructive that I will share with you.
In one case I had a very frustrated Recurve student who has been shooting well of late, but recently has had a problem with fliers, even clusters of fliers. By this I mean while putting most of his arrows in the gold, suddenly putting an arrow in the blue or black. Sometimes as many as three arrows in a six arrow end were such “fliers.”
“What am I doing wrong?” he wanted to know.
We talked a bit to find out how his shots felt and he said they all felt the same. He also said his tune was “good” and that the environments he had been shooting in were not the cause (wind, etc.). So, I asked “What do you think you were doing differently on the ‘bad shots’?” and he said “Nothing.”
So, before I continue, put on your coaching hat and think on what you think was wrong. I’ll wait.
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Got it figured out?
Here are my thoughts. Please note that I am never sure of any diagnosis. I consider each situation a trail I am trying to sniff out, just finding a direction to go in first, all the while looking for confirmation or at least some response to the changes I recommend be made. (As a former college teacher, I used to joke with colleagues that we were being paid to look and sound like we knew what we were talking about. I do not want to give you the impression that I am some sort of tuning guru.)
Part of my diagnosis was due to knowing my student well enough to know that he was a “blame himself first” person. He took responsibility for everything. Taking responsibility is good but with regard to missed shots, there are three potential clusters of reasons: the environment (wind, twigs in the flight path of your arrow (field archery), hummingbirds (it happens), etc.), your equipment, and you. The key point is that if you do not find the right cause of the problem, anything you do will not only not solve the problem, it will probably make it worse. For example, if you have a form problem and you keep buying new equipment to solve it, well you ain’t gonna solve it.
In this case, I felt the most likely cause of the problem was that he had a “critical tune.” This is a bit of jargon that isn’t easy to explain (but I will try). Consider the variable of bow draw weight. For a given arrow, if you start at a “too low” draw weight you will get poor results, indicated by group sizes or positions, say. If you then incrementally increase the draw weight in steps of a pound or two, and continue to test for group size, you will get better results, better results, better results, and eventually poorer results, then even poorer results. If you were to graph these results you would see a line in the profile of a hill. The line would go up, up, up, then flatten out somewhat and then go down, down, down. At the middle of the top of the mesa just described, you will have the optimum draw weight for this combination of bow-arrow-archer. We call that a spine match (changing the power of the bow to match the spine of the arrow). Tune charts suggest that the top of the plateau of the draw weight “hill” is about five pounds wide (approximately!).
Now there are a lot more variables in the tune of a recurve bow than just draw weight. If you combine all of the variables into one graph (what I call a “tuning space” graph) what we want is a hill with a flat spot on top and we want a tune that is right in the middle of that flat spot. This provides the most “forgiving” tune we can make. The term forgiving refers to your setup’s ability to tolerate variations in your shot and still produce good results. We are not talking about “mistakes” here, mistakes are things done wrong that you could have done right. The variations involved in normal shooting are the quite small differences from shot to shot, simply because we are not robots. Even if you shoot an excellent group, in that group some of the arrows are higher that others, some are more to the left, right, down, etc. If you shot them all the exact same way and the arrows were perfectly matched, each shot would have broken the arrow of the previous shot and archery would be very, very expensive. We all make shots that are almost the same but not quite the same. The range of the variations starts out large when we are beginners and gets smaller as we become more expert, but they never disappear into some form of perfection.
A “critical tune” is a tune where you are not in the middle of the flat spot of the hill in your tuning space graph, but when you are right on the edge of the flat spot. With this tune if you make a variation that pushes you back toward the middle of the flat spot, well, no harm, no foul. But if you make a mistake the other way, a flier is the result. Think of this as walking along the edge of a cliff. If you trip and fall away from the edge, there is no problem, If you trip and fall over the edge … ahhhhhhh!
So, if this student had a critical tune, what does one do?
Well, you could start by cutting arrows shorter or other drastic things, but I prefer to start with adjustments that can be put back and with small adjustments first, large adjustments later. The procedure is to make an adjustment to see if there is an affect.
My recommendation was for this student to shoot a ten arrow group and count the fliers/note the size of the group. Then I asked him to put a full turn onto his plunger/pressure button and test again, then another full turn, etc. What we were looking for was an effect, a change in group size, number of fliers. So, one turn on—no effect, two turns on—no effect, three turns on—no effect. So the button pressure was set back to where it was. (Because you often have to do something like this and then set it back, take notes!) Next he took a full turn off from his original setting and voila, better group, no fliers. He asked “What do we do now? Were we done?” I suggested that that whole turn (a large change, by the way—start with large changes and only go to smaller ones to refine a fairly good setting) that created better test results might be right next to another setting that would create even better results. One more turn and test, one more turn, etc. The idea was to find the flat spot in button pressure tuning space and try to get in the middle of it.
So, we found that spot and I told him he needed to shoot a bit at that setting before doing anything else. My student wanted to know what would be next if more “correction” was need. I suggested brace height tuning. The plunger button is probably the finest tuning adjustment you can make (I did check that the button was neither too weak or too strong, just but pushing on it several times with a finger). I have learned recently that brace height tuning is a great deal more useful than I thought. I was asked how to do that tuning and I told him that it was done the same way as with the button, shoot for a benchmark group and then add 8-10 twists to the bowstring and test again, then repeat. You are looking for a response. If things get worse, go back to where you started (take out all the twists put in) and then take out twists, test, repeat. Again, you are looking for that plateau or range of brace heights that give you the best results and then you want to be close to the middle of that “flat spot.” Once you find that happy middle ground, you can refine your brace height (or whatever) with smaller increments of change.
Happy student, happy coach!
At the core of this problem, though, was that this archer didn’t trust his assessment regarding his shooting. Everything felt well, but since the arrows hit in the wrong place, he must have done something wrong. He was not making mistakes! Just a subset of his normal variations were causing those shots to fall off the cliff of his tuning space hill. This, of course, gets compounded when you think it was because of something you did, so you begin trying slightly different approaches, which makes for greater variation, not less (you haven’t practiced your improvised new shot) and this results in more fliers and more frustration.
Oh, and please note that we are all tinkers and we will, with nary a thought, make adjustments on our bows: we change the plunger button setting, clicker position, we tweak the position of the peep site in our bowstring (compounders), we rotate the nocks on our arrows “by eye.” Often these usually unrecorded “tweaks” accumulate to being a quite different tune from the one you created so carefully during you tuning sessions. People even change arrows, thinking their tune “will hold.” It won’t.
If you need a resource for tuning procedures consider Modern Recurve Tuning, Second Ed.
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Another student reminded me that archer form is a kind of closed system. Any change you make, has consequences elsewhere. In this Recurve student’s case, he had opened his stance a bit to get some of the tension out of his neck. He reported feeling more comfortable while shooting as a consequence.
The problem that comes from such changes is that anything you do with your stance should not have any effect on the arrangement of your shoulders, neck and head. If it does, you changed something else, too. In the case of the stance, when you open your stance, you are rotating your feet in the opposite direction you need to rotate your shoulders to get into good full draw position. The fact that the archer reported less neck strain simply meant that he wasn’t rotating his shoulders as far as he was previously, ergo his line was poorer (and his groups spread left-right accordingly).
If your feet are open and your shoulders need to be closed (10-12 degrees by my reckoning) then everything in between is pulling the shoulders the wrong way. To get a benefit from an open stance, a great deal of flexibility is needed.
Neck strain is a common complaint of Recurve archers. It is caused by having maximum draw force on your body at full draw, which means you benefit from the bracing that standard full draw position provides (which directs the forces involved down the lengths of basically incompressible bones). But this means we must get very close to our bows and therefore we need to turn our head farther than if we were shooting a compound bow, for instance.
The only solution of the neck strain problem is to create more range of motion (in both directions!) for the turning of your head. Since this involves neck vertebrae which are quite delicate, you should seek professional help regarding the stretching routines needed to accomplish this.
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Both of these students are “of an age” and I am very impressed when older folks want to continue in the Olympic Recurve discipline. Of all of the archery disciplines it is the most physically demanding, requiring the greatest strength, stamina, and flexibility. Light weight, stiff carbon arrows really help. Dropping down from the draw weight shot as a youth, helps, but nobody beats Father Time. As we age we get weaker, have less stamina, and are less flexible. That so many older archers are still shooting this way is very impressive to me.