Tag Archives: the mental game of archery

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, 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 to 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 dependant 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.

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.




Filed under For All Coaches

More on the Mental Game of Archery

Regular readers of my scribblings will know that I raid golf instruction for ideas regarding archery. And my last post was on the Mental Game of Archery involved some golf stuff. Well, here is some more: a post by mental game (golf) guru David Mackenzie of Canada. As you read, see if you find anything that applies to archery. (If you don’t end up with “all of it” you need to look closer. Steve)

* * *

The 7 Habits of Highly Successful Golfers
September 25, 2013
David MacKenzie

In my opinion, the top players in the world share 7 things in common beyond having a good golf swing. Here, they are.


Life is short. So why anyone would want to spend hundreds of hours trying to improve in the wrong way is crazy. Beating ball after ball at the same target at the driving range and coming away thinking you’ve mastered the game only takes you backwards. How many golfers wish they could take their range game to the course? 99% of them. The other 1% (the elite), practice in a way that is challenging and simulates course conditions. Hitting a bucket of balls to the same target over and over is easy and it’s nothing like playing on the course. The top players make every second count when practicing, so they’re working all areas of the game to the max. The first thing to do in trying to get better at golf is to think about the way you practice, and change your routine. I’ve worked with many players of all abilities and one of the major factors in success is the way you practice. Make practice hard and as much like the golf course as possible.


Staying in the present means that you give whatever you are doing your complete, undivided attention with no distractions of the past or future. In golf, this means you’re not thinking about your score, how your playing partners might be judging your performance, why you think you just sliced that tee shot or 3 putted the last hole. All your energy is on the process of hitting shot at hand and then enjoying the walk in between.

It’s easy to see how counter-productive it is not to be in the present – just think back to your last round where you started playing well and then thought about shooting your best score (into the future), only for your game to unravel. The same thing happens when you start to think about bad shots you hit (in the past). Being solely in the present is easier said than done I know (like everything else it takes practice), but there are good techniques to prevent these tension causing shifts in thinking. I’ve got plenty of techniques for getting better at staying in the present and relaxing in between shots in my Ultimate Mental Game Training System (2016 Edition).


Good players understand the importance of the fundamentals as it’s the foundation for a good golf swing. How you grip the club, how far you stand from the ball, how good your posture is, how good your ball position is and how well you align to the target are all way more important than just trying to swing the club correctly. The fundamentals need to be worked on continuously as it’s easy to get into bad habits, even for Tour players. It’s always worth a check up from your local pro to make sure you have these right. Alignment is the one that requires the most maintenance. You could argue that a consistent tempo is also “fundamental” to a good swing.


The eyes are probably the golfer’s most important asset. Once they commit to a target, the top players imagine exactly how the shot will look, even what the ball’s going to do when it lands. How clearly you define your target and your shot shape before playing each shot will have a huge impact on how well you execute it. It quietens your mind and allows your subconscious play the shot, as opposed to conscious control with technical thoughts, which just doesn’t work as well.


The top players in the world all go through the exact same routine before (and after) every shot, even down to the number of practice swings and looks at the target. The routine acts to prepare you as best as possible for the shot, and going through the same sequence right up until you swing, means there’s no time for negative thoughts to creep in. Focusing on your routine also distracts you from the importance of the shot you are about to play – it makes every shot feel the same regardless of the situation. Your mind stays quiet.


I’ve worked with enough players to know that the good ones know powerful techniques to calm themselves down to prevent nerves turning into panic and negatively affecting performance. They are very self-aware and know how guide their minds away from negative thoughts and towards positive ones. They use nerves to their advantage. There are many ways to do this such as breathing techniques or having special thoughts/places to go in your head in between shots. This could be looking up at the sky or the trees, anything to switch off your golf brain so you’re not thinking about your score or swing. I recently heard of a player that would try to solve math problems in his head when it all got too much out there! So there are countless ways to do it.


Being able to accept every shot whatever the outcome should become a key part of your game. The optimal state for golf would be to become emotionally indifferent to good and bad shots. Most Tour pros have acceptance built into the routine and they tell themselves that although they have a positive intention for the shot, if it doesn’t go where they want it to, it’s better to accept it and move on, than get disappointed or frustrated. Try verbalizing this in your head before your next shot. Also, try making a deep breath or the action of putting the club back in the bag your signal that the shot is over and it’s time to get back into the present. There’s plenty of time to analyze your round when it’s over!

Ingrain these things and make them a habit!



Filed under For All Coaches

Thinking While Shooting

Occasionally I run into a student who has been thinking his way through every shot. It is always shocking when I discover this as I don’t look for it. I have been doing some writing about this topic lately and while doing so ran across this tidbit:
In a 2013 survey, 28 PGA Tour golf professionals we’re asked about what their favorite swing thought was.danger-sign-b

“Here’re the results:
•  18 pro’s said they didn’t think about anything at all during their swing.
•  10 who did have a swing thought said it was to focus on a spot a few inches in front of the ball, to encourage swinging through, instead of hitting at the ball or they focused on the desired shape of their shot.
•  None of them said they had any technical thoughts about their swing.”

From Darrell Klassen’s Cut the Crap Golf Blog

I also recall baseball great Yogi Berra being asked what he thought about while hitting and his answer was (approximately) “If I had to think while hittin’ I couldn’t hit nothin’!”

If you have students who are talking themselves through their shots (mentally), you need to find ways to discourage that practice. It is a real barrier to better performances.


Filed under For All Coaches