Today’s archery equipment makes it almost too easy to be accurate without proper practice. I frequently hear archery hunters who say that they wait until the last minute to blow the dust off their bows because they’re shooting bullseyes right out of the gate after long hiatuses between seasons. If I’m honest, I’ve been increasingly guilty of this habit myself. The problem with approaching your archery practice from this point of view is that you’re overlooking the importance of programming in your brain.
The truth is that shooting a few arrows at a chunk of foam while standing flat footed on a calm day won’t do you any good when the bull elk of your dreams is moving quickly through the thick timber in front of you and you’re now being forced to identify shooting lanes, get ranges, adjust sights, draw, anchor, aim, and execute a crisp release. Once you introduce several new elements into your shot process, the only way to ensure you’ll make a good shot is to have a shot sequence that’s subconsciously ingrained in your head, and that is done with a disciplined approach to your practice. I’m not saying that you’ll never kill a big buck if you don’t practice for months on end, but I am saying you will increase your ability to perform under pressure. There is no question about this statement. When a tag-of-a-lifetime is on the line, why wouldn’t you commit to a routine that will increase your chances, even if only slightly?
Do I just start slinging more arrows to make this happen? Absolutely not! As the legendary football coach Vince Lombardi once said, “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” With that being said, I’d like to attempt to define what perfect practice is in archery. It is the process that is required to obtain true control of each shot you make under any and all circumstances. Ironically, the “act” of shooting your bow is a much lower priority than controlling your mind during the shot. There are countless books, podcasts, videos, and more that are dedicated to this topic, so I won’t get too deep into the details in this article. Instead, I’d like to inspire you to take an honest inventory of your archery skill level and ask yourself the question if you want to be the best archer you can be. Assuming the answer is yes, let’s work through the steps.
Step one is to acknowledge that every bowhunter on planet earth experiences some level of shot anxiety when at full draw. Yes, it’s true, you currently own a case of what is also referred to as Target Panic. Most of us approach this like an ostrich where we bury our heads in the sand to hide from this ugly sounding term, but the truth of the matter is that acknowledging it honestly takes a lot of the power out of the term. It also normalizes the pressure you feel at full draw, which allows you to take the first step toward relaxation at full draw. Somehow, the recognition that the best archery hunter in the world also has pressure at full draw makes me relax a bit when I’m aiming downrange. Once you acknowledge that it’s normal to struggle with pin movement and pin freezing and that it’s not normal for the pin to lock onto the bullseye like a laser guided missile, it takes a bit of the frustration out of the shot process.
Step two is to identify a coaching source. One of my personal favorites is Joel Turner’s Shot IQ class called “Controlled Process Shooting.” Joel provides both in-person and online instruction, and honestly, as long as you are 100% committed to the education, either method will make you a much better archer. Another great book I read on the topic was written by Lanny Basham and is titled “With Winning in Mind: The Mental Management System.” Although this book is not written from an archery perspective, it is written from the perspective of competing for gold in the Olympics, so it’s full of game-changing techniques for mastering the pressure of big competitions. As a student of the mental side of the archery game, I could go on and on, but the takeaway is that good coaching is a prerequisite to perfect practice.
Step three is boring and painful. I’d love to sugar coat it, but the truth is that perfect practice is boring due to its repetitive nature. Twenty years ago, I was fortunate enough to have an archery elk-slaying guru confront me with the cold, hard fact that I was a good shot, but I’d never be a great shot if I didn’t relearn how to shoot my bow. Thankfully, I had so much respect for Dan Evans that I was able to swallow my pride and ask him to help me. He smiled and said, “OK, but you need to know that your shooting is going to get worse before it gets better and it’s a long process!” Boy was he right. My scores on paper dropped by 20 points on average, and I was more frustrated than I’d ever been in 20+ years of shooting a bow. However, I stuck with it, and pretty soon, I started to recognize that making a good shot happened at the bow and not the bullseye.
My scores rebounded accordingly, and I’m grateful for that experience to this day. Some parts of this step are the same for everybody while some are different, depending on how bad your target panic or bad habits might be. The point is that you need to stick with it and do the frustrating and boring work of hard programming your shot sequence into your psyche until you become as much of a machine as you can be when it comes time to nock, draw, aim, shoot, and follow through.
Step four is to recognize that the whole process is a journey and not a destination. You will never arrive at a destination with your bow that liberates you from the continued responsibility to practice perfectly. The deeper you carve the perfect practice grooves into your subconscious, the more you can get away with not shooting your bow. However, you can never get the grooves deep enough to completely eliminate the humanity that flows through your veins and causes you anxiety in the moments of truth. For that reason alone, you must continue to shoot with regularity because it’s the one thing that will flood you with confidence when nerves threaten to take the reins.
My final step in the perfect practice routine is to ensure you shoot under stress as often as possible. My good friend and founder of Elk Shape, Dan Staton, calls this “reps in the red-zone.” Unless you’re fortunate enough to be a culler in Africa or New Zealand, the truth is that none of us get enough full-draw opportunities at fur and hair, but it’s fairly easy to replicate the same type of nerve- wracking scenarios at 3-D shoots, indoor archery leagues, backyard competitions, and more. My suggestion is to spend a ton of time doing the boring work of step three before you introduce too much of this because your body and mind will easily slip into old habits of punching triggers and anticipating shots if you sneak out of the boring stage too early. However, assuming you’ve done the hard, boring work, it’s time to make the shots count as often as possible. Wager some money, aim at a very small portion of a 3-D target, take some shots in front of a crowd, shoot at a steel target in the wind, you get the point.
Create adrenaline-filled scenarios and then initiate your controlled sequence again and again. Eventually, you will learn to trust the process and ignore the fact that your pin isn’t holding still, your palms are sweaty, and your heart feels like it’s determined to hammer its way out of your chest.
In closing, I’ll say that I’ve been able to converse with quite a few individuals who hold the distinction of harvesting all 29 North American big game species with their bows. While these archery Super Slam holders are wired differently than most, the one thing they all have in common is that they religiously practice with their bows and they have demonstrated that they can manage stress in the moment of truth. While you may not have aspirations to achieve the archery Super Slam, I’d bet that you do have aspirations of sliding an arrow through the ribs of your target species every single fall. I promise that you’ll take major strides in that direction the moment you decide you’ll make perfect practice a year-round priority.