By Mark V. Lonsdale
An archer or athlete trains to become better, but “better” has several interpretations. Depending on the sport, better could mean stronger or it could mean greater stamina. On the technical side it could mean better technique, form, or process. On the mental side it could mean better stress management or improved focus. For archery, it is all of the above and more.
Let’s start with strength. Depending on age and physical condition, the aspiring archer could begin with a lightweight 25-pound bow, but will ultimately want to be shooting 40+ pounds in the recurve big leagues. But even with a low poundage, it still takes time to build the archery-specific muscles and muscle groups. Primarily these will include the trapezius, deltoids, latissimus dorsi, with collateral improvement in the triceps, biceps, and core. In the process of the thousands of repetitions, 100 to 200 each day, the archer will also be improving posture, lower back, balance, and coordination, along with the health benefits of walking to and from the targets each day.
Building strength is a process of loading and then overloading the required muscle groups, while allowing ample time between workouts for the muscles to recover, grow, and adapt. That said, archery is an activity of form and technique rather than strength, but it still requires the necessary strength to handle the bow poundage without struggling. Take a lesson from the English and Welsh longbow archers during the Middle Ages (1000-1500 CE). They trained with the bow from an early age, being given progressively larger and more powerful bows, until they could draw the 100-140 pound war bows and launch heavy arrows over 220 yards.
The next requirement is stamina. While archery competitions do not require the stamina of a tri-athlete, even though it is not unusual to walk 5 miles in the course of a field 3D match, it still requires a level of stamina to shoot the required number of arrows without weakening. For example, when shooting an end of 12 arrows, if the archer starts strong but begins shaking for the last three, then he or she may have developed the strength but not the endurance. This is evidenced by muscle fatigue and lactic acid build-up causing the shakes.
Building stamina, as with building strength, is about meeting and then exceeding the requirements of competition. In other words, if the match format is 10 sets of 3 arrows for a 300 round, then shoot 10 sets of 6 arrows in training. If a match requires 72 arrows (720), then shoot 100-150 in training. This is not difficult considering most dedicated archers shoot considerably more than that, supported by the appropriate recovery periods. The goal here is to not run out of gas and to make the match format a relatively easy and relaxed process.
One caveat when increasing the number of arrows in each training session, it is important to maintain quality over quantity. This is where we come into the mental aspects of training. Any activity that requires a high number of repetitions also requires strengthened mental focus to be able to execute every shot with the same level of precision. If an archer goes into training with the attitude that all they need to do is shoot 100 arrows and then they can go do other things, he or she is approaching training with the wrong mindset.
The required mindset and accompanying mental focus for training is one of making every arrow count. You don’t want to throw away points in competition, so you don’t want to ingrain sloppy habits in training. This all comes back to developing the correct neuro-muscle memory. The only way to build a winning performance is to first build a relaxed winning form and a repeatable shot process. In time, that focus and concentration will pay dividends in an almost subconscious execution. As they say, “don’t think, just shoot.”
This sounds easy enough, but once you have built the required strength, stamina, and form, the biggest challenge will be to stay focused and in the moment. For example, while training this morning I caught my mind wandering causing an unacceptable number of 7s and 8s. When I threw a bad shot I would ask myself where my head was at. On one shot I was wondering if 4” fletch was better than 5” fletch for 20 yard shooting. On another I caught myself thinking about when the UPS truck would deliver some new shafts. Another time I was still thinking about the previous shot instead of focusing on the current one. It is not significant what popped into my head while drawing the bow. What mattered was I was not in the moment and focused on my shot process and execution. The one good thing was that throwing a 7 jolted my head back into the game, putting the next two into the 9 and 10 rings.
So, of all the aspects of archery training and becoming a “better” archer, it is the mental aspects that require constant attention. That said, trying harder or aiming more carefully is not the answer. In fact both can be detrimental. You are looking for a repeatable form and subconscious release, and this requires being relaxed, in the moment, blocking out distractions, and not allowing your mind to wander. Total focus should be on the target and willing each arrow into the center.
With the appropriate physical and mental conditioning, reinforced by tens of thousands of repetitions, archery should become an effortless activity where the archer is totally absorbed in the moment.