The greatest failing of any archer, be they club level or the best in the world, is their desire to control every aspect of what they do, this desire to control all aspects of the performance feeds upon the athletes insecurity that what they do is not good enough/could be better or that their level of ability and success is transient.
All performers require Serenity, Courage and Wisdom; and although there can be little doubt in the levels of courage displayed by great archers there is often not a lot of Serenity or Wisdom.
Let us look first at how serenity is going to fit in to an athlete’s make up, it is defined as: “a disposition free from stress or emotion” or “the absence of mental stress or anxiety”.
It should come as no surprise that this is a vital part of good performance, but it is easy for coaches and performers to have a different take on what exactly it means. Many coaches are looking for a poker faced approach by the performer without ever looking at what is going on inside his or her heads. To this end it is not how the performer appears outwardly but how comfortable they are with their situation internally that matters. However this is not the most important area within which we are looking for an absence of stress, this is just the outward symptom of a much more basic problem.
The serenity that we are talking about here is trust. Trust that the technique they have is well practiced and good enough for the job in hand.
Even in the top level archers you see performers working too hard, trying to control every aspect of the shot when they need to let the performance flow and act serenely.
The Well Travelled Journey
If you imagine the shot process rather like a well travelled journey then we get a better idea of what is being discussed here. The journey from your house to work is one that is made so often that it only really has two points that you take notice of: Closing your front door and arriving at your work. Everything in between are the steps that get you there but you pay little or no attention to them as you expect one turn to lead to the next, in fact if someone asked you to describe your trip into work this morning you would be hard pressed to do so. This is a serene journey because you trust that you know the route. When you first made this journey you checked every turning against a mental or physical map but by now it just happens. In any performance it is important to identify the start and end points as these are the two most important measurable points.
In an archery shot the start point is drawing the bow and the end point is, not necessarily where you would expect, full draw.
Full draw is the end point because it is measurable and it is the last cognitive point of control.
Execution is an uncontrolled, mentally, process that will just happen. In this performance execution is where the archer must have the wisdom to understand that they can not control the movements and so let it happen.
When watching novices it is easy to see them trying to make mentally controlled movements to execute the shot and this is disastrous to the outcome. Sometimes you can see seasoned pros, under pressure, do the same thing with equally poor results.
The Wisdom required to see where one can control the technique, or at least have mental checks to see that the performance is progressing properly, is what separates the great from the average.
If you ask any top class archer they will tell you that they enjoy being at full draw, it is a position that is functionally solid and they are comfortable there. If you ask a novice then full draw is a position that fills them with fear. This is because they are trying to control the next part of the shot and missing out the whole “full draw” experience because they are more interested in execution. Their whole emphasis and measure of the performance is wrong, they are trying not only to control the uncontrollable but it is their only interest.
The diver standing on a 10m board has a complex set of movements to perform that they have practiced over many months, they can not alter the progression that gravity will have on them once they step off and so they stand and prepare balancing on the edge of a board. This is their full draw position, what will happen after they step off is almost out of their control and it must be trusted that their practice has honed their skill to be upto it.
Wisdom is also needed to see that in any movement there are an almost infinite number of methods of performance. To those who lack serenity, or wisdom, this is terrifying. It appears to them that there are an infinite number of ways for this performance to fail and only one way it can work, and they are paralysed by the fear this induces: “Why should it work?”
My answer is simple “Why shouldn’t it?” as I have said in any performance there are an infinite number of variables and methods but this does not stop us doing our shoe laces or signing our names. In either case there is a plan an understood outcome, a trusted skill, and an effortless performance. When you sign your name do you watch every letter as it appears on the paper? Do you control cognitively every movement of the pen and assess whether this signature is going well as you do it? NO! You decide to sign your name and perform the task automatically having prepared yourself by placing the pen over the area you wish your signature to appear. You learnt as a young child the technique and have the wisdom to not try and control it at any point during execution.
Too touchy feely?
Whilst reading this you may have decided that it is Zen rubbish so let me give you a little bit of science. If you take an elite archer and hook them up to an EEG machine (measures brain wave activity) and heart rate monitor the following occurs during a shot.
Before the shot the heart rate drops and brain wave activity in the cognitive centre of the brain is as normal. As the bow is picked up the heart rate rockets to a high level and brain activity increases especially in optic centres. At the end of full draw the heart rate drops to below average resting levels and cognitive processing areas of the brain flat line (including optical centres) and DURING this period execution takes place.
This is true in any performance, experts “let go” they trust that their practice has prepared them and they stop trying to control everything.
The following is the mantra of the truly exceptional performer:
“Give me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”
So remember when you are cold and bored and ache in practice that you are being courageous, and when you are competing for whatever is your desired prize be serene and wise.