It Is All About Feedback

What do coaches provide? There is a long list of things: information, wisdom, knowledge, emotional support, encouragement, etc. When it comes to counseling an archer with regard to his/her shot, the biggest boon is supplying feedback.

Archers cannot see themselves while shooting so coaches can watch and learn and also control what is going on. But with the video resources we now have available in our pockets, aka smartphones, we now have the capability of watching ourselves, so . . . who needs a coach?

I was thinking about this when I was writing my latest book, Coach Yourself! One would hope that a competent coach could provide a great deal more than a video recording. For one, we would know what to look for, know what is important and what is not. And, a biggie is that the archers, seeing themselves, compares what they see to . . . what? The only comparator they have are the descriptions they read about in magazines and books. Coaches, I would hope, have seen myriad archers . . . while thinking about form and execution . . . and so have a small encyclopedia of things in their heads as to what works and what doesn’t.

Now, consider the feedback loop archers have. Let’s say I decide to modify my stance somewhat. So, I do and I take a few shots. My shot now feels slightly different. Well, that is expected. Any change will feel different, but does it feel “better.” Do we really know how a better shot feels? Can we tell “better” from “different?” I do not think so.

So, our feedback loop is: a change is made and we shoot shots and see where they land. Are my shots centered better on the target? Are my groups tighter? So, the feedback loop is: shot—hit point. That’s it. That’s not very helpful.

I saw video in which an Olympic weightlifter was training. Their situation regarding feedback is much as ours is. They try something new and then they lift. Either the weight lift is successful, or not. And they have “how it felt” as additional feedback. This is identical to our feedback loop. But this chap had electrodes and wired dangling from his body. Researchers had been checking his musculature as he lifted and had recognized a pattern of muscle activation that was closely associated with successful lifts. But the lifter couldn’t feel that muscle or control it much at all. So, the team was supplying feedback. The guy would lift and then the team would tell him whether he had done a good job of activating that key muscle or not. Remember he can’t tell directly. But by providing the feedback, almost “yes you did/no you didn’t,” he learned how to flex that muscle consistently.

Studies have shown that people can adapt their bodies to tasks they have no seeming contact with just by supplying feedback and encouragement. In one such experiment, subjects were asked to pay attention to a light on a wall in a bare cubicle and, if they could, get the light to flash keep the light flashing. They were then rigged up to various sensors and left alone. Subjects reported that the situation was quite boring, so when the light began to flash, it had their undivided attention. They reported some frustration in that they could get the light to flash but after a bit it would stop, then it would start again. But every time it started again, they were able to keep it going . . . until it stopped again. What the researchers were doing is picking a signal they wanted to see if it could be controlled. The subjects managed to raise their heart beat rates, for example when the light was set to flash when their heart rate went up. Then they switch to only allowing it to flash if their heart rates went down . . . and flash it did. They got the subjects to raise, then lower their respiration rates and, get this, raise and lower their blood pressure . . . all by just supplying feedback in the form of a flashing light in an otherwise boring situation.

What I took away from that experiment was two things: one was that we had more control over these autonomic process than I had thought and the other was that . . . feedback is very powerful.

So, as a coach how can you provide more and better feedback to your students. The obvious way to study form and execution to sharpen what to look for and what to recommend as things our archers might try, but consider this process. If you time a number of shots, you can find that many archers shoot higher scores when they shoot at a particular rhythm and keep that shooting rhythm consistent. Does this apply to your student? The only way to find out is to check it. So, your student stands fairly close to a fairly large target (unless very expert and then you can use ordinary target faces) and you ask them to shoot arrows. If you can put up two multi-spot target faces. Then with numbered arrows or numbered spots, your archer shoots a the spots while you time him/her with a stopwatch. (I use the period from when the stabilizer tip begins to rise to the sound of the shot being loosed as the time of the shot.) Then you collect the times and arrow scores for a largish number of shots 40-60. (This is why you have to number the arrows or spots and shoot them in order so you can match the times and the arrow scores.)

Archers who shoot better in rhythm will show that there is a sweet spot . . . in time . . . for their shots to occur and score well. If a shot is gotten off quicker than that or takes longer than that the score suffers. If such a bracket in time (for example 6-8 seconds) can be identified than you can use feedback to get your archer to always shoot in that rhythm. You simply sit behind the archer with your stop watch as they shoot. If they shoot before the right time, tell them “too quick.” If they get to the far edge of the sweet spot time zone, command them to “Let down!” Soon, the archer will recognize the timing themselves, e.g. “That was too quick, wasn’t it?” and will be shooting in the correct time more and more often to the point of “always” doing so (as much as we “always” do anything, of course).

If an archer feels uncomfortable at a particular rhythm, you can explore other rhythms through this feedback, just pick a slightly faster or slower rhythm/shot timing and then train on that, then of course, check to see if the scores follow. If the scores don’t follow, then that rhythm is not the one that the archer really wants, no matter how comfortable it is.

Start thinking about how you provide feedback and how you can improve that feedback. Consider also how you help your students use the feedback. Are you providing enough support, enough drills, etc. to allow them to grasp what you are recommending? we aren’t at the point of wiring up our archers to electromyographs just yet, although it is done for research purposes, just not for training, so the feedback has to be in forms archers can digest.

There are literally dozens of things we do now to provide feedback, e.g. “I am going to touch your scapulae with my fingers, try to move those touch points closer together as you draw.” Do you have a favorite form of archer feedback. If so, share it with other coaches in the comments.

Oh, and I hope it is clear now that a partnership of archer and coach that works has to be better than archer alone. The archer has access to all of the internal aspects of their shot and the coach can see all of the externals and together they can create a complete picture. (If they can communicate and cooperate effectively, and . . . , and. . . .)

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