Once an archer has conditioned him or herself to shoot 150-200 arrows per day (800+ per week), it is hard to break the habit, especially for elite athletes and serious competitors. Having been involved in judo training, pistol shooting, and rifle competitions at the national and international levels since I was 15 years old, daily training is as much a part of my life as coffee in the morning. Now, with barebow archery, I am training and launching arrows three times a day, at one to two-hour intervals, and alternating between 20 yards and 50 meters.
For those that have easy access to a local indoor range, winter is the time to work on indoor competition skills (20 yards/18 meters). For others it is time to brave the elements or become creative.
From personal experience, 40 F is okay for training as long as the sun is shining. Between the heat of the sun and the reflection off the snow, winter temps of 40-50 F is not uncomfortable as long as you keep your fingers warm walking up and back to the target.
The other alternative is training inside at shorter ranges. While I can get 12 yards in my garage, the ceiling is too low to clear the tip of a 70″ bow. Shooting from my living room down the hallway I can get 10 yards which is perfectly adequate for winter indoor training. Talking to my coach, he has practiced at as little as 3 meters inside while focusing on technique and form. This is similar to the blank bale training that many athletes use for the same purpose – total focus on form while not being distracted by aiming or target panic.
The key point here is to make training an important part of your daily schedule. This will keep archery specific muscles conditioned while maintaining the discipline of a daily routine. Archery training can be supplemented with gym workouts, road work, archery specific exercises, watching your diet, and mapping out your training plan for the upcoming competition season.
There are a number of steps in tuning arrows to match the bow beginning with matching the correct spine of the arrow with the poundage of the bow. From there, one can increase and decrease bow poundage by adjusting the limb bolts and then increasing or decreasing point weight. Lighter points will make a shaft act stiffer, while a heavier point will make the shaft flex more. But this post is focused on through paper testing and how to avoid an incorrect result.
Paper testing is best done at short range, 5-6 yards, so that the arrow does not have time to stabilize. Keep in mind that even a poorly tuned arrow will stabilize and fly straight once the fletching or vanes have time to straighten out the arrows flight. But a well tuned arrow will fly straight even at short range as illustrated with a bare shaft test.
So set the bale at about 5 yards (meters) and set the paper screen 3 feet in front of the bale. A stiff arrow passing through the paper will make the hole for the point to the left of the fletch cuts (for a right handed archer). If the spine of the arrow is weak, the point hole will be to the right of the fletch cuts. But it is possible to have perfectly tuned arrows and get a false reading
In the example above, these are all identical arrows – Easton RX7-23s with RPS inserts (37 grains) and 125 grain points. The bow is a Hoyt Xceed with 34# Velos limbs but 38# at the fingers because of draw length.
Arrows A, B & C went through like bullets since the string blur alignment was correct at the left edge of the riser window. However, with 1, 2 & 3, the string blur alignment was set right of the riser causing the arrow to leave the bow point left. So when it went through the paper, the arrow was still point left which would normally indicate a stiff shaft.
Conclusion: Even though paper testing is done at short range, pay attention to form and aim just as you would at longer target distances.
With forty years of precision shooting and judo under my belt, at the national and international levels, I’ve learned a few truths about training and competitions. These apply equally to archery as they do to rifle and pistol shooting or martial arts.
Be Brilliant at the Basics. In any shooting sport, it all comes down to honing and perfecting the fundamentals, and then maintaining those skills with frequent practice. Archery appears to be relatively simple to the uninitiated, but it takes years and decades to master that simplicity. An archer never graduates from working on form and the shot process. It is not about quantity or number of arrows per session, but about quality and reinforcing solid repeatable fundamentals.
Decide on What You are Willing to Give Up. Becoming a champion in any sport requires a significant amount of time for training, financial resources, and the willingness to travel. To achieve your goals, you may have to give up other recreational activities, time with loved ones, junk food, partying and excessive alcohol. In many cases, training at the elite levels can be a long solitary journey… but one that can be extremely rewarding.
Put in the Work. Shooting 100-200 arrows a week is not going to pay dividends if your goal is to compete at the national and international levels. Entry level training may require 500 arrows per week, but as the archery-specific muscles develop, the goal is to move up to 200+ per day and 1,200+ per week. Archery training should also be supplemented with cardio, strength & stamina training, stretching, and mental toughening.
Sweat the Details. Part of the mental preparation for competition is knowing that you have done everything possible to prepare for game day. You should also have a checklist of everything you need to do a month before a competition, a week before, the day before, and the morning of the event. I’ve lost count of how many peers and competitors I’ve seen turn up on match day missing essential pieces of equipment.
Practice isn’t Competition. You can’t simulate match conditions in practice, particularly the mental pressure to perform on demand. Part of a comprehensive training plan should be to compete in as many local and state competitions as possible, within time and budget limitations. Keep in mind that many top shooters can shoot winning scores in practice, but it is the man or woman who can do it under match pressure that will take the gold.
Invest in the Best Gear. In other words, “good enough” is not good enough. You should always be striving to improve your equipment. Take note of what the champions are using and follow their example. The good thing is that a quality riser and limbs can last for years, so that is a one time big investment. Arrows used for target shooting are also expensive but will give years of service if you maintain the fletching and nocks yourself.
Accept the Pressure. Pressure is mental and usually self-imposed. We are constantly striving to shoot better, freaking out about wild shots, experiencing stress at competitions, and even worrying about winning or maintaining sponsorship. We put the proverbial “monkey on our own backs.” That said, there is a significant feeling of pressure at your first big event, especially if you are no familiar with the match format. There is even more when you make it to the finals and the head-to-head shoot-offs. Being in a line of 40 or 50 archers during qualifications is less stressful than being one of two archers on center stage with hundreds watching in person, and possibly thousands watching the live broadcast. If you have the type of personality that becomes uncomfortable when people are watching, then you need to work on your focus, concentration, and mental game.
Never Give Up. Just because you throw an arrow or two into the blue (5s & 6s) doesn’t mean you are out of the match. Even the top shooters occasionally fudge a release or experience target panic, but the winners push on through it. This is especially true in Barebow where no one shoots all 10s and Xs. So when you throw an arrow wild, you need to have the mental toughness to shrug it off, relax, and keep shooting for gold. Winners never quit.
Having Fun is Not the Goal. Yes, archery is fun; practice is fun; even training can be fun. But at the end of the day, if you aspire to be a champion, you have to knuckle down and put in the work. Training must be planned and executed with specific goals and metrics. As they say, “You don’t find time to practice – you have to make time to practice.” Training must be a daily event, even three or four times a day (my personal routine is 60-84 arrows three times a day), but it doesn’t have to be a grind. Competitions are the time to focus, block out life’s many distractions, and get the job done. The time for fun is after you have won the gold.
When developing good form and a consistent shot process, there are several aspects that a competent coach can help with. These are all externally observable attributes such as stance, draw, anchor, alignment and release. But there are other physical aspects that the coach cannot observe. These are elements that only the archer can feel. One of these elements is bow hand alignment and pressure.
Even though the bow has a grip, the archer does not actually grip the bow during the shot process. The primary contact with the grip should be the palm pad at the base of the thumb applying pressure into the center of the grip.
Traditionally, archers were taught to “push” into the target with the palm heel, and even to increase pressure during aiming and just prior to release. This has transitioned into “reaching” toward the target with equal and balanced pressure between the bow hand and the draw hand. This is the part that is difficult for the coach to observe and can only be felt by the archer.
As with many sports, archery requires self-awareness, a keen sense of feel, and kinesthetic sense. Kinesthetic sense is defined as, “The ability to know accurately the positions and movements of one’s skeletal joints. Kinesthesis refers to sensory input that occurs within the body. Postural and movement information are communicated via sensory systems by tension and compression of muscles in the body.”
As with the golf swing, the archery shot process requires a keen sense of feel built on thousands of repetitions – and grip pressure is a big part of achieving consistency and accuracy. If the palm pad at the base of the thumb is not centered on the grip, then shots will impact left or right of the aiming point. If the spot pressure increases or decreases then the shots will hit high or low respectively.
It is therefore critical that the archer develop a good kinesthetic sense of a balanced, in-line draw to anchor, through to release and follow-through. If the bow is correctly set up and tuned, the impact of the arrows will indicate any variances in grip pressure.
Barebow archers can align their string blur with the left edge of the riser window or to the right of the arrow point. Whichever one chooses, it is important that the string blur is in the same place with every shot. Any lateral movement during aiming and release will result in lateral spread of arrows on the target.
Aligning the bowstring in your sight picture is critical to consistent shooting. How archers do that varies – especially among the different archery disciplines.
Let’s get compound archers out of the way first, because their alignment process is the simplest. Almost all compound archers use a peep sight. A compound archer takes aim through a peep sight.
This is a small circle or tube that is set into the middle of the bowstring, between the strands. The height of the peep is set based on the archer’s anchor. Most archers will draw to anchor, touch their nose to the string, and then have someone slide the peep up or down so that it matches their eye height.
Look through the peep and line up the sight so it’s in the center. Ideally, the edges of the peep will perfectly match the edges of your scope housing. If it doesn’t, just make sure the sight is in the middle of the peep, and you’ll know you’re aiming the same way for every shot.
Some bowhunters opt not to use peep sights for various reasons – one of them being hunters fear not being able to see through the peep in low light conditions. These archers might use a bow sight with optical alignment built in, or they use the string in some fashion to line up their sight pins in order to achieve a consistent aim. Perhaps they make sure the string aligns against the riser side of their scope housing, or the bow riser itself.
(Using a peep sight is much simpler, and it’s going to be way more accurate. The time you might sacrifice in failing light is more than offset by the huge gains in accuracy.)
Olympic recurve archers – those who put sights on their recurve bows – usually have a three-point system for string alignment to ensure they’re looking through their sight the same way for each shot.
These archers hook the string with one finger above the arrow nock and two below. With this grip, they will then anchor the top of their index finger under the jaw at full draw. Doing this sets their eye height at a consistent spot in relation to the bowstring.
Next, they will touch the tip of their nose to the string and then move their head until their view of the string and sight is set. That string will be in a consistent spot time and again – often along the vertical edge of the riser’s sight window or on the right edge of the sight housing for right-handed archers and the left edge for lefties. This Olympic recurve archer establishes the same relationship between his bowstring and his sight for each shot.
Regardless of where an archer aligns the string, if the string drifts from that spot, the archer will notice the alignment has moved, and correct it by simply turning his or her head slightly.
Barebow archers, who shoot without sights, often refer to “string blur.” It’s the blurry image of the bowstring right in front of their eye, which they see while aiming or focusing down range. Some pay attention to string blur during shot alignment, often lining it up in relation to the arrow or riser.
Others, like world champion John Demmer III, count on the string blur to be set properly based on their anchor. Demmer said if he notices his string blur, then he knows he’s out of alignment, because it should be “attached” to the riser from his perspective. Champion barebow archer John Demmer III wants his bowstring to be aligned with his riser for each shot, which means he shouldn’t see his “string blur.”
Also, barebow archers who are string-walking as they shoot different distances, like on a 3-D shoot or field course, will move the string blur left and right to move their point of impact left or right, depending on the distance.
Whether you shoot Olympic recurve or barebow, it takes a lot of practice to get consistent string alignment because there is no definitive object – like a peep sight – to give you a precise reference point.
For the untrained rookie, archery appears to be a simple process of drawing and releasing arrows at the target. But for the trained archer, he or she knows that precision archery, Olympic recurve, barebow, or compound, requires the mastery of several physical and mental elements. While many focus on a clean release, it is alignment behind the arrow that is the foundation of injury free, consistent archery. The release, in fact, becomes a subconscious process triggered by other actions, but without good alignment, the archer will not achieve the required relaxed form for consistent accuracy.
Skeletal alignment is the bone-to-bone structure that reduces the muscular effort required to hold the bow at full draw. While the rookie is muscling the bow to full draw, the experienced archer appears to effortlessly draw, hold, and release. A simple test is to hold the bow at full draw and see how long it takes to begin shaking. The novice archer using strength and little to no technique will begin to shake within seconds, while the archer with good form will be able to hold full draw for 10-30 seconds depending on conditioning and draw weight.
While achieving this alignment appears to be a linear movement to full draw, it is actually a rotational movement that brings the archer into skeletal alignment. With an open stance the archer’s back and front shoulder will be pointing to the left of the target, but as he or she comes to full draw, the alignment of the back will rotate to the right of the target.
To wrap this up, skeletal alignment is the foundation on which good archery is built. While all the elements of the shot process are important, without good alignment the sight or arrow point will be shaking on the target, are archer will experience target panic, the release will be inconsistent, and resultant accuracy poor. So even when you cannot make it to the range, you can still practice form and alignment in the mirror.