Hitting the Spider – The Psychology of Performance Archery Part 1

“When the going gets tough, the tough get going”

This doesn’t mean that they run off and hide, it means they excel. They bring out the ability to consistently perform toward the upper range of their talent and skill regardless of competitive circumstances.

In other words, being mentally tough means that no matter how brutal the circumstances—whether it’s your 90th arrow in the blazing sun or your 4th end against your leading rival when you’re on equal scores and they’re shooting first —you’re able to withstand the sore muscles and keep your concentration and focus on the arrow, putting thoughts of scores behind you to achieve the perfect release.

Although psychologists are still debating the roles of genetics, environment, and learned skills in determining mental toughness, they agree (along with top international coaches) that high levels of mental toughnes are needed for athletic achievement and success and that mental toughness (what my father called “grit”) determines where you finish almost as much as talent and practice.

A young lad I knew at 7 years old entered go-karting against a pool of kids who’d been racing for years. Within 6 months, there was only one kid he hadn’t beaten and that kid had been driving three times or more a week since he was 4 years old. Every time that the kid I knew got close to the other kid in the race, he tried too hard and spun the kart, going back 5 places, only to overtake again and again to get back to his number 2 slot. Finally his coach persuaded him to follow the other driver and not to try to overtake until the last lap. The other kid had never had anyone able to sit with him on track and as soon as our kid did, the other kid started making mistakes. As racing developed, we played formula 1 music into the helmet before the race to get the head in the right place. our kid knew that strategy counted and the music helped get his focus.  Sadly, very shortly after there was a family tragedy and the money ran out so we never got to see what could have been, but that competitive training can be seen in the new (considerably cheaper sports – which means anything other than motor-racing) that the kid does.

Archery is different.  Your body, exercise regimes, diet, regular competition, and a supportive team all have the ability to bring out best of you so that you’re physically ready for archery, but there’s one major factor in archery which is utterly critical. Just as the motor-racer driving at 180mph has to have intense concentration as well as talent, so too in archery. Most sports (with the exception of the 2 hour Formula 1 and endurance motorsport) don’t have the intense degree of mental concentration needed for such long periods where even a minute lapse can be disasterous…..but just as a split second lapse can put you in a wall at 150mph in motorsport, so too with archery competitions being decided sometimes by one or two points, a split second lapse can be the difference between the cup and being an “also shot”.

Mental fitness is how to pull something out of yourself… not in a robotic way—in a way that’s mentally aware and engaged.  What you’re physically capable of in an endurance environment like archery is more determined by your mental strength than your physical capabilities… your body can go beyond what your physical perceptions of tiredness or fatigue are, your aching muscles at the end of the day can be overcome by training, diet, massage etc, but if you can’t stop your subconscious brain will be telling you “You’re tired. Stop. Relax. Take it easier” then the mental limitations kick in long before before actual the physical limitations do.

On training for mental toughness
Something that we learned in motorsport was that visualization is a piece of the training that is incredibly important. You don’t have to do anything physically—you can be meditating or walking, anything where you’re in your mind, playing it out in advance. Our drivers used to visualise every corner hundreds of times and with different scenarios of where they were in relation to other drivers. Our star kid, the one talked about above, used to develop overtaking places that no-one else could do or replicate. He’d imagined the start in numerous possible combinations, every corner hundreds of times and therefore whenever the opportunity arose, he was ready to take advantage because his brain had already run through that particular scenario. Despite being hot and exhausted, he’d mentally training himself to be ready to achieve the unachievable. It’s the same in Archery.

The term Practice, Practice and Practice doesn’t work in archery. In archery it is Practice, Concentrate and Visualise.  You can practice archery without shooting an arrow just by thinking about it. Elite archers know archery is mostly a mental game…Focus, Ignoring distractions, Stay Calm and they sharpen their archery and these skills with mental exercises.

Visualization:  This means using your imagination to see yourself releasing a perfect shot. You know as an archer what the arrow will do as soon as it leaves the bow. You know when a shot is a great shot. That is how powerful your brain is. It’s able to compute your balance, your posture, each element of your draw, your bow hand your release, your follow-through, the wind conditions and the way that the arrow feels as it starts to leave the bow is a microsecond. When you’re about to hit the spider, you know before the arrow has fully left the bow.

Now reverse that computing power. Your brain already knows what it takes for the perfect shot. The fact that you know before the arrow has left the bow that you’re about to hit the spider or come very close means that your brain has all the information to repeatedly produce the perfect shot. If it knows what a perfect shot is within a millisecond of release, it also has the ability to put together that perfect shot and to do so every time.

Imagine shooting your perfect shot, every time. With the right mental exercise, it is easily possible.

At it’s simplest, visualization is imagining yourself at a tournament or on the practice range running through each shot sequence, focusing intently on each step, and seeing yourself execute a perfect shot. Visualization means seeing yourself consistently succeed, therefore gaining confidence and boosting positive thinking and as your confidence increases, so will your concentration, as as your confidence and concentration improve, you remove self-doubt and reach your capability.

Practice: Most archers don’t practice properly.

Set realistic goals initially, then think the impossible: 

Setting goals and visualization are inseparable. Start by choosing what you think is an unreachable goal, hitting a high score 50 or 100 higher than your personal best.Then think about that over a longer shooting distance, then thin about  winning a prestigious tournament, then think about achieving national records. Then set incremental goals of world records. When practicing visualization, see yourself attaining each incremental goal and in a very short time, you’ll reach your ultimate goal.

There are all sorts of tricks from flash cards in the fridge and car, to audio recordings.

Practice Focus:
Archery requires intense focus and the ability to block out distractions, whether it’s the crying baby at a tournament or a yapping badly behaved dog or a mobile phone ringing, or an ambulance siren. Most archers have blamed noise for ruining their concentration or interrupting practice. This is a simple failure of the archer and their training.

Archers who practice in silence, don’t practice ignoring distractions. Practice with a radio on. If there’s a baby screaming in the next door garden, it’s time to practice …..not, of course, to shoot the baby, but to practice blocking out the distraction that the baby offers.

Two of  my archers are siblings and they have a great drill. They play music on their cellphones but not to themselves, they try to find music that will distract the other sibling when they’re about to shoot. Put them on their computers and you could almost nail their feet to the floor or set fire to their shoelaces without them noticing, but initially their archery didn’t have that focus. Once they realised that they were often completely focussed on their computers, sometimes on a computer and a mobile phone simultaneously, and that they could do this whilst ignoring any other distraction, it was a simple task to transfer this to their archery. The two siblings have a constant competition to cause distraction to each other. One of them even sings whilst practicing at home.  The goal is to not let anything distract the archery.

Another focus drill is to read while listening to music. Tune out the music and focus on reading. When you finish the article or chapter, have someone quiz you to see how much you retained. In fact, we already know that classical music actually increases retention.

And, it also requires a change in mental attitude. Both these archers smile when a distraction arises at a competition. They see the distraction as a challenge and as an opportunity. Their attitude is “We know can overcome this. It’s something we’ve practiced and rehearsed. It also gives us an advantage over most, if not all, the other archers!”. Simply the attitude is enough to ensure that the distraction will not affect these archers.

Be SMART in your goals!
Specific: Be specific about your goal. If your aim is to improve your shooting form, be specific about how you will do that and make sure that you know what you want to achieve with the goal. Rather than saying “I need to have good posture”, you need to say “I need to ensure my hand, wrist elbow and shoulder line is straight, my shoulders are straight and that I’m properly using my shoulder muscles in the release”.

Measurability: Any goal must have a measurable outcome, whether this is a scale of 1 (worst) to 10 (achieved in full) ranges or percentages. It’s also useful to have an assistant to take notes about your results.

Action-oriented: Your goal should include specific things you plan to do, including how to reach your goal and it can even include action verbs such as “balance, posture, straight, draw-arm, check, think, move…”.

Realistic: Ensure your goal matches your ability level. The easiest way to do this is to find your comfort level and then to set a goal just beyond your comfort level. You should not set a goal, until you’re shooting at international level, of “100% of all times” or “Shoulders 10 out of 10 for every shot” as this isn’t achievable (at least until you’re reaching 9 out of 10).  People aren’t robots and it is unrealistic to make perfection a goal.

Timelimit your goal: Set a time length for this goal. It could be a practice session, a week or a season. This goal should be written down and evaluated after the time period ends.