The Best Defense Against Pressure

If you are competitive, or your students are, you/they have probably felt competition pressure, what Larry Wise refers to as moments of high personal value. You can, in these circumstances, end up experiencing little hiccups in your shooting, such as fliers, or worse, your groups can blow up, or very much worse you can feel the full on effects of target panic.

So, the question is: what to do? Experience helps, or so they say. But who wants to lose or screw up a personal best score to learn something?

I think Larry’s phrase shows what is wrong. When you are experiencing competition pressure, you are thinking about value, the value of a score, the value of a win, the value of meeting a long-time goal, etc. How does thinking about those things help you shoot arrows? As I have mentioned in a recent post, the best strategy is shooting in the now. What is happening now is what is most important and that is where your attention needs to be, not on some future score or “win.”

But . . . but what if these “pressure effects” sneak up on you and you are feeling them before you notice? This is actually the case for your students who may have never felt anything like that before. This, often enough, for Recurve archers shows up as a struggle to get through their clicker. They find themselves struggling to get through their clicker when there seems to be no reason for it. The struggle makes them tense as they experience anxiety (What if I can’t get through the clicker at all?!) and the tension makes it harder to get through the clicker, a positive feedback loop. When this first happens to one of my students, they will, I hope, remember that I taught them about this possibility and that the “first aid” for the situation is for them to relax. And that I had supplied them with some general purpose relaxation drills to practice. But that is just treating the symptoms, how can we avoid the disease altogether or cure it?

The keys for dealing with competition pressure/moments of high personal value are two: your shot routine, and your shooting tempo.

Yet Another Role for Your Shot Sequence
One of the main purposes of your shot sequence, or shot routine, is to guide your attention while shooting. The most important part of an archery shot is the part you are doing now.

(An Aside Some coaches label one part or another of your shot as “very important” or “most important.” This, I believe, is a mistake. If you say the release is the most important or very important, what happens if you screw up the anchor? If the anchor feels “odd” there is no way you are going to get a clean release out of that. Any form element you screw up, makes all of the rest of the shot feel different, and you have no experience shooting that way, and if you do not break off the shot, it will probably result in a poorly scoring arrow.)

So, I repeat, the most important part of an archery shot is the part you are doing now. So, if you feel competition pressure, do some quick relaxation exercises (breathing, tensing and relaxing muscles, etc.) then focus in on performing your routine as normally as you can. This puts a premium of paying attention when you are shooting normally. What does it feel like when you are shooting normally? How do you score when shooting normally? etc.

The Soothing Effects of Shooting in Rhythm
The second aspect of pressure proofing your shot is to exert some control over your shooting rhythm. This can happen naturally from having shot thousands of shots the same way, but I think that if you just let it happen naturally, you will have fewer tools to recover your rhythm when it is lost. When under pressure, athletes of all kinds tend to speed up. For example, golfers are taught to monitor their normal walking speed. If they get in the mix for a win, they may find themselves rushing to the next shot. By slowing their walk back to normal speeds, they are helping control their swing speed, which controls the distance they hit the ball to a large degree.

Similarly, as an archer, if you shoot a little faster, then a little faster, you can get out of rhythm and then the feel of your shots is now different. So, how do you get “back in rhythm?”

I recommend that serious archers, once they have built their shot and owned it (through repetition), they would be wise to address their shooting tempo. First we need to find what that tempo is. Then we may need to make it more consistent. Then we need to lock it in. By this I mean find a way to recognize it and bring it back to normal. Often this is done with a snatch of a song that you find fits your shooting tempo to a tee. If you are shooting and suspect a tempo drift, the snatch of song can be replayed from memory or even sung (in the privacy of your own mind) to see if your shot’s tempo and the song’s tempo still match. If you have sped up, then run your relaxation drills, then when you start shooting again, you run your normal recovery drill, as if from a poor shot, which starts with the first shot being at 85-90% of normal tempo and then speeding back up. The 85-90% of normal tempo is my estimate of shooting somewhat deliberately. This means you will be approaching normal tempo from the “slower tempo side” rather than trying to slow down from “too fast” to normal.

I ask my archers to warm up this way, starting with this 85-90% of normal speed shot and then up to normal tempo in a couple more arrows, so that this “recovery routine” is well practiced and recently practiced (you did it today when you warmed up).

Oh, and it never hurts to have a positive attitude. Which athlete is more likely to succeed: one who embraces the feeling of some pressure as an indicator that they are in the hunt, or one who notices the signs and feels dread or disappointment that they have one more problem to deal with?

(Another Aside Actually I suggest my archers start their warm-up shots with a couple of let downs, shooting blank bale if possible. The first time you draw the bow, your muscles are not adjusted to the activity and your first couple of shots will therefore be “not normal,” so the first couple of draws are “Remember this?” draws for your archery muscles so let them down. In addition, they serve as a reminder that letdowns are not only common, they can be desirable enough to “practice” them. Then, after the couple of letdowns, the 85-90% shot, aka a deliberate shot, gets you focused upon your shot routine and then you are off and running, with shooting tempo being reinforced as being something important to monitor.)

(And Yet Another Aside Some coaches do not want their archers to know that things like choking, competition pressure, or target panic exist. These coaches are advocates of implicit learning, learning without knowledge of what is being learned. I am not one of these. I believe knowledge is power and I also think that archery, when it involves competing at high levels, is a cerebral sport. Rick McKinney says that archers need to think their way through a round, from one arrow to the next. Expecting that an archer will never have to improvise or diagnose or think through problems is, in my mind, not a fruitful approach. Being forewarned is being forearmed.

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