Since I have been working on our drills book, I have been feeling a growing interest in being able to prove, or at least demonstrate, why certain things need to be the ways they are in making an archery shot. Too much of archery coaching seems to be “do it this way” and if you ask “why,” one gets either nothing or gibberish as a response.
If you have read this blog for any length of time you may recall that I call “having relaxed hands and good full draw position” the Three Pillars of Consistent Accuracy. They provide the basis for all of the other things that need to go right to make good shots, one after the other. Good full draw position, often described as the “Archer’s Triangle” for Recurve archers, can be “proved” necessary based upon the forces involved and the desire for a “clean” release of the string for consistencies sake. But . . .
Why Soft Hands?
To demonstrate this necessity (or so I claim) I offer an experiment. First make a fist and make it hard. Hold it for as long as you can. After you feel the strain associated with this experiment, check a few things. Check how flexible your wrist is. Check how relaxed your forearm is. Check to see how relaxed your elbow joint is. If you are like me, there is a great deal of tension all up your arm and the joints are quite inflexible. The aphorism is “muscle tension spreads.” Containing the muscle tension, to the fist in this case, is possible but not, I think, easily or completely so.
So what? Who cares?
The basic consequences of unwanted muscle tension is that it restricts movement and, once a muscle is flexed, it cannot be flexed to perform an action. Examples of this are rife. Consider posing bodybuilders on a stage. They have muscles bulging everywhere. To get this effect, they are flexing muscles that are in opposition to each other (antagonistic and agonistic muscles). For example the biceps muscles close the arm at the elbow. The triceps muscles open the arm at the elbow. Flex both and the elbow becomes locked in its position. Those flexing bodybuilders are quite rigid when they are posing. Their joints cannot be moved. And archers want to move their joints. This is necessary to make shots.
Consider the bow hand. Why is the bow hand in a vertical orientation, what I call the “bye-bye” position? Why not wrap it around the bow as one would grip a pistol, say? Shooting a pistol requires very little muscle effort, certainly as when compared to shooting an arrow from a bow. If an archer uses a pistol grip, the primary contact with the bow (which becomes critical when the string is loosed) is focused on two groups of muscles: the pad of the thumb and the pad of the heel of the palm (Scientifically the thenar muscles are three short muscles located at the base of the thumb. The muscle bellies produce a bulge, known as the thenar eminence. They are responsible for the fine movements of the thumb. The hypothenar muscles produce the hypothenar eminence, a muscular protrusion on the palm at the base of the little finger. These muscles are similar to the thenar muscles in both name and organization.)
These two muscle groups are independent enough that one can get tense while the other is more relaxed. During the loose, the recoil from the bow acts upon those muscles. The bow will “bounce” off of hard muscles more than from soft ones. So if the thumb muscles are more tense/hard than the other, the bow will actually rotate (the bow hand is at the pivot point, remember) ever so lightly, with the top limb moving forward and down. This slight movement gets amplified, the farther the arrow flies and a low shot results. If the thumb muscles are softer, the bow bounces off of the harder hypothenar eminence, and the bow rotates up (top limb moves down and back). This results in high shots.
So, what do archers do to reduce these effects? We isolate the bow contact onto the thenar eminence/pad of the thumb. Then, variations in muscle tension there result in the bow bouncing more forward and rotating less. (The slight rotation moves the arrow rest and nocking point. Moving both of these forward (toward the target) changes the aim very little.)
Then the job of the archer is to keep the pad of the thumb in a consistent state of muscle tension and a relaxed state is the easiest one to find/recognize. Imagine the difficulty in shooting well if the optimal situation involved those muscles being 11.2% tense or some other non zero value for the muscle tension? Ack!
We have even developed tension ridding activities for our hands (flapping them, flexing them backward, etc.).
Coaches can assess the degree of relaxation in an archer’s bow hand. The position of the bow hand is easy to check. If the bottom three fingers of the bow hand are, or can be, wrapped around the bow, the hand position is wrong (they have a pistol grip). When waving “bye-bye” to an infant, we hold our hand palm out and flap our fingers. This is the direction one’s fingers need to be able to move in an archer’s grip (and why I refer to that as the “bye-bye position”). The index finger, moving down toward the ground, and being slightly curved, may end up in contact with the back of the riser, but the others should not be able to wrap around the grip at all. Some archers curl these up alongside the grip to facilitate getting into this hand position.
As to checking whether the bow hand is relaxed, I look for “white knuckles.” Muscle tension in the fingers or pressure using the fingers forces blood out of them, turning the normal skin color lighter (black skin will look browner, brown skin will look creamier, and pink skin will look white). I will also ask the archer if I may touch their bow fingers at full draw (only after instructing them to not shoot and being in blank bale shooting position, aka up close, to catch accidental looses). At full draw I flick their fingers in the “open” direction. If they are tense, they will not move. If they are relaxed, the finger will move open and flick back to the normal relaxed position quite quickly.
How About the String Hand?
Fingers on either the string or release aid, have the same the prescription: a relaxed string hand. The muscles necessary to get the string fingers to curl around the string or a release aid are in the upper forearm and not the hand. Tension in the hand makes it harder to get a clean release (the string has to exert more force on the fingers to push them out of the way (and action-reaction makes the string move farther out of line) and harder to operate the release aid consistently.
I give the athlete something to feel for in the way of feedback and that is, I think, an illusion. If you draw a bow with a relaxed hand, it actually feels as if the hand stretches. It might actually stretch, but I think that it is mostly an illusion. The illusion comes from normal behavior. If a force comes from the outside of our body, we normal marshal muscle force (and so tension) to oppose that force. This is automatic. When drawing the bow we are supplying the force, but the bow turns it around and applies it to the string fingers. By deliberately not tensing those fingers, it seems to our minds that the fingers must be affected and from that comes the feeling of the stretch. (If you haven’t noticed this before, feel for it in some test draws. Try varying the amount of tension in your hand and see how that affects the feeling of the hand stretching during the draw.)
The other thing I look for is a flat back of the hand, straight wrist and arm in a “normal position.” If the muscles in the string arm are relaxed, pulling on the arm from the farthest extremity (which the bow does) will cause the arm to be straight. If I see a kinked wrist or a curved forearm, or a cupped back of the string hand, I know there is muscle tension. There is a drill I use to provide the correct feel to the archer: you, or another archer, stand facing the student. Each reaches slightly toward the other as if to shake hands, but instead, they hook string hooks, treating the other’s string grip as if it were the string. Then both are to wriggle and shake their whole arms without losing the connection to the other archer. Wrists should be floppy, hands should flex back and forth, forearm muscles should flop around. (I got the idea for this drill from the marshal arts drill of “push hands.”)
The Three Pillars have other implications. For example, beginners often pick up the bad habit of setting their bow wrist before getting the bow seated (in anticipation of the forces to be applied?). Because of this “form flaw” the center of pressure point on the bow grip varies from shot to shot quite a bit causing larger than necessary groups. Sometimes they have a lot of contact high on the grip and they get low shots, other times it is low contact (aka “heeling the bow”) and they get high shots. In almost every case I recommend that there be no preset. In the case of the bow wrist, if it is kept relaxed while getting the bow up, the bow (and deliberate hand position as described above) will cause the center of pressure on the bow grip to be very consistent. The bow shapes and positions the hand and wrist very consistently. Presetting the bow wrist cannot have the response of the bow’s grip molding itself to each new hand position.
For this reason, I do not recommend doing anything “early.” It was recommended at one point that the draw of a recurve bow be done with the wrist bowed outward because that was the position the wrist would be in at full draw. This is an early set of the string wrist. If the draw is done with the wrist as relaxed as can be, when the archer gets to anchor, the wrist will conform to the archer’s head anatomy, which is determined in turn by bones, and a regular position will be the result. Trying to set body positions early is like starting a sawing/cutting motion with a steak knife before the knife is anywhere near the steak. There being no resistance to what position we want to effect, the range of positions/movements becomes greater. (And no one wants to be known as the guy who cut himself eating dinner.)
Similarly it has been recommended to recurve archers that their shoulder line be pointed at the bow (a necessary condition for good full draw position) before the draw has been completed, that is early. This causes unnecessary muscle strain, as the final stage of the draw is caused by rotation of the rear shoulder around into that alignment. This is when the muscles of the back become engaged (back tension) as they are the ones that control the shoulder position and that movement. This cannot be done from the beginning of the draw due to a lack of leverage. (Try this with a light drawing bow. Raise the bow with 1-2ʺ of draw (to keep the hands in position) and then rotate your string side shoulder around to see if you can draw the bow that way. I have yet to meet anyone who could do this. Once the draw is about half way, however, there is sufficient leverage for the rear shoulder to take over leading the back muscles to accept the load of the draw almost completely.)
Any benefit claimed for doing anything early, should be examined very, very carefully. I have yet to find any such benefits.
Postscript Sorry this was so long. It kind of grew like Topsy.