Getting Serious: How to Help Them Think When Shooting

What should one be thinking about when shooting?

This is an important question; one you will need to answer at some point (preferably earlier than later). We have some advice but we first need to say that this question has not been answered conclusively. What we have to go on are some basic science and the experiences of a great many competitors. (We address this to your archer selves to understand and then translate for your charges.)

Some Basic Science
We do not control our bodies consciously. This is obvious to anyone who has been walking along and then got lost in their thoughts. In this situation, we keep walking even though our conscious thoughts are elsewhere. Can you imagine what the world would be like if this were not the case? Can you imagine not being able to listen to music or talk to a friend while you were driving? You would have to focus on doing just that one task at a time (driving) and avoid doing anything else as it would cause the first task to stop.

So, we control our bodies without conscious thought . . . mostly. When we are learning a new physical skill, often we have no choice but to try to control our actions through our conscious minds. This always (note: always) results in awkward, clumsy movements. As soon as we have communicated what we want done to our unconscious minds, they take over and everything smooths out. Of course, if the motion is complex and subtle, such as trying to swing a bunch of different golf clubs effectively or shoot arrows from bows from many angles and stances, the training can go on for months or even years.

We “control” our subconscious mind through a number of different avenues. One such is strong emotion. Another is merely our conscious attention. In archery we avoid strong emotion because we really do not know what we might be burning into memory in the form of subconscious instructions. Similarly, we have to control our conscious attention.

The Root of the Mental Game: Controlling Our Attention
If you want to be successful at archery, you need a trained mind. We avoid the term “control your thinking” because we haven’t the faintest idea of how to do that. But we can train ourselves to pay attention to what is important. So, in making an archery shot, what is important? The answer is simple: it is what you are doing now. If you mess up any part of your shot, what follows is not going to be pretty, so you have to be focused on what you are doing as you are doing it . . . your shot process.

So, I just tell myself what to do as I go along in the shot, right? Wrong! Your subconscious mind knows what to do, you just need to be “there” providing it the support it needs. If you start to tell yourself what to do, it will take a seat and allow you to do that . . . and you will shoot horribly (just like you did when you first started). You only need to be paying attention as a watcher not as a manager. (Think of yourself as a parent of a child at a youth soccer game. You are there to provide attention, maybe some encouragement, certainly no instructions.)

Your subconscious mind can be led by what you think is important right now. If you think nocking an arrow is important enough to be watching it, your subconscious mind will do that to the best of its ability. If your conscious mind drifts off because of some delectable odors coming from a barbeque grill of the team preparing to serve lunch, it will wander over there with you and your arrow may or may not be nocked in the right place and orientation.

When should you start doing this, controlling your attention? Right away if you haven’t been. It is a habit you need to develop as soon as possible. When you have made it a habit, it will seem “normal” and seem to not require any energy at all to do. This is perfect for archers.

Thinking During a Normal Shot
So, what goes on in your head, that you can “hear” while you are shooting. Normally . . . absolutely nothing. All of the mental activity that counts is taking place subconsciously so you are unaware of it. But this quietude leaves us an opening to do a little fine tuning of our shot. As we shoot, arrow after arrow, things can go wrong. We can start dropping our bow arm, or not drawing all the way to full draw, or . . . , or. . . . We can, however, fix such little mistakes by a judicious use of conscious thoughts as these problems crop up . . . by using cue words.

Using Cue Words Cue words are words or very short phrases that zoom in on something that needs extra attention. So, if you have been dropping your bow arm the last couple of shots, you could mutter to yourself (in the privacy of your own conscious mind) “Strong Bow Arm!” or “Bow Arm Up!” or any short phrase (single words are better but they need to be specific) just before the release of the bow string. The cue word or words have to be applied in the segment of the shot next in line. It will do you no good to suggest “Strong Bow Arm!” to your subconscious mind while you are taking your stance. It is more likely it will cause confusion than help with a problem while shooting.

As with all aspects of the mental game of archery, once you decide you are serious about becoming a better archer, the time to apply the mental game is now, right away. Unfortunately, too many archers see what they can do physically, then when they reach a plateau they cannot move up from, they decide to give that weird mental stuff a shot. This is a huge waste of time and effort. Every advanced archer of this era uses a strong mental program to reach success. While some in the past got by with just a physical game, the competition was not as fierce back then and that just won’t do any more.

Get started on developing your mental game. When? Now!

If you are a coach, teaching archery, and you haven’t been doing this, you need to have started yesterday.

Note This article appeared in the most recent issue of Archery Focus magazine. You can subscribe at


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