The Zen of Target Archery

Articles written by me are not needed as much as in the past as authors are responding more positively to my requests. So, this post and the previous one are two things I wrote for AFm and have just been sitting for a while. I hope you enjoy them. Steve

* * *

A question often asked when the mental game of archery comes up is “What should I be thinking while I am shooting?” It appeared to me last night that the perfect mental state for shooting is very much like a state described in Zen Buddhism as the state of “no mind.” This state represents a total acceptance of reality as it is without human thoughts being woven through it. There is what to Buddhists call “no attachments” mentally to thoughts or ideas or feelings. There is no thinking, just doing.

This immediately connected in my mind to the stages of competence. Here they are:

Unconscious Incompetence
Conscious Incompetence
Conscious Competence
Unconscious Competence.

Now one could easily ask, but aren’t you delving immediately into thoughts and ideas? The answer is, of course, yes. But, I also am not shooting right now. I am trying to explain how one achieves a desired state for optimal shooting.

Back to “the stages of competence.” To explain this, think of your progression through youth and being able to tie your shoes. As a toddler, when you first began to wear shoes, a parent might say “Oh, your shoe is untied!” and you would look around in bewilderment. What? After several repetitions of this little play, when someone would say “Oh, your shoe is untied!” you might place that foot outward in your stance to have that person tie it. If you got the correct foot (the one with the untied shoe), you were entering the stage of “Conscious Incompetence” in that you were aware of the task needed to be done, but were still unable to do it yourself. When you learned to ask to have a shoe tied, you had made it fully into this stage. From there, you learned to tie your own shoelaces and, at first, it was a quite laborious process (Cross the laces, uh . . . , tuck one under, uh . . . , pull on both ends. . . .) but you were beginning to acquire “Conscious Competence.” Operating on physical tasks in the conscious realm is always awkward and slow. Soon, you were able to get through the entire sequence producing tied shoes, albeit ones that weren’t tied perfectly and they came loose often, hence a parent would be imploring you to “please tie your shoes.” Then with many, many practice repetitions you got to where you are now. You can tie your shoes without thinking about the process at all. If you tied your shoes this morning, do you remember what you were thinking about? If you can, you will discover that it was not about tying your shoes, anything but. This is because you are finally in the stage of “Unconscious Competence.” (Whew!)

Now, an important fine point needs to be addressed and now is a good time. What happens when you flub tying one of your shoes? (C’mon now, you know this happens occasionally.) Do you revert back to Conscious Competence and work your way through tying that shoes in a step-by-step fashion (First cross the laces. . . .)? No you don’t. What you do is “attend to the process” by removing any distracting thoughts and just unconsciously and competently tie that shoe. My point is that distractions can derail your mental state of Unconscious Competence and that “attention” is the cure.

In archery, we prefer not to “flub” our shot process at all, so attending to our shot process is continuous while shooting. But . . . what does this mean?

In the language of Zen, you might be encouraged to “be with your shoes” when tying them (New Agers say “be present,” that is exist in the present moment). Some Zen practitioners go so far as to say “You are the shoe.” So, attending to the process does not mean thinking about the process. I liken it to observing the process, almost as if you are another person. If you are “present” and “attending” to your shot process, how can there be any mental distractions? There are no thoughts. All actions are occurring in the realm of Unconscious Competence and you have “gotten out of your own way” in that you are not inserting thoughts or physical steps into a routine that you have created to shoot good shots. Therefore, you shoot good shots. If you get through a long string of shots this way, you may even call that “being in the Zone” because that is, indeed, what we are talking about.

Getting There
To get to this idealized state, you must learn your process “to the bone,” that is deep into your body so that no thoughts are needed to function as you wish. This state comes through or via the other three stages of competence. It takes a lot of conscious work to create a reliable shot and then it takes a lot of shots to memorize it “to the bone.”

The process of accomplishing this expertise is facilitated if you can accept and adjust your thinking as you go. Become an observer of your thoughts. Learn about thoughts that get in your way and learn to dismiss them. For example, when in a shoot-off, I would invariably think about winning the shoot-off. This is a distracting thought as it doesn’t help me execute my shot process. If you were observing me in such a shoot-off you might see me use my free hand to shoo away a fly from in front of my face. That was not a fly, it was an unhelpful thought I was shooing away. A physical cue helps the mental act of dismissing such thoughts.

The only distraction you have is yourself. Loud noises, the smells of lunch being cooked, other archer’s bad breath are not the distractions; your thoughts about them are.

A Caveat
On rare occasions your shot can desert you. You lose your Unconscious Competence. In these circumstances, you have no other option but to revert to Conscious Competence. Grinding away consciously is not fun. In archery we call it “losing your shot.” But the shot clock is still ticking, or your target mates are still waiting for you to finish the end, so you must continue. How to get back to shooting unconsciously isn’t something that can be taught, but some things seem to apply. Trying to operate as if you were still in that Unconscious Competence state . . . without actually trying is basically what you are attempting. You certainly do not need all of those thoughts flying through your head when you you’re your shot (fear of failure, fear of not winning, fear of embarrassment, confused thoughts, etc.) so dismiss them. Watch yourself shoot; don’t interfere. Hopefully the process itself can pull you back into the state you want. Your body and unconscious mind know what to do, if you let them do it.


Filed under For All Coaches

4 responses to “The Zen of Target Archery

  1. Coach Krish Rama

    Dear Sir,
    very ‘deep’ and the majority are not ‘aware’.
    As coaches, our methods, should be something that we can share and be understood but maybe, there is a disconnect between US and them.
    Are we loosing sight of their environment ?
    If we as archery thinkers, try to impart knowledge to those that are trapped by boxes created by others, are we not destined to fail ?


    • One can only offer glimpses of what is possible. If those who are in a position to further their students development but do not, then others need to take over. In this country all archery coaches (save a few) are volunteers who receive no pay. (I believe this is the norm everywhere) so no fault can be placed at their feet. Archers are, almost as invariably, amateurs too. If they refuse what may turn out to be helpful knowledge, then they reap their rewards in performance disappointments. Again I see no fault there, either.

      We can only try to get better.

      On Thu, Sep 5, 2019 at 9:49 AM A Blog for Archery Coaches wrote:



      • Coach Krish Rama.

        so true.
        I could take my expertise overseas and earn a huge amount of money but that is not the point of what we do.
        I suppose that, the gap between coach and student is the area that has yet to be addressed.
        Maybe, I am saying that the professional coach is under appreciated and that the emphasis has always been on the athletes results.
        I am not looking for recognition in regards to ‘my efforts’ but should be recognised for ‘my efforts’.
        Dare I say, that the coaches are undervalued ?


      • You could say that … but … When I was a college professor I did a lot of volunteer work. One of my mentors told me that I should be paid for my expertise, that I was no longer in a place where I was buying into the system to get known and to learn. So, I decided not to work for free from that point onward. Interestingly enough, from that point onward, no one asked me to work for free any more. Most offers came with an up front offer of pay. Possibly this same scenario could play out with archery coaches.

        In this country, youth coaches in most sports receive something of value for their services … except in archery. What people can afford to pay varies from location to location, so I am not proposing a universal salary structure. The U.S. is a rich country, so we offered as a guideline that an archery lesson for youths (a group lesson) should cost about as much as going to a movie would cost. These costs are determined by local community standards and so are adjusted for the ability to pay already. I don’t think the amount of pay is a tripping point as much as pay itself. many of the club archers in the US don’t think coaches should be paid, even though they themselves pay for their kid’s baseball coaches and programs, and ice hockey, and soccer, and …

        I am looking forward to your disabled archer coaching training and hoping you have something to share!

        On Thu, Sep 5, 2019 at 10:19 AM A Blog for Archery Coaches wrote:



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