What Does It Take to Be a Champion?

Think about a person you consider an athletic champion.  Which words or phrases would you choose to describe that person? Strong?  Energized?  Relentless? Balanced?  Ambitious?  Some, or even all, of those words might apply.  And there are certainly many more words that describe it valiantly.

It’s a hot topic that is discussed pervasively.  All you need to do is an internet search and a plethora of information pops up.  In fact, books have been written about what it takes to be a successful athletic champion. And there is a professional speaking circuit for those willing to pay to listen.

The topic is also arguably subjective.  But are there commonalities that simplify the definition of what it takes to be a champion athlete?  Perhaps.

Recently, over chicken wings and few bottles of good beer, three professional coaches, one of whom is also a competitive athlete, took the dive into discussing this highly debated topic.

Two of the coaches agreed that the mental aspect, regardless of the sport, is the number one factor in becoming a champion.  The premise of the mental aspect is that with enough mental focus and a mental program, an individual can become a champion in his or her chosen sport.

Ordering another round of beers and snatching the last chicken wing in the basket, one of the coaches pushed back. Fundamentally believing that it is the athletic skill itself that is the number one aspect of being a champion, he argued that the mental bit, while essential, is secondary to core physical skill. In other words, he argued that an athlete can think about winning all day and all night, but if the work isn’t there the athlete will fail.

After getting to a point where the coaches were rehashing hash on the topic, and because of commitments like needing to go home to feed the dog and getting itchy to jump on the elliptical and burn off the calories from the beer and chicken wings, the three coaches abandoned the debate.  So they could reconvene to discuss, one coach volunteered to develop a simple survey to uncover what it is that turns athlete into a champion.

Level 3 and 4 archery coaches began the debate

The coaches agreed, that to give context to the survey,  a champion would be defined as an individual who wins a major sporting event, unchallenged as the victor.  For example, an athlete who wins an Ironman World Championship, a Gold Medal in an Olympic or Pan Am game, a National title or Professional Golf Association win would meet the criteria.

Through Facebook, a message was sent to recruit responses from 100 athletes and coaches. The same message was sent to everyone:

“I am asking 100 coaches and athletes a question where the responses will be compiled into a database.  I will write an essay based on the results.  I would greatly appreciate your brief responses. By brief, I mean your top three or four words that describe the answer.  The question is: What does it take to be a champion?

It was not anticipated that Facebook would block progress.  A firm notification was returned from the Facebook team believing the messages were coming from a robot.  While applause to Facebook for its vigilance to protect its customers is due, the interruption knocked back the messages sent from 100 to 54.  Still, 54 was an excellent sample set for an informal study and the coach was thrilled with a 100% response rate from the 54 who received the question..

There were 41 males and 13 females who responded from across the globe: United States, Canada, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Israel, France, England, Australia, Russia, Iran and Switzerland.

To make the survey information robust, the profiles of the respondents were captured.

Twelve sport disciplines were represented: golf, cycling, archery, running/marathon/ultramarathon (distance runners), football, shooting, swimming, triathlon, weightlifting, sailing, track/field (sprint, decathlon, heptathlon) and Karate. 

Of the 54 total responders, there were 23 world championships, two Olympic gold medals and four PGA wins.  And among the entire group of 54, there were 75 National titles.  Included in the 54 were eight athletes who consider themselves enthusiasts, but train for their sport nearly every day and compete on a regular basis.  Clearly, this was experience talking.

This was a solid cross section of people who could help define what it takes to be a champion athlete, and so began the arduous task of compiling and analyzing the response and profile data.

Feedback from the respondents resulted in a tally of 132 unique words and descriptors of what it takes to be a champion.  All words and descriptors were entered in a spreadsheet and sorted alphabetically.  From there, common words and descriptors began to emerge: work, confidence, determination, mental, emotional.

The words were then ranked based on the percentage of response between the athletes and coaches surveyed.  Two sets of interesting and potentially conflicting results were revealed:

  • Athletes used the word “determination” the highest, followed in order by “work”, “emotional”, “mental”, and “confidence” to describe what it takes to be a champion.
  • In highest place for coaches were words in the “emotional” category, followed by “determination” and “work” being equal, then “confidence” and “mental” respectively. Disciplines for the responding coaches included football (NCAA Div. II, SAC), track and field, triathlon, marathon running, cross country running and archery.
Coaches versus all athletes

So, what is “the” number one word to describe what it takes to be a champion athlete?  Determination, as presented by the athlete survey responses, or emotional, as presented by the coach survey responses?

The trio of coaches reconvened at the pub to discuss the results.  Additional questions were posited.  Is determination an emotion?  Does emotion evoke determination?  It could be argued that determination is a mental state that drives emotions like passion and commitment. An athlete can be physically extraordinary at his or her sport, but if there is no passion for the activity, what is the likelihood that individual will emerge as a champion?

Two of three coaches argued that the brain is a powerful thing and it can trick the body into elite performance.  One coach felt that when aggressive coaching is involved, the athlete’s mind can push the body into performing at an elite level.

Chicken wings were ordered and the survey results were studied in more depth. Thankfully the wings were served with a big pile of napkins, because the coaches needed to sketch out their theories on how the words garnered from the survey fundamentally aligned to what it takes to be a champion.

Ultimately, the trio agreed that based on the feedback from the 54 person survey, the first and most dominant factor in becoming a champion is determination.If an athlete is determined enough they’ll find a way to get the work done, to build confidence, control and use emotions, and develop a mental process to polish off perfection.

All responses: coaches, elites and enthusiasts.

“Work”, as one of the top three words selected by both athletes and coaches, is highly relevant.  Following “determination”, all 54 respondents indicated that “work” was the second word to answer the question ‘what does it take to be a champion’, followed in frequency of response by mental effort, emotional bearingand confidence, in that order.

There were two outlier responses, that have merit and are worthy of mentioning. These were: “being in the right place at the right time”and “great equipment.”

The first, ‘right place/right time’, can be considered luck or happen stance.  For example, if an undefeated champion is unable to compete one year, does that mean that the new champion for that year is a superior athlete?  What if in the following year the original undefeated athlete competes again and takes back the title?   There is no way to know. An athlete can only compete against those who show up.

Rankings by Elite Athletes compared to enthusiasts

The second outlier response, ‘great equipment’ can surely play a role when an athlete reaches an elite level and marginal gains become more important.  For the less aggressive or less accomplished athlete, great equipment, (i.e. expensive equipment), typically isn’t going to impact results as much as more training and practice.

As the last of the people in the pub began to leave, the trio of coaches decided to pay up and came to a somewhat conclusive agreement that determination and work, whether driven by emotion and/or great coaching, were the keys to becoming a champion. Do you agree?

Increasing Poundage on a Recurve Bow

Shooting an Olympic recurve is demanding.  Unlike a compound bow there is no let off when the archer reaches their draw length.  The archer has to hold the poundage at full draw.  Increasing poundage can be useful and finding an ideal limb weight takes time.

Adult beginners can typically begin and enjoy shooting a recurve bow at lower poundage.  As they improve they’ll often want to increase their draw weight.  Younger archers take time to develop and their draw weight increases as they mature.

Initially an adult who begins at 25 pounds may see a rapid changes in poundage.  Many people can jump from 25 to 35 in 2 to 4 pound increments fairly fast.  Fairly fast is months versus years. Even so there will be people more comfortable remaining at lower poundage for much longer if not indefinitely.

Higher poundage does have some advantage.  At longer distances an arrow launched at 32 pounds will travel more slowly and with more arch than the same arrow launched at 42 pounds.  (Yes, I know the spine is different for 32 versus 42 pounds – this is an example for illustration) The faster arrow and flatter trajectory is affected less by wind.  With a higher weight many archers see an improved release.

Moving up in poundage is not simple.  An increase from 28 pounds to 30 pounds may feel easy where moving from 40 to 42 can feel exponentially more difficult.  If the archer shoots using a clicker the archer may notice the clicker is more difficult to trigger.

The clicker and anchor point are note solely impacted by the increase demand to draw to bow there is additional compressibility of the soft tissue between joints.  When changing limb weight the archer may find their clicker needs a slight adjustment of a millimeter to a few millimeters.

If you are considering increasing the poundage of your limbs and shoot a couple of hundred arrows per day don’t stay at that same volume with you increase weight.  Decease by half or more until you can control your bow.  This will aid to maintain form and reduce the risk of an injury.

Vacation Can Be Tough

Vacation is fun or so they say.  However, it you are a competitive athlete time off can be tough.

It doesn’t matter what the sport is when athletes pause for recovery it can be difficult.  There is a feeling that time is wasting and opponents are getting better while you are relaxing.   That really isn’t the case. By that the case being that an opponent is getting better while the vacationing athlete is losing form.   Breaks are necessary.  It allows the body to recover and the mental stress to abate.  Non-stop training leads to injury and burnout.

Too many breaks is another matter. Pretty much that means, when you are taking lots of breaks, you are an enthusiast. Being an enthusiast is fine.  Most athletes fall into this class. The sport is more of a hobby.  Some folks call these individuals weekend warriors.  Again, this is the class of athlete that is the foundation of sport.

Top athletes are different.  Not simply that they train differently often times they are genetically different.  In football those professional athletes are bigger, faster stronger and have an ability to see rapidly moving patterns on a field. In baseball their speed and reflex ability is breathtaking.  In archery the top athletes can shoot hundreds to thousands of arrows (weekly) without damaging shoulder joints and have a keen sense of feeling a target and loosing an arrow. All of those top athletes still need to plan for recovery.

Jerry Rice the greatest of all time at his position was not the most gifted player of that position. He did however plan specific times for recovery and had a very specific off-season training plan.  Archery can be done year round.  As archers, we really don’t have much of a down season.  Once indoor season ends outdoor season begins.

This essentially non-stop sport requires scheduled period to recover.  In your yearly training plan you do need to have select periods where you don’t pick up a bow.  It is hard to do but it will help you recover and last as a competitive archer.

Sleep and Archery

Archery isn’t a sport requiring high level of cardiopulmonary fitness.  It does require an elevated degree of neurocognition.  Archery demands a physically repeated action that does stress upper body muscles and skeletal structure.  It also necessitates the ability to balance with minimal sway placing additional demands on an athlete’s core and lower body support. Sleep reinforces sport recovery and improves performance.(1)

The disciple required to excel in sport is enormous.  The daily activities during training, travel and competition all can decrease the ability to train properly, focus and compete.

Training along with poor restorative sleep can lead injury.  Overtraining is associated with injury and lower performance levels.  Sleep deprivation or poor sleep quality does reduce performance and leads to injury.

One of the easiest, albeit infrequently considered, ways to improve performances is understanding that quality sleep supports develop as an athlete. Then, taking the steps to improve sleep.

This is true for archery.  In a convenient sample of training scores, simulated tournaments over 30 days sleep quality was recorded along with performance levels.

Nights where sleep was poor were documented, as were the higher quality sleep cycles.  These were based on hours of sleep, good sleep being greater than seven hours, and poor sleep less than seven hours. (Personal data n=1)

The mean number of hours slept for a quality scores was 7.8 hours versus 6.3 hours for poor quality sleep. Those nights with better sleep yielded a mean score of (vertical 3 sport 18 or 25 meters Olympic recurve bow for both conditions) 549 versus 532, quality sleep vs. poor quality sleep, respectively.  The difference of 17 points is significant (3.09%). A high score of 568 was achieved at both 18 and 25 meters for quality sleep nights. Those higher scores had a range of 568 to 540 points.  The poor quality sleep had a high score of 540 (at 25 and 18 meters) and a low score of 527 (25 meters) was revealed.

Sleep has been shown to improve performance of skilled athletes. (2) In this data set archery is not an exception.

Reference:

(1) Simpson NS, Gibbs EL, Metheson GO: Optimizing sleep to maximize performance: implications and recommendations for elite athletes. Scand J Med Sci Sports. 2017 Mar; 27(3): 266-274

(2) Cheri D Mah, Kenneth E MahEric J KezirianWilliam C Dement.The effects of sleep extension on the athletic performance of collegiate basketball players. Sleep 2011 Jul 1; 34(7): 943-50

Lifting Weights

A friend of mine recently asked if I lift weight.  I do. When the Covid pretty much shut down the gyms I didn’t.  Now, I do, again.  Only, now I don’t go to the gym.

I bought a weight bench and some weights and workout in my garage.  Turned out that my home gym is less expensive than an annual gym membership.  For sure I don’t have all the fancy gear but I do have enough.

I’ve also changed when I lift.  Rather than in the afternoon I lift in the mornings four days per week.  You can believe during those days at some point while practicing archery my arms are going to feel like they’ve done a lot.

Today was no exception. I lifted weights this morning. The morning practice, 100 arrows at 60 yards, was fine.  The afternoon session, 50 arrows at 40 yards was misery.  Usually the afternoon is a minimum of 60 arrows with a maximum of 120 arrows.  I quit at 50 arrows.

The last end of 10 arrows wasn’t too awful.  Five 10s, one 9 and four 8s.  The four 8s at 40 yards is, of course, a sign.  The more obvious sign was pulling through the shot. One in ten draws were where I had to let down and start over.

To be fair it was a particularly arduous weight lifting workout on this morning.  On the prior day of weights and shooting at forty yards I didn’t land any 8s.  Today it was different.

I felt I could have worked though the stiffness in my muscles.  I decided against it.  Over the past 3 days, the time since my last recovery break, I’ve flung 526 arrows.  On the last end, at 50 arrows, a Kenny Rogers song popped into my head.  The lyrics were, “you gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, know when to walk away and know when to run.”

Moving on Back

Practicing archery, for me, is more fun than tournaments.  Tournaments are slow.  Practice moves at a livelier pace.  Still, there are times when flinging arrows for hours can become monotonous. That can be improved by adding training games to your practice.

If you practice solo there are ways to make your planned sessions exciting.  There are a number of games I use.  These are: the yellow game, the tournament game and the Move Back game – among others.  Of these I find the Move Back game the most challenging.

The yellow game is simple; shoot as many arrows in the yellow rings at any given distance.  Record the shots at aim for 100% of your arrows in the yellow. The tournament is where you work to duplicate the conditions of an actual tournament.

The Move Back game is where you select a starting yardage and don’t increase the distance until a set number of arrows hit the center ring.  For example, 30 out of 30.

Thirty out of thirty can be tough as distances increase.  To reduce frustrations make changes.  You can personalize any way your want based on your ability. A change I use is 10 center shots in a row starting at 30 yards.  I also move back using increments of 10 yards; some folks might rather use 5-yard increments.

For me, 30 yards is usually just 10 arrows.  Forty yards takes a few tries, fifty yards gets more difficult to get 10 center shots in a row, 70 yards – well that remains a frustration for me.

Generally, I stop shooting after 100 to 120 arrows.  At that point I take a break.  When I resume shooting I pick up where I left off.  That is I start at 60 yards if that is where I left off during the earlier practice.  (This is on the same day.)

The day after shooting a Move Back game I’ll not continue the game.  The Move Back game is tough so the next day I’ll plan something else.  Once I’ve taken a break from the Move Back game the next time I practice it I start short and work my way back.  Even if I am close to 70 yards when I shoot a Move Back practice session I’ll start at 30 yards after any break extending into another day.

That doesn’t mean I won’t practice at 70 between Move Back practices.  If I shoot a couple of 100 arrows at 70 the next Move Back might be easier.

The Move Back game is also a good way to verify your sight calibrations.

Building a Training Plan

USA archery coaches have access to general training plans for archers.  These plans are generally good.  If you work with a coach that coach might make changes on such a plan to meet the specific needs of an archer.  It is good to have a plan.

Among an archer’s training plan a coach might include activities for fitness.  Those activities may include cardio workouts and weight training.  Both are excellent for archery. Another element of a training plan may include stretching.  The focus is, of course, on archery.

Plans should include periodization.  That means a cycle based on workloads prior to specific tournaments, base training, and recovery.  The cycle might include exercises that cover volume and intensity.  They can also focus on unique points for technique improvement.

One simple measure of training is going to be arrow count.  It takes a lot of arrows to ‘get good’ even more to become ‘great.’

Starting new to recurve it is important not to overdo it from the beginning. Throughout the training there are periods of several days in a row where there is no shooting.  Becoming an excellent archer takes time.  No one gets there overnight.  A plan can reduce wasted time and provide a foundation for growth in the sport.

Training for an International Round

Twenty yards to sixty-five yards at five-yard increments doesn’t sound to tough.  Go shoot these distances and you’d discover it is pretty tough.

What might become clear is:  You can drop points at 20 – 30 and gain points at 55 – 65 yards. Or you can drop points at every distance.  Or you can hit the center at every distance.  In other words – it is tougher than one might think.

Shooting set distances even 70 meters isn’t as complex as shooting multiple distances.  Seventy meters is a long shot (@ 77 yards) but you’re set and can make corrections should you be off a tad.

Shooting an international round you get three shots per distance and move to the next target.  So your sight must be spot on.

Say you shooting 55 yards and the arrow on your elevation scale looks like it is in the correct position.  The needle on the elevation block has a diameter and can cover your calibration mark and still be a few clicks high or low.  If either is askew despite a flawless shot execution the arrow will be off the mark.

Walking through a forest, on and off of fields, and through mixed shade will have an impact on lighting and center placement of a shot. Chances are it won’t be horrible but light can still impact aiming.

Then, there are, at times, the potential for a shift in target elevation.  When the angle becomes significant aiming at your usual center will float your arrow high whether shooting toward a downward set target or an uphill target.  Shooting a set distance, such as 50 meters (compound) or 70 meters (recurve) this isn’t an issue.

When preparing many archers focus on improving their long shots to the neglect of the shorter distances.  The result can be slight improvement at the long shot, over confidence at shorter distances and overall less than optimal scores.

To prepare build a training plan.  For example, practice twice a day once in the morning and one in the afternoon.  There are ten distances.  In the morning pick a short or long distance and shoot 100 arrows.  For the afternoon shoot another 100 arrows at the reciprocal distance.  Over 5 days you’ve shot 1000 arrows at 100 arrows per increment.  Then on one of the two remaining days do practice International Rounds – one in the morning and one in the afternoon. With warm-up shots this is going to put you in the range of 1200 arrows per week. (Your shot count can vary depending on your time available for practice)  The last day is reserved for recovery. Start your international practice as far in advance of an International Competition as feasible in consideration of your event schedule.  (If you’ve been shooting less than 100 arrows per day adjust your load to prevent an injury)

Building a training plan and self-coaching

Shooting arrows is fun. It is easy to grab your bow, head to the range, and fling arrows.  You will improve by flinging arrows.  However, it isn’t really a training plan.

Having a plan with specific goals will help you improve and probably get better end results than ad libitum shooting.

If you’ve never followed a training plan it can seem somewhat over the top to create a plan and follow your plan.  There are plenty of archers whose plan is to shoot their bow 3 to 5 times a week.  One archer explained his training plan consisted of shooting 30 arrows 5 times a week. Perhaps, for him, that was perfect.

If you go online you can quickly find training plans for running, cycling, and triathlon. Along with those plans you’ll be invited to sign up for online coaching.  A top online coaching program is offered by Carmichael Training Systems.  These programs are great if you have the discipline to follow the program.

Online training systems are available for archery.  Archery is more difficult since form is so critical for high-level performance.  All sport coaching can be optimized when a skilled coach is available to watch the athlete.

Many athletes are self-coached. Finding a coach, making schedules and forking out coaching fees are all factors in athletes self-coaching.  It isn’t just amateur athletes that self-coach.  Chrissie Wellington, multiple winner of the Ironman World Championship, and undefeated at the Ironman distance dropped her coaches and continued to win – self-coached.

Self-coaching can work but not without a plan.  Certainly, shooting arrow after arrow will help you improve to a point.  Beyond that, if you are going to self-coach you need to make a plan as if you are the coach and the athlete, in your case, is you.

If You Don’t Monitor You Can’t Manage: A Useful Journal

When I retired I’d planned to put all my athletic efforts into the endurance sports I’d enjoyed my entire life.  Those competitions are hard on the body and pocket book.  By chance I was given a bow that new priced at $78.00.  After a week of playing with that toy bow I wanted a better bow and I wanted to get better as an archer.

One of the focal points for me is in sport is data.  Naturally I began collecting data on my practice and performance shooting a bow.  I still collect and review my data.

The data I collect helps me monitor progress, find areas that need work, and suggests how to set goals.  It has further allowed me to create scholastic works based on talent transfer.

All top athletes monitor their work.  The data for professional athletes and the systems used to gather input have become extremely sophisticated. From chips in football shoulder pads to invisible grids on a basketball court we know more about today’s athletes than ever before.

Archery hasn’t yet been overwhelmed with gizmos promising immediate improvement.  Still, you can find plenty of ‘tech’ on which you can spend your cash hoping to gain an edge shooting arrows.

Archery has been around for a much longer time than any hot new gizmos promising improved shooting performance.  People have been shooting bows since around 20,000 BC.  Early bows weren’t used for sport, they were tools for hunting and warfare. (1) Successful archery was an easy measurement – you ate and you lived.

Archery as a sport had its first recreational competition of modern time in 1583 England. (1) It is also known that Mongols held archery competitions during gatherings before the English: 1194 – 1195. (2) Amazing, data from the Mongolian tournament exists today. The Mongolian archers were warriors, whereas in Britain in the 1500s over 3000 archers competed for pleasure.

Keeping your archery data is important should you want to be a competitive archer.  My friend Robbie Surface, also an archery coach, has designed two journals for archers to record their data.  One journal is designed for 3D the other for target archery. He gave me one, a target style, to try.

First, the journal is narrow enough to slip into my quiver.  If it didn’t fit I’d probably have it lost before too long. The journal contains 100 pages for data entry.  There are entry fields to record practice or tournament specifics.

Aside from points per arrow fields there is an area for Mental Game and Shot Execution.  For me, I use a simple numeric recording for both entries.  While my short hand means something to me it will be meaningless to others.  You can create any notation or system that works for you in these two fields. (3)

I’ve been using my journal, thanks to Robbie, since he gave me one to try.  It is a useful tool and easy to understand – surpassing expensive gizmos that remain on a shelf after the novelty dies.

You can view his journals, target and 3D, online where they are available for purchase at:

https://www.archeryjournals.com

If you don’t monitor you can’t manage.

Reference:

(1) https://worldarchery.org/History-Archery

(2) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mongol_bow

(3) https://www.archeryjournals.com