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On Being Brave – A Method for Overcoming Tournament Nerves

By Paul Fender

Working on your mental game is important if you compete, and should be incorporated into your training program. My good friend Paul Fender & I have shot many tournaments together at the local “Novelty” level and more competitive State and National levels. I’ve always been amazed by his nerves of steel, so was quite amused to hear the story behind the skill. Paul graciously offered to write the story up for the blog – I hope his method is helpful to you – it recently helped him become a World Champion!

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Nico and I have frequently talked about Target Panic (TP). We’ve also talked about something that can become related to TP. Let’s call it Tournament Nerves (TN?) or a case of the jitters. Many new shooters will stay basically recreational. Others will go on to hunting and competing.

I myself don’t seem to have TP. Sure, once in a while I’ll have a shot that I should have let down, but I’ll flinch, or pluck, or even get stuck with a sight picture that I just can’t get on target, but no big deal. There is one thing though that I can talk about from my own experiences and that is having a case of the jitters at the start of a tournament.

I have competed at many levels, from local events to the International level.  Sometimes, for whatever reasons I may have, a particular event will be exceptionally important to me. I’ll find myself all jumpy, and itchy and irritated. My head will be full of crazy thoughts. “What if I screw up? I sure hope I don’t drop too many points! What am I even doing here? This sucks!” Maybe it only works for me, but I actually have a “method” for dealing with the negative feelings and the negative self talk. What’s interesting is that how I handle it actually grew out of a specific event in my life many years ago, and it wasn’t even archery related.

One evening I came home from work very tired. Ate dinner, went to bed early. Next thing I know, I’m shaken awake by my wife Annette and daughter Ashley. In hoarse stage whispers they were telling me, “Paul! Paul! Get up! There’s somebody in the side yard!” Naturally my first reaction was “Huh? Er…ah. What?” Once it penetrated what was going on I jumped out of bed, and yelled at everybody to call the cops, turn on all the lights, and make as much noise as possible doing it. At that point, not knowing what else to do, I grabbed a decorative Katana sword that I have hanging on the wall, and went charging outside, yelling the whole way. Rounded the corner of the house just in time to see where a bunch of bushes in the hedge were shaking and heard somebody running down the street.

Now, I don’t know if you noticed, but there is a step missing from that whole sequence of events. Yep. You got it! Picture this, crazed, over weight white guy running around the yard waving a Samurai sword and yelling. As Annette later pointed out, I was really kind of lucky. Good thing it took a while for the police to show up. They might have arrested me!

By now of course you’re wondering what on Earth could this possibly have to do with Archery, or having a bad case of Tournament Nerves? Just bear with me, I’m getting there.

During that whole little episode, I was honestly truly terrified. If I had had my way about the whole thing, I would have locked myself in the closet with my wife and daughter. Although what I did was rash, foolhardy, yes, even stupid, I none the less did what I needed to do, despite being scared out of my pants. Literally. It redefined what the word “bravery” meant to me. Being brave does not mean being without fear. It means being afraid, but still doing what needs to be done anyway.

The first time I had a bad case of Tournament Nerves, I realized that I was afraid of looking foolish. I was afraid of failing. I realized that it came down to the fact that in reality I had only 2 choices. Step up, put my reputation on the line, and shoot, or go home. So, knowing that it would be a cold day in Hades before I just packed up and went home, I stepped up. I thought of what my understanding of bravery means. I just had my fears, didn’t try to ignore them, or stuff them deep down, or pretend that I didn’t have them. I just had them. I went on to do what needed to be done anyway. Funny things happened. Following my shot sequence, thinking about what I was really doing there, shooting a bow, nothing more, nothing less than that, and a few targets in, my fears had given up on torturing me, and had left me. It was so weird in that I actually didn’t even consciously notice the transition.

So what is there to say about Tournament Nerves?  Have the fear. Don’t try to “handle” it. Be brave. Cut through the confusing babble and realize that you, just like every other one of us has only two choices. Once reduced to its bare essentials, it becomes easy. Shoot or go home. And once you get to that point, I’m willing to bet that you too will choose to step up and shoot.

An Exploration of Target Panic – Part 1

Target Panic is a phenomenon experienced by many archers. There are three common ways people describe it:

  1. Involuntary flinching, clutching, twitching, or jerking.
  2. “Locking up” or “hitting a wall” as the archer tries to anchor or aim.
  3. Releasing the arrow prematurely, before coming to full anchor.

I have some published research to my credit and originally intended to conduct a full blown scientific research study. Instead I decided to explore this topic more informally. However to be somewhat thorough I am including a few references and have commented on them to enhance the conversation.

Because I was going to conduct a research study, I started collecting accounts of Target Panic from people experiencing it. This written description provides a rich glimpse of what it is like: Target Panic Description. There is a LOT in this description worth noting. I wanted you to hear something personal and first-hand before reading published articles that include editorial comments and suggestions.

This NY Times article is a comprehensive editorial piece: The Secret Curse of Expert Archers. What I find most interesting is the author’s claim that Target Panic could be psychological or neurological in nature. On the psychological front, the author notes that the anxiety people experience in response to Target Panic makes it worse. My favorite comment in this article is an appropriately cautionary one: a “cottage industry” of coaches, books, and accessories for cure have arisen in response to the phenomenon.

Here is a very entertaining article written by Ted Nugent: Conquering Target Panic. Ted talks to us like he’s our friend and he wants us to have hope. What strikes me the most about this article is that Ted suspects Target Panic as a major cause of people giving up on archery – so sad! The other major point to take away from Ted’s article is that like the coaches cited in the other articles, he normalizes Target Panic as a very common thing.

This is the best article of the bunch: Beating the Curse. It combines the down to earth writing style of the Nugent article with some very insightful technical information. For me though it is a little too emphatic in its emphasis on what the author calls “the real problem” (afraid to hit the middle and anticipation of the shot). The author spells out a very useful plan for battling Target Panic, albeit based on solving what he identifies as “the real problem.” If you are a Traditional Archer you’ll have to ignore the verbiage about “the trigger” and the (sight) “pin” in order to make use of his very sound advice. My favorite part of this article is Step 3 – Enforce The New Habit!

Summary

When you look at these four reference pieces some themes emerge:

  • An initial period of good performance.
  • A sudden and unexpected onset of Target Panic.
  • A lack of control; an inability to stop doing something undesired or do something desired.
  • Negative thoughts in response to the Target Panic.

I’ve struggled with Target Panic personally. Based on my experience I believe it can also be a stimulus-response problem. I became very good at shooting Compound Freestyle with a scope – I’ll never forget the day I shot a perfect 20 on the 70 yard walk up target – I won the Regional Championship that year! Shortly after that, I developed a flinching problem whenever I tried to center the spot in my scope. I found some effective strategies to manage the problem, but I had to constantly work at it and archery became a chore, lost a lot of its fun. Then I discovered that I did not have the problem if I shot a Traditional bow “instinctively” without a sight (see my Aiming Without a Sight post). Shooting this style brought the fun and passion back to archery for me, and allowed me to be competitive again, so I sold my compound bows and gear and made the switch. BUT, whenever I try to develop a more precise aiming method like “gapping” (again see the Aiming Without a Sight post) it comes back. Hence the stimulus-response theory. Like the person in the Target Panic Description, I also found that lowering my draw weight helped.

I also have a hunch that some personality types are more prone to this than others, but I’ll save that for another discussion.

If you have or in the future develop Target Panic I hope this post gives you enough information to find your way through it. As a coach, my fundamental advice to anyone trying to overcome a performance problem is:

  • Face the Problem; it’s a puzzle to be solved, don’t allow negative thoughts get the best of you. Don’t hide it or pretend it’s not there or that it will magically go away. Call it something different – like mentioned in the NY Times article you don’t have to use the negative, loaded term Target Panic – you can be more descriptive: “I’m doing such and such to help me come to full anchor; I’m doing so and so to keep from releasing too soon,” etc.
  • Play with Options; very rarely does one size fit all – experiment with solutions until you find one or more that work for you. There are a wide range of suggestions within these articles!
  • Be in Process; things like this are rarely “cured” right away, sometimes not at all – adopt a process mindset and come up a with strategy you can “plug and play” whenever the problem rears it’s head – chances are it will re-emerge from time to time.

Traditional Archery Tuning

If you decide you want to take your Traditional Archery to the next level (beyond recreational enjoyment) you will most likely want to focus more on your equipment. The attached Traditional Archery Tuning document provides a comprehensive overview of the relationship between the bow, the arrows, and the string. These are very important fundamentals, THEY MATTER in a very technical way. As the author explains, our goal is to create the most forgiving setup we can accomplish without sacrificing efficiency.

If your Traditional Archery setup will include the use of a plunger, you need to familiarize your self with Tuning For Tens.

If you buy a set of custom built arrows from Ohlone Archery I will bare shaft test your setup to ensure you get the best possible arrows for your bow, whether you are recreational or more serious. You can also schedule a private session to work through a more comprehensive tuning of your equipment.

Aiming Without a Sight

My good friend Vic found this on a discussion forum post a while back. This is a great guide to Aiming Without a Sight.

For those new to archery the term “Instinctive” describes both a general way of not precisely or consciously aiming and a specific style of archery developed and written about by G. Fred Asbell. The attached file is about the general way.

Virtually all of the best archers I know use some form of precise “gapping”  as described in the attachment. To date this is the only detailed reference I’ve come across on the topic. The Masters of the Barebow video series covers some of this too.