To begin with I am not at all sure that there is a best way to start beginners but it seems like a conversation we should have fairly often, if for no other reason but for newer coaches to hear the thinking of more experienced coaches and more
experienced coaches to review their own procedures.
And, since I started with a caveat, here’s another: the answer to this question really depends upon the goal of the training. For example, when the Koreans started sharing how they trained such a large cadre of world-class archery champions, people here in the U.S. were scurrying around wondering how we could adopt their practices. This was mistaken because there is a big difference in audiences of such trainings. There is a big difference between “beginning archers” in Korea and “beginning archers” in the U.S. In Korea they are training champion archers. There is no recreational archery per se in Korea, so their trainings are basically Olympic Development Training Programs. In the U.S., the vast majority of children introduced to archery are participating in a recreation program, a summer camp, scouting, or some other such recreational activity.
And as we have claimed quite a bit: training a serious competitive archer is quite different from training a recreational archer. Our definition of a recreational archer is one who is motivated solely by having fun. Since the number of these here is the U.S. massively outnumber the few who start training to become winners from the get-go, the focus of this article will be upon beginning recreational archers.
What Do We Do Now?
I wish I knew the answer to this question. I have a rough idea as I have worked with and taught myriad camp and recreational archery instructors, Girl and Boy Scout instructors, etc.
Our goals for such programs and sessions are that the participants: #1 Be safe!, #2 Have fun!, and #3 Maybe learn something about archery. This, I hope is obvious, but running a safe program is at its root a societal obligation, having fun is a high goal because as recreational archers if they do not have fun, they aren’t coming back, and teaching them archery has to take a back seat to #1 and #2 therefore.
My take on the components of the beginner experience are (in no order): bows they can handle, arrows that are too long, target faces that are too big at distances that are too close, also anchors are high to compensate for such an environment. Let me address each of these in turn.
Bows They Can Handle In order for beginners, with skills that are unknown, to benefit from instruction, they need to be able to shoot arrows in some semblance of good form. So the bows are light drawing, they are also light weight (youths don’t develop the necessary muscles to hold up a heavy bow until late adolescence), and the bows cannot be too long as they are hard to manipulate by smaller young ones.
To us this means recurve bows with plastic or wooden handles. We prefer three-piece bows because of the cost factors and the ability to swap parts around as they get broken, which are economic factors, not teaching factors. The Genesis bows are wonderful but only for older stronger beginners. The youngest kids struggle to hold them up.
What we see is that in compound country, compound bows abound in youth programs and in recurve country, recurve bows abound. Pleasing parents and kids by providing bows like they see around and about is for marketing purposes, not teaching. I would love to see the Genesis bow have a plastic riser option, creating a lightweight compound bow, perfect for starting beginners.
Arrows that Are Too Long This is a safety requirement, an absolute one. Beginners have no control over their draw lengths and recurve bows and Genesis compounds have no limitations on draw length built in (at least within the drawing ability of a youth). Arrows that are the “right length” can easily be drawn off of the bow by a child drawing to their ear (they will experiment; it doesn’t matter what you say).
Target Faces that Are Too Big at Distances that are Too Close Often this means a 122cm / 4 ft target face at five to ten paces of distance. This has two justifications. One is safety. That big of a target butt that close is an effective arrow stop. Arrows that miss the target can cause damage to the surroundings and can be damaged when they hit something not designed to receive the arrows. These are pragmatic reasons. Beginners want to hit the target. When they do so, it encourages them to hit it again, but closer to the center. This is the teaching purpose. This was summarized with the phrase “Early participation, early success.” Which meant get them shooting quickly and hitting the target quickly.
Anchors Are High A high anchor is taught because it elevates the rear end of the arrow, making high misses less likely (striking the ground in front of the target is a lesser sin than flying over the top). The common claim is that it is easier to teach . . . it is not. Nor is it easier to learn or easier do. (I wish people would stop repeating these claims.) It is just a factor that makes hitting a very close target more likely.
Other Things We started out in our programs requiring an arm guard and a finger tab. We ended up requiring just an arm guard. This is because an affordable tab for youths that would fit and not get in the way has not been invented yet. For our adult programs, we provided a range of sizes of soft tabs (Wilson Brothers Black Widow tabs being our favorite).
We also didn’t provide quivers to beginners and usually pulled their arrows for them for the first lesson or two. After that we taught arrow pulling and arrow carrying (points in hand, one hand only) but kept the arrows on the shooting line. This was for safety as we wanted the only time the beginner, a bow, and an arrow to come together would be on the shooting line. Secondarily this allowed more than one archer to share a set of arrows.
How We Did It . . . In Addition
At the first session of a series, or a beginners one-off class, we had a procedure we called The First Three Arrows. We took each beginner, child or adult, and walked them through the process of shooting an arrow. (This was much like what we did at fun shoots.) By the third arrow we hoped that they could get through the process on their own. If so, we taught them all how to shoot on a line with others, including whistle commands, and they were off and shooting. (There was a lot of reinforcement . . . a lot . . . this is always the case and will never be not the case, so reinforce away!)
What we were really doing was seeing whether this person could follow directions. We didn’t know this person and had no knowledge of their abilities, so this is the equivalent of an interview. During the first three arrows we give over a dozen instructions and we are seeing whether the student-archer can follow such directions. Children who were too unfocussed or adolescents and adults who had just gone off of their meds, were routed over to another station, where another coach would walk them through the process again. Some passed at that point but rarely, but it did happen, some youths were deemed too young (not the real reason) or whatever to participate. (We refunded their class fees.) In a class of 20 or so beginners, we would get 0-3 that had to go through a second loop of The First three Arrows to be allowed to shoot on the line.
You need extra coaches to do this, but only for the first class in a series (of six or eight lessons) and we almost never had problems scraping up those coaches. We also avoid many problems that could have been serious.
All of the above is a viable way to start beginners . . . but, I assume, not the only way. I would love to hear from you about other ways to do this. Let’s start a conversation.