BY GEORGE TEKMITCHOV, EASTON SR. ENGINEER/TARGET PRODUCT MANAGER, USA WORLD TEAM COMPETITOR
Even the most cursory look at an archery competition will reveal that good performance in our sport is highly dependent on a confident, well rehearsed mental game. Recently, I was asked a series of questions for a Japanese archery magazine, one of which touched on an all-too common scenario which underscores this topic.
Q: In any competition, Yuki’s arrow grouping is very bad and arrows fly erratically in comparison with practice. She can easily shoot 1200+ in practice, but her best score in competition is 1140.
She wants your advice.
Here was my reply.
A. Competition pressure can cause many shooters to make small form and timing changes that, outwardly, might not be easy to see, but can have a big effect on score. The reason is that we have a physiological “fight or flight” response to the pressure of competition. The truth is, this happens to all shooters at every level at one time or another and it is very normal. The good news is, it can be overcome, and in fact, it is possible to shoot even higher scores in competition than in regular practice, when you apply some basic improvements to your practice habits.
Of course if you can shoot 1200 regularly in practice, you can certainly do it in competition in good weather. You certainly have the technical capability. So, why do we sometimes fail to reach our practice score levels in competition?
In order to understand why your score might drop 60 points (which is, after all, only a little less than five percent) you need to understand the effects of competition stress, and devise a plan to reduce the effect of the stress.
Why do we feel stress? Simple. The reason why shooters get tense while shooting comes from fear. Fear of a bad performance comes from having expectations. Expectation of what we think people will think of us, or our own expectations to shoot a certain score, or that of our coach. All this makes us “try to shoot better” which interferes with shooting a good shot in the first place. We slow down, tighten up, and shoot “carefully”. The result is a drop in score, and more stress.
Competition can increase our adrenaline level and cause us to “tighten” the fine motor control and finesse which is needed for a good shot. We can reduce the effect of this stress, but competition causes this for every normal person. So it is very useful to work out a strategy that can allow us to at least temporarily overcome the stress (which is really based on fear) and which can allow us to execute a good shot with good focus, rhythm and timing.
These elements (focus, rhythm and timing) are an essential part of any good shot, and disruptions to any one of these can cause a less than perfect shot. All of the improvements are related to the mental aspect of shooting. After we have learned to perform the technique of shooting, and have practiced for many shots, the action of shooting becomes less a conscious act and more of a subconscious action- like walking or breathing. Shooting when relaxed is relatively easy, and you may notice that it seems like less physical effort is needed. Competition stress tends to interfere with this subconscious process, and when that happens, we “tighten up” and lose our focus, rhythm and timing, which are essential to a smooth shot. When shooting under stress, we can fatigue faster, and even experience finger pain and other injury, because of the extra tension caused by the stress.
Working out a strategy for dealing with competition pressure really starts with practice. The way we practice can have a tremendous effect on our performance under pressure. But many times, shooters practice by shooting without focusing on preparation for competition. It’s a little like lifting weights- shooting your bow over and over again is simply a form of weightlifting unless you are following a specific plan while practicing for working on your competition form.
Pressure is a good thing. Feeling pressure means you care about the outcome. Every athlete reaches higher levels of performance when they have this feeling. The secret of high performance under competition pressure lies in harnessing this energy and making it a positive part of your shot. The key to this is to practice under pressure.
Practice is more than just shooting- it also involves mental preparation. At high levels of shooting this mental preparation is even more important than physical practice.
There are several things we can do to achieve this:
Seeking out opportunities to shoot under pressure. The more you shoot under pressure the more you become used to it. After enough experience with this, shooting under pressure becomes “normal”. So, it can be useful to have friendly competition with friends and teammates while practicing. You should take every opportunity to do this.
Visualize yourself in a pressure situation and visualize success in that situation. Every top shooter engages in visualization as a part of their competition preparation. The more familiar we are with a situation- even in our imagination- the more comfortable we can be in the real situation. So, top shooters take the time to visualize high pressure situations- and then visualize success in those situations.
One shot at a time. The biggest impediment to achieving a good score is to focus on the score. Instead, we should be focused on executing a good shot. We do not shoot a score, we shoot one arrow at a time- and those arrows eventually rack up a score. But the way we get there is one arrow at a time. Remember, the arrow you have shot is already gone- you cannot take it back, so why think about it? The arrow in your quiver you will shoot next will have its turn. The only arrow you need to be thinking about is the one you are shooting. By focusing on each step in your shot sequence, you can further insulate yourself from competition pressure.
Change the focus. The biggest thing that can improve our competition performance is to relax and shoot smoothly through each and every shot, just as we do in practice. It turns out that shooting carefully is often tied to aiming incorrectly. Excessive aiming and over-focusing on aiming can cause the shot to slow down, become tense, and hurt performance. The solution is to change the focus. There are two easy ways to change the focus.
The first method, which is used by many good shooters, is to simply remove the aiming pin and use the ring of the aperture to naturally align to the target. The eye will naturally center a round object in a round aperture. This can be a very effective technique, and can give quick positive results, because simply focusing on the target and letting the unfocused sight ring naturally align with it, the shot can be made in a relaxed manner. The only down side of this technique is that it can make aiming off in wind difficult.
Alternatively, some shooters are overly focused on the target (hard focus on target), while bouncing their focus from the pin to the target and back- also slowing the shot. In this case the way to solve the problem is to entirely focus on the pin (hard focus) and let the target go “fuzzy” (soft focus). This method allows the shooter to “stay on the line”: and execute the shot in the same manner as shooting at a blank bale. It also greatly reduced apparent movement while aiming. This method works well for wind shooting and can increase confidence very quickly.
Bottom Line. Practice for competiton. Visualize in training as much as possible, and always put the focus on execution- not the outcome.
Photo credit: Dean ALBERGA, World Archery