“…an hour’s earnest practice each day for a month will make one begin to feel like a bowman, and three months of such work will make him a fair shot at thirty or forty yards.” — Maurice Thompson, The Witchery of Archery, 1879, p.157
Shaft Shooters was launched in 2000 to document research and findings related to athlete development and high performance training with a focus on archery. It has since grown into a platform to share information of everything from traditional barebow archery to Olympic recurve competition development.
“The history of the bow and arrow is the history of mankind.”
When we discuss discipline in athletes, we are usually referring to self-discipline. This is in contrast to the military understanding of discipline which is concerned more with soldiers following orders, doing what they are told, and all at the risk of punishment. Self-discipline places the responsibility firmly on the shoulders of the athlete without having to be told when to train. If athletes have to be constantly pushed to train, they will not advance to the elite levels. However, this is not the same as having a coach or training partner who can push them to greater effort and higher levels.
Specific sports are also referred to as disciplines, particularly shooting sports and martial arts. Archery, as with pistol and rifle shooting, fencing, equitation or judo, are all disciplines and martial arts since they build skillsets that were once valued in the warrior class. Dating back to well before the first Olympics, sports disciplines are usually individual sports that require considerable commitment and self-discipline on the part of the athlete. So let’s look at what this discipline and self-discipline entails.
Self-discipline is the vital character trait that drives an athlete to attend regular training, practice diligently, or get up at 5.00 AM to hit the gym, swim laps, or do road work. For those who have fulltime jobs or are fulltime students, it takes considerable discipline to build the necessary training hours into their daily schedules.
Some of the character traits that accompany self-discipline are tenacity, perseverance, patience, and self-control. Individuals who become easily frustrated or lose their temper seldom advance in sports that require calm concentration and precision. Sports discipline is the constant striving for excellence while accepting the pain and sweat that goes with elite levels of training. It also takes discipline to patiently work through the inevitable training plateaus that plague most athletes. It takes discipline, after performing poorly at a competition, to then train harder and smarter and to come back stronger and better.
The Zen of Archery is also a component of discipline. It is not good enough to simply shoot 200 arrows per day, or 1,000+ per week. That is quantity over quality. It is necessary that every single arrow has the same level of focus and concentration. This is the Zen of Archery – not shooting 100 arrows but shooting one perfect arrow 100 times. That takes discipline.
For the novice archer, this begins by not throwing any arrows into the black (3&4), and then improving to the point where there are no blues (5&6). From there the goal is reducing the number of reds (7&8) to the point where he or she can go 60 arrows without a lapse in concentration or form. It takes thousands of arrows and many months of disciplined practice to eliminate those lapses in concentration and to begin to grasp the Zen of Archery. The goal is to go six out of six in the gold and then 60 out of 60 in the gold. After that it is all about 10s and Xs, but very few archers, even the elite, can shoot perfect scores all day and every day. Never the less, that is the discipline and the goal.
Hoyt and Nike had it right when they said, “Get Serious” and “Just Do It,” respectively. But it takes discipline to stay serious and keep doing it when weaker individuals are dropping by the way or off enjoying an easier life.
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, and excessive alcohol. In many cases, training can be a long solitary process.
Put in the Work. Shooting 60-100 arrows a week is not going to pay dividends if your goal is to compete at the national level. Entry level training requires 500 arrows per week, but as the archery specific muscles develop, the goal is to move up to 200+ per day and 1,000+ per week. Archery training should also be supplemented with cardio, strength and stamina training, stretching, and mental toughening.
Sweat the Details. Part of the mental preparation for competition is knowing that you have done everything you can to prepare. You 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 archers 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 in that we constantly strive to shoot better, freak about wild shots, experience stress at competitions, and even worry 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, and even more when you make it to the finals and the shoot-offs. Being in a line of forty or fifty archers during qualifications is less stressful than being one of two archers on center stage with hundreds watching in person, and possible 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 and 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. Winner 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. Training must be a daily event, but it doesn’t have to be a grind. Competitions are the time to focus, block out all 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.