Should I Rebuild My Shot?

This is a coaching blog so the question probably should be “Should I recommend that my student rebuild his/her shot?” That would be a bit long for a title and, actually, I wanted to put you in the position of the archer in this scenario to better understand it.

Rebuilding your shot is a massive undertaking and, because of that, it should be the very last thing you recommend. I teach that archery is an “experimental sport.” Everyone builds a shot that is simultaneously the same as everyone else’s in that style and unique to themselves. The surface appearance of a shot is controlled to a large extent by the laws of physics and it would be very unusual for anyone to have success making shots a radically different way. And, while the appearance is the same, if you look closely you can find differences, often idiosyncratic differences, in the ways people perform their shot.

So, the experiment is this: you build your shot and then you test it to see how well it performs. If it performs as well as you want, ta da, you’re done. If it doesn’t perform as well as you want, then modifications are to be considered. Basically this happens along the lines of an archer’s benchmark scores increase as they acquire skill but a plateau is reached and progress seems to stop. At that point, the archer’s equipment needs to be examined to see if it is holding them back—examples of equipment that limits scores are arrows that are bent (aluminum) or mismatched in weight (all kinds). If the equipment is adequate (it only needs to not limit the archer’s performance, it doesn’t have to meet any particular standard), then the archer’s form and execution have to be examined. Nuances of form not yet tackled, e.g. shooting rhythm, need to be examined. Only when all of the above have been eliminated as reasons for the performance plateau should you even consider a shot rebuild.

So, the key elements supporting a shot rebuild are: a legitimate performance plateau and all discernable causes of said plateau being eliminated. This list may seem short but it is not. It involves various tweaks in the archer’s current shot to see if just a small modification will do. If it does then the archer’s current shot has been refined and progress ensues, so no shot rebuild is to be considered. And there are a lot of elements in an archer’s shot that might be causing the performance limitation, including his/her mental game.

Only if all of those things have been tried, without success, should a rebuild be recommended.

What If the Archer Just Wants to Start Over?
Archers talk and sometimes they become convinced that another shooting technique is superior to the one they are using. Such decisions are subject to fads, some coach’s recommendations being viewed as being better than others, whims, and any number of other effects. I think that when such happens, the amount of work involved, the process, etc. need to be discussed with your archer so that they know what is involved and that this is not a “quick fix” by any means. I also teach that the archer is in charge. They make the decisions in the end. If the archer wants to go down a path I completely disapprove of, well, that’s my problem, not theirs.

What Are The Elements of a Shot Rebuild?
There are some aspects of a rebuild that differ from just learning how to shoot from scratch. Otherwise it is quite the same as starting from scratch.

The necessary indicators for a rebuild were mentioned above, and a rebuild has been recommended and decided upon, so what do you do? To start, some archers just want to be told what to do, others want to be involved in the planning. In either case you need a plan as to what form and execution is being looked for. In this, you will need to know what involvement level your archer is at to judge how involved they want to be in the planning.

In any case, a couple of significant issues pop up right away. Any “different” shooting technique will not be all that different as all shots “look alike.” So, whatever plan you engage in must emphasize the differences substantially. Each difference has to be a focus of attention for quite some time, otherwise regression to the mean becomes the problem. I refer to this regression as the “almost magnetic attraction of doing it the old way.” If the archer isn’t provided with a different feel, or different image of getting some shot element done, they will quickly slide back to doing it “the old way,” after all, they practiced doing just that thousands of times. For this reason, it is important to change some things overtly, some even whether they need to be changed or not. The element I think is most effective in making things feel different is an archer’s stance. For example, if they were shooting with an open stance, ask them to shoot from a closed stance. This change alone makes everything feel “different,” and since it happens first in the shot sequence, emphasizes the “different” nature of the new shot. The stance is ideal for this purpose because it can be “modified” later. If it only serves to break the log jam of the “old shot,” it will have served its purpose. If the “new shot” is not made tangibly different from the “old shot” there will be little difference between the new and old and it is unlikely the new will be any better than the old. (Note Sometimes the huge amount of effort invested in this process rejuvenates an archer’s interest and things get better because the archer is more engaged than he was when he was in the rut that resulted in the decision to do a shot rebuild. This is one reason why it is so hard to evaluate whether the new shot is “better” than the old one.)

If you avoid the above in your rebuild, a significant problem you will have is just with your archer staying the course. The number of archers who will just put their shot in their coach’s hands and do what they are told to do is vanishingly small. Most archers, having achieved some experience and success will expect to master this “new shot” quickly and be back to competing in tournaments right away. The same syndrome occurs when teaching adult beginners. Adults are used to mastering new things quickly and displaying “adult competence,” aka not appearing foolishly naïve and childishly unskilled.

Things that are subtly different are harder to master than things overly different. Archers going through rebuilds have been known to stop competing for a year to a year and a half. The reason is obvious: the competition and the desire to do well will encourage regression to their old shot. Subconsciously, our performance will be driven to “what has worked in the past.” All shooting techniques are stored in long term memory. Subconsciously, when performance is suffering, switches are made to other things “on file” that have shown success in the past. Every archer has experienced the shock of performing a form flaw that they eradicated years ago, usually when they were dissatisfied with their shooting when under pressure. That flaw was stored in long tem memory and is always available. This is why focus and mental control are so important to high quality shooting. The ease with which things are pulled off of the mental shelf like this is determined by repetitions. The more something is repeated, the easier it is to recall. The archer’s “old shot” was repeated a lot and the “new shot” should not be taken out for a test drive until it is in the #1 position, strongly, on that memory shelf. One thousand shots the new way are not enough to override 40,000 shots the old way. Rebuilds, therefore take time.

The classic example of shot rebuilds is provided by Simon Fairweather of Australia. A world champion in the early 1990’s, he experienced declining performances for the better part of a decade afterward. Since the 2000 Olympic Games were to be in his home country, he embarked on a shot rebuild a year and a half ahead of time, with his then national coach, Kisik Lee. His declining performances must have fueled a great desire because it is quite, quite rare for an Olympic Recurve archer to rebuild his shot after ten years of elite competition. And he did medal in those Games. We don’t have records of those who rebuilt and failed to exceed their prior performances (another of the many glaring holes in coaching knowledge in our sport).

These are just my thoughts on the matter, of course. I have had only a couple of students rebuild their shots, so I do not have a lot of experience at this. I am unaware of a coach who does have a lot of experience in shot rebuilds (maybe Kisik Lee). This is a good indicator of how often these things happen.

Also, if nothing else, the difficulty of making a complete change in shooting technique shows the importance of guiding serious target archers when they are building and modifying their first shot. Build it right (really, reasonably close to being right) and they won’t ever need a rebuild. They will be close enough to their optimum shot, the best shot they can master, and will be able to achieve it through minor modifications over time.

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