“So I have started to punch, does that mean I have to give up?”
This was the question I was faced with not long ago by an international compound shooter who had approached me for coaching. I must admit to being shocked by the statement, but also intrigued that an individual of such standing would consider quitting because they had caught the dreaded curse. So rather than leap in to the fray and start discussing “cures” I decided to ask them what they felt was the problem, how it manifested itself and what could be done about it, I was also interested to hear how all this made them feel.
What I was to hear was in no way unique:
feelings of a lack of control, an inevitability of action and outcome, huge anxiety and feelings of real desperation.
This intelligent and successful athlete was talking as if their skill had deserted them, their performance no longer under their control. The next step in the counselling process, as I was quickly beginning to see analogies with several of my clients who seek psychological help, was to ask the athlete what they thought could be done to remedy the problem. I was bombarded by the standard methods of addressing this problem, “better get an evolution release aid, ….will have to do lots of bare boss, …. doesn’t matter I am always going to be a puncher aren’t I?” As we discussed the issues further it became clear that the archer really did believe that this problem was insurmountable.
The History and The Symptoms:
Let us have a look at why “punching” happens, as I have discussed in previous articles, archery is a closed skill (one where the athlete does not manipulate the technique they use due to outside stimuli). This is such a crucial point that I am always in awe that it is not emphasised more in the coaching literature. In essence the archer has a well learned technique that they must trust in and allow to happen in an automatic way unchecked by cognitive control. When the archer tries to control this skill cognitively during the execution phase they stop this process from happening. In the case of punching a release the archer begins to actively look for “cues” to instigate movements that they do not need and in fact are unable to process and the whole movement falls apart. This disruption of the skill then leads the individual to concentrate even more on the aspects of the shot that should be allowed to just happen in a natural and uncontrolled manner and the spiral of failure continues.
The Processes Involved in Good Execution
It is important to look at what are the processes involved that lead to execution in a well performed shot. The archer focuses internally whilst drawing the bow and “checks” alignment and posture by feel and the visual information coming back to them, this is done by comparing what is happening at the present to what they expect to happen, not as a new experience every shot. This point is vital; the archer is not viewing feedback on posture and alignment as unique to this shot but merely comparing it to stored and expected information rather like driving a well learnt route each day. Having got the “all clear” on posture and alignment (ie comfortably at full draw) the archer then focuses externally, closing off all focus on feel (kinaesthetic) feedback, they have got the green light to go forward with the shot and now must commit to the next stage without being tempted to go back to “check” that they have got this right. The best analogy I can give you for this is: once you have checked the traffic left and right at a junction you commit to the manoeuvre, you do not have a sneaky look again to check the oncoming traffic halfway across the junction or things will end badly!
So the archer is now focussed externally, the big question now is
“What is going to trigger the shot?”
Many people believe that it is conscious aiming that will trigger the shot, but this just can not be if one is to produce a truly automatic motor skill. Yes, the archer is looking at the target and the relationship between the scope and it; they will not execute the shot if they are not pointing where they want to. BUT this is not aiming, per se, the archer is again looking to match up a pre-programmed picture to allow the triggering of the release not a conscious, meticulous aim.
How much aiming should you do?
When talking to top compound archers they talk about a picture they see, they do not talk in terms of exact rock steady aiming that then lets them make a conscious decision to trigger. The key point here is to open a “window of opportunity” during which the shot can go off. It is important to be aware that if you are trying to aim and trigger the release because of being rock steady on the target then you are working on a picture that is no longer there anymore when you shoot. The time taken by the brain to process what you are seeing and instigate a conscious muscle movement to shoot means that you no longer are working on up to date information, which in turn leads to jerky movements driven by anticipation.
So returning to my deeply unhappy archer at the beginning of this article and how we effected a change in how they were performing. The major part of the intervention was in talking the problem and anxiety through; this counselling took place over two sessions of an hour on the range. I listened and they talked about how and why they were punching, my only input being to challenge them to defend the use of terms such as “have to” and “it just happens”, During these sessions the archer became aware of what they could control and what they were trying to control that previously they had let happen during the shot. They were desperate to start on their road to recovery with the training methods they stated originally, but we continued to discuss and analyse their shot routine and slowly their faith in their own skill returned without an arrow shot and they began to talk in terms of “I control” and most importantly “Trust” and “relaxed”. At the end of the first session the archer shot 6 arrows bare boss up close without a punch and then went home to return for the next session the following day. After our “counselling” session the following day they began shooting at 50m at a target and although nervous that the form would deteriorate back to punching (which it did for the odd shot) they were focussing on trusting their skill and letting the shot happen. I have seen the archer a couple of times since and they are happy and relaxed in what they are doing and back to shooting very well, they do punch the odd shot still but never two in a row and there is not the same feelings of anxiety, in fact they are more confident than ever now they trust their skill; as they said to me,
“this punching thing was all in my head!”