Tag Archives: Form and Execution

The Relaxation Baseline

I was coaching yesterday. As was typical I had two youths building their shots and an adult needing technical help (tuning arrows). It occurred to me that I hadn’t mentioned, often enough I suppose, the role of tension in building a shot. So, in this post, I will.

If you read high level descriptions of how to make a shot, the descriptions are incredibly detailed, down to which muscles are involved and how tense they need be. Some beginning serious archers seek out these descriptions as a guide to building their shots. As a coach, I really pay little attention to those descriptions for a number of reasons. For one, these “instructions” are for adult athletes in high levels of fitness. For another, these are elite level mechanics being addressed and I don’t think they are appropriate until an archer is at or near an elite level.

To build solid archery form, I focus on the basics. The underlying principle is the same as with doctors: first, do no harm. What I mean by this is do not have your student-archers learn anything that will need to be unlearned later. This is a big problem with trying to learn elite archery form without the body or experience to make it work. Instead of doing what the form requires, we do what we can do which is different from what is needed. Those “bad moves” then need to be unlearned later and more correct techniques learned.

As far as I am concerned consistent accuracy is built upon what I call the Three Pillars of Accuracy and a “Tension Free Shot.” The Three Pillars are: relaxed hands and good full draw body position with proper muscle use. If one’s hands are tension free the bow will shape them accordingly. The string or release hand will be pulled into the flat-backed shape desired and the bow hand (and wrist) will be positioned and shaped by the bow. Obviously this entails learning how to place the hands correctly. Similarly getting into good full draw position without the engagement of the proper muscles will not serve as we end up with a static shot.

Then the goal is to remove all unneeded muscle tension from the archer’s body to provide a relaxation baseline, a tension free shot. For example, the deltoid muscles in the upper arms need to be tense in order to hold the bow (and our arms) up in position, The muscles in the upper forearm need to be tense to wrap the fingers around the string or release aid. But nothing else in the hands, wrists, and arms needs to be tense. We want these relaxed when shooting.

In order to acquire consistency, we need to shoot from the same body configuration. Tense muscles are necessarily shorter than relaxed ones, so if your upper body is tense, your draw length will be shorter than if the unneeded muscles are relaxed. The classic case that demonstrates this is the young Recurve archer just beginning to shoot with a clicker. If they get tense at all in their upper body, because of competition pressure or whatever, it shortens their draw length and makes it harder to get through their clicker. When they struggle getting through their clicker, they get even more tense, try “harder,” making it even harder to get through their clicker. Some young archers have melt downs around this positive feedback loop. They need to be taught that if they begin to struggle with their clicker, their first response needs to be to relax.

So, I teach them that we start building championship form from a state of maximum relaxation (of unneeded muscles) because: the relaxed state of their body is consistent plus they can “find relaxed.” What I mean by “find relaxed” is using relaxation techniques (shaking hands and arms; tensing muscles, then relaxing them, etc.) they can create a state of relaxation they can learn to recognize and find again. But how one creates a state in which a muscle group is 37% tense is beyond me.

Everything is then built off of this relaxed form foundation. Then as their interest and commitment grows, they can experiment with adding muscle tension to their shot. Does flexing one’s core muscles produce a steadier, more consistent shot? Well, the relaxed shot is the baseline from which group sizes and round scores are had and then attempts to shoot with a flexed core proceed from there. Same with using an open stance that requires a twisted torso to get the shoulders back to square (compound) or pointed at the bow (recurve). Try the new form element and see if things improve. If so, keep going. If not, go back.

In contrast to this is see way too much mimicking of adult form by youths. But youths don’t have the musculature to take advantage of all of the elements of an adult shot. Then they shoot for years and end up thinking that their shot is “correct,” which they have little reason to believe as they haven’t tested elements of their shot against any baseline. So, I see JOAD archers shooting from an open stance even though their alignment is weak. I see them shooting heavy bows (metal risers) when their upper arm muscles (deltoids) don’t fully develop until they have their adult musculature, so their form is distorted.

By building a basic, relaxed archery form, they will develop consistency faster and will have a foundation to build a more advanced form from later, should that form be desired.

A relaxed foundation cannot be built using a bow too stout (being overbowed), too heavy, or a form too complicated. All of these things lead to the engagement of muscles that are unnecessary and because archery is a feel sport, the feel of their shot is being built on a false basis. (Too heavy bows lead to raised bow shoulders, leaning away from the target, etc. To stout bow leads to gymnastics being exhibited to get the string back, and so on.)

I think the KISS principle applies here.

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The Role of Clarity in Learning and Coaching Archery

I am working on a book project with Mike Gerard currently and it is a book of archery drills, a resource long needed. One problem we face is all drills have to be performed in a context and the book is a collection of drills, without supplying the overall context. Each drill has a description of what it addresses, but what the archer is trying to accomplish in toto is upon him or her.

It is extremely important for a serious archer to have a clear understanding of what they are trying to do and how they intend to do it. Otherwise I am reminded of the old joke of a bus driver who turns to his passengers and says “I have good news and bad news. The good news is we are making good time. The bad news is that we are lost.” Who cares what your rate of progress is if you do not know where you are going.

An Aside Please note that any serious archer will have better scores as they train … initially. Even if the form and execution chosen are flawed, practice will make them better at it, so scores alone cannot be our guide. Scores will plateau at some point that they will either be good enough or not and you can’t tell that until they plateau.

Now, you can well imagine that I can disclaim on proper archery form and execution for weeks, non stop. Setting that aside, it is key to have some clarity of purpose in this regard, even if it is wrong. There are a number of reasons: for one, we are not absolutely sure what is the “right way” to shoot arrows from a bow. For another, if we do not know what we are trying to accomplish, we are massively stuck, because we can never tell if we have achieved the level of technique and skill we desire. If we can do that, figure out where our bus is going and whether we are there yet, we have a chance because we can evaluate whether that particular form and execution actually works for us. If your archer has perfected her technique and it isn’t giving her the results she wants, then she needs to be doing something else. (Which brings to mind the definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.)

As a coach, our role is to help athletes clarify what they want to do and how they want to do it. Initially they may not know exactly what to do, so this is a journey we take with our athletes. The clarity arrives over time. It is vitally important that such clarity is highly prized, even down into what you ask from your archers. If they do not understand what you want them to do, the odds are not good they will achieve it. Clarity regarding the overall task should drive what you do from day to day, including selecting drills to bolster a small part of your archer’s technique or skill.

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Shooting While Breathing

I got a great email with the following question that will be the subject of today’s post:

Hi Steve,

I was wondering if you had any thoughts about breath control and how breathing (best) figures into the shot cycle? In the book you recommended, Professional Archery Technique, by Kirk Ethridge, Mr. Ethridge recommends to “[i]nhale deeply as you raise the bow, and exhale as you draw. When you are at full draw, your lungs should be empty.” (p. 36) The rationale seems to be one of relaxation and stillness. 

On the other hand, both Byron Ferguson (Become the Arrowp. 18) and Anthony Camera (Shooting the Stickbow, 2nd ed., p. 275) advocate inhaling on the draw, allowing the chest to expand at anchor — though for different reasons. (Ferguson’s seems to be about using the inhalation to expand the chest and further bring the drawing elbow/arm into alignment; Camera’s seems to be that the act of drawing itself creates a natural expansion and therefore inhalation, though “while there is little if any chest expansion [at full draw], the logical progression is to continue inhaling, albeit at a slower rate.”)

What are archery coaches recommending? Is there one best (or better) answer, or is this simply a matter of “what works for you”? (For myself, the logic of breathing in makes sense, but I find the inhalation difficult on the draw, and it feels like I am having to hold my breath while at aim. I tried Ethridge’s suggestion and found, if nothing else, that I felt more relaxed/still while at aim. That seemed to be a plus. But is this physiologically “wrong”?

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As far as I am concerned, you can do nothing wrong in this regard as long as you are open to what is happening to your body. The goal, is to be still and strong at the moment of release.

The only scientific study I have been made aware of reports that we are steadier/more still if we have slightly less than a whole lungful of air at that moment. If you want to try that, end with that (full breath, partial exhale) and work your way back to the beginning of the shot. I am unaware of any other serious studies, but they may exist. That, of course, is in archery. There is a great deal of study on breathing in weightlifting. In lifting very great weights, the common wisdom is to exhale upon exertion. This technique lowers internal pressures in the body and prevents injuries such as hernias. But in archery, the weights involved are not so great, so I think we are free to do almost anything.

So, I recommend you experiment as you have been doing. Try a number of breathing patterns. (Rick McKinney’s book, The Simple Art of Winning, lists several more.) The goal is stillness and control at the moment of release.

I have a couple of caveats.

  1. Note whether the source is referring to Recurve/Traditional form or Compound form. I think the requirements for these forms are different enough to require different approaches (Rec/Trad has max draw weight and min time at full draw, while Compound has reduced DW and greater time at FD).
  2. Take into account your personal situation. I tried all kinds of breathing patterns and couldn’t settle on one, so I just breathed as close to tidally as I could (look it up). Then I was diagnosed as having asthma which cleared a few things up. If I held a little long I ended up out of breath, so I included an extra breath into my pattern and it really helped.

So, don’t feel confined by what other people recommend and use your sense of how still and comfortable you are up to the moment of release, coupled with how you feel thereafter (you do not want to be panting and out of breath) as your guide to a consistent breathing pattern. There is no physiologically right or wrong that I can perceive in this topic.

Note For serious archers, this gets worked out one way or another, either through investigation (as you are doing) or through feedback training (doing something over and over until you find what works). Archery is a repetition sport and one based upon feel. Breathing irregularities lead to different feelings that have nothing to do with archery, so breathing needs to be consistent, whichever pattern you choose or learn.

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Pet Peeves: #1 Finger Atop the Arrow

I visit a number of stock photo sites looking for interesting archery photos. There are any number of themes I see that give me the willies. This post and the next are on two of these.

Stock photography is a practice in which photographers take photos and offer them for sale through stock photography agencies. This business used to be confined to well-heeled advertising agencies and the like, but with the advent of the Internet, it is now available to all: all customers and all photographers.

So professional and amateur photographers alike can take photos, upload them to a stock photography site and let the site sell them for them. The site allows customers to use search engines to find photographs they like. I search the terms “archery” and “bow and arrow” along with others.

But many purveyors of archery-related stock photos seem not to be deterred by their lack of knowledge about archery. Take this photo for example:

Does anyone shoot in business attire any more? It doesn’t matter as the expected sales of this photograph are about business folks “hitting their targets,” as in sales targets, or growth targets. However this guy has a death grip on the bow, has four fingers wrapped around the bowstring and is torquing the string so much that the arrow has lifted off of the rest.

There are a great many of such photos available.

One of my pet peeves is archers wrapping a finger over the arrow, ostensibly to keep it from falling off the rest. This is a time honored practice as indicated by this print, made in 1892.

So, if it has been around for so long, why is it not an acceptable practice now?

Good question.

The problem now is two fold: #1 over time the downward pressure on the arrow rest will cause the rest to distort and/or break. Odysseus in the etching had no such problem because the arrow rest was his top bow hand finger; #2 is that this behavior masks things we need to correct. If a student draws his bow sans arrow finger, and the arrow falls off of the rest, either there is something wrong with the rest or there is something wrong with the archer’s form. Not allowing the arrow to fall off and expose the problem allows the archer to continue to practice “doing it wrong.” (This is also why I do not recommend the “Whisker Biscuit” rest to young archers. The arrow cannot fall off of the rest, so all kinds of incorrect practices are tolerated.)

 

 

 

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The Danger in Copying Pros

In every sport, copying professionals is a common theme. The question is: should archers do it? My answer is no … unless you want to become that much of an expert and copy everything, including practice volumes, coaching, equipment … everything. Otherwise this is not a good idea.

This topic came up because of an article on a golf blog. (There he goes again talking about golf … well, I wouldn’t have to if you sent in more questions for me to write on! ;o) The blog post addressed whether you should play with a new ball each time or play with used balls. So, what do you think, is it better to play with a new ball at the beginning of a round of golf or one of the used balls in your bag?

If you used the behavior of golf pros, who you can watch perform on TV, as model behavior of how “experts” do things, you will probably answer “use a new ball,” there is less risk that way.

The author of the blog post took samples of used balls from a company that sells them. The company had three different grades of used balls, so he got some of each (all from the same manufacturer, same model). He put the three levels of used balls and new balls of the same kind through some launch monitor tests. The results? No real difference between their performance.

So, why do the pros take a ball out of play when it has a tiny blemish in it? Well, I think there are two factors. One, they get their balls for free. And two, they are exhibiting behaviors that benefit their ball sponsors. (To be fair, they may also be eliminating marks on their ball which may be distracting when they are looking at the ball.) They are certainly not criticized for using too many balls by their sponsor, I am sure. If the manufacturers can get amateurs to ape the pros (taking perfectly good balls out of play), they will sell a lot more balls, so it is in their economic interests to do just that.

In archery, we do much of the same thing. We accept recommendations from professional and other elite archers regarding our equipment and our technique. They tell us that XYZ really works for them and we almost automatically think “I want me some of that!” In all reality, they are so skilled that almost any move or any equipment will work better for them than we can do. I consider all such recommendations of sponsored archers to be hype.

I once had a sponsored pro archer tell me that his bow sponsor’s bow was more accurate than its competition. But bows don’t provide accuracy. They provide arrow launch speeds. They provide arrow launch angles and they provide consistency in both of those things (either good or bad). But they do not provide accuracy … at all. The archer provides that by properly aiming the bow and executing shots consistently. The professional archer making this claim was not trying to con anyone; he was just trying to help sell his sponsor’s product by saying something nice. He himself may have seen an increase in his scores with his new bow, but that comes from an increase in consistency (indicated by a decrease in group size) while he was making sure the arrows ended up in or near the 10-ring.

So, what is the harm in aping a pro? The harm comes from pursuing a goal one is not prepared or physically equipped to achieve, which equates to a waste of time and money, often lots and lots of money. For example, some high performing pro tells us that his new stabilizer system is why he won Tournament X. So, you run out a buy such a system. You put it on your bow and, well, it feels different. Most of us stop there thinking we have made our archery setup “better.” But has it? The only way you can tell is to compare round scores (or something else indicating scorability) before and after the change. Most of us never do that.

Do not get me wrong, you can buy better performance! The most obvious example is replacing a set of banged up, poorly tuned arrows with a set of new weight-matched, highly tuned arrows. You will see a big difference in performance before and after this change. But will you get such a change from one set of weight-matched, highly tuned arrows with another set from another manufacturer? My guess is that you will not see a difference. If you are an elite archer, you might see a small difference and elite archers are frequently checking out new equipment very, very carefully looking for those things that make very small differences in their ability to score. But ask yourself, if someone offered you money to shoot their equipment and it didn’t hurt your scores, would you take the money? Would you say nice things about your sponsor and their equipment?

Think about it. There is a big difference between pro and amateur athlete’s situations, with regard to both ability and budget.

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Another Barebow Question! (This Time: Draw Length Control)

Here’s the question:

I have switched back to Barebow shooting from Olympic style. I also switched to a three fingers under (3FU) string grip. I am having some difficulty in determining how far to draw back and how high. I am trying to eliminate string slap to my face. I haven’t come across anyone yet who can help me but of course I have just started on this endeavour.”

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Wonderful question. Barebow, in this case it is Recurve Barebow, is so much simpler than other styles, which is why it is so hard! Compared to Olympic Recurve, you don’t have help from a clicker or long rod stabilizers, or side rods, or bow sights. The clicker is what the Olympians use to give them excellent draw length control. In Barebow, we don’t get one … but that doesn’t mean you can’t use one in practice!

Draw length control is critical in Barebow. This is because we are “shooting off of the point,” that is using the arrow point to aim with. Starting from the fact that the arrow is anchored under our aiming eye (critical for windage control) and slants upward to the point which we sight across to our point of aim (POA), if we underdraw the bow, the arrow will protrude outward from the rest more (outward and upward), resulting in us lowering our bow to get it onto our sight line to the POA. But short drawing weakens the bow making our arrows hit lower, and so does lowering the bow! In the reverse situation, overdrawing the bow, causes the arrow to protrude outward from the rest less (less forward means downward also), resulting in us raising our bow to get it onto our sight line to the POA. Double whammy again. Both of these things cause the arrows to fly high.

Conclusion: Barebow is particularly sensitive to draw length.

Now, is this a problem. But your targets can answer that question. If your groups are round, your draw length is well controlled. If it were a problem you would have extra high and low impact points, making your groups elongated up-down.

What if that is what I have?

So, you need to get your draw length under control. There are two factors: full draw position and practice. The standard descriptions of full draw position describe an archer very, very close to the end of the range of motion of what we call “the draw.” Any time you get near the end of the range of motion of any of your body parts you will feel muscles tensing. (Open you arm as far as it will go, push it a little. Feel any thing? Turn your head as far to the right as it will go. Feel any muscle tension? That.) The tension you feel when you are at the end of “the draw” motion, we call “back tension.” The existence of the muscle tension you feel in your upper mid back tells you two things: a) you are using the right muscles, and b) you are near the end of the range of motion. If you don’t feel that tension, then at least one of the two is missing.

So, believe it or not, a clicker installed on your bow … for practice … can help you with both of these things.

With OR archers we do something called a Clicker Check. We ask you to draw through your clicker, but instead of loosing the shot we ask you to keep expanding with your best possible form and then let down. What coach is looking for is how far you can get past the rear edge of your clicker. What we want to see is about a quarter inch (5-7 mm) past. (The last archer I tested was at two inches past, nowhere near full draw.) We do not want to be all the way to the farthest extent of the range of motion in the draw but really close. (We need to allow for day-to-day differences in your energy level.)

So, installing a clicker temporarily allows you to check whether your full draw position is a good one. Then, practice shooting with the clicker focusing on the feel in your back. That feel is something you are going to focus on while shooting. (I recommend you pause 2-3 seconds after the clicker clicks (all the time feeling the feel) so as to not create a dependence of the clicker when shooting Barebow.)

Last, there is something the old guys have to contribute and by ‘old” I mean at least five centuries. In olden days, arrows were draw to the back of the longbow/composite bow, whatever, as a matter of course. It was noticed that the arrow point/pile had a distinctive shape (or feel) when in the full draw position. In medieval times and later with the use of target points, the shape of the “head” was likened to a full moon sitting on the horizon. In any case, when you are at full draw, you are looking at your arrow head in any case as it is your bow sight. When you are shooting well, shoot arrows while focused on the appearance the arrow head makes sitting on your arrow rest. Looking for this shape, once part of your shooting routine will add some credence to the “back tension feeling” telling you that you are at full draw. (This is not as sensitive as in the old days when we “shot off of the knuckle.” The arrow made a dent in the flesh of your hand and the “full moon shape” had a natural horizon. Elevated arrow rests make this less definitive (IMHO, of course).

Getting symmetrical arrow groups tells you when you have it down.

Getting small, symmetrical groups is another task.

Hope this helps!

Oh, and if you are getting string rubs on your face, either you are drawing too deep along your face or you are not turning your head far enough. The draw can go back no farther than the “corner” of the chin in this style although I have seen a recent appeal to a much, much longer draw which I cannot recommend as I have no experience with it nor do I know anyone who does. My experience is that deep draws that cause “chin rubs” are generally caused by the bow shoulder, not by not getting your draw shoulder around far enough. If your bow arm isn’t at 180° to your chest at the shoulder (that is in the same plane), there is no way your rear shoulder can compensate.

As to how high to anchor, having more than one anchor is common in Barebow but many try mightily to use only one. If you are shooting long distances, then the low anchor is recommended. If shorter as in Field Archery under WA, then a higher anchor is probably wise.

As I said, I hope this helps!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Working on “The Real Problem”

I had a fairly full day of lessons yesterday and a couple of things came up that were instructive that I will share with you.

In one case I had a very frustrated Recurve student who has been shooting well of late, but recently has had a problem with fliers, even clusters of fliers. By this I mean while putting most of his arrows in the gold, suddenly putting an arrow in the blue or black. Sometimes as many as three arrows in a six arrow end were such “fliers.”

“What am I doing wrong?” he wanted to know.

We talked a bit to find out how his shots felt and he said they all felt the same. He also said his tune was “good” and that the environments he had been shooting in were not the cause (wind, etc.). So, I asked “What do you think you were doing differently on the ‘bad shots’?” and he said “Nothing.”

I agreed.

So, before I continue, put on your coaching hat and think on what you think was wrong. I’ll wait.

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Got it figured out?

Here are my thoughts. Please note that I am never sure of any diagnosis. I consider each situation a trail I am trying to sniff out, just finding a direction to go in first, all the while looking for confirmation or at least some response to the changes I recommend be made. (As a former college teacher, I used to joke with colleagues that we were being paid to look and sound like we knew what we were talking about. I do not want to give you the impression that I am some sort of tuning guru.)

Part of my diagnosis was due to knowing my student well enough to know that he was a “blame himself first” person. He took responsibility for everything. Taking responsibility is good but with regard to missed shots, there are three potential clusters of reasons: the environment (wind, twigs in the flight path of your arrow (field archery), hummingbirds (it happens), etc.), your equipment, and you. The key point is that if you do not find the right cause of the problem, anything you do will not only not solve the problem, it will probably make it worse. For example, if you have a form problem and you keep buying new equipment to solve it, well you ain’t gonna solve it.

In this case, I felt the most likely cause of the problem was that he had a “critical tune.” This is a bit of jargon that isn’t easy to explain (but I will try). Consider the variable of bow draw weight. For a given arrow, if you start at a “too low” draw weight you will get poor results, indicated by group sizes or positions, say. If you then incrementally increase the draw weight in steps of a pound or two, and continue to test for group size, you will get better results, better results, better results, and eventually poorer results, then even poorer results. If you were to graph these results you would see a line in the profile of a hill. The line would go up, up, up, then flatten out somewhat and then go down, down, down. At the middle of the top of the mesa just described, you will have the optimum draw weight for this combination of bow-arrow-archer. We call that a spine match (changing the power of the bow to match the spine of the arrow). Tune charts suggest that the top of the plateau of the draw weight “hill” is about five pounds wide (approximately!).

A tuning space graph, this one for brace height. In any tuning space variable, you may have more than one “peak” you can tune onto. To get to the highest peak (best performance) it is important to always start tuning from a well set up bow (set everything back to manufacturer’s specifications).

Now there are a lot more variables in the tune of a recurve bow than just draw weight. If you combine all of the variables into one graph (what I call a “tuning space” graph) what we want is a hill with a flat spot on top and we want a tune that is right in the middle of that flat spot. This provides the most “forgiving” tune we can make. The term forgiving refers to your setup’s ability to tolerate variations in your shot and still produce good results. We are not talking about “mistakes” here, mistakes are things done wrong that you could have done right. The variations involved in normal shooting are the quite small differences from shot to shot, simply because we are not robots. Even if you shoot an excellent group, in that group some of the arrows are higher that others, some are more to the left, right, down, etc. If you shot them all the exact same way and the arrows were perfectly matched, each shot would have broken the arrow of the previous shot and archery would be very, very expensive. We all make shots that are almost the same but not quite the same. The range of the variations starts out large when we are beginners and gets smaller as we become more expert, but they never disappear into some form of perfection.

A “critical tune” is a tune where you are not in the middle of the flat spot of the hill in your tuning space graph, but when you are right on the edge of the flat spot. With this tune if you make a variation that pushes you back toward the middle of the flat spot, well, no harm, no foul. But if you make a mistake the other way, a flier is the result. Think of this as walking along the edge of a cliff. If you trip and fall away from the edge, there is no problem, If you trip and fall over the edge … ahhhhhhh!

So, if this student had a critical tune, what does one do?

Well, you could start by cutting arrows shorter or other drastic things, but I prefer to start with adjustments that can be put back and with small adjustments first, large adjustments later. The procedure is to make an adjustment to see if there is an affect.

My recommendation was for this student to shoot a ten arrow group and count the fliers/note the size of the group. Then I asked him to put a full turn onto his plunger/pressure button and test again, then another full turn, etc. What we were looking for was an effect, a change in group size, number of fliers. So, one turn on—no effect, two turns on—no effect, three turns on—no effect. So the button pressure was set back to where it was. (Because you often have to do something like this and then set it back, take notes!) Next he took a full turn off from his original setting and voila, better group, no fliers. He asked “What do we do now? Were we done?” I suggested that that whole turn (a large change, by the way—start with large changes and only go to smaller ones to refine a fairly good setting) that created better test results might be right next to another setting that would create even better results. One more turn and test, one more turn, etc. The idea was to find the flat spot in button pressure tuning space and try to get in the middle of it.

So, we found that spot and I told him he needed to shoot a bit at that setting before doing anything else. My student wanted to know what would be next if more “correction” was need. I suggested brace height tuning. The plunger button is probably the finest tuning adjustment you can make (I did check that the button was neither too weak or too strong, just but pushing on it several times with a finger). I have learned recently that brace height tuning is a great deal more useful than I thought. I was asked how to do that tuning and I told him that it was done the same way as with the button, shoot for a benchmark group and then add 8-10 twists to the bowstring and test again, then repeat. You are looking for a response. If things get worse, go back to where you started (take out all the twists put in) and then take out twists, test, repeat. Again, you are looking for that plateau or range of brace heights that give you the best results and then you want to be close to the middle of that “flat spot.” Once you find that happy middle ground, you can refine your brace height (or whatever) with smaller increments of change.

Happy student, happy coach!

At the core of this problem, though, was that this archer didn’t trust his assessment regarding his shooting. Everything felt well, but since the arrows hit in the wrong place, he must have done something wrong. He was not making mistakes! Just a subset of his normal variations were causing those shots to fall off the cliff of his tuning space hill. This, of course, gets compounded when you think it was because of something you did, so you begin trying slightly different approaches, which makes for greater variation, not less (you haven’t practiced your improvised new shot) and this results in more fliers and more frustration.

Oh, and please note that we are all tinkers and we will, with nary a thought, make adjustments on our bows: we change the plunger button setting, clicker position, we tweak the position of the peep site in our bowstring (compounders), we rotate the nocks on our arrows “by eye.” Often these usually unrecorded “tweaks” accumulate to being a quite different tune from the one you created so carefully during you tuning sessions. People even change arrows, thinking their tune “will hold.” It won’t.

If you need a resource for tuning procedures consider Modern Recurve Tuning, Second Ed.

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Another student reminded me that archer form is a kind of closed system. Any change you make, has consequences elsewhere. In this Recurve student’s case, he had opened his stance a bit to get some of the tension out of his neck. He reported feeling more comfortable while shooting as a consequence.

The problem that comes from such changes is that anything you do with your stance should not have any effect on the arrangement of your shoulders, neck and head. If it does, you changed something else, too. In the case of the stance, when you open your stance, you are rotating your feet in the opposite direction you need to rotate your shoulders to get into good full draw position. The fact that the archer reported less neck strain simply meant that he wasn’t rotating his shoulders as far as he was previously, ergo his line was poorer (and his groups spread left-right accordingly).

If your feet are open and your shoulders need to be closed (10-12 degrees by my reckoning) then everything in between is pulling the shoulders the wrong way. To get a benefit from an open stance, a great deal of flexibility is needed.

Neck strain is a common complaint of Recurve archers. It is caused by having maximum draw force on your body at full draw, which means you benefit from the bracing that standard full draw position provides (which directs the forces involved down the lengths of basically incompressible bones). But this means we must get very close to our bows and therefore we need to turn our head farther than if we were shooting a compound bow, for instance.

The only solution of the neck strain problem is to create more range of motion (in both directions!) for the turning of your head. Since this involves neck vertebrae which are quite delicate, you should seek professional help regarding the stretching routines needed to accomplish this.

* * *

Both of these students are “of an age” and I am very impressed when older folks want to continue in the Olympic Recurve discipline. Of all of the archery disciplines it is the most physically demanding, requiring the greatest strength, stamina, and flexibility. Light weight, stiff carbon arrows really help. Dropping down from the draw weight shot as a youth, helps, but nobody beats Father Time. As we age we get weaker, have less stamina, and are less flexible. That so many older archers are still shooting this way is very impressive to me.

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Attempting to Perfect Their Shot (Don’t Bother)

Many archers are working to “perfect their shot.” I argue that this is a mistake. What they need to be working on is enhancing their skill. Let me explain.

Let us say, for the sake of argument, that you perfected your own shot in practice yesterday. Every arrow was going into the target center, making groups smaller than the maximum scoring area (the de facto definition of “great groups”). Everything felt easy, nothing troubled you. Your mental program meshed with your physical activities like never before. You were at peace and performing like a man/woman possessed.

That was yesterday.

Today, well today is a different day. You are one day older. Today you are feeling stronger/weaker. You are more/less focused. You … I guess you get the point. The old saying is you can’t cross the same river twice, meaning that the water you walked though the first time has flown away.

Surely, though, you will be very, very close to that wondrous state of yesterday? Will you? There is a saying in golf that “a very good round is seldom followed by another.” This saying tells us that you can’t take that performance with you when you go to bed at night.

Why is this so? Well, I can’t say definitively but it seems that the difference between an excellent shot and just a very good one is very, very little. Rick McKinney is fond of saying that to hit the 10-ring on a target at 90 meters, the arrow point needs to be in a specific circle one sixteenth of an inch wide (about one and a half millimeters wide). Arrow point in that circle, and the aim is good, outside of that circle and not so good … and then there has to be a perfect loose to back that aim up.

The difference in “feel” between the two states is almost nonexistent. The visual pictures of the aperture on the target of the two aims are indistinguishable.

Searching for perfect technique and then thinking that is enough to get you on the winner’s podium is a fool’s errand. The reason it is is not just that you are different from day to day (you are, you know this) but that the task is different, too. Even indoors the conditions are not identical from day to day. Outdoors, the conditions vary widely (think wind, angle of the sun, whether you are standing on flat firm ground or squishy mud, or…, or….

What is better to focus on once your technique is solid is your ability to adapt. If you are breezing along in a tournament and you suddenly shoot a wild arrow into the 3-ring, do you think “Hmm, I’ll have to take a look at the arrow and if there is nothing wrong it, add that to the list of things to work on in practice next week.” Of course not! If there is a problem you need to fix it right away. All of the champions in the aiming sports think the same way.

All elite performers know their personal tendencies, the errors and mistakes they are prone to, and also know how to fix those in real time. This is the core of acquired skill as an archer.

Now you could have your students just go compete and wait for things to show up and experiment with solutions as they perform (exactly how we learned!) but this is a costly approach. If they are just a bit more organized, take a few notes, ask a lot of questions, they can be better prepared for the eventualities.

  • Do you show your students how to inspect their bows and arrows for defects?
  • Do you simulate problems happening during practice rounds so they can practice adapting?
    • Do you ask them to keep lists of their common mistakes?
    • Do you ask them to write down solutions to “problems” whether they worked or didn’t work and examine those in practice?
    • Do you counsel your student-archers to keep their ears open for possible solutions to problems encountered when shooting when talking to other competitors?
    • Do ask your students to take notes after competition sessions?

If not, you are leaving it to “experience” to teach them what they need to learn. And, while experience is “the best teacher,” it is also brutal. For example, would you want your students to learn about target panic by getting it? Or would you like to caution them (sensibly) and then show them how to avoid it?

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The Problem of The Creeping Archers

This blog post’s title is an homage to Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes. (Why? Because I can!)

I got an email from a student (Recurve Barebow, Right-handed) who brought up the phenomenon of creeping. Creeping is a flaw in one’s execution most easily noticed by the arrow point moving from its deepest extent slowly forward toward the target between the finish of the draw and the loose of the string. It has a more dramatic cousin: collapsing, which is most easily noticed by the arrow point moving from its deepest extent rapidly forward toward the target between the finish of the draw and the loose of the string. Creeping is subtle, collapsing is not. Creeping is small scale, collapsing is not.

Here is the message:

Dear Coach,
Someone noticed some problems with my form that may or may not be related to my target panic issue: when I reach full draw my right arm is in perfect alignment with my left arm, but less than two seconds later my right arm shifts inward
(actually outward, around and back toward the bow, SR) out of line. Is this a strength problem?
     Immediately after my right arm moves out of line I begin to creep, the arrow moving about a whole inch. I can see it happening but I don’t feel it happening, is this also a strength problem?     I notice after release, my bow swings to the right and I see that the arrow has landed to the left of where it should, I’m moving my draw arm back when I release and I’m almost positive that it’s moving straight back so I don’t quite know why the bow is not swinging straight back.
     Thanks as always coach.

And here is my response:

* * *

Creeping can be a strength problem, but is more likely a technique problem. The ideas in play are that a recurve bow creates its maximum force at full draw, which means the bow is pulling its hardest away from the position you have bent it into at full draw. So, when we reach full draw our technique has to change from drawing to holding. This involves a transfer of the holding force needed, the full draw weight of the bow “in hand,” to the back muscles which hold the rear shoulder back. (The back muscles are not really holding the force of the bow; they are holding the rear shoulder in place and the archer’s arm and shoulder bones are holding the force of the bow.)

Currently you are allowing the bow to pull you back toward where you started. This happens when your focus is in the wrong place. Often we get to full draw and our focus shifts completely to “aiming,” something you are putting extra focus upon now, but what is needed is actually a split in your attention (the only time your attention is split): we must focus upon both aiming and whatever marker of continuing to move the string away from the bow has been adopted. When you reach full draw, there needs to be a focus on aiming and one of two things: either your draw elbow continuing to swing around toward your back or upon the increasing muscle tension between your shoulder blades. Both of these are signs that you are holding well.

Note if you focus on the tensing of the muscles in your back, there is an illusion you need to be aware of. As an example, consider the picking up of a five-pound (2+ kg) hand weight and holding it out at shoulder height. As you stand holding it seems to get heavier over time, in the form of being harder and harder to hold up. Obviously it is a constant five pounds, that doesn’t change, but why does it seem to be getting heavier? This feeling comes from the muscles being used running out of the chemical energy they use to contract and exert forces. Similarly, at full draw, your back muscles seem, in the short time between anchoring and loosing, to be pulling harder and harder to the point the feeling is uncomfortable. Obviously you are not pulling harder and harder at full draw, it just feels that way. We use this illusion as a signal that all is well and good in this part of the shot, so our strategy is to recognize that feeling and not shoot arrows without it.

When you creep, the bow is pulling you back toward where you started. This causes subconscious adjustments in your form, usually some form of muscle involvement that causes the string to be pushed toward your face (the bowstring pulls the string away from your face and back toward the bow on the same arc it came in on … or very close to it). This lateral push is responsible for the followthrough movements and left arrows. Ideally, we are pulling straight back (away from the bow) and pushing straight out (toward the target) and all drawing forces are within the plane of the bow. When the string is loosed, the arrow flies forward and the bow recoils forward, neither to one side or the other. (Note: we use the “left arrows, right bow reaction” as signs that we are losing our back tension. Noting the symptoms, we apply the fix which is increased attention to the marker that we are holding well.)

A way to “fix” this technical deficit is to shoot “blind bale.” This means so close to a target butt that you cannot miss and shooting with your eyes closed. Unfortunately our target butts sit on the floor, so you may want to stack up some floor mats to create a base so the target butt is near shoulder level. Then, making sure your arrow will hit the butt, you close your eyes and draw and shoot. The main focus being on either your draw elbow or your back tension. Find the feeling that gives you an “explosive shot.” The term explosive shot is hyperbolic, but it describes the feeling of a well-performed shot. It feels really powerful because the bow is at maximum draw force and the release is crisp. Of course, you must use the best complete form you can muster while doing this drill, but the primary focus is on the feeling of the draw elbow or the uncomfortable muscle bunching between the shoulder blades. Once you recognize these feelings then you need to develop an awareness of them while shooting arrows for score, that is with a target in practice (Eyes open!) and eventually in competition

Addendum
This might be a strength problem in other archers, but whether or not it is can be determined easily enough. If strength is an issue there should be other signs: shaking at full draw or during the draw (when this is not normal), struggling to draw the bow, adopting improvised techniques to draw the bow, etc. Typically it is not strength, as strength is what gets the string back but not what holds it there. If you get to a good full-draw-position, one in which your draw elbow is directly behind the bow or, better, slightly past being “in line” with the bow, the draw force will be pulling your rear shoulder straight back into your body, providing a natural support for it staying where it is. Some archers report that when they get into this position it feels as if the draw force “in hand” actually diminishes, like the letoff of a compound bow, because the force is thrown off of the archer’s muscles in this configuration and onto the archer’s bones. Bones do their job of resisting forces with no effort needed.

Note If you or your student are left-handed, please reverse all of the left-right references.

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The Problem with Monkey See-Monkey Do Archery

Currently archers and archery instructors are engaging in what I call “monkey see-monkey do” personal improvement planning. If we see a recent champion doing something different, we attribute their success to that new “move,” because, well, no one else is doing that and everything else the winner did was just like what everyone else was doing, so their success surely must be due to what they did that was different and new.

Brilliant logic … just wrong and I mean “Flat Earth wrong,” not just incorrect.

The classic example of this thinking being wrong was a winner of the Vegas Shoot one year did so wearing a glove on his bow hand. The reason was he had a hand aliment that contact with the bow aggravated. This didn’t stop quite a number of people who showed up at the next Vegas Shoot wearing gloves on their bow hands.

There are a number of things operating here that need to be taken into account.

Survivorship Bias
So, you notice that a winner had a different, maybe a new, move. So is the success rate 100%? Did all of the archers who tried the new move experience success? What if I told you that of the ten archers who had incorporated this new form element into their shots, nine of the ten had achieved success, meaning podium-level making success? Okay, now we are talking! Nine out of ten, surely that proves this is the magic move!

Uh, no.

Just as the winners write the history, only the survivors are even present to tell their story. What if 100 archers had incorporated this new form element into their shots, and of the 100, nine experienced great success, one experienced a bit of success and 90 got so frustrated with their inability to shoot well that they gave up the sport and are doing different things now? Different, no?

The problem with this MSMD approach is we only have the winners (aka survivors) to examine in any detail. The losers aren’t around to be evaluated.

Random Winners
Another problem we have is random winners. I remember seeing the scores shot in a North American IFAA Championship shoot, held in Florida one year. About 50% of the entrants and winners came from Florida. Like most archery championship shoots, this one was open to anyone willing to pay the entrance fee, but the farther away you live the less likely it is you will attend. That is just a matter of fact. And don’t you USAA/WA fans look smug at this, one of the first world championship shoots put on by the newly created FITA organization (now World Archery) was held in Sweden. The vast majority of the entrants were from Scandinavia.

So, there are some basic qualities winners need to have: they need to show up, they need to have archers better than them not show up, … do you see where this is going?

An oft quoted statistic is that 95% of competitions are won by 5% of the archers. I have no idea whether this is true, but I suspect the core of it is: people who win often or consistently are quite few. And they win a lot. The only times these things happen is when there is a truly transcendent player in the mix, like Tiger Woods was to golf, or when the competition is just not that great. I suspect, in archery’s case, it is the latter. In Olympic circles, the U.S. was dominant from archery’s reintroduction into the Olympic Games, but when they faltered, Korea became dominant (at least on the women’s side). Now Korea’s dominance is slipping and I suspect that winner’s circles will become more egalitarian as the quality of “the competition” goes up.

And The Solution Is …?
Gosh, danged if I know, but there must be more reality and science in archery if we are do get away from just mimicry as the mainstream of archery instruction. We need to acknowledge that there are as many “techniques” as there are archers and there is no “magic” in technique. We need to know why things work the way they do. We need to know more about the application of corrections. We need to know more about the mental game, particularly as to its application.

I am looking forward with much anticipation to finding these things out. It sounds like fun!

 

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