Hump Day

It’s Wednesday. Sunday was a recovery day. Since then I have an hour and a half of running, an hour of stretching, three hours of cycling, a trip to the gym, and nine and a half hours of archery practice under my belt.

Big Sky over a bicycle ride near Athens, GA

This morning we, River my lab, and I were practicing. Well, I was practicing and entertaining my canine companion between ends, which is mostly tossing sticks as I walk the 18-meters back and forth to pull arrows. River seemed to have more spring in her step than me.

River runs with me in the morning. She’s almost 9 and still has plenty of spring in her step.

Working toward an athletic goal is demanding. At times it can be grueling. The long-term effort needs to have breaks. Those breaks are periods for recovery. On Thursday we go on vacation. On this break I am not bringing a bow. I will, however, bring a mountain bike and running shoes.

The sun is coming up later as winter approaches and the air is cooler at 8:00 am in the morning.

The cycling will be easy active recovery rides. Running may turn out to be walking. For sure, after archery practice this afternoon I won’t pick up a bow for a week. If I carried one on the trip I would no doubt be tempted. But, I also know that rest is too important to take for granted. So, the bow will be left behind.

There’s a coaching tip in this post.


Your Stance

I watch archers shoot. It’s part of what a coach does. The vast majority of the archers I watch are not and are unlikely to become my students. Nevertheless, I watch and I learn. I also keep my mouth shut. That’s because I see the bulk of archers during competition. At that point, unless someone is about to get hurt or hurt someone, I doubt they’d want my input. Besides, most competitive archers have a coach. Of the many things I see a poor stance is often the first indicator of poor form.

The first coach I had was obsessed with his stance. He droned on and on about his stance – and about everything else about him. He is pretty good and typically does well in his pond. If you are within ear shot of him he’ll let you know.

His dissertation on stance, though, is something I will long remember. He talked about balance, his toe placement, using a mirror to see his feet, putting tape on the spot from where he practiced, and he got it mostly wrong. Of course, I didn’t know that then. My first suspicion that he’d misinformed me came from my next and well every other coach I’ve had since.

Coaching tip

Your stance is essentially the initial development of the foundation for a shot. There are other steps, a bunch of them, but if you start off wrong you will just be wrong. This is what I notice a lot among too many archers. There feet are at odds for establishing good form.

During an ASA 3D State Championship I was hiking around with a father/daughter – coach/student pair. The father was typically proud of his daughter and her skills. While she was skilled, she could have improved her footing on too many easy level shots. Her feet, on every shot, were perpendicular to her shoulders. On every shot she ended up struggling and occasionally placed arrows in a less than ideal location. True, in 3D footing can be a challenge, but the basic adjustments to create a solid foundation begins with knowing how to establish your feet.

A poor stance is not limited to 3D where finding good footing can be like finding the center shot on a javelina at 45 yards while it sits in a dark hole. Funny feet show up during indoor tournaments on perfectly flat floors. What I usually attribute this to an archer that enjoys the sport but has yet to invest into or listened to a bona fide coach.

Proper placement – Source: USA Archery

If you’re new to the sport or have never had a professional coach spend time with you give it some consideration. Archery is a sport requiring perfect form to reproduce a perfect shot over and over. If you are starting out wrong that process is going to be more difficult.

Taking a Look At Archery Phenotypes

Nearly anyone can pick up a bow practice and get to be pretty good.

At your next tournament look around at the competitors. They’ll look a lot like the spectators. You see folks that look; by look I mean phenotype, sort of like everyone else.

Everybody else means this for the US: Males weight on average 196 pounds and are 5 feet 9 inches tall. Females weight 168.5 pounds and are 5 feet 4 inches tall. That pretty close to how archers look in general.

Certainly, this isn’t everyone that picks up a bow. These are averages. My friend, Mike, is 6 feet 8 inches tall and weights 180 pounds. Mike is an outlier.

Consider the Body Mass Index (BMI) of the average US male and female using the numbers from above. You’d see both coming in as overweight.

Being overweight is, well, not good. But, archery is a sport where overall conditioning is often neglected. In fact, during a recent tournament when archers needed to move large outdoor targets a number of athletes couldn’t help because of their fitness level. One person said, “I can’t help, my doctor has told me not to lift more that 10 pounds.” Yet, there he was shooting and doing a pretty decent job of arrow placement. (Good not great)

Coaching tip

Archery is a sport where fitness isn’t a key factor for the average shooter. Just about anyone that wants to enjoy a sport that isn’t a major cardio activity can have fun with a bow and arrow. That’s fine. That’s not my philosophy when it comes to athletics.

When it comes to archery training I think athletes in this sport should incorporate fitness training. No, it is not a requirement to be a good shooter. However, taking your training to a higher level will provide strength and stamina to archery performance.

Practice Should Be a Challenge

“Are you practicing to practice or are you practicing to win?”

I do not know who originally asked that question. It is one that I think about a lot. I consider it before nearly every practice. I consider it when I am working on training plans. It makes a difference to ask the question before training.

Training and practice should not be easy. Whether you are preparing for a bicycle race or an archery tournament the question applies.

Archers often practice by shooting arrow after arrow. That can work. But, does shooting a bunch of arrows in practice prepare an archer to win?

Coaching Tip

There’s an excellent archer. In practice he typically out shoots everyone on the range. The practice is calm, controlled and comfortable. He stands in his favorite lane at 18 meters. He’s surrounded by his friends all of them not yet at his level. His confidence is high. He’s been here countless times and like the many times before he does better in practice than his peers in the room.

He practices a lot. He claims to shoot two hundred arrows a day. That’s a lot of practice. Yet, his performance during a tournament, while good, is only good. He’s not alone.

Watching archers I see mistakes that I’ve seen in other sports particularly in cycling. When I raced bicycles I expected to win every race I entered. I didn’t; no one ever does win every race they enter. If I didn’t win it was not because I wasn’t prepared to win.

My coach, Nester Gernay, trained members of our team to win races. We used to joke we were looking forward to a race to have an easy day. See, our training schedules were grueling. We rarely raced where the event was more difficult that our tough days of training.

Those years of training were not day in and day out ride as hard and fast as possible. Coach Gernay broke up practice. He created cycles of training that were decades ahead of what is now common cycling knowledge. (This was the early 70’s)

In archery, there are also excellent training plans to us in practice. I image there are coaches that have it figured out how to create practice to teach an archer to win. That sort of practice is not simply shooting arrow after arrow. It is hard.

The archer that piqued my interest in writing this practices to practice. I don’t see him practicing to win. Practice is where you learn to improve. To do this you must find ways to make flinging arrows a period outside of your comfort zone. Here are a few examples:

In a tournament you are going to be crowded (unless it is a 3D or other event where the archer is alone at the stake). In practice there aren’t always people to your right and left. What I’ve done on a range when possible and on my range is to place stools closer to me than people stand. It is awkward. During a tournament, the archers next to me aren’t even noticed.

This is a situation where you don’t want to be outside the box

On my range I’ll often practice with a timer – the timer sitting on one of the stools. I record the time left over after I’ve finished an end. If I find I have too much time left over I practice slowing down. This can really help if for some reason you get out of rhythm. I’ve also practiced after the timer has started and run for 30 seconds to create an end where for some unknown reason I am late to the line or can’t shoot immediately. This has been helpful outdoors when during a 4-minute end I have to wait for wind gusts to slow or stop.

Looking for another stool

At USA Archery tournaments there is going to be music playing non-stop. At first that really bothered me so I now practice with music in the background on my range.

I also do things that make me uncomfortable, like changing my release from a thumb to a hinge. I am more comfortable with a thumb but the hinge really makes me focus on form.

Look for different places to practice. Go to various league competitions where you know no one. I promise, at first you will feel uncomfortable. There will be little groups of buddies that eyeball you. There’s the “hot dog” fellow that usually wins the league. You’ll probably spot him as he struts around. After a while you will become comfortable walking in and taking their money.

Another thing is to have a coach. Listen to what she says; be coachable. Know that you cannot see yourself shooting. Believe me, if you already ‘know’ everything you can’t be coached.

These are only a few steps that can be beneficial. Finding ways to create challenging practice can make tournaments feel easy.

Have a Plan

Work hard, save your money, retire early. That was my plan. I wanted to be done with working while I was still in my 50s. I was done with the rat race at 57.

It wasn’t easy. There were times when I’d watch my savings vanish. Those events that sucked away nest eggs, “Easy come, easy go.” Each time my nest egg cracked I started over. Life happens, so you need a plan.

Some folks plan is to work until they drop. They’ll probably succeed. It’s not a difficult plan to follow. In fact, I’d guess many of them will reach their goal early.

Many people I know are always chasing a dollar. It’s better to let the dollars come, as in find an occupation you love and be the best at that occupation. You’ll earn money. Then put as much as possible away while living below your means.

There was a time, like nearly everyone, I had debt. A car, house, and credit cards can take a toll. Once, while living in Augusta, Georgia and working for the State, my salary got messed up. It was by $10,000 per year and something they promised to correct. Some rule, unique to State Law prevented the fix from taking place. That led to another round to adminstrative solutions.

The State solutions were too slow and I was sucking wind financially. It was a great job at a great academic institution, but time was running out to fix then problem.

I left academia and when into industry. I never looked back, even though the university’s administration told me I’d be back in a year and they’d keep my office for me. (I still have a deep loyalty to that University and considered my few years there some of the best ever)

There were struggles, but never again was I in a position where I needed to juggle bills. I also continued to live to a large extent as I did while in Augusta. I left Augusta in 1990. I retired twenty three years later satisfying a goal to be done with typical work before turning 60.

Like most retired men I spend a lot of time playing sports. It is the number one past time of retired men. I am no exception.

Following my last day of official work I considered the sports I was already involved in: Running, cycling and triathlon. Throughout my work career I’d continued to train as much as time allowed. Retired, I could devote all my time to training and competing.   The most obvious choice was triathlon.

Triathlon was best for me because there is a low risk of crashing on a bike. Old guys crashing, well from experience, at any age crashing sucks. So, bicycle racing was out. I’m a fair runner and a poor swimmer. But, with additional time to train, I’d improve on my run and do what I could about swimming. Then, I got a new idea.

While reading, I stumbled across an article that pointed out two sposts where age is not such a factor: shooting and archery. I knew I could shoot well. I’d been shooting since I was a kid. I looked into the sport. It’s big bucks. Not for me.

Archery is less expense. Arrows last a whole lot longer than bullets. So, I made a plan. That is to earn a living wage through sports primary archery. That was four years and ten months ago (as I write this post)

I bought a decent bow, some cheap arrows, a release and went to work. I’ve made very little money though archery. I’d say, I am in the hole when it comes to earnings versus cost. On the other hand, it hasn’t yet been five years. Less than five years doesn’t always make someone an expert in a new field.

This year (as of today) I’ve shot in 13 tournaments. I’ve won 8 of them, 5 in my age group, 3 against men 21 to 49 years old. I shoot a lot against younger archers since often in the 60+ age group there aren’t many people to shoot against. In the really big toournamnets, like the ASA Pro/Am events I’m still getting hammered by guys my age. But, I am improving.

Yes, I could have stuck with triathlon as my primary retirement sport. Certainly, I’d have improved with more time to train. I wasn’t bad before I retired. One thing for sure, I wouldn’t have earned any money. To make matters more deplorable, one major triathlon event as an amateur costs more than I’ve spent over the past four years competing in archery.

I’m still learning the ropes in archery. I know my equipment is not exactly right. There are better arrows and a better release. The bows are fine. I have two but of them Elite’s.

Of course, it is unlikely any of this retirement fun would have been possible without a clear plan nearly four decades earlier.  So, my point is have a plan.

Coaching and Teaching and Doing

Yoda, that was my nickname in my professional field. It was earned though teaching and coaching in the medical field. Teaching was an early vocation done primarily at the Medical College of Georgia. Teaching became an international occupation as research moved me onto a broader stage. Throughout that career I remained not just a medical scientist, I continued a life long pastime in sports.

Sport, actually, was a bit more than a pastime since much of my professional work involved athletics. In my academic labor I uncovered associations with a continuum of health ranging from the Olympian to the infirmed. Along the way I maintained a competitive fixation on my development as a scientist as well as an athlete. In many instances I applied medical rationale to sports – long before an official field of sports medicine had blossomed.

Years before it was ‘popular’ I was conducting physiological research on climbers ascending Mt. Everest (1). Later, I studied oxygen desaturation during peak performance of elite cyclists and the impact of endurance running at altitude. (2,3)

Not solely that geek looking at athletes I competed as an athlete earning spots at two major World Championship. (4,5) And on this journey became a USA Cycling coach.

Coaching is a discipline that transferred easily for “Yoda” of the academic environment. During that time I was not only a coach but a Category 2 ranked cyclist among the USA Cycling rating system where I competed in the US and Europe. Did I learn cycling on my own? No, there were two great coaches that pulled me along: Nestor Gernay of Belgium and Gabe Stanley of South Africa. (Both immigrant US citizens) Taking from that experience and adding a background in cardiopulmonary medicine I developed patented methods to better train endurance athletes.

Aging takes a toll on what an athlete can do in endurance sports. Certainly, endurance fitness shouldn’t be prohibited due to age, but age is no friend to endurance fitness. In November of 2013 I knew that competing in endurance sports would remain fun, but it would never be the same as when I was younger. Then, purely by chance, I stumbled into archery.

It is my belief that age, while there are some inherent pitfalls, is not a barrier to archers. I believe that an athlete over 50 can become an elite archer whereas an athlete over 38 is unlikely to maintain elite status among endurance athletes. A few months after the November 2013 intersection with a bow and arrow I set out to discover whether or not I could become on of those elite archers.

Since picking up a bow the transfer of talent from elite endurance athlete to elite archer remains incomplete. Along that course I have gained insight into the archery that I believe, once refined, may lead to enhanced performance among archers. In order to solidify a foundation to further this course I needed a stronger grasp of current archery fundamentals and coaching and the methods associated with each. I do see myself embarking on a career in archery not only as a pastime but also as a coach and researcher of the sport. In order to achieve this I need all coaching education specific to archery I can gather.

As I progress I will apply what I learn to my own practice. I see myself coaching and teaching others in archery in the same way I have done in professional basketball, professional football, professional cycling and professional triathlon. (6,7,8,9) Level 3 archery coaching is another milestone in this adventure.

References (abbreviated):

  • Lain D, Shakar U.: Practical pulse oximetry during high altitude hiking. Chest, Vol 118, No. 4, page 203S, 2000.
  • Lain D, Jackson C: Exercise induced hypoxemia (EIH) desaturation zones: a use or athletic training. Chest, Vol 118, No. 4, page 203S, 2000.
  • Lain, D: High altitude respiratory distress: an RT’s personal experience. Advance for Resp Care and Sleep Med. Features section, online Sept 26, 2012.
  • Team USA World Championship, Long Course Duathlon, 2007 World Championship (athlete, 21st place)
  • World Ironman Championship, Kona, Hawaii. 2008 (Athlete 18th place)
  • Houston Rockets, High Altitude training, 2007
  • Atlanta Falcons, with trainers, sleep apnea among linemen.(circa Dan Reeves)
  • Lain D, High Altitude Tents, Triathletes Magazine, January 2006
  • Mental Preparation in Training and Racing. Keynote Address, Columbia Triathlon Association, Athletes Program, Cambridge, MD, May 6, 2012

Your Score Takes Care Of Itself

Among elite athletes you’d find that many of them know their competition. They understand who they compete against and their opponents’ skill level. Many of them compete against one another numerous times during one season. They all know what to expect from a competitor.

You can’t control the person you’re competing against. You can manage your scores.

When I train I like to have goals in mind. Often times one of those goals relates to points earned during a practice that simulates a competition. It allows me to do a few things.

I learn how I typically score. If I am scoring low I look for what it is I am doing incorrectly. From this I’ve learned my biggest two errors are too much heel in my grip and rushing shots.

This also trains me to read the score and forget about it. In a tournament you will see you score after every end. If you get the habit of seeing frequently seeing your score it becomes less of a mental burden. You learn to read it and release it.

Coaching tip

I do like to know how my opponents are shooting. If, for example, they are way ahead of me in the scores I have a more aggressive goal. With that in mind I might make training plans that could help me find the X more often during a specific type of shooting.

Certainly, we all want to shoot a perfect score. It is one of my current goals on a 3-spot. But, I know that it won’t come over night. I record all of my practices and view my scoring data graphically. When I complete a practice where I was simulating a 3-spot event I go back and review how I did against my previous practices.

Ideally, I’ll become so comfortable with my numbers they have minimal impact on my performance. The numbers will take care of themselves. This hit home when I was searching scores of the archers I’ll be shooting against in a few weeks.

In an outdoor competition I was shooting in a younger group – that is against archers a decade or more younger then me. I’d won 2nd place, but had no idea how far back I was before the OR. When I saw the brackets I was surprised. While I’d made it through the QR I really didn’t know how far back I was compared to the others. It didn’t matter.

Started near the bottom and finished near the top (2nd)

You will see your score during a tournament. You can’t let it get into your head. Shoot each shot using your process and trust your training. Your score will take care of itself.

Steps of Shooting

There’s a lot of movement that goes into shooting an arrow. Watching archers you’d see them lift a bow and let go an arrow. In fact, there are over 100 steps involved when an archer shoots an arrow using a recurve bow. If the archer is using a compound bow there are 78 steps involved in shooting just one arrow.

That is a lot to learn, put in exact order, and shoot a good shot. The motions for shooting an arrow are listed in 11 major steps. Each of those steps involves subsets of movement to reach perfect form for that perfect shot.

Practicing these steps, rehearsing them in your head during the release of every arrow seems overwhelming. It isn’t that difficult. Before long you move effortlessly through each shot. But, you still plunk out less that perfect scores.

If you are a serious archer you may have found ways to move through a shot sequence, touching on the steps needed to assume good form, that work for you.

Good form comes with practice. For the purpose of this writing we’ll assume each of you has developed good form. But, you still find that you are not landing arrows consistently where you want them.

After years of practice you might have gotten a bit sloppy or lazy and no longer think though the shot process. Why should you, you’ve done it thousands of times. Here’s why: You need to move your thought process from a conscious one focused on making a good shot to a sub-conscious one that shoots the good shot. If you are thinking too hard about the shot, you’re working at it too hard and not letting it happen.

Now, I am taking for granted you are a well seasoned, practiced, and coached archer.

Coaching tip

Here’s a little something to try that might help you get through those 11 steps of shooting that you know well (and have abandoned):

As you take the line you think about your stance. Get it right. Easy enough.

You nock an arrow. You hook and grip your bow. You set up, go to set, draw to load, anchor, transfer to hold….

Wait this reads a lot like the first eight steps of the process of shooting. That’s because these are the first eight steps. Next you think expand and aim, release and follow though and feedback. But, you want your mind blank. You want the subconscious dealing with the shot.

Here you might find words or phrases that help you switch over to your subconscious brain and let it make the shot. Here’s an example:

Think, ‘Put the dot in the middle, relax, shoot the dot.’

Of course, before you can reach this point, you need to understand the 11 steps of shooting. Once you have master those steps look for your process to give the shot over to you subconscious.

Having a Training Plan

Each week I look over training plans. These cover the daily, weekly and monthly practice sessions. The plans are arranged around tournaments. Those tournaments are graded as A, B, or C events.

Coaching tip

‘A’ events are the major tournaments such as a State, National or World Championship. ‘B’ are typically local tournaments where I want to do well but leave some room to try new things and make adjustments. The ‘C’ events are mostly league shoots where I want to do well but may not have exactly what I need to provide the best score.

River surveying range before practice

During a ‘C’ event, such as indoor league, I might compete with outdoor arrows rather than the wider indoor arrows. In these events I focus on applying skills yet to be mastered that I worked on during the day at home.

The archery training plans I follow have blocked time everyday for fitness. Each morning there is a stretching routine followed by running before I pick up a bow. In the afternoon, before shooting I ride a bicycle. On one to two days a week, depending on the training cycle there is time allocated for lifting weights.

Nearly everyday includes a morning and afternoon archery practice. On days when there is an evening league shoot I might shorten the afternoon practice allowing for the additional time spent on the range at night.

The chase is on

The training plans are associated with specific goals. Improving, as an archer is best accomplished with exact plans in play for each practice. Incorporating general fitness is an important adjunct to being a complete athlete – even for archers. By following written training plan archers can increase the likelihood of accomplishing their goals.

Wait Before You Buy

A few years ago I was shooing in a tournament next to Roger Willet, Jr. Willet is a seriously good archer and has been ranked number one in the world. (1) We talked a little, mostly about fishing.

I did overhear him giving a piece of advice. Someone had asked him a question, which I didn’t hear. His answer to the unheard question was, “One of the biggest mistakes I see amateur archers making is buy new equipment too often.” That seemed to me a solid bit of advice.

If you shot professionally you may get a new bow every year. Chances are the bow comes as part of your contract with a sponsoring bow manufacturer. As a professional archer many amateur archers watch you. You shoot well and that new bow in your hand becomes the envy of many.

Hundreds of amateurs that have witnessed that professional’s skill at hitting the mark and many of them will rush out to purchase that amazing new bow the pro is shooting. Here’s the thing, the amateur would be better off investing in more range time than a new bow.

Last week, a student archer, one that is pretty good, had performed poorly on a few shots. Her immediate reaction was to suggest she needed new equipment. Her equipment was fine.

I asked, “How long have you been shooting?” She answered she’d only been shooting competitively for a year but had been doing some recreational archery for the past few years.

Coaching tip

Remembering Willet’s advice I echoed it and offered that she not invest into more gear until her groups were tighter. See, it wasn’t her bow, it was her.

There are a lot of excellent bows on the market. Put any of them in the hands of an elite archer and that archer will shoot it like an elite archer. Elite performance, simply put, comes from practice.

If you are considering a new bow in an effort to improve, stop and question that decision. Are you practicing 900 to 1200 shots per week? Are you groups tight? Are you looking for marginal gains? Are you shooting an entry-level bow with a lower level sight and inexpensive stabilizers?

There is a point where equipment can provide marginal gains. But, for most archers, more practice will provide the greatest gain.