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.

Muscle Fatigue

Pain. You hear about it all day long. It’s on TV, there are billboards for pain clinics, commercials for pain management pop-up on Facebook and there are ads in newspapers and magazines. It seems like there are a lot of Americans suffering and there is a lot of money to be made by selling drugs for pain relief.

I wonder about pain. I’ve experienced pain. I’ve crashed while cycling, been hit by a car, broken bones, messed up a knee playing football,  tripped while running and smashed into rocks, jumped and landed on a nail that went through my foot, jumped onto a steel rod that slid into my leg, and a host of other cuts and bruises that led me to the ER. There they’d patch me up and most times send me home.  The steel rod that I jammed in my leg required surgery and a 3 day hospital stay before they sent me packing.

A good friend of my is an ER Physician. He’s father to a pile of boys that play hard and frequently there’s an accident.  He tells them, “You’re not having fun until someone is bleeding.” When they get hurt he fixes them and sends them to find the next interesting trauma.

I suppose I have a high tolerance for pain. The physicians treating me always gave me a supply of drugs for the big injuries. I never took them. I maintain a different type of ache.

It seems like I have been sore all my life. That is muscle soreness. Not the delayed onset of muscle soreness – I get that too. (Have it right now from racing a few days ago.) My soreness is that non-stop post workout feeling one gets from exertion.

To be fair, I don’t really mind it. Being sore says to me I gave, whatever the training or practice I completed, a solid effort. You think, being an archer, it is my shoulders and arms that ache. You’d be correct. I shoot a lot, trying to catch the grand master archers that have decades of a head start. It makes me sore. But, it doesn’t end there.

My legs and feet are achy from running and riding a bike. I’m also sore from hacking down trees with an ax and hauling them away. I’m sore from both play and work. (Both seem a bit like fun to me.) And to be honest, I enjoy the ache. I rest well and sleep solidly.

When I consider people that don’t work their bodies I feel sorry for them. I’ve enjoyed hard play all my life. Picking up archery didn’t mean ending other forms of fitness training. They have become an adjunct to shooting.

Sure, if you add cardio to archery you’re likely to end-up becoming sore. You may find that it isn’t pain you’re experiencing. It is a warm glow that reminds you that your engine can still run. (You won’t need an opioid to deal with it, either.)

The Younger Archers and Me

It can be a little weird being the oldest person in the room. Often I’m the oldest person nearly everywhere I go where their or other athletes. Sure, there are plenty of people over 60 in sport. I’m just not crossing paths with many of them.

This is abundantly apparent during archery league shoots. Some of the archers I shoot against aren’t much older than my grandchildren. And here’s the thing – they are all really good.

By really good I mean youngsters that already have professional backing. One of their fathers, during a 3D tournament, explained to me his son, in high school, earned over $70,000 shooting his bow last year.

The other night, I listened to a conversation about geometry class between ends and the speaker hasn’t missed an X in weeks. He’s plastering the walls of the indoor range with vertical 3-spots whose centers are completely shot out.

Last week’s league was tense. I found myself in a 1-arrow shoot off with one of these rising stars. We both hit the X. My arrow was farther from exact center.

In my defense on that defeat, I was shooting skinny outdoor arrows versus the larger diameter indoor arrows. 18-meter shooting is not my concentration until after September 16th and my last outdoor tournament for the year is history. When that’s done I change my bow over to match my fat arrows. Still, it was humbling not winning.

The thing about shooting with such elite archers it improves my game. I still haven’t shot a 3-spot 600, but I am getting closer to that mark.

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.

Breaking Up Practice

Seventy meters is a pretty long shot. The next “A” tournament for me will have 36 of the 144 arrows fired from 70 meters. I could shoot senior rather than masters and get to shoot from 90 meters. I don’t have a lane cut through my property to accommodate 90-meter practice. I also don’t think 90-meters is a distance I’d want to shoot at a target that I’d not practiced often. So, I’ll practice at 70 meters and compete as a master.

In designing a training plan for developing comfort at 70 meters I used a 40 cm indoor target. The center ten ring is dime sized on that paper. It’s a small target. In fact, my scope’s dot covers the yellow rings when aiming at it from 70 meters.

After shooting about 1500 arrows at that small target I rolled out the big boy, 122 cm and practiced against it. The yellow ring seems large on that monster.

70 meters is a haul

Shooting 70 meters takes longer than practicing at 20 meters. It takes longer for the arrows to reach the target and longer to retrieve them before the next end. After a few days of this I decided to break up the routine.

What I did was move to 20 meters. I didn’t change from outdoor arrows to indoor. The diameter difference would mean I’d need to adjust my arrow rest to use indoor arrows. I didn’t want to fool with all of those mechanics. I did want to know how I’d score using skinny arrows at 20 meters and compare it to last year’s indoor scores using wide body arrows.

I’d done this last week at an evening indoor league shoot. For the same reasons mentioned above I didn’t switch arrows – laziness. I didn’t shoot all that well. The excuse I’m offering is that I was fatigued from the two previous practices of the day. I also wanted to see if that excuse held water. If it did, perhaps I’ll use it again.

The excuse didn’t hold a lot of water. I did shoot better during the practice at the 20-meter distance using the skinny arrows at home. The score was 12 points in favor of the less fatigued effort. Hey, 12 points is a lot at indoor distances, so maybe a little water is retained. The watered down excuse has been cataloged for future application.

The “little” target (pinned to the bag) is what I’ve been shooting for 70 meter practice. The 3-spot verticals where left-over targets I had in my garage and used for 20 meters. The big boy is the 70 meter sized target.

The bonus is that by breaking up the long distance practice I created a fun game for myself. Practicing archery alone two times a day, for 1 to 4 hours per session takes perseverance. Breaking up those sessions, while remaining focused on the next major event, can help keep the mind fresh.

Morning 3D Practice

Mornings are typically used for target practice. The afternoons are set aside for 3D practice. The reason is I am more tired in the afternoon and my 3D bow, an Elite 35, is lighter than my target bow, an Elite Victory 37.

My Elite 35 set up for bow hunter shooting class

Usually, in the morning I practice for a few hours and shoot 100 to 150 arrows depending on the distance. I try to be on the range by 8:00 AM, after morning exercise. I’ll stop shooting between 10:30 and 11:00 AM. By then, I am ready for a break and lunch.

After a break and lunch (and a short nap of 20 to 30 minutes), I try to do whatever chores need to be done, ride a bike, and prepare for afternoon archery practice. Two days a week I head to the gym rather than do chores. Sometimes it is good to change things up a bit.

Deer, down this lane bordered by trees at 27 yards

Today, I planned a 3D simulation of a tournament, ASA style. My goal was to not miss a 10-ring and get 12’s when I could. Shooting a bow hunter rig, I planned to make the distances as realistic to what I’ve been seeing in local tournaments. My relocation to Georgia and kept me away from the major 3D tournaments for 2018. (Moving is a lot of work)

A mosquito is a tough shot at 20 yards, I count the center X as a 12 on this target

Locally, I’ve faced a lot of long shots. On my range I have a lot of smaller targets. On those, I didn’t go crazy and try to shoot a rabbit at 40 yards for this practice session. I shot it at 20, a realistic distance should a smaller target happen to be placed on a range at a local event. The exception was a javelina that I shot from 36 yards, a distance that isn’t unexpected for this smaller target.

Javelina at 36 yards

Out of curiosity, I wore a Garmin and recorded the distance I walked, it was 1.02 miles. That included walking while I warmed up. Warm-up was shooting six arrows at a bag from 20, 25, 30, and 35 yards. At 40 yards I shot 12 arrows for a total warm-up of 36 shots.

This “off-brand” less expensive bear shot from 38 yards

It took I hour and 45 minutes to finish the practice, less time than usual for the morning routine. But, it helped me see where I am weak.

I didn’t shoot par. I shot a three 8s and one 12 to finish with a 196 (twenty targets). The average distance for all targets was 29.5 yards. The eights were no surprise.

Another bear, this one at 35 yards

The first was a hen. She’s a tough target at 27 yards. The dark hole where she sits makes finding the small rings difficult. The second was a small pig at 32 yards and the third was the javelina at 36 yards. Both the small pig and javelina are positioned at angles to the stake. The up and down was fine, but in each case I shot a little wider than I should have. From this practice I know these targets need extra attention.

There’s a mountain lion at the end of this 40 yard long lane

It’s good to simulate a tournament to get an idea where you might need some extra work. Shooting ego-easy distances and targets won’t be much help when you’re faced with tough shots on an unknown range.

All Practices Are Not Equal

Coaching tip

When I raced bicycles there was a group I trained with. Among that group of cyclists were Olympians, World Champions, and State Champions. There were hard rides and harder rides. Yes, each rider had his or her recovery time based on his or her race calendar. But, when the group gathered for a training ride it was going to be a tough one.

Thi s wasn’t training, it was a race. It, too, hurt.

Being around and training with such a group of elite cyclists you either got better or got dropped. There were days when it hurt so badly it took every bit of effort not to get dropped. There were other days when you felt no pain.

Archery doesn’t cause the same physical pain. Still there are practice sessions where it seems all you can see is red; no arrow finding it’s way to yellow. There is also some pain. Mentally you are exhausted by your arrows circling the ten ring creating an outline on the red. Your arm, after about 60 arrows is beginning to feel the weight of the bow. By arrow 100 that arm is screaming. That is until you become comfortable handling 120 arrows during a single practice session.

Over and over and over, again

Still, you have to shoot through the missed marks. You become comfortable holding a bow and aiming at 200 arrows. Those wayward arrows that landed in the red are becoming less stubborn and finding yellow.

Then, you find that group of archers that as a rule have better shooters than you. Practicing with them you find that you have to improve or you get dropped.

 

 

Your Mental Game

On the range I overheard a fellow taking about motivational lectures. Another was saying that he could shoot 30 tens in a row (small X) if he could get his head into the game. Both were practicing. Both were off the mark.

I have a number of friends that have competed in the Olympics. A few of the have multiple Gold medals and others have Silver and Bronze. One has a Gold and Silver medal. I’ve also trained with World Champion triathletes and cyclists.

In each of their respected sport disciplines they all had one thing in common – years of hard work. Sure there are outliers that make an Olympic Team or make it to the World Championships with less work that others, but as a rule it takes time to develop as an athlete.

On the other hand I know folks that have read all the books, listened to the audio presentations, attended the seminars and done all manner of mental preparation for a sports event and failed to achieve the glory held in their head.

Certainly, there is a mental aspect to being the best in any sport. At some level all the top athletes are extremely well suited physically to win. This is easily observable during individual sport events.

Getting back to the two guys in the range. I watched them shoot and heard their excuses. During my practice they came in, shot, missed, shot some more, missed some more and left. Neither shot more than 30 arrows. Both were convinced their mind wasn’t on the game. Maybe.

I look at it like this, “If you want to shoot all X’s, you have to shoot all X’s” and that doesn’t come from 30 arrows in practice 4 to 5 times a week.

On the range, that day, there was a 3-spot target that had been shot and left pinned to the backstop. It had been shot 30 times. All but 6 arrows had hit the X, the 6 that missed where nines just off the line. I asked a friend who had shot that target. He told me and I’ve heard that archer say he shoots about 200 arrows a day (compound bow). That is a lot of physical practice.

Shooting a couple of hundred arrows per day takes a good bit of time. Not everyone has two to four hours free to shoot his or her bow everyday. Not everyone will end up as an Olympian or competitor at a World Championship.

You may believe that because you’ve read or heard a speaker claim it is your brain that controls everything and that limited physical practice can compensated by seeing yourself the victor. If you are a Jedi Knight, maybe. But, even Jedi Knights practice their art for decades before being able to pull off a bit of magic.

There is no magic to becoming a skilled archer. It takes practice and a lot of practice. If you put in the hours to earn the skill you can become one of the elite performers in this sport. At that point your mental game may be what separates you from the next elite on the line.