As a good coach, you pay attention and try to learn about the “right way” to shoot and the “right way” to coach. We do our best to support you in those efforts. And, as we progress along that path, there comes a time when we have to admit that “the right way” does not exist.
The impression is had that serious archers are getting ever closer to that perfect form and perfect execution that will lead them to success. In reality, it is quite the opposite. Coach Kim of Korea said it perfectly when he said archers are “all the same, all different.” He said this in the context of his experience in which every archer is taught the same standard form at the start, but as the archer progresses that form is adapted to fit the archer, leaving every archer in a different place from the others. Instead of all archers converging on this idealized form and execution, they are all diverging toward personal, idiosyncratic form and execution.
Before you freak out, wondering “what am I going to teach?” or “how will I know what is right to do?” think about this. When students are taught in school how to write, is the goal that they will all become the same writer, writing the same way about the same things? When they are taught math, is it to always solve the same problems, the same way? Or do we take some satisfaction when they branch out on their own and approach things in novel ways?
So, this is not so shocking as you might initially think. What this leads us to, though, is coaching based upon foundational principles. There are things that cannot be jettisoned in an archery shot. For example, you cannot skip drawing the bow. The bow is a mechanical device into which we load energy by changing its shape. We must draw the bow. Manufacturers of bows must make limbs that are resilient, that is that will recover quickly to a previous shape. Bow limbs made out of modeling clay probably won’t work so well. Some things just can’t be dispensed with.
So, what are the crucial aspects of shooting arrows from a bow?
The Indispensable Principles
I am confining this discussion to target archers. We love to see our archers shoot an arrow dead center. Bulls-eye! (We used to award a little plastic medal for a beginning archer’s first such shot.) But an archery tournament isn’t: unpack, set up, shoot a 10, pack up, and leave. We are expected to “do it again.” Tournament scores are made up of multiple ends of multiple arrow shots, as many as six in a single end.
What we all want is high scores. High scores are achieved by placing as many arrows in the highest scoring zones as you can. The de facto definition of optimal arrow group size is, therefore, “small enough to fit into the highest scoring ring.” And, since groups of arrows can be moved anyplace by sighting techniques, our goal as archers is to shoot “tight groups,” that is groups with closely spaced arrows. Tight groups come from being able to repeat one’s shot process precisely, many times. To be able to repeat one’s shot sequence precisely, one needs to be able to relax and focus and be calm and still under the tension of the draw and then be able to execute a clean release. So, for us coaches, this is our first principle. Anything that supports this is good, anything that detracts is bad. Period.
Realize that we are ignoring the role of equipment at this time. The fundamental principle governing equipment is that the equipment shouldn’t limit performance. So, if your archer has a set of misfit arrows of different weights, lengths, and spines and are bent in addition, nobody, not even a shooting machine, could shoot tight groups with those arrows. For now, we are assuming your archers’ equipment is not limiting their performances. Your responsibility as a coach involves equipment issues, we are just not addressing them right now.
So, what does, for example, body position have to do with this fundamental, or first, principle? This is a ridiculous example, but it does serve: consider what would happen if you had your students shoot (or try to) with their feet on the other side of the shooting line? Ordinarily, a right-handed archer would have their left foot toward the target and their right foot away with the shooting line running between. What if their right foot were toward the target and the left foot away? Would they be able to shoot? Our guess is “no.” Maybe one or two inventive students might switch hands and try to shoot left-handed and make it work, but to shoot right-handed, this recommendation is “nuts.” Now this was clearly a ridiculous suggestion but stances are not black and white. They are all shades of gray. You were taught about even or “square” stances, open stances, and closed stances. There are more, by the way, but there are also fine points with regard to open and closed stances. There is the matter of degree: how open or closed are you talking about?
If you read books on archery form, they almost always recommend one kind of stance, but almost never explain why, nor do they often explain how to tune that stance for various archers. Our primary fundamental principle helps us and it works best if both the archer and coach know the principle. Obviously this is not something you teach to beginners, but should to serious competitive archers. Knowing what is desired allows archers to discern what helps and what doesn’t.
If a stance helps an archer be still and calm at full draw just before and during the release, then that is a good thing. If it detracts, then not.
Bows that are too hard to pull, stances that don’t allow archers to get into a fully braced full draw position, bows that are hard to hold up through the shot because they are too heavy all are negative factors. Bows which are too hard to pull distort form and fatigue muscles that result in shakiness, not stillness. Bows which are too heavy cause an archer to “drop their bow arm” upon release which creates larger groups but is an equipment issue, and is not the archer’s fault. And if that equipment issue is allowed to persist, it will train the archer to drop his/her bow as part of their shot sequence!
There are other fundamental principles. One I use is I ask my students to remove all unnecessary motion from their shots. For example, quite a few students raise their bows well above their full draw positions and then lower them into place while drawing. I ask them to just stop at the correct position on the way up and skip the trip, taking the bow up farther and bringing it back down.
If such motions are allowed to remain in the shot, they must be orchestrated, timed, and trained into the shot but they do not add anything. Raising a bow higher than necessary and then lowering it is sometimes claimed to help people draw the bow. I suggest these folks need to prove this somehow as it makes no sense. If they don’t think there is energy involved they should hold their bow in their “Address” or “Set-up” position, then raise their bow up six inches (or whatever) and lower it six inches and then repeat that 71 times. That is the amount of energy they are using in a Ranking Round that doesn’t in any way improve their shot. Of course, this is archery. You don’t have to do it “right,” you can include useless form elements into your shot, but the cost will be extra training time and effort and potentially lower scores, and the benefit is … what?
All archery movements must be part of a repeatable shot and if not done the same way, leads to a feeling of difference between one shot and the previous one. This is how an archer makes adjustments throughout a round, allowing them to stay close to optimal performance throughout. Having a movement that has nothing to do with the quality of your shot is just inserting a source of “differences” that can be felt but which do not make anything better. Those differences can mask others or create unnecessary letdowns, etc.
Coaching from first principles is something I will be talking more about in the future. It is a different approach. If you are happy with the way things are going now with your students, by all means continue. But as you strive to learn more, to become a better coach, keep these ideas in the back of your head so you can see whether they work . . . or not.