The discussion of aiming comes up quite frequently among archers. As I have discussed this topic with literally thousands of archers and thought a great deal about it I have arrived at several conclusions. In this essay my intent is not to judge a particular style of shooting, but rather to offer what I personally perceive as a start point for further, hopefully fruitful, discussion that might enable us all to learn to some degree. Furthermore, I will discuss how the style of aiming leads to a form of target panic and offer some solutions.
Traditional archers – those who shoot a recurve or longbow without sights – tend to fall into two categories: those who use the arrow to consciously aim and those who choose not to do so. Aimers use the tip of the arrow as a reference point for aiming. There are a wide variety of techniques used among this group of shooters. Some archers use the tip of the arrow as a sight and move their fingers up and down the string to alter the trajectory of the arrow. These archers are called stringwalkers. They “walk” their fingers down the string but the tip of the arrow is always on the spot they want to hit. For targets beyond their point-on distance they stack or aim a measured distance above the spot they want to hit.
Other archers gap shoot. There are many variations of gapping. Some archers set the gap at the target while others set the gap at the tip of the arrow. Gappers tend to experiment and tailor a system that best suits them. There are many methods for determining gaps largely dependent upon which style of gapping is used. A variation of this method is “pick a point.” Using this method the archer knows how far below or above the spot he needs to place the tip of the arrow in order to hit the mark at a given distance. He then estimates that distance and picks a spot to aim at. The archer then aims at that spot with his arrow point and allows the arrow to hit a different spot – the intended mark.
Finally, there are those who anchor very high and “gun barrel.” They simply aim down the shaft of the arrow and point the arrow right at the spot they desire to hit. This method is best for close in shots and a very fast arrow is a big advantage since the velocity keeps the arrow on a flat trajectory for a further distance.
Those archers who do not use the tip of the arrow are often referred to as instinctive archers. Instinctive archery is a frequently and fervently debated topic. For the purposes of this essay it is not necessary to debate the definition of the word instinct, but rather we will focus our attention on the aiming itself. Archers who do not use the tip of the arrow consciously as an aiming tool focus on the spot they want to hit. Their brain then calculates where their bow arm should be in order to hit the mark. It’s is quite amazing that the brain can do this with such tremendous accuracy. Often you will hear these archers urging shooters to turn the shot over to the subconscious. They mean that you cannot shoot well both consciously and subconsciously. It’s like having a backseat driver questioning every move you make only this conversation takes place in the archer’s head.
Now for the true heart of the discussion, let’s begin with our subconscious aimers. As I have observed those who aim subconsciously I have encountered two types of archers. The first we will discuss are the snap shooters. I identify this type of shooting as a form of target panic. Before you get upset with this classification let me explain. I have witnessed many shooters who shoot this way. They look at the mark they want to hit and then begin drawing the bow back. At some point, which they claim is anchor, they touch and the arrow is gone. There are many problems I see with this style of shooting: limit the brain’s ability to calculate, inconsistent anchor, and inability to hold are but a few.
As I previously mentioned, the brain has an incredible ability to make calculations. If your shooting style is one that doesn’t use the arrow as a tool with which to consciously aim then you still want to give this wonderful, God given tool, the maximum ability to calculate. “Instinctive” shooters should draw to anchor and hold; pause long enough for the brain to take in all that is presented before it. Most archers agree that even when we are not consciously focused on the arrow the brain, in its subconscious mode, sees much more than we realize. It is able to more accurately calculate when we pause long enough to see. When we “touch and go” we limit this wonderful tool’s ability to make us more accurate.
Snap shooters often do not consistently hit anchor. I’ve observed archers releasing at points varying over an inch. I’ve actually seen them touch off the shot when the heel of their hand touches their chin and then swear to me that they hit anchor. We want to remove all variables in our shot sequence and in order to do so we have to reach a consistent anchor.
Finally, we address the target panic issue. I have asked countless snap shooters to draw to anchor and let me tell them to let down. I have yet to find one that could hold until I told them to let down. In fact they could not let down. The arrow was shot on every occasion and they could not control the release. This is unquestionably a form of target panic. I believe that this begins as a genuine desire to learn to snap shoot because they feel that it will make them a more effective hunter. They block out everything but the spot out, focus on it, draw and shoot. They in fact want to take the conscious brain out of the equation so that it doesn’t mess them up. Not only are they taking their best tool out of the equation but they are losing control of the shot all together. Yes, I’ve seen the token guy that could set it all up and draw and shoot with relative accuracy, but that is not the standard we want to aspire to.
There are many “instinctive” archers who suffer from target panic. It is most commonly manifested in their inability to hold at anchor. The best instinctive shooters are in complete control of the shot. They have the ability to draw the bow to anchor, focus on the mark, turn the shot over to the subconscious, and let it go off as they increase back tension or relax the fingers for static release shooters. These archers allow the brain to take in everything the archer sees and feels.
Those archers who use the tip of the arrow as a reference most commonly suffer from a different set of issues. The first, which I sometimes experience, is anticipation of the shot. These shooters draw to anchor and get the arrow tip in the spot they want and then their mind makes a decision to commit to the shot. At this point, ideally, the archer begins increasing back tension, immerses himself in aiming, and the shot just goes off. My friend, John Wert, refers to this as lighting the fuse. Once it’s lit the bow is going to go off, we just have to let it become a surprise. The problem becomes the anticipation. The archer knows that the point is in the right spot and it’s time to “light the fuse” but instead of increasing back tension and immersing himself in aiming he lets go of the string or consciously pulls through the string and opens his hand.
For those who have shot a back tension release in the compound world you are familiar with this. You engage the rhomboids and begin squeezing. You are aiming and at some point the release is rotated to the point that it slips off the string. You can still anticipate but ideally we just focus on the mark and at some point it surprises us by going off. These are good shots.
The second issue the aimer encounters I refer to as the drive by shooting. The archer draws the bow and locks in at anchor. He then looks to see that the point of the arrow is not on the spot he wants, but moving the arrow is difficult. The seemingly simple task of adjusting the point of the arrow becomes a Herculean job. Even with a 30# bow it is a struggle so what inevitably happens is that the archer gets the point to move but when the point gets to the mark he lets it go. He can’t seem to adjust to the spot then hold and execute his shot sequence. He shoots on the way by or “drive by shooting.”
Finally, the aimer often suffers from flinching. I have also suffered from this affliction. Even a 30# bow feels like 150#. You draw the bow, place the arrow on the mark, and begin to quiver. The brain and the body enters into a grappling match over when to let go, no don’t let go, now let go. This is the conscious and subconscious mind playing the backseat driver exercise. Both are trying to control the shot and that, my friend, is impossible.
Most archers who read this essay will relate to one or more of the situations I have discussed. So what do we do? Every potential solution I have encountered is much easier discussed than executed. The fact is that target panic is a mental breakdown in the shot sequence. We have to relax mentally in order to shoot whether the arrow is instinctively or consciously aimed. Rod Jenkins often refers to the importance of priorities during the shot sequence. For me time off and subsequent blank bale has helped. Also, over time I have learned to consciously control my thoughts. Lanny Basham’s book, With Winning in Mind, helped me to get my priorities in order. Here are a few things that I have encountered.
Up front I want to credit Rod Jenkins with most of these discoveries. Rod and I are close friends and have discussed my shooting infirmities in great detail, but I think sharing might help others. When winning is more important than executing the shot you’ve lost. Last year I shot the best indoor season of my life. I averaged 282 all season indoors. I felt like I could shoot a 280+ indoor round without much thought. I went to the NFAA National Indoor Championships convinced that I had to win it and that I would potentially set a new national record. My shooting indicated that this was not an unrealistic goal. What I encountered was the most devastating mental collapse of my archery career. To say it was a disaster would be an understatement.
I went to Louisville to win. I knew that that meant I’d need to shoot mid-280s. With that mindset I stepped to the line and knew that every shot had to be near perfect. There was little room for error. What a tremendous amount of pressure I placed on myself from the start. So I stepped to the line for the first official end and when I hit anchor I tried to aim like I had never aimed before. My bow arm quivered and I as I tried to sneak off the string to make the perfect shot my arrow found the 4 ring. The next shot was only worse and as my score quickly deteriorated, my attempts to “try harder” only made matters worse. My priorities were askew. I shot a 259 the first day and a 262 the second day – the worst two rounds I shot all year. I left defeated both figuratively and literally. It was the single most difficult experience of my archery career. Rod has explained all of this to me, but some things you just have to experience for yourself.
So what did I do with that experience? First, I took time off. I was struggling with elbow tendonitis so I put the bow down for about 10 straight weeks. I went into the IBO Traditional Worlds having shot very little. When I picked the bow back up I was determined to learn to mentally control the shot and the only way to do that was to get my priorities straight. Having not shot for 10 weeks I had no expectation of winning Trad Worlds and that was a start in the right direction. My focus became the shot itself.
Rod told me time and time again that the only thing you can control is what goes on behind the bow. You can’t control the score, you can’t control what others shoot, you can’t control winning or losing, but you can control what you do behind the bow. “Do your job, Jimmy,” he would demand.
I did not score well at Trad Worlds and thus I didn’t win, but I shot the bow extremely well. Up and downhill shots gave me some trouble in terms of scoring, but I was able to put my point on the spot and hold forever without any anxiety. It was a wonderful feeling. I felt at peace with shooting the bow and letting the score take care of itself. A couple of weeks later I finished 3rd at the IBO Worlds in Pennsylvania and shot the bow very well, with no anxiety.
So how do we overcome target panic? Well, I’m sure there are a lot of tools that help, but of this I am certain. Target panic and/or anxiety is a mental problem and you can’t solve a mental problem with a physical solution. It’s about working on your priorities and accepting the outcome. If you “have” to hit a 10 it’s almost impossible to do so. If you have built a solid shot sequence through your practice and your “job” is to simply execute that shot sequence with each and every arrow and you can accept the outcome then you will find success…win or lose.
I still struggle from time to time, but I now have an understanding of what is going on and thus I can focus on the shot sequence vs. the outcome. I can mentally talk myself through my priorities to ensure that I keep my expectations realistic. If you are struggling with target panic or anxiety I hope this discussion has in some way helped you. I look forward to fruitful discussion on the internet and at the range. Happy shooting!