Automatic Skill

Archery is a well-learnt, closed skill.

A closed skill is one where the individual performing the skill does not manipulate the performance with respect to any outside effects. Unlike, for example, a footballer, who has a multitude of different shots available to him, or a golfer who will not only select a club for a different distance but can make any single club perform differently with a manipulation of their technique. Archery is a closed skill and in this sense it is like taking free throws at basketball. It is repetitive and the technique is not manipulated by the performer.

One of the things that is important about closed skills is that they have a high degree of automaticity (performed automatically), they are performed with a low degree of thought because as we’ve said the individual is not going to manipulate their skill in any way, they are going to perform the same technical task each time.

So allied to this idea of automaticy, which comes from practice, is an idea that there must be an internal and an external focus.


The internal focus occurs when the individual is checking various parts of their set up and form, this could be posture, this could be anchor point etc, etc. This part is cognitive, that is, very much checking off like a pilot going through a checklist. There must come a point when this check list is complete and correct and action must progress. Rather like a driver  choosing to pull out and cross a junction, the performer must, at some point, just get on with the skill. You access the skill, trust the skill and get on with it. This is very important, this moment where one goes from an internal focus, which  is a checking process, to an external focus where one accepts that everything is correct and progresses through execution of the skill.

If you do not have this change over of focus, then you will never be able to perform and access the automatic skill. The automatic skill is the execution, this is the making a recurve go click or executing a trigger on a compound.

These actions have to be achieved without cognition.

They cannot be ‘I do this, and then I do this, and then I do this, and then I do this,’ and in all skilled performers this execution is instigated by a change to external focus.

Anything else that is discussed by coaches or in teaching literature, such as the idea of…… “lets make this go click on a recurve by rotating this elbow or tightening these muscles,” is by way of EXPLAINING how something works.

That level of cognitive control is not there in a skilled performer and it never has been, all discussions of how these actions are achieved come from a self report. These methods are based  on information which comes from a  skilled performer when they are asked ‘how do you do this?’ They have got to say something. It is not what the performer actually does, it is them trying to put into words what they do, hence the idea of back tension, or of very controlled rotation, was invented, or a squeeze to make a trigger go off.

These cognitive and controlled movements are not what are done. In fact, as a performer you must start to understand that during this external focus, after you have decided that everything is fine, everything is set up the skilled performer trusts the skill and it is this trust that allows the execution to work.


This is why you practice, why you have shot thousands and hundreds of thousands of arrows, this is why you do drill work so that your body can take over and go,

“yeah, I know how to do this.”

It is analogous to making that movement to drive across the cross roads. It is really scary while you are learning; it is something that you try to control. You look left, you look right, you think about what you are going to do when you start to move at the junction and you try and control it, and then suddenly at some point in your training it becomes easy to do it automatically.

Practice has taught your muscles, your body, and your brain the skill and you must trust that.

So you must work, going forwards, towards an idea of setting up the shot and then letting go,

letting go emotionally, cognitively, intellectually.

Just let it happen

And in the same way that you cannot think a golf club through the ball or a bat onto the ball you don’t think through any movement that you perform, you cannot think through that execution stage. You must just let it happen.

We have talked about this idea that the execution phase of an archery shot is an automatic, low -cognition, closed skill and that is all well and good, but how do you train for that? How does one learn to switch off and trust?

Well, we will look to start with to other well-learnt, automatic skills. Let’s look at playing a musical instrument. The performer spends many, many hours doing drill work, doing scales which are the drill work for playing and then translates this into a performance during which they have no cognitive control. They practice a piece until it becomes automatic. They practice this through both block practice which is the whole piece and practicing small parts of it which is drill work. They apply the skills that they have learnt and they see the actions as a whole and that is the crucial part to automaticy.

You must see the movement as a whole. Of course you will have drill work that practices certain aspects of the shots but when it comes to performing the shots, when it comes to shooting, you must see the whole movement, from start to finish as a single movement. No part of it has any greater emphasis than another. No part can be singled out and concentrated upon and then moved onto the next part, it is a whole thing. This is no different to a gymnast having to perform a complicated movement where it is a preposterous idea that they would stop half way through a tumble. They see the whole.  At some point they have learnt the individual moves and they see how those moves are going to fit together but the only way they can perform is by trusting the practice that they have done, the skill that they own, and see the movement as a whole. Just like the pianist cannot see a piece of music as an individual set of notes, although at some point they have, when it comes to the performance, The performance is a seamless movement through the whole.and so it is with an archery shot execution.

One must see how the movements are going to fit together and then perform them as a seamless piece. It is almost as if within your head you have a start point and you have a finish point, which may well be the bow tapping you on the leg or the arrow hitting the target, and in between there is no conscious control. Each part will lead to another part and you trust that that will happen.

There cannot be, in fact there is not time for there to be, an idea of, ‘I have done this now I must do that’.

This is where you see individuals struggling and losing tension when they are shooting a recurve or punching when they shoot a compound. So if you are going to see this movement as a seamless whole you must start to practice it as such. Yes there is drill work and we will discuss drills in another article. These drills will practice certain aspects of the shoot, but any shot that is taken on must be taken on as a whole.

Once you have become skilled, not elite just skilled your practice must involve an idea of acceptance and trust. Every practice session must reinforce this idea of the holistic nature of the shot, of how it fits together, all together.The performer begins to understand the process, “ I start, and then rather like a waterfall it has to get to the end.” You can not stop a piece of water half way down a waterfall and you cannot stop and pick out a particular part of the shot. This is the vital difference between the novice, the intermediate and the skilled performer within any closed skill. If you do not see and understand that the whole must happen with no control during execution then without that you will be unable to consistently perform at all.

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