3 Mental Management Tips for Archery Performance

By Nico Gallegos

I got through a shooting slump over the past year by working on my mental game more than anything else. I thought it would be fun to summarize what I learned with a little pop culture wisdom from my favorite movie characters. Sure, I always work on my form and shot process, but in the end, managing these thoughts was what helped me improve.

1. There is no Spoon

A quote from The Matrix, spoken by Neo in reference to a bit of wisdom he learned from a child bending spoons with his mind. It signifies that we cannot truly manipulate reality, we can only manipulate ourselves. Only when we change ourselves can we change reality.

What “spoon” do you need to see past? For me it was a few things that made me tense; tension is bad for archers, it causes us to shoot badly and often spirals out of control.

  • I had a bad flinching problem.
  • I was self conscious.
  • I was (am still) easily distracted when shooting.

Flinching is often associated with a phenomenon called target panic which I now believe does not exist (I’ll write more about that in another post). For those of us who flinch, no target panic remedies help – it is an uncontrollable physical thing that happens, and, to my knowledge (I’ve looked pretty hard) there is no research sufficiently explaining it. Our reaction to the flinching is the problem (see no. 2 below). When I flinch now (which isn’t often), I treat it like swatting an annoying fly, let it pass, disregard it, and finish my shot. I DO NOT let down and start over which is the recommended solution; in my mind (which is the whole point of this post) I refuse to give the flinch the power to make me start my shot over. It is actually part of my shot cycle when it happens – THERE IS NO FLINCH.

Being self conscious about what others think of you when you shoot is the epitome of performance anxiety. Performance anxiety IS very well researched – non-commercial solutions and strategies abound – Google it. I suggest you refine the search by specifying “sports” performance anxiety – if you don’t, you’ll get LOTS of results for sexual performance anxiety, and well . . .  Anyhoo, what I came to realize is: no one else really cares about what I’m doing when I shoot, they are too busy worried about their own shooting! If they ARE paying attention to me, so what?! THERE IS NO PEANUT GALLERY.

I see this all the time in my shop. New archers get really good shooting at 10 yards. They are hesitant to venture beyond that, not wanting others to see them try, and in their minds fail. They also over-fixate on the extra distance when going from 10 to 15 or 20 yards – their bodies tense up and the form they’ve worked so hard to master vanishes when they tell themselves things like, “that extra distance is SOOOO different or SOOOO much harder.” THERE IS NO EXTRA DISTANCE.

This next one is half real and half mental: going from a standard indoor field target (dark blue face, white spot) to a FITA target (multi colored target with yellow spot). There is a reason you can buy color adjusting glasses for FITA target shooting – those glasses dull the color contrast and help many archers. There is a reason you can set your phone to grey scale before going to bed at night – research has shown that staring at a blue screen with vibrant colors before going to bed triggers something in the brain and makes it hard to fall asleep. In short, those colors mess with your eyes and brain. That said, you CAN train yourself to keep those colors from making you tense. THERE IS NO COLOR.

My very good friend and mentor Paul Fender and I have gone to a LOT of shoots together. When Paul & I shoot together, it takes a lot to shut us up. One of our favorite moments happened at the Maya Archers Stickbow Classic one year. We were crossing the bridge over a very full and flowing creek to get to the next target, talking up a storm and laughing, when we both stopped dead in our tracks because we saw these HUGE salmon swimming in the stream – it was stunning!  From that moment on for the rest of the shoot, every time we got distracted (we both seem to have that problem), one of us would say “Salmon!” like that cartoon dog that gets distracted and yells “Squirrel!” when it sees one. My point is, for whatever reason, I am very easily distracted when I shoot. A stray thought pops in my head during my shot cycle and everything goes to hell. I suffer from what some Eastern philosophies call monkey mind. When shooting in my shop, I notice a dirty spot on the floor, wonder if I should spin the fletching jig on those arrows I’m building, you name it. I have to work really hard to stay in my shot, not get distracted! THERE IS NO SALMON.

2. Despair is a Useless Emotion

In Terminator 3, Rise of the Machines, poor John Conner is the future but reluctant savior of a world heading towards apocalypse. When he encounters real mortal danger for the first time he freaks out. His guardian protector, the good terminator, grabs him by the throat, lifts him off the ground, and flatly admonishes: “Despair is a useless emotion.”

As previously mentioned, tension is bad for archers. Getting bummed out or freaked out about shooting badly when you shoot makes matters worse.

The most important skill to develop is to be able to identify why you miss when you do. A high right miss means you did X. A low left miss means you didn’t do Y. When you know which form or shot sequence failures cause specific misses, you can correct them and shoot better. Sometimes you can do this in the moment, sometimes you have to note it and commit to fixing it during future practice.

My personal struggle with this was to “shoot angry.” I had convinced myself that I could just muscle through it, that next shot or the next end would be better if I just “tried harder.” This was a vague, unfocused, tense mental state. It was an unproductive mental loop. I was tricking myself into believing I was in control and could fix this with vague notions of “will power” and “positive self talk” – these mental strategies can be helpful, but usually aren’t without the proper foundation.

3. A Man’s Got to Know His Limitations

I’m a male Baby Boomer and Clint Eastwood is my childhood hero. I mean no disrespect to anyone when I use the word “man” – this is the line from the character in the movie Dirty Harry.

I discovered two major limitations in my effort to improve:

  1. Draw weight.
  2. Shooting frequency.

Draw Weight

If you’re going to shoot with control, you need to shoot a draw weight you can handle. If you are fighting the bow, if you tremble when you draw it back, if you hurt in the wrong places – you are “over-bowed.” Swallow your pride, reduce the draw weight and start shooting with control.

I went from shooting 45 LBS of draw weight to 30 LBS in less than 5 years. Part of that is me aging and losing strength. The other part: I’m not sure I was ever shooting 45 LBS with control. I think I talked myself into believing I should and could shoot 45 LBS. I’m not sure I ever had the muscle mass or proper training to shoot that much draw weight with control. Things got better for me with each reduction in draw weight. CAUTION – too little draw weight does not enable a clean release. Each person has their own perfect draw weight that will allow control AND a clean release; take the time to find yours.

Shooting Frequency

Archery is a plateau endeavor. You will get better and hit plateaus of performance. The ONLY way to get past a plateau is to shoot a LOT. You need to practice properly, not just empty your quiver and fling lots of arrows. A trite but true archery dogma is: Perfect practice makes perfect. THIS is where most of us need a coach – a coach can help you make a plan and practice the right stuff.

My coach’s time & effort would have gone to waste if I had not gone from 4 hours a month of unfocused practice to 3-5 hours a week of focused, structured practice.

The bottom line: you have the time you have. Set realistic expectations for yourself based on the quality practice time you are going to put into this. That quality practice time is best guided by a good coach, at least initially. If you are unable or unwilling to work with a coach, and you are unable or unwilling to “perfect practice”, your plateaus will simply last longer.

And, this is not part of MY story, but it is a third limitation:

Equipment Choice

I don’t want to assume everyone knows this: you must have a matched set of arrows properly matched to you and your bow. Your arrow rest and nock locators must be properly installed. The nock fit of your arrows on your string must be right. Your arrow rest must be the right one for your bow and in good condition.

For traditional archery, the fork in the road is metal ILF bow or wood bow. Very few people can shoot a basic wood bow competitively. Metal ILF bows have more mass weight for stability and can be as technically complex as a compound bow.

In short, your ability to shoot accurately at variable distances will be hindered or helped by your equipment choice; lower your expectations if you choose to shoot a wood bow.

If you choose to shoot an ILF bow you should prepare yourself to get up to speed on how to adjust all that stuff. You NEED to know what each little tweak does to your shot. A coach or pro shop can realistically only get you half the way there – they can’t see or feel what you see and feel when you shoot. The other half of well adjusted ILF stuff is YOU knowing what that stuff is and isn’t doing. If you are not mechanically inclined and are unwilling to learn how to adjust rests and plungers and tiller and brace height, etc. you probably should not shoot an ILF bow and expect it to help you shoot better – improperly tuned technical equipment can become a limitation.

3 thoughts on “3 Mental Management Tips for Archery Performance”

  1. Excellent post!!!!!

    My favorite is of course “There are no salmon!”

    Which oddly enough leads me to this idea. If you compete, compete hard. Mean it. You gotta be in it to win it. Compete seriously. However ….NEVER take your self seriously!

    For example, Nico and I joke about the salmon. But what does that do? It reminds us. There are no salmon.

    If you aren’t having fun, you’re doing it wrong!

  2. Thank you for this post! Its always helpful for the newbs like me to hear that even experienced archers go through tough spells, and that with self reflection, some science and determination there is always room to grow!

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