I was off to the suburbs yesterday to coach at one of the clubs I belong to and worked with one young man to a point of frustration (his, not mine). A number of things had been left aside to work on more important things but now it was important to address those issues previously set aside.
An obvious barrier to learning new ways to do things is always the power of the “old way of doing things,” which I call the “Old Normal.” The game is to change the Old Normal into the “New Normal.” The Old Normal has a certain, almost magnetic, attraction however. First of all it feels normal, as the way his body had gotten used to doing things. The new way seems strange, hard to do. In this case, these old ways were going to be problematic when his draw weight starting moving up, which it now has been.
The first task for the coach is to establish the need to change. I insist that my students make all decisions for themselves (in consultation with whomever they wish, of course), but I do not make dictates or speak ex cathedra. This requires that some justification for the recommended changes be made, so I try to offer reasons for each and every change recommended. These, of course, have to match the ability of the archer to comprehend them. I don’t think, in this case, that I was very convincing. (“If you aren’t trying to get better, you are probably getting worse” is a truism, and I have so many needs to get better.)
The second barrier is that it is easy to fall back into the old ways of doing things. To combat this, I ask my students to keep in their notebooks (on the top several pages) a tickler file, which I call “The List.” This list is of the things they are trying to change. There is no priority order, per se, except in my recommendations of things to put on the list which tend to got from “most” to “least” bang for the buck or, if you will, return on investment. If the returns from form work are very modest at the beginning, it can lead to questioning whether any improvement will come from such work, or from working with any coach. So, I try to start with things that affect group size the most.
I ask that my students keep two lists, actually: the first three items on one and then all of the others on a later page (out of sight, out of mind). I do this to confine the work being done to just three items at a time, with work being limited to just one, then another, then the third. If two or more items are addressed at once, feedback can be muddled and what the work on one item provides in the way of progress, work on the other may actually diminish . . . and we would not know. By actually working on just one thing at a time, the feedback is on that thing, and that thing alone. Helping students decipher the feedback is an import aspect of form coaching. They need to be able to identify when they have done it “right” versus not doing it right. (Archers are looking for “signs.” We need to provide them.)
Whenever any one of the three items on the top page of the list is dispatched (good enough for now is the criterion), a line is drawn through that item and another is promoted from the secondary list. In this manner, the amount of work to be done doesn’t look overwhelming and the list of items crossed off shows how much successful work has been done. (And it will show that everything comes around again as the level of quality of the archer improves, so do the standards of “acceptable for now.”)
The trick is getting them to read The List before they shoot . . . religiously! This point seems to need reinforcing a great deal.
But the question of the title of this post still needs to be addressed: Do they have to do it right?
The short answer is “no.” There are way too many champions, from the Olympics/world championships on down who have had very visible form flaws to argue otherwise. Some champions are idiosyncratic in the extreme. But these archers have learned to handle their particular form and make it work. One recent men’s Olympic gold medalist shot with no finger sling and every video I saw, in which I could observe his bow hand through the shot, showed him “grabbing his bow,” a known form flaw (that a bow sling can help solve). But this “flaw” is only a problem if the grab leaks back into the shot (while the arrow is still on the bowstring). If this did happen, it didn’t happen enough to deny the archer his gold. He had learned to make it work . . . for him.
Many archers shot for years and years with idiosyncratic form and the question in working with them would be “Is it worth the effort to correct these flaws?” In most case, the answer would be “no,” because the amount of work would be huge and the amount of benefit very small (if any). This, by the way, is why copying “pros” or “elite archers” is fraught with peril. They have worked out ways of dealing with their deficiencies that may not even be visible. It is very easy to grab the flaw and not the compensation.
The safe thing to do is for archers still learning the basics, therefore, is to avoid as many flaws as possible. Each odd tidbit of form or form flaw is a potential source of dispersion of the arrows in one’s groups and why would you want to willingly adopt such a thing? (The key point is willingly. So many of the old school archers who possessed such flaws and still won, did not know they were building in flaws into their shots.)
Imagine building a house or car and deliberately building in flaws but making them okay by adding extra bracing, or a supercharger to replace squandered horsepower. Not having the flaws in the first place is always easier and less expensive (in materials and effort). The knack is catching these “mistakes” before they become part of the design.
I have reached the point that I believe that each and every archer’s form is personal. All archers of a style are quite alike but also different, so an archer can’t just shoot like their archery hero and be done with it. They have to craft their own personal form. Our job is to help them do that without obvious flaws that will have to be compensated for later.
And, to point out the obvious, as better and more coaching is being made available (Hoorah!), more and more archers will be not be giving away points from obvious flaws in their form. So, the competition will be getting better and no archer can afford to adopt practices that give away points, thinking they can compensate in some other way, and still compete.