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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.

10 Rules for Shooting at an Outdoor Archery Range

If you are new to using an outdoor archery range, please read this. Here is a link to ALL of the outdoor ranges available to you here in Northern California:

Northern California Ranges and Shops

I took the pictures at my “home” outdoor range, the Redwood Bowmen Club in Oakland, CA. If you would like an expert personal coaching session at this range, contact Stephen Williams:

steve@icarus.com
(510) 686-3392

1. Donate the requested range use fee

All outdoor ranges whether public or private have very limited income streams. They survive on member dues, income from “novelty” tournaments, and day use donations. All have some form of “honor system” donation receptacle like the one pictured below.

Please think ahead and make sure you bring at least $5.00 cash with you when you come to use the range.

2. Read and follow the rules

Rules keep people safe and establish etiquette that promotes an enjoyable experience for all. Regardless of how fun and easy social media and Hollywood make archery appear, bows and arrows are weapons that can hurt people. Read the rules. Follow them. If you don’t know what they mean, ASK SOMEONE. Please keep archery safe and enjoyable for all of us for a long time to come.

ALWAYS follow the directional markers on the course; NEVER walk backward. Depending on the range, you will probably need to walk about 1 to 2 miles up and down hills before a safe exit presents itself. Plan accordingly – plan on it taking about an hour to safely get through the course (as much as twice that if it is crowded). My advice: make your first pass at the course exploratory – maybe only shoot one arrow at each target. This way you’ll know better how to plan your trip the next time you return, and how courses are laid out in general. And to repeat: ALWAYS follow these markers and NEVER walk backward:

3. Prepare for what you are about to do

Most outdoor ranges provide the opportunity to hike in the woods and shoot a bow at targets in a variety of conditions. How cool is that?! But think about it before you go: Hiking. Outdoors. Temperature. Bugs (mosquitoes & tics!). Poison Oak. A short prep list before you go is: hiking boots or shoes; appropriate cold or hot weather clothing; sunscreen; water; snacks; bug repellent; how to identify and avoid poison oak.

4. Exercise a back packers garbage code – pack it in, pack it out

On the day that I roved the course and took these photos I was hoping I would not find anything to show you, but here they are:

Yep, two people apparently thought it was OK to leave plastic drink bottles laying about, even though there are trash receptacles within 10 feet of each of these bottles. C’MON MAN – seriously!? OK maybe it’s asking too much to ask you to pack your own garbage out, I get that, but please at least put it in the trash buckets that the volunteer members empty as part of their volunteer donated hours to maintain the range. Please show some respect. Oh, and by the way:

Please pack out your own damaged arrows. Clubs, ranges, and archery shops do not have a super secret recycling program for damaged arrows; they are just as much of a pain for us to dispose of as they are for you – so be responsible for your own arrows.

5. Found arrows are not subject to the “finders keepers” rule

There is an unspoken rule among the members of the archery community: when you find an arrow, take it to the club house or shack or whatever. All outdoor ranges have a “lost arrow” bucket that you can look through when you come to the range. We all know when you look for your own lost arrow, you’ll never find it, but you WILL find someone else’s. If the club house or shack is not open, if there are no club members about, lay the arrow on the alter, er, doorstep, and they’ll know what to do with it. Find out when members will be around if you want to retrieve your own lost arrow.

6. Appreciate and be grateful for the opportunity to use the range

As already mentioned, outdoor archery ranges are run and maintained by people just like you with full time jobs and families and obligations. They donate time to making the range available for public use. Maybe you donate your time elsewhere – cool. Maybe you don’t have time to donate to causes – that’s cool too. There are people at these ranges who take time-consuming positions of leadership, and people who simply do stuff that needs to be done. Every aspect of the range is attended to by a giving human being – every single detail. So please, think twice before you complain about the targets being shot up, the foliage not being trimmed to your liking, or the target butts being in bad condition. If it matters to you, join the club and make a difference. Otherwise, simply appreciate and be grateful for the opportunity to hike in the woods and shoot your bow at a place that other people donate their time to maintain.

7. Shoot only a distance that you can handle; avoid the temptation to do stupid stuff

With one local exception, outdoor ranges have a “static” practice range where everyone stands on the same shooting line but shoots targets at varying distances to that line. This makes it easy for you to learn how to hit targets at increasingly longer distances as you build your skills, which is something you should do. The outdoor range walking courses are set up like golf courses – you hike on trail and shoot at targets uphill, downhill, across ravines, between trees, etc. VERY FUN AND COOL. These courses are set up according to a structured international scoring system, click HERE if you want to know about that. To learn about it first hand, ask to be a “guest” at your local range’s “Club Shoot” on the 2nd Sunday of every month. If you are in the Oakland, CA area, contact Stephen Williams for a personal introduction (see intro paragraph above).

The courses are set up with “shooting stakes” (positions) at distances from 10 yards to 80 yards. Here is a picture of what you will typically see when you walk the course:

This is target no. 1 on the “Upper Course” of the Redwood Bowmen range. You’ll notice different colored markers (red, yellow, blue, white) they all mean something different – but you don’t care about these. Keep walking toward the target and you will always find a marker like these:

These are obviously 15 and 20 yard stakes. These are called “Cub Stakes”, meaning they are the stakes that young folks shoot from when they formally compete. It’s an unfortunate name – I like to call them beginner or recreational stakes. They will never be more than 30 yards from the target. Shoot these and only these if you want to avoid losing and breaking arrows, and if you want to build your confidence. Remember, an arrow sailing over the top of the target butt on an outdoor range will end up in the bushes or under the loose top layer of ground foliage, and, very likely in a poison oak bush that you might not recognize. Shoot only the distance at which you can get your arrow to hit a 4′ x 4′ square. Enjoy the hike and the joy of shooting your bow while doing so, but be smart about it – you don’t HAVE to shoot the longer stakes. It’s super duper tempting to “see if I can hit the 50 yard target” – so be it, just be prepared for the consequences.

Which leads us to “don’t do stupid stuff.” I’m grateful that Hollywood keeps stoking the archery fire by depicting archers in just about every single super hero film and many action films. I REALLY do. But, the stuff that those archers do in those movies is HOLLYWOOD, it’s NOT real life and it’s not anything you could ever do or would be allowed to do for example in MY range. And you shouldn’t try any of those stunts at an outdoor range simply because you’re alone out there and no one is watching. Here’s why. Trying to do stunt archery ALWAYS results in stray arrows. Stray arrows leave the safe haven area that has been established for you to shoot in. Most if not all ranges are on park land, and some are within an arrow’s flight of the general public. DO NOT JEOPARDIZE OUR ABILITY TO ENJOY THIS WONDERFUL PAST TIME BY DOING STUPID STUFF. Arrows stuck high in trees, in telephone poles, on hiking trails in close proximity is NOT FUNNY. IT’S NOT. If you want to do that stuff do so on private property – find someone with a ranch in a rural area and make friends with them and go do it there, but DON’T MESS AROUND ON PUBLIC ARCHERY RANGES.

8. Put something in front of the target butt if looking for stray arrows

It’s really hard not to try and hit those far away targets. It’s just too tempting. So knowing that you can’t stop yourself, come prepared to keep yourself safe when you end up searching for arrows behind or around the 4′ X 4′ target butt. Bring a brightly colored jacket with you. Drape it over the front of the target butt while you rummage in the poison oak, and most importantly, NEVER DO THIS IF YOU ARE OUT THERE ALONE. LET THAT ARROW GO. In addition to having a brightly colored jacket draped over the target, there should always be ANOTHER PERSON standing there watching and ready in a heart beat to yell “NOT CLEAR!” to anyone who might walk up TO the shooting stake for the target that you missed. If you go out on the course alone, let that arrow go. Hopefully the person who finds it 2 months later read this blog post and gets the “no finders keepers” rule.

9. Respect other archers desire for focus and meditation

Archery is meditative for many people. For others, outdoor ranges provide the opportunity to more seriously practice and prepare for upcoming tournaments. And of course it can be very social too. Many folks new to archery are excited and can’t wait to talk with others about it, ask questions and learn. However, be mindful about approaching people at outdoor ranges; those people may be there to do their zen thing or want to really focus on something. A good rule of thumb: if you see someone and they don’t make eye contact or immediately jump at the chance to start a conversation, leave them be.

10. Properly Supervise Children

Archery programs for kids are few and far between – it takes a special kind of person to teach kids, and the student/teacher ratio needs to be very high (like 1:1) to keep kids (and others!) safe while learning or participating in archery. If you go buy a bow from Big 5 and haul your kids to an outdoor range without you or them having first had a lesson, you are creating some bad circumstances. Archery is not something you should just turn kids loose to do. If you bring young ones to an outdoor range, follow the 1:1 student/teacher ratio rule – that means you should not expect to shoot while a young one is getting up to speed, ESPECIALLY if you bring more than one little person. As kids get older and develop the proper focus and maturity less supervision is required.

An Alternative Indoor Barebow Setup

We are deep into “Indoor Season” and all the compound archers have re-tuned their bows for fat shafts, or are shooting their 2nd “indoor bow.” Some Barebow archers do the same with a slightly different twist: they tune for fat, heavy shafts that will not only “cut lines” but also lowers their point of aim if gapping or reduces the crawl length if string walking.

So let’s review the Barebow strategy. Slow the arrow speed down for a better aiming reference, and improve the chances of catching a line with a fat shaft. Restated: overcome the force curve of a 30-50 pound bow by shooting a big heavy shaft and increase chances for cutting a line on shots with less than perfect execution. Great strategy!

Here’s an alternative though; one that I stumbled upon in my journey to control target panic.

For me, getting control over target panic meant starting with mastering indoor 20 yard archery. I narrowed my target panic down to three controllable issues. One, I flinch when I have to get too precise with aiming. Two, I freeze/lock when I have to make elevation adjustments. Three, too much (for me) draw weight leads to control issues that trigger target panic. I won’t get into all the target panic “cures” I have tried, but I can tell you that the breadth of it’s manifestations was far greater than these three issues, so I’m in a good place!

With three “variables” to control for in solving my problem I did these three things:

  1. I lowered the draw weight to something that would allow me to shoot COMFORTABLY and WITH CONTROL, but that had enough tension to promote a good release. If the draw weight/tension is too low for an archer’s particular strength, a good release is thwarted.
  2. I shot thousands of arrows at a blank bale and a target at 20 yards to establish what was a natural, comfortable posture; I established THE posture that my body naturally settles into, THE posture that would be compromised if I had to make an elevation adjustment.
  3. I meticulously and tediously shot dozens of different shaft types, spines, and lengths at 20 yards with both feathers and vanes and different lengths and point weights to figure out WHICH COMBINATION would hit the gold while in that natural comfortable posture. I of course had to fiddle with draw weight/tiller adjustments, center shot, and plunger tension on my ILF bow to get the windage right once the elevation variable was established. In the end, it LITERALLY came down to increasing the arrow speed on my chosen shaft by using low profile vanes instead of feathers – it got THAT precise.

Important side note: for me, establishing a 20 yard “point on” is NOT a good thing considering one of my target panic variables. Everything described in no. 3 above was done in service to “lolipopping” the arrow point below the spot: I aim “peripherally” on the line between the black and the blue ring – my brain can do this without triggering the flinch response.

So, let’s bracket the target panic aspect of this discussion for a moment and look at this as an alternative indoor Barebow strategy.

Existing/Common Strategy

  • Slow down the arrow speed of a 30-50 bow for a better gap/string crawl at 20 yards.
  • Shoot fat shafts for optimal line cutting benefits.

Alternative Strategy

  • Slow down the BOW speed (draw weight) for a better gap/string crawl at 20 yards.
  • Shoot standard diameter (v. skinny) carbon or aluminum shafts (e.g. shafts that fit a 9/32, 5/16, or 19/64 point) for sufficient line cutting benefits.

Many seasoned archers will tell you that a “fast, flat trajectory” enables top scores. I believe that is true for field archery where one needs to hit targets from 10 – 80 yards. It’s also true for unmarked 3D field shoots. I’m not so sure that it’s true for the fixed indoor distance of 20 yards.

An archer who can shoot comfortably and with control is an archer who is going to be happy with their results. This alternative strategy admittedly won’t work for outdoor field archery where one must physically adjust to countless variables. In fact I don’t suggest going down this path if your ultimate goal is outdoor Field Archery. But it could work for fixed distance long range shooting.

Overcoming Target Think

By Aaron Buchanan

For the past couple of years I’ve had the privilege of helping Nico teach some beginning archery classes, and I’ve watched many of those students pursue it ardently as a hobby.  In some of those archers, including myself, I’ve noticed some things.

All beginners start at 7 yards on the blue 40cm targets.  Those that come back, and I’m happy to say that many do, shoot the same blue targets at 10 yards.  Many become pretty good at 10 yards, with tight groups and good scores.  I’ve seen several of these archers post record scores and earn 1st place ribbons.  However, a small percentage of those skilled archers do terribly at 15 or 20 yards, and never seem to do as well at longer distance.  More than one person has given up archery completely because 20 yards was too far out of their comfort zone they had built for themselves at 10 yards.

I had issues myself when I first started shooting on the 40cm colored FITA target.  It felt like the colors were messing with my head, making it difficult to group, and I’ve had conversations with other archers who had similar problems during their transition to the color target.  My first practices for the Flint round were difficult because of the changes from black-on-white field target to the almost completely black hunter target.

I have seen archers who are very good at paper targets, but can’t seem to do well at all on a 3D target.  Many persevere and get better, while some stop shooting 3D.

I’ve seen indoor archers who don’t do well outdoors, either at the practice range or on field courses.  The longer distances, uneven terrain, uneven lighting, uneven footing, and the general exertion of field archery can be invigorating to some folks, and just too much for others to deal with. If I’m practicing intently for a specific match like the State Indoor, I notice that my ability to shoot any other kind of target diminishes significantly.

This unwillingness or inability to adapt to other types of targets is a kind of rigid mental mindset that I’ve been calling Target Think.

Overcoming Target Think is an individual journey for each archer, but I’ve suggested a few exercises to some students depending on their needs:

An indoor shooter that hasn’t moved beyond 10 yards can be encouraged to try 15 yards.  Nico’s Group Therapy is a great way to transition to 15 and 20 yards.  A 9 inch cardboard disk is pinned to a bale at the upper position 15 yards away.  The goal is group consistently in a smaller, and smaller group, without the added pressure of scoring.  Once an archer is able to group all five arrows on the disk several times, the disk is moved to the lower position.  After that is mastered, the exercise is repeated with a 6 inch disk.  After confidence is built at 15 yards, the same Group Therapy can be done at 20 yards.  Transitioning from Group Therapy to a scoring target at 20 yards is much easier than going directly from 10 yards to 20 yards.

Group Therapy is also useful for an indoor shooter who has fixated on scoring targets and is uncomfortable shooting anything else.  An archer who hasn’t tried the Ohlone 3D League, or is frustrated by their 3D scores, can benefit from some Group Therapy work.

An intensification of Group Therapy is using the gold replacement stickers (for FITA targets) on the cardboard disks.  This adds a “aim small, miss small” element to help tighten shooting form and group even tighter.

After the different distances are confidently achieved, varying the distance between arrows is something I like to do when the shop isn’t crowded.  I place the small cardboard disks at 10, 15, and 20 yards and ‘string walk’ between stations, placing an arrow on each disk.  The changing distances help keep my mental targeting computer from becoming rigidly set on a specific setting.

For outdoor shooting I use the Redwood Bowmen range as an excellent example.

The practice area has target bales at 10, 15, 20, 25, 30, and 35 yards in the regular area.  This is an outstanding place to overcome any uneasiness about shooting longer than 10 yards, learn the proper aim points for those distances, and gain confidence.  Longer distances of 40, 50, 60, 70, and 80 yards can be shot at the other practice range right next to it.

After gaining experience at longer ranges, archers should try the 14 target Open Course, and the 14 target Lower Course.  Distances can vary from 10 yards to 101 yards, with different distance stakes for different tastes and abilities.  Nico has a terrific write up about them in his post 10 Rules For Shooting At An Outdoor Archery Range.  Shooting these courses will give an archer experience in varying distances, terrain, and footing.  Shooting the Hill Course adds more challenges: shooting uphill, downhill, and between trees.

For added challenge, and to avoid Target Think, some of the targets on these courses have a “fan” or a “walkup” set of stakes.  A “fan” has three or four red stakes at the same distance from the target.  The goal is to shoot one arrow from each stake, yet still group your arrows on the target.  A “walkup” has several red stakes, each at a different distance from the target.  The goal is the same, shoot one arrow from each stake.

The Western Roundup, a 3D match put on by Redwood Bowmen every June, uses the same courses but with 3D foam animals in front of the target bales.  This is a great introduction to outdoor 3D shooting.

The Winter Hunt, a 3D match put on by Diablo Bowmen, is much more challenging.  The 3D targets can be obscured by trees, rocks, or bushes, and the shooting stakes are often placed in a way that causes the archer to kneel or stretch a bit to shoot around an obstacle.  This year the weather added even more challenge.

I’ve listed all of these matches and exercises as ways to overcome Target Think, but they can also be used increase an archers skill set, and even more importantly to add variety.  Shooting the same paper target at the same distance all the time can get a little boring.​

Understanding Dynamic Arrow Spine Characteristics

By Paul Fender

Having nothing better to do, one day, I wanted to look at the vibrations that are created in an arrow upon release. I knew that I couldn’t really test or view what happens to an arrow during its entire flight. I realized though that I could test a bench top “simulation.” Using a digital storage oscilloscope (DSO), and an RPM sensor out of an old automotive electronic ignition, I was able to precisely time how long different arrows vibrated when I plucked on them and set them to vibrating. I knew the sensor would be sensitive to the steel of the arrow’s point.

A side note here. I realize that my little test is not real life. But I believe that it is reasonable to figure that the arrow’s behavior on the test bench would at least mimic real life and give us a good clue as to what is going on.

The pic “The Test Rig” shows my whole set up.

“Sensor” is the sensor I salvaged out of an old Honda distributor.

“Oscilloscope” is my Snap-On DSO. (I tell you this thing is way cool.)

And “Fixed Point” just shows that I simply clamped down one end of the test arrows.

After an evening of sorting through my wood arrows I was able to find two arrows that had the same static spine and same weight (within 10 grains) one parallel, one tapered. Both had the same point weight. I made sure to clamp each arrow so that they both had equal free lengths and same distance from the sensor. Making sure to pull each arrow down the same distance each time, all I had to do was release it and I was able to “see” the vibrations on the DSO and time them. I did this 10 times for each arrow and took an average.

“Parallel” is a snapshot taken from the test run with the parallel shaft and is an example of what the DSO was showing me.

Well folks, sure enough, there is a difference! The parallel shafts vibrated an average of .75 second LONGER than the tapered shafts! That was encouraging, so just for the heck of it I tested a few more different arrows but without bothering to match weight and spine. Naturally there started to be some overlap on some of the arrow’s results. However even without controlling for spine or total weight, as long as the arrows were correctly positioned and had the same point weight, it got even better with the tapered shafts vibrating for 1.25 second less time on average.

Not wanting to go too far afield though, here are the average vibration times from the “controlled” shafts.

Tapered – 6.1 seconds

Parallel – 6.8 seconds

“Taped Harmonics” is a sample of what I was seeing when testing the tapered shafts. This is where it gets interesting, so I highlighted the waveform in red. Notice how the amplitude, the signal strength, gets weaker and then stronger in ever diminishing waves until the vibrations are damped out. I believe that this is an important clue as to WHY tapered shafts recover from paradox faster.

One time …..at band camp….I learned that things can vibrate at resonant frequencies. A so called “standing wave” is created. The pic “Standing Wave” is an illustration of a cylinder resonating at different standing wave resonant frequencies.


Standing waves tend to be self-reinforcing and can persist for very long periods of time even without putting more energy into whatever is vibrating. I have a hypothesis, (which I doubt I could ever prove) that the unique vibration of a tapered shaft is caused by what is called “destructive interference.” The pic “Destructive Interference” illustrates the idea.


The arrow attempts to fall into a resonant frequency, but as the vibrations travel up and down the shaft, when they hit the beginning of the taper some of the vibration energy is reflected back against the incoming wave. Not only does the effect get greater and greater due to the taper, but the taper also helps make the reflection more and more out of phase with the incoming vibrations. The reflections are chaotic and create destructive interference. The transition from regular cylinder to tapered cone helps to actively damp outstanding wave vibrations.

So although tapered shafts DO recover from paradox faster than parallel shafts, there is what I would call the “Speed Problem.” Although the addition of fletching must have an effect on paradox recovery, if an arrow is leaving a bow at say 180 fps, can an arrow recover inside of 10 yards? 20 yards? With my test method I was seeing vibrations persist from 4 to 6 seconds! That could translate into a rather large distance with the velocities we’re working with. I’ll have to see if I can figure out a way to look into that.

Now we do have lots of people reporting observations of better penetration with tapered shafts. I’m perfectly willing to accept those observations as being accurate. But I’m just not sure it’s because of superior paradox recovery. Rather, at this point I would ascribe that to the tapered shafts allowing a finer state of tune. The taper shape imposed on wood, which is inherently variable, helps each shaft more nearly behave like its mates. The initial flex created upon release occurs at more nearly identical spots on the different shafts. Its rather poor resolution but you if you look closely at the pic “Tapered Flex” you can see the flex in the arrow taking place near the beginning of the taper on that shaft.

So, if we have a bunch of wood arrows that all behave more nearly the same we’re also getting more consistent results during tuning. Better tune leads to a better, cleaner, launch, so paradox or not, the arrow is still travelling more nearly straight and impacts the target (animal) squarely.

It was later suggested that I look at carbon arrows. After all everybody knows that carbon recovers faster. Fine, but where’s the proof?

OK, these results will surely upset the apple cart. I went ahead and used what I could find. I also included an aluminum arrow. Using the same methods that I used with the wood arrows, I got the following average vibration duration times.

Carbon GT 600 Ultralight – 8.1 seconds
Easton Carbon One 780 – 9.8 seconds
Aluminum Easton 1816 Platinum Plus – 11.25 seconds

These are the only explanations I can come up with for these results.

1) Since the carbons do damp faster than aluminum, and aluminum was THE shaft of choice when carbon shafts first appeared, it became accepted that carbon was better across the board, although that is not strictly true.

2) I need to test high dollar A/C/E’s and A/C/C’s. They may have led to the belief that carbons damp faster. Being 2 dissimilar materials bonded together I would bet that they do damp out vibrations faster.

It does make sense to me in that the super regular microscopic arrangement of the carbon fibers would tend to support the creation of harmonics and standing waves rather than damp them out. This effect would be even greater in aluminum shafts with the regularity of metallic crystals down to atomic scales. Wood, with its inherent irregularities and variability would tend to damp out vibrations rather quickly, regardless of parallel or tapered.

Perhaps a cross woven carbon shaft would damp well?

Now, as a “quantifiable” measure I know that I can shoot higher scores with carbon arrows. I’m becoming more and more convinced that it is consistency that makes tapered more accurate. We know how critical tuning is. So consider this, tuning is like running a specific set of experiments, If the shafts we’re tuning all behave more nearly the same the margin of error is smaller. We are able to achieve a finer state of tune. The error bars in our data acquired during tuning are smaller. Plus, once tuned, there is benefit in that the tapered all more nearly launch the same as each other as well.