Control within performance. How and Why?

DSC_0031Everyone in sport is fixated upon control. The intermediate athlete tries to control all aspects of the performance fixating upon the tiniest details of technique throughout their performance and this is their downfall. The experienced and successful athlete recognizes the thousands of hours of practice they have put in and trusts their skill implicitly; instead they look at accessing the skill in tough situations, so they concentrate on performance. Things that are within the athletes control include the time taken to perform the task, the level and specificity of effort that they apply throughout a competitive day and the holistic outcome of what they are trying to achieve.

The temporal aspect.

It never ceases to surprise me how few archers actually have access to a stopwatch when on the shooting line. At the very least this is a vital security blanket in order for an archer to not become anxious with respect to how long is left to shoot a series of arrows.  It is also a very useful training tool as consistency of time taken to shoot an end of arrows is a good indicator of the proficiency of the archer. World class archers, whether shooting in competition or practice, are temporally consistent.  This consistency of time taken ties up with their kinesthetic consistency so the use of a stop watch or timing system, both in practice and in competition, is a good indicator of the level of performance.

Second on the list is the idea of controlling the level of work throughout a competition, a critical part of understanding how to manage a performance.  This management includes taking into account anxiety at the start of the competition (or at the start of a distance), the duration of the performance, and identifies times when the mind will wander or physical strength will wane.  Managing or controlling the performance will allow the athlete to regulate their efforts to get the best results. The archer must learn to concentrate and “work hard” for short bursts and be able to switch back into a lower arousal state and conserve their resources when not on the line. This ability to switch between states is vital to avoid fatigue in competition and can be managed in personal ways from meditative techniques, through reading or talking between ends or if more private person listening to a walkman. One thing that does impinge upon use of processing resources and technically clean performance is the individuals themselves spotting the arrows they have shot during an end.  In spotting an arrow in the middle of a series of shots one moves the emphasis from a well learnt, trusted, skill to a high level of cognitive processing.  This processing of arrow position, and what that means to the archer, makes it very difficult to return back to the non cognitive state that is seen in elite performers of a closed skill.  For this reason many archers at an elite level have people spotting for them, as the ability to process information aurally requires less cognitive processing than visually. Similarly the information that is given to the archer by the spotter will be concise and non judgmental, in some cases it may simply be “good shot”.  If spotting of arrows must be done by the archer then they must stick to a regime, for example: spotting the first arrow of every end and then allowing the rest of the end to be shot as a series and reduce disruption to resource usage.

A strategy:

In order to look at how one may have to manage the performance itself let us take an indoor competition of five dozen arrows: if this is managed correctly there are certain parts of this five dozen that require unique strategies.  The first two scoring ends are crucial in order for the archer to settle down and be comfortable with how they are performing. The priority here is attaining the feeling of control over performance so that the individual can go on to achieve a good total or “holistic” outcome. An archer who suffers from excessive nerves will learn to not expect these first two ends to be as good scoring as they would expect in practice and be happy to “drop” some points as long as they feel they are shooting well at the conclusion of these six arrows. This allows the archer to build themselves up into a competitive score. Once they are through the first dozen they will be comfortable in how they are performing and to a certain degree “take their foot off the gas”, mentally, due to the reduced anxiety that this control gives them and so be able to coast through the next two dozen with good results. Towards the latter half of the five dozen score a different kind of anxiety may appear; one of expectation.

Sooner or later an archer will come up against leader boards which make methods of avoidance of position or score attained impossible and pointless.  It is important therefore that the archer has a plan to deal with this anxiety of expectation.  We all suffer from it, and it is at this point that good practice techniques, ie practice that emulates the competitive scenario, will set the individual in good stead to have enough resources to deal with this anxiety. It is at this point that the archer can draw on a wealth of practice experience to know their skill is robust enough for the job in hand. Similarly their perceived control of the events preceding this anxiety will give them the confidence to keep doing what they are doing and not fall apart.

Athletes often say to me,

“it was going really well and then I made a mistake and went to pieces”,

this can often lead to an individual being terrified of making a mistake. Everybody makes mistakes in the tasks they perform, elite performers deal with their mistakes don’t hide from them.  Many people are taught from the beginning of their archery careers that they can do nothing about the arrow that has been shot and should therefore ignore it.  This advice, although understandable, is not particularly useful.  If an individual perceives that they have made a mistake they need to deal with those thoughts, it cannot be put off or ignored as its importance will magnify in the mind of the individual.  This has been seen in those in the performing arts who are actively taught when practicing and even in live performances to deal with errors.  If time is permitting within a series of shots, after a bad shot, the individual must, metaphorically, step away and deal with it.  This does not advocate over analysis of where the faults came from or what they were.  The most effective method of dealing with errors in a short space of time is a system called “360 degrees of dealing”.  Having made an error an individual pictures themselves turning through a circle of 360degrees broken down into four stages.  The first 90degrees is a simple emotional outburst.  The second 90degrees is a superficial look at what the error was.  The next 90degrees is a reassessment of the archer’s personal shot plan, it being ideal to keep this plan at 7 points or less.  The final 90degrees is to take them back, metaphorically to pointing at the target, ready to shoot the next arrow and is a reaffirmation of the trust they have in their skill and the belief in their abilities.  This process need only take seconds and in this way an individual has actively dealt with and laid to rest the error that they made.

This leads us on to the idea of an athlete needing to come to terms with things that they have no control over and can not change and must therefore adapt themselves to.  This includes the weather, the venue, illness and nebulous anxiety, such as national representation.  You cannot remove or hide from these factors, all that one can do is come to terms with them. These factors should be taken into account during goal setting and may change the goals of the athlete, remember a goal set which requires something out with the athletes control can be a weak goal.

It is important in practice to think about how these factors will affect performance during competition.  On winning a major world championship an athlete, I worked with, was asked, how it felt during the closing stages of the competition and they explained that it was pretty much how they expected it to be.  The reporter asked what they meant by this and the athlete explained that they had “lived” this moment thousands of times before in practice.  They had tailored their practice in order to emulate winning by imagining what the crowd would be like, what the weather would be like, what the venue would be like and how they would feel.  They had made the experience as real as they could and then used this to plan and get an idea of what fears and anxieties they would face, how they would control this and deal with what they couldn’t control. This was an exceptional athlete but you can begin this type of planning at any point in your career and you will be surprised by how much confidence it gives you.

As I said at the beginning of this article many non elite athletes will focus on aspects of the technical skill when trying to elicit a performance, within a closed skill such as archery the level of cognitive control exerted by the athlete should be minimal. In order to perform under stress the athlete must see the movement as a whole, the motor processes involved can not be functionally controlled they must be trusted to as well learnt. To this end, difficult as it may seem, the tougher the scenario the less an individual must try to control their technique to succeed.  This skill, which is practiced for thousands of hours, is a well honed automatic skill and the greatest leap of faith that the archer must make is to trust this skill; to trust it implicitly when they are faced with increased anxiety or stresses. The use of planning and unique coping strategies to increase arousal when necessary and reduce panic and anxiety, which will cause catastrophic failures, is what separates the elite from the crowd. To some athletes these strategies are second nature, their trust in their skill unshakeable and their ability to see the performance as a whole, whilst breaking it down into manageable aspects, allowing them a flexible control.

To those with aspirations to the elite level, who see this as an area of their game that they are lacking, start taking responsibility for YOUR actions, ownership of YOUR successes, and control over that which is YOURS to control. Quit worrying about the rest.

1 thought on “Control within performance. How and Why?”

  1. Ironically speaking, an artical which emphasises an avoidance of cognitive control has given me quite a lot to think about…..I see where you are going and as someone who suffers badly from the “Unmentionalble Syndrome” I’m beginning to see it more of a lack of faith rather than lack of ability. Your artical here (and elsewhere) puts that point across very well indeed.
    I have read quite a lot about recovering from the spiral of panic and most if not all proscribed remedies seem to focus on the physical aspects of repetition. From someone who can’t tell the difference this leads the novice or intermediate archer that the issue is with technique. And that in my opinion is dangerous. I can see the benifit of 5M blank bale or blind shooting as a method of rebulding a shot or instilling non-cognitive behaviour, but this artical succeds where the others fail because it realizes that the condition has a vast mental aspect which must be addressed.

    Thank you very much for the assistance.

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