Tag Archives: Practice

Five Reasons Archers Fail to Improve

Once again I am inspired by a blog post of a golf coach. In this case it was 5 Reasons Why Golfer’s Don’t Improve by Adam Young. I find there is a correspondence between these two individual sports that is very much worth paying attention to.

Here is how I translated the five reasons golfers don’t improve into five reasons archers don’t improve.

  1. Flawed Thinking
    This is generally passed from one generation of archers to another in the form of helpful advice. As an example, it is not uncommon for an archer to grab his/her bow at the loosing of the string so as to not drop it. Of course, you know that “shoot, grab; shoot, grab” occasionally become “grab, shoot” and off an arrow goes into the woods. But often archers are told to “not grab the bow like that” but are not coached as to how to shoot with a relaxed bow hand. This is why we see so many compound archers shooting with outstretched fingers, which is another, different flaw that should be avoided. Often the people given the “don’t grab the bow advice” are shooting with outstretched fingers and are providing an example of what not to do in the form of advice of “what to do.” They will even praise a newbie for doing it as they do it.

This is not so much flawed thinking but a lack of thinking. It is applying correctives without understanding what they do in the belief that the people giving advice know what they are doing.

  1. Practicing Faults
    Beginning archers are often obsessed with “doing it right.” Where they get their information about the “right way to do things” is often flawed and they then end up practicing diligently doing it wrong, thinking they are doing it right.

A better way to approach this is acknowledging that is no one way to shoot a bow and everyone has to work out what works for them. (This will be opposed by people selling the “right way to shoot,” of course.) There are some basic constraints on building an archery shot, of course. Standing with your feet on the wrong side of the shooting line makes shooting way more difficult, for example. But within the basic constraints most people shoot slightly differently from their peers. Each archer has to build and refine their own shot, then they need to progress to what is better, not just what they think is “right.”

  1. Thinking You Are Not Capable of Doing It “That Way”
    The famous quote of Henry Ford is that “If you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right.” When you accept that you are incapable of doing something, you essentially stop any positive learning. If you think you can’t learn something, then your learning process is fouled up. (I keep beating this dead horse, but it won’t get up and run!) It is one thing to not want to put out the effort necessary to learn something, but another to think you “can’t.” This is not a growth mindset, it is a static mindset, and if you want to be an accomplished archer, you need to accept that you can learn to do anything you set your mind to learn.
  2. You Can’t Bring Your Practice Game to Competitions
    If there is a big gap between your practice performances and your competition performances, you are practicing wrong. The whole purpose of shooting practice rounds is to test your current state of skill at scoring. If the conditions that exist in the two arenas are vastly different, you aren’t measuring what you think. Would you expect to do well outdoors in a long distance competition only practicing indoors at short distances? Do you expect to shoot well in the wind when your practice facility is deal calm most of the time? Do you expect to be able to learn how to shoot uphill or downhill shots on a flat range?

As archers become more proficient, they also become more consistent. Their practice scores are more consistent. Their competition scores become more consistent and their practice scores and competition scores get closer together. This is deliberate to some extent because they work at including competition factors into their practice sessions.

  1. What You Are Doing Won’t Make You Any Better
    The common Internet meme called the “definition of insanity” being “doing something over and over and expecting different results” comes to mind. To the contrary, if you want to get better, you must do activities designed to make one thing better, specifically, at a time. This is why drills are effective. You can home in on something and practice it to make it better. This is partially why we have shot sequences, so we can look at the various stages of our shot making and evaluate them and find ways to make the weaker parts stronger.

Contrast this with what commonly passes for archery practice. (I know; I practiced this way for years!) We go to the range and shoot arrows on the practice butts for a time. Or we sit on the range and shoot practice rounds. If this worked, driving to work every day would make you a better driver (it actually makes you worse!). If this worked, students trying to learn algebra would just take tests over and over until they learned how to pass one. We do not do this because it does not work. Instead we read texts, we work though practice problems that have been demonstrated and then try our hand at solving practice questions that have answers we can check. Before we take the algebra test, we might take a “practice test” (the equivalent of an archer’s practice round) but we wouldn’t take practice test after practice test as a study method because it is too danged inefficient. We all know this. This is why teachers teach the way they do: break it down, learn the parts, put it back together, practice, practice, practice.

Archers need help figuring out what to do to improve. This is why Mike Gerard and I are writing The Archery Drill Book which we hope will be out in late summer or the fall. Drills in the book are accompanied by descriptions of what they were designed to accomplish and how you can tell you’ve accomplished that. We hope this will help. (We know this will help!)

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Win or Learn … or Win and Learn?

“I never learned anything from any game I won” – Bobby Jones

The Basshams, the Mental Management folks, use a phrase over and over which is: “We either win or learn, there is no ‘lose.’” Actually I think we can win and learn, too. The saying is part of their efforts to help people to create a learning mindset. If we focus too much on losing and winning, we can fail to develop a mindset of doing what we need to do to put ourselves into a winning position.

But, with all due respect for Mr. Jones, a golf legend, we can easily win and learn. My partner is somewhat famous for dropping her one and only tab into a porta-potty while leading the tournament she was contesting. Shooting a makeshift tab she managed to end up winning, just barely, and learned a valuable lesson regarding carrying a spare tab. I use this example because it is funny as all get out, not because it is the most instructive.

A more profound principle/example is that you learn how to win by winning. Think about that. Learning how to deal with competition pressure can only be learned when they are feeling it. Feeling that one has learned something about dealing with the pressure to win only happens when they win having dealt with it.

You can help your charges develop a learning mindset in many ways. One is by defining what winning means (I favor “meeting or exceeding your goals”) and another is to have a mechanism to focus on what was learned from an experience.

I have a standard “post-competition” process I ask my athletes to follow. After any event and within 24 hours of the end of that event I ask my students to make two lists of at least three items each. These they write in their archery notebook. The first thing is a list of what they learned. Over time this can be quite illuminating. For example, any time something shows up on these lists more than once may mean that thing wasn’t learned. Or maybe you didn’t help them find a way to implement what they learned. This is the role of the second list.

The second list is “what they will do differently next time.” These can be specific to this event or may apply to any event. This list informs practice because just by stating it doesn’t mean you can do it.

Young people especially don’t like homework, so you will have to pressure some of your students to produce the lists. You will also encounter students who put little to no thought into their lists. In some cases you will find you have mis-characterized some students as serious competitive archers and find out they are not because they do not want to do such tasks. Other times people are just intellectually lazy.

The students with “the spark” end up with lists of more than three items regularly, which is one way to identify them. (I always look favorably on students who come to lessons with written lists of questions. My very best student emailed me with such things and with things he hoped to accomplish at our next lesson ahead of time so I could be well-prepared to serve him!)

Another  helpful process is to look over the past 4-5 sets of lists when you are developing a practice plan for a major competition. When doing this I emphasize that they are in charge. I just ask questions like “This list item suggests you want to do XYZ, do you want to do that?” Remember the lists are theirs, not yours, so you should get some buy-in regarding those items.

 

 

 

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Helping with Plateaus

In Archery Focus magazine we run regular columns for coaches and students, elucidating our programs and the way we teach. Recently we have prefaced the titles of these columns with the header “Getting Serious,” because we have covered the basics over and over and, well, that drum has been beat. (Note Subscribers have access to all of the back issues, back to the beginning, so they can search for any topic they need help on.) So, we are now addressing how coaches work with serious archers and how archers can get serious about their archery.

One of the things that beginning serious archers have to deal with is plateaus in their performances, aka getting stuck on a score. When they first became serious, they improved in leaps and bounds, now they are stuck. This also occurred when they first took up the sport. Some of this perception is illusory. For example, we used a scoring system in our first classes to define levels of accomplishment. We used a modified indoor round outdoors with a perfect score being 300 points. The first plateau was 50 points. Then there were others. Many archers jumped past 50 points in their first testing. Some would make 50 point improvements in sequential scores. Progress in scoring was often made fast. But progress of this kind always slows. This is because the first 50 points is easy, the last 50 points, getting from a score of 250/300 to 300/300 is very difficult. You start with just a few good arrow scores taking you to score you wanted to a few poor arrow scores making that score impossible. So the perception of progress is biased toward the “fast” end of the spectrum at first and the “slow” end later.

Our serious archers, though, get used to a certain level of performance and establish a comfort zone, then find themselves stuck on a performance plateau. Often you can hear archers in this state say things like “No matter what I do I score thus and so.” So, coach, what do you do to help?

Helping with Plateaus
Almost always newly serious archers have no perspective as to how much effort is needed to make progress (nor do they understand that progress is harder and harder to make at their end of the scoring range). So, the first thing you need to do is sit down with them and list out all they are doing. For some, the answer is clear why progress is lacking; it is due to lack of effort. Kids are somewhat notorious for attending classes or JOAD sessions once a week and expecting that to be sufficient “practice.” Adding a practice session or two between classes will help a great deal. They, of course, will need help planning what they need to do at those sessions and you should help with that.

For student-archers who are “putting in the time,” the enemy is usually the definition of insanity often ascribed to Albert Einstein, which is “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”

Insanity: doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.

The weapon needed to conquer this problem is the lowly notebook. More than a few archers spend their practice sessions socializing and not working on their shot or whatnot. Like the dieters asked to keep a log of what they eat, asking archers to keep a log of what they do during “practice” can help identify if a) they are doing enough and b) are they doing the right things.

If you yourself spend any idle time at a range, observe what people do for “practice.” You will see a great many people “just shooting” and others “shooting for score” (a practice round). Neither of these are effective practice. Their benefits are few. One such is they are developing some shooting stamina and another is they are benchmarking their scoring ability (practice rounds are tests, not homework). But there are better ways to develop stamina than just shooting, for example. For recurve archers, instead of just shooting, could do Double Draws or Reversals to build shooting stamina. Double Draws are just that, you draw to anchor, let down to your predraw position, draw again and loose. Reversals are drawing and holding for much longer than ordinary times (done in sets like weight lifting because they are weight lifting). Note Reversals should not involve shooting at the end unless you are very close to the butt. The fatigue they create is substantial and can create wild looses.

Real practice involves working on your shot to get better, so the big question is: what needs to be improved? This is where introspection and notebooks are absolutely necessary. Archers need to become cognizant of where they fail to perform and, if they can, why they fail. Do the poorly scoring arrows come at first or toward the end when a good score is on the horizon? Or do they come in the middle of rounds due to a loss of focus? Serious archers, to be really serious, need to study themselves and their sport to improve their own performances and their own equipment. Keeping notes on what is and isn’t working, another use for the lowly notebook, is very, very helpful. Seriously.

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How to Learn Archery

The standard approach to learning archery, or really any sport, is to establish a pattern of incremental improvement. Basically this is a “do good, then do better” approach. We teach archers good basic form, not elite archer form, and then we encourage them to make minor changes in their shot, checking to see if these are “improvements” or “just changes.”

These is absolutely nothing wrong with this approach and I do not see that there is anything inherently wrong with it, but it does seem to be wrong to assume this is the only way to learn. There are basic weaknesses in this usual approach. A good example in archery is tuning. Tuning involves making small changes in how your bow and arrows are setup and then testing to see if the new setup is “better.” The problem with this approach is that you may end up with what is called a “false tune.” The approach of “a little bit, a little bit more, a tiny little bit more, oops, too much … back up a little” will find a local “best tune.” But is that the best tune available? This approach is a little like hiking while always moving uphill. You will eventually find yourself at a hill top, but there may be many taller hills nearby. You just had the misfortune of starting on the slopes of a shorter hill. Since it is very hard to get a wide angle view of the tuning landscape we have to resort to starting from a good starting point. In tuning, this is a well set up bow (as the manufacturer recommends, not as your bow has come to be). Trust me, if you start with a bad setup, you will only find bad tunes.

You can also fall into the trap of thinking that you have to be shooting well to learn (“do good, then do better”). Sometimes when you are shooting quite poorly, it is a good time to break down barriers to better shooting.

A way to get off of the “just a little bit of progress at a time train” is to do something really, really difficult, something you thought you (or your student) could not do. One example comes to mind: the thousand arrow challenge. A colleague, Tyler Benner, actually took this challenge and described it in detail in the book he wrote with Kisik Lee, Total Archery: Inside the Archer. Basically the idea is to start shooting arrows (blank bale) at sunrise and before you get to sunset, have shot 1000 arrows. If you have read his account, it is quite brutal. Even if you were to do it with a very light drawing bow, that is a lot of arrows. Even with volunteer arrow pullers/fetchers and a gallery rooting for you, this is very, very difficult. But … if you pull it off, things change for you. Never again will you feel like there is something in archery you cannot do. This is the big payoff.

How many times have you asked a student to do something and their response was “Oh, I can’t (or couldn’t) do that.” It is our out thoughts that get in our way much too often. Whenever some really difficult task is accomplished, it is often the case that rapid progress occurs thereafter. The “really difficult” task can’t be impossible or something that doesn’t get attained, although there are some people who are energized by simply trying something so hard no one expects them to accomplish it.

Such tasks are “doable” yet very, very difficult. We are most definitely not talking about hitting a target at some really far distance one time in 100 shots. Shoot enough arrows and you will hit something just by chance. For many archers this task is shooting a perfect score on a “gettable” round (one that people have already shot perfect scores on) but could be a round that people have almost shot a perfect score in competition and setting the goal of shooting one in practice. Or it might be a scoring level breakthrough (a score of 1400 on the 1440 FITA Round). This may seem like a small achievement, but for the archer who has never reached that point, it is significant. The key, though, is in the preparation and execution. You don’t just keep shooting that round until you get a perfect score, the goal is to always (almost always) get a perfect score or shoot at that level. When you have accomplished something like that, then you feel as if you can accomplish more and, just like a springboard, the accomplishment can launch your archer to new heights.

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The Ideal Practice Facility

I am writing a book, tentatively titled “Accelerated Archery,” which has the tag “how to get good, really good, fast” and one of the critical aspects of achieving archery excellence in a short amount of time is having a training facility available, one in which one can shoot safety and is available at least six days a week.

So, the question arises … naturally … how “nice” does this facility need to be. I have practiced in some nice facilities and in some real dumps. Is one better? If you asked supporters of archery competitions, such as fans of Olympic archery, they are likely to say that you need a really nice training facility, thinking that the appearance of the facility would show the people working in it how much their hard work is appreciated. On the other hand, Daniel Coyle, author of “The Talent Code,” who actually traveled around the world looking at so-called “talent hotbeds,” places known for training elite athletes, and found most of them to be dumps and that their appearance had an effect he suggested was an encouragement to get the heck out of there and out performing. On the third hand, you have the lavish training centers associated with professional sports teams. So, which is better, primitive or lavish?

… OR …

A recent study of people undertaking an exercise program prescribed to facility recovery from an injury has something to say about this. They had a control group and two experimental groups, one in a nice airy, well-lit facility with windows on the outside world and another, well, not. The found that: “Both groups improved, but one group reported feeling better, overall, with more pain relief and greater improvement in function. There was, however, no difference in aerobic capacity, muscle strength and walking speed between the groups.

When the groups were revealed, it became clear that the group exercising in the old room in the basement reported greater improvement when asked: Compared to when entering the study, how are your knee/hip pain problems now? This was contrary to what we expected.”

We interviewed some of the participants and showed them photos of the two rooms to spark a discussion about their impressions. The people exercising in the old room didn’t perceive the aged appearance negatively. They felt at home in the environment and expressed nostalgia because it reminded them of their old school gym. They also felt a stronger sense of fellowship – they were in it together and worked as a team to achieve their goals.

In the new room, the large windows were distractions and participants said that they did not feel part of a team. The large wall mirrors in the new room weren’t appreciated, either. The participants said that they didn’t like the look of their untrained legs and their often overweight bodies.

“So, if you’re thinking about starting to exercise, take your time and find an exercise environment that feels right for you, or join a group where you have similar goals. If you can join a group and exercise in an environment you really like, you will improve your chances of getting fit and of feeling better. ‘And, as our study shows, when it comes to exercising, it really doesn’t have to be fancy.’”

Looks like the training facility needs to have fairly good environmentals (light, heat, air conditioning) but other than that the key thing is availability. Don’t expect your charges to perform better in a nice facility, especially if you think it is nice because you have been to some of the dumps, but they have only been to the nice one. They may think all practice ranges look like theirs.

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More Barebow Questions

There seems to be a resurgence of Barebow archers lately and that makes me happy. That doesn’t mean Barebow is simple or easy. Here are some questions!

* * *

Coach Ruis:
I have a couple of questions. My first question involves blank bale practice. Winter is here, so I am shooting blank bale in the garage several nights a week, and going to the indoor range once a week. I am a string-

Barebow Recurve archers (right) get a bow and an arrow, none of the sights, stabilizers, clickers and other gewgaws that Olympic Recurve archers (left) get.

walking Barebow archer shooting an intermediate ILF bow with a plunger and wire arm arrow rest.
     While blank baling, I work on activating lower and middle traps when expanding as I focus on the draw arm LAN2. After a few days of blank bale, and I go to the range, I notice I have picked up a couple of ticks. First, I find I drop my draw elbow while expanding, and shoot high by a few inches. I have to concentrate on keeping my elbow at it’s draw height when I expand to correct this error. (I am actually not sure if this isn’t something going on with something else, like my bow arm/shoulder.) Second, my head position and/or draw hand at anchor seems unstable. It takes me a few ends to stabilize my anchor, and get my horizontal precision back. What is going on here, and how should I change my blank bale practice to be a force for good?

My second question involves shooting my secondary bow. I have an inexpensive three piece recurve I use for occasional stump shooting. I recently went on a trip for a couple of weeks, and brought the three piece along. I ended up shooting it a bunch of times over two weeks. Even when string walking I have to aim low and right to get the arrow to hit the mark. Once back at home and shooting my ILF bow, it took me a couple of weeks to regain both precision and accuracy. Obviously, I picked up some bad habits using this bow. I am guessing switching bows is a bad idea? I started out thinking that using different bows would increase my adaptability to different archery conditions, but now I am not so sure.

And here are my answers.

* * *

The difference with regard to your secondary bow is arrow spine. Unless you have a separate set of arrows matched to that bow, the odds of being able to use the same arrows with two bows is vanishingly small. You can mitigate the difference between the two aiming points by mentally telling yourself you are practicing “aiming off.” In the absence of wind, all points of aim (POA) of a well-tuned bow should be on a vertical line going through the center of your target face. (I call this the 12 o’cock-6 o’clock line.) If the wind is blowing, you may have to “aim off” of this line to allow the wind to blow your arrows into the center. I have people shooting sights deliberately mis-set their sights and find out how to still hit center as practice for this event. Mentally, then, you will not automatically blend in this shooting with your other bow’s shooting.

If your POAs aren’t on the 12 o’clock-6 o’clock line, your bow is not well-tuned.

Equipment-wise, if while string walking, your arrows hit to the left or right of your POA, and you can’t tune those out with your plunger, your arrows are either too stiff or too weak. Since you are aiming to the right (I assume you are right-handed) that means your arrows are flying left, which means they are too stiff for that bow. This may simply be a manifestation of your secondary bow having a lighter draw weight than your primary bow. (Can’t tell from here, of course.)

Regarding your first point. I have a problem with the National Training System of USA Archery (NTS) and you are demonstrating it clearly. (I assume you are learned in NTS as you are using their phraseology.) In this case, it is based upon the fact that we do not chose to use muscles consciously, but the NTS documents, which seem to be written for coaches but are foisted onto archers, offer way too much detail, including which muscles to use. Archers need to be put into proper positions and encouraged to use proper movements (what we call form and execution), which then limit the muscles that can be used … automatically. For example. If you draw the bow with your elbow at roughly nose height, it blocks out the biceps of your draw arm from being used. (Hold your hands and arms up in “pre-draw” position and then flex your draw arm biceps—careful, you may whack yourself in the face!) Subconsciously you know the biceps cannot help to draw the bow when in this position, so the biceps are not called upon. If you draw with your elbow quite a bit lower, it requires you to use your biceps. So, does an archer need to know about the biceps (the muscle that bends your arms inward)? I say no. They need to know that a better way to draw the bow is with their draw elbow “high” (meaning roughly at the level of your nose).

I believe your attention to things like the “middle traps” is really inhibiting what you want to do. If you put your body into the proper positions (form or posture) and then proceed freely (execution), you will automatically use the right muscles.

It is important to know these postures for this reason. At full draw we want a relatively straight line to run up the bow arm and across the shoulders (see the shoulder line in illustration below). Why? Bracing. A recurve bow exposes the archer to its full force at full draw (unlike a compound bow). To provide enough time under these conditions, we prefer to have our bone structure aligned to take that compressive force (you expand the bow, the bow compresses you). The bones can accept this force easily by opposing the force with compression resisting forces, but in the absence of the proper alignment of the bones to do that, we need to use muscle to supplement that. And muscles get tired and so over time their performance varies. Why do we need time at full draw? We need 0.5-1.5 sec (my estimate) of time to determine that we are being still. If you watch your arrow point carefully, it starts out being somewhat jittery when first at anchor, but then becomes more still (never perfectly so) after that time period. If you just wait, it will become more and more jittery again, as the muscles you are using to maintain your bone alignment fatigue. Why do we need to be still? If we are not still and are “shooting on the fly,” we will have variation not only in space (aiming is not perfect spatially) but also variation in time (we need to time the shot so it is properly aligned when we release). Stillness is better than not being still and we do not want to take this for granted.

If you observe this “settling” into your full draw position through the lessening of the motion of your arrow point, you can use this as a signal to release the string. Once you have become still and are on your POA, there is no benefit in waiting any longer. In effect, you have the equivalent of a built in “clicker” telling you it is time to loose.

We also want to have a relatively straight line from the centers of pressure on your bow hand and string fingers and on through to the point of your draw elbow (see the primary force line in the illustration above). Why? Biomechanically the COP of your bow hand is where you are pushing the bow handle and the COP on your string fingers is where you are pulling on the string. By aligning the draw forearm on that axis, you automatically throw the force of maintaining that posture on your upper back muscles (when archers say “back muscles” they mean the upper back, not the lower back, so the “mid-back” to an archer is the mid-upper back to others). The key is keeping kinks out of those two straight lines. This is what having “good alignment” or “good line” is all about. Any deviation from straightness of those two lines, requires muscles to be added to the equation, muscles to resist the draw force instead of just to maintain posture.

Whenever muscle is recruited to replace the role of bone under compression, we automatically make our shot more athletic. On good days, you can pull this off. On not so good days, your performance suffers. If you have large swings in your performances, it may be your shot is too athletic. A shot based upon bone is more consistent than one based upon bone and muscle (to resist the force of the bow). Muscle is always needed to maintain posture/body position, so we are not talking about that in this case.

I know I am going on and on, but the trap I hope you can avoid is in getting too focused on this muscle or that whatever. (I still have not seen a reference to LAN2 in any other source and do not understand how a reference to that point is superior to just using the point of the draw elbow. They are just a few inches apart and move together.)

Oh, with regard to you dropping your draw elbow. Your focus on your mid-back is allowing that (not causing it per se, but at least allowing it). Many successful archers use a focus on their draw elbow to get them through the shot. (Which you just discovered … it is not a bug; it is a feature!) The draw elbow is to move around (toward your back) and slightly down through the latter stages of the shot. This you can feel. Keeping both elbows “up” is a good focal point for successful recurve archery. If you are too focused on your back you may feel your elbow moving but it may be moving down rather than around. When the elbow moves down, it relieves the stress of the draw, something our bodies automatically do (relieve physical stress, avoid pain, etc.). You can draw farther, with less tension, dropping your draw elbow than not. But the build up of muscle tension in our back muscles (we call it back tension) is something we use as a sign that we are in the proper position. Allowing this tension to be bled off by lowering the draw elbow, removes this ability to determine if things “feel right” for loosing.

I hope this helps. Since diagnosing such things based upon written descriptions is kind of “iffy” do let me know if this works for you or not.

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Being Driven Crazy by Psychology

There is a burgeoning field of scientific endeavor which is the study of the acquisition of expertise. I am trying to write a book on the mental game of archery and since there is too much material for one person to study first hand, one needs to do a lot of reading to find out what others say, hence my interest in this subject. Anything that helps us understand how to make expertise more attainable, makes us better coaches.

A promising viewpoint on the attainment of expertise is Ericsson’s work on what is called “deliberate practice.” Ericsson’s claim is that undirected practice has minimal benefits, the main one being making us more physically fit to perform the task at hand … maybe. But if you want to improve the quality of a performance, highly focused practice  is necessary, with the focus on a specific aspect you wish to improve, using directed drills/exercises to that end.

The mainstream press, though, has asked the omnibus question: Is practice all you need to develop expertise? And lately they have brought up a number of topics researchers claim have a role. One of these is “working memory.” Working memory is a hot topic in psychology right now which is why people are trying it out for a leading role in … you name it. (Such is science: when topics are “hot” a whole bunch of scientists jump on that bandwagon. This is probably a manifestation of scientists looking for a place to work in which results are easier to get, not unlike gold prospectors.) Working memory is how much information you can cram into your mind and hold it there while you are working; this is definitely “short-term memory.”

Working memory is now claimed to play a role in sight reading of music and any number of other performance-related fields. Apparently the people making these claims haven’t looked at a performance critically. For example, studies show that in order for a musician to play from music they are reading, they have to “read ahead” several notes ahead of where they are playing. It was discovered (by the simple expedient of covering up the music and exposing it at rates the scientists could control), that professional musicians read ahead farther than amateurs. But to the researcher’s surprise, the difference was very small. When reading music and playing, there is an optimum read ahead distance: if you are too close to the playing time, musicians stumble. They apparently do not have enough time to translate the symbols into actions. If they get too far ahead of playing, they also stumble because they tend to forget what they had read before they are supposed to be playing it. So, working memory does play a role in sight reading music (reading as you are playing) but the part working memory plays is as part of a chain of events. Obviously if you do not have enough of working memory, you will struggle at this task. Other studies show that “experts” have more working memory than amateurs in this arena. So, the question I have is: does working memory get improved through practice? If so, then the question (Is practice all you need …) is too broad.

Yet, huge claims are being made regarding the role of this bit or that bit when it comes to practice. How any one of us is to make any sense of the current state of research is beyond me (literally). There seem to be some reasonable conclusions one can come to with regard to practice that have low chances of contradiction later.

  • So, should archers practice? Yes. Practice is a route to better performance. But, how effective the practice is is dependent on how smart you practice. So, practice as focused as you can.
  • Is there a way to project the amount of practice needed to meet a goal? No. Longer practice sessions do not seem to be as effective as more frequent shorter ones. (What “longer” and “shorter” are is ill-defined.) If you want to perform consistently, you must develop to the point you can shoot larger numbers of arrows in a session than required for performance.
  • It also seems that the best physical practice for a performance is the performance itself. So, if you are a pianist, play the piano. If you are an archer, shoot arrows.
  • In order to tell what works and what does not, you must … keep … records of your performance. Memory alone just doesn’t work as there is too many details to remember. (What material is your bowstring made from? How long is it … exactly? How many twists are in it? How many strands? How long is the center serving? And that is just the bowstring. Note: all of that information is necessary to make a replacement bowstring.)

My feeling is the question “Is practice all you need to develop expertise?” as discussed in the mainstream press, supports the meme that there are natural “talents” for particular activities: a talent for math, a talent for the violin, a talent for baseball. This is not only unsupportable by any science (the existent of sport- or activity-specific “talents” has no evidence supporting it) but is a toxic concept; even if it were true, there is no benefit from believing it.

Performers who believe in “talent” tend to quit easier when they encounter difficulties, believing they “just don’t have a talent for math (or whatever).” They also shy away from greater challenges because they have no idea how far their “talent” can take them and they don’t want to test something they don’t understand. Plus, since this talent-thing is responsible for their ability, why practice? These reactions to the belief in the concept of talent have been documented and seem to make sense.

If you don’t believe in “talent” then the outcome is determined by how much you learn and how hard you practice. If your performance isn’t good enough, you either need to work harder or smarter (better: both). This nonbelief in talent has this benefit in that we can now see the effect of deliberate practice upon skills developed and it is quite positive.

 

 

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Are You or Your Students Suffering from the Instant Gratification Cycle?

One of my colleagues dropped a student he was working with because in between coaching sessions, his student would either solicit or accept coaching direction from other archers and when they got back together he had done none of what they agreed upon he needed to do to get better. Instead the student would want to discuss a long list of things he had been trying suggested by fellow archers. Requests to have the student check in with the coach before just trying things, but that did not happen.

This student was suffering from a malady common in amateur athletic circles. Desiring instant results, if something appears to not be working, they would try something else. The “something else” may be something they just made up or something suggested by another archer.

As archers we are often in the advice business for myriad reasons: archery is a social sport, we all want to encourage newbies and those struggling so they will get better and stay in the game, etc. (As coaches, we are not supposed to offer advice unless asked!) In fact, there is such an established pattern of giving advice, especially older archers to younger archers, that we equip our younger archers with a canned response. If someone offers them advice, we suggest they say “Gee, thanks, mister, I’ll tell my coach the next time I see her/him.” If a young archer merely brushes off such attempts to “help” them, they can get a reputation for being aloof or “stuck up” or worse.

When an archer is trying to get better, they are trying to do things differently from what they had been doing which is always awkward. Whether or not those changes are successful can’t be determined until the “new moves” are practiced until they become “normal.” This means that serious archers need to be patient. Coaches need to explain what “being patient” means in terms of practice time and clock time so there are no misunderstandings. Coaches need to explain to archers that if they flit from one tip to another like a bee harvesting pollen, they will end up with a whole mess of nothing.

Archers need to know what to do with such tips when they are offered. In addition to the above canned response we teach to younger archers, we suggest that they write down such tips so they can discuss them with us via text/email or in person. Sometimes something valuable is suggested. Knowing that Coach is open to suggestions helps build trust in the coach-athlete relationship.

Whatever happens on the relationship front, an archer has to avoid like the plague the Instant Gratification Cycle:

a problem occurs → something new is tried → something works somewhat better  → another problem pops up → etc.

A basic fact of human behavior is the Hawthorne Effect: which is that when something new is tried, things tend to get better … for a short time. The first time this effect was described it was used to explain an experiment done on office workers. The office workers were told that if the lighting were slightly better, it would help their work and when it was brightened a bit  office productivity increased. Then they were told that if it were made even brighter, etc. … and their productivity increased again. Then they were told that the optimal amount of lighting had been determined and the lighting was changed once again, and productivity went up again. The final change was to lighting exactly as it was when the experiment first began. But, after some weeks, the measured productivity dropped back to what it had been before the experiments began.

Some say that the Hawthorne Effect is just a result of expectations on the part of the participants: if you expect to do better (reasonably, not magically, there needs to be a reason) you tend to do better. But the “improvements” are short-lived. This has ramifications when archers are looking at form changes and equipment changes, etc. First impressions are not always valid as they tend to be better than one will get in the long term. So, patience is required to make rapid progress in archery form or in one’s equipment/equipment setup. (Yes, you have to slow down to speed up.) The sure way to slow down someone’s progress is to work on something for only a short time and then switch to another thing, and another,…

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Letting Down

I can remember little conversations I had with myself at full draw, conversations that were more like arguments: one part of me wanted to let down the shot, another wanted me to “finish the job.”

The let down has a long and varied history. For most of my archery life it has been a critical part of an archer’s process. It is so critical that I created a principle based upon it, which I called the Rule of Discipline.” This “rule” says: “If anything, anything at all—mental or physical—intrudes from a prior step or from the environment, you must let down and start over. I learned this the hard way, as I learned so much about archery. I saw professional archers doing this over and over but I still had debates in my mind at full draw as to whether it is desirable. If you, too, have such debates, I suggest that if the topic of a let down comes up in you mind, the only thing to do is to let down because you are no longer thinking in the “now,” that is thinking about what you are doing in the present moment. You are thinking about what you might do in the future.

This role that a let down plays is not new, it has been around for a very long time.

I have heard that when one thinks he has gone too far, he will not have erred.
This sort of rule should not be forgotten.

Yamamoto Tsunetomo, Hagakure

To break my debate habit, I decided that if the idea of a let down occurred to me I would let down 100% of the time. (I like making rules.) Of course, I violated that rule in my first practice session post adopting it. So, I did a drill that I later used to treat a case of target panic I had, I went around a 14-target field course, and from each shooting position, I executed my entire shooting sequence up to aiming, and then I let down and returned the arrow to my quiver. So, I drew my bow 56 times and let down 56 times. It was the only way I thought I could establish in my minds (conscious and subconscious) that a let down was a normal thing, an acceptable thing.

Later as a spectator at a Pacific Coast Championships tournament, I marveled at Rick McKinney and a couple of other archers who let down after their clickers clicked. So, the let down became an interest of mine.

The whole purpose of letting down a drawn bow is that the odds of a good outcome when a shot has “gone astray” are very low. We teach archers to “never shot a shot you know is bad.” Why would you do such a thing? Not only is the score of that arrow likely to be low, archery is a repetition sport and repeating an action you have just done is easier than doing it from scratch. So, you just shot a poor shot and, even if you got lucky and it scored well, it is easier to do that bad shot over than to do “your shot” next. (This is why we incorporate a visualization of a perfect shot into our shot sequences, so we have something to follow.) So, archers are trained to let down, to break off any shot that seems to be heading in the wrong direction (sorry, bad pun).

There are modern trends away from this signpost of a well-trained shot, though. The decision to cut the time for each shot in the head-to-head competitions under World Archery (in the Olympics, World Championships, etc.) has had consequences. The head-to-head format was adopted to make our sport more telegenic and therefore audience attracting and the amount of time given to shoot each arrow has been cut from 40 seconds, to 30 seconds, and most recently to 20 seconds for the same reason. But there is an inherent conflict in this rule change. One of the reasons to call of a shot is timing. If a shot is taking too long, it is conceivable that it could take up more than half of the time given to complete the shot. This does not leave enough time to execute the let down and shot the shot in good order. So, we saw archers in the 2012 Olympics (London) shoot a 10 followed by a 6. A replay of the video showed that the archer was taking too long on the second shot and muscled their way to finish the shot. After a bad score is better than no score.

I don’t know if this is good for archery. I suspect not as archery is a precision and repetition sport. Time constraints, especially unreasonable ones, affect both of those.

So, do we teach letting down or do we try to learn some new way to fight through an ill-timed shot?

What do you think?

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Sources of Inconsistency

QandA logoOne of my very best Olympic Recurve students wrote about his recent foray into indoor league action. His problem seems to be in consistency.

“My NFAA 300 scores have been good, kinda. A 285 is my best ever. A 281 is my best league score this year. But, that was followed the week after by a score in the 240s, and I just cannot explain what happened to drop the 40 points. I felt like there were a lot of great shots in there, but they’d be going left on the target. Same bow, same setup, absolutely no changes. This was the same kind of thing at indoor nationals where I felt I shot well but the score was horrible. Hmm, I continue to be puzzled. To end that bad league night (last week) I shot a 25 end, the first and only one of the night.”

Since we hadn’t had a lesson in a while and I hadn’t seen him shoot there wasn’t much I could say until we got together. Here is an expansion of part of what I answered.

* * *

Competitive target archery is a search for consistency. In every competitive archer’s beginning experience we learn that an arrow that doesn’t “group” with the others needs to be inspected for damage. We learn tuning procedures that support “tighter groups.” We refine our form and execution. In every case we are looking for the arrows to land closer to the center (accuracy) and closer to one another (precision or consistency).

Accuracy is easier to achieve than consistency. By adjusting one’s bow and arrows and form a bit, one can get to the point that they have round groups centered on target-center. The average positions of these arrows is “dead center” but we are not scored on our average position, but on the actual positions of the arrows, hence the need to get the arrows closer and closer together so that they will all fit into a highest scoring ring (the de facto “optimum group size”).

“Competitive target archery is a search for consistency.”

Whenever I see scoring inconsistency like that reported, the immediate suspect (for a Recurve archer) is lack of line. No one seems to point this out, but in the same vein as the philosopher who pointed out you can’t ford or even step into the same river twice (the original water has been replaced by new) we are never the same archer. Every arrow we shoot, we shoot as an older person, the additional age may be only a few seconds or 24 hours of several weeks or even years of a layoff. As we age, things change. If we work out and get stronger, things change. This results in what I call “form drift” and it doesn’t have to drift far to be “off.” And good alignment is one of the things that one cannot afford to lose without a severe scoring cost. (A caveat here: I just saw a video clip of our current Olympic Men’s champion shooting. He does not have good line. The cost of that is he has to practice almost every day, which he does. You and I cannot afford the cost of poor alignment.)

So, we will meet to see what can be seen but there may also a psychological effect involved. And I do not have any information regarding whether it is “in play” in this case, but it may well be. We all have busy lives. We have school or work and it’s demands. We have families. We have lives outside of archery. Consequently the amount of time we have to engage in a sport is limited. It is not unusual for the indoor season to devolve into a series of mini-competitions with no real practice occurring. We experience success or failure on any particular league night but we don’t do anything with that until the next league night. Anything that might have been learned from the previous experience has long since faded before the next league night, so we drift from one “test” to “the next” and wonder why we are not being consistent. Can you imagine taking a night class at your local community college that meets once a week and each week the teacher gives you a version of the final exam to see if you are ready to pass out of the course, but no other instruction? You would be clamoring for your money back. Don’t do this to yourself.

After every competition, I ask my students to make two lists: one list is “The Things I Did Well” and the other is “Things I Will Do Differently Next Time.” I ask that they have a minimum of three things on each list. If consistency, aka small groups, is on the “Did Well” list one week and then not the next, then your consistency is a variable (not a good thing) and you need to do something about it before the next “test.” If the same things keep popping up on the “Do Differently” list, whatever you are doing to implement that is not working.

Please do not get the impression that I know everything about this topic, far from it. The problem I keep pointing out is that a tiny bit of the solution to every problem is available from that coach there and another bit from this coach here. Until we archery coaches get better organized, we will not be able to definitively answer any of these questions.

Steve

 

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