Target Panic Drills

Copyright 2019 Stephen Williams

I have dealt with target panic in myself, and several of my students, and through dealing with it have come up with a theory of how it works, and a set of drills that deal with it. This paper presents my approach to treating target panic, along with why I think it works.

To be clear, I am talking about target panic here, and not performance anxiety. Many people confuse the two. Everybody gets performance anxiety, where the stresses and anxieties of a competition situation cause you to lose focus and execute poorly. That is not target panic as I am defining it here.

Target panic is, in my opinion, poorly named. Many people experience it as a panic getting the arrow point to the spot (barebow aiming) but the panic is secondary. The real problem here is that an uncontrolled release happens as you get your aim near the spot, or you are unable to push the arrow point to the spot to aim because you are anticipating that uncontrolled release. The panic comes from the awareness that this is happening. So what I will address is how to regain control of the shot. Retrain this reflex, and control is restored. When control is back, then the shot becomes less terrifying.

By the way, I suspect that target panic (at least the form I am talking about here) is far more common in barebow archery. Recurve shooting, with the shot cycle wrapped around the clicker, seems relatively immune to this issue.[1] Therefore, the drills I describe will be pretty barebow specific.

Drills With a Coach

Let’s start with drills you can do with a coach. The problem we have is that you (the archer) release when your arrow point hits, or brushes past the spot, even if you are not really ready for it. We want to break that reflex. So that leads us to:

Step 1 – Hold then let down on command

Have the coach watch you. Draw, and get the point onto the spot (with the correct crawl) and hold. Do not shoot. You know ahead of time that you are not going to shoot. The coach will watch you, focusing on the arrow point. The coach should see the arrow move while you draw and aim, then settle. Keep holding. No creeping or collapsing. When you start to shake (the coach should see the arrow start to shake a bit) the coach should say “Let down.” You let down. Do this for the entire end. Keep doing this until your urge to release is gone. Do not move on until you are confident and comfortable with holding on the spot (or aim point for gap shooters) without any collapse or twitching.

This can be surprisingly hard. You will probably loose a couple arrows before you can actually take control and hold it. That’s the problem right there, so don’t go on until you can hold, with the point on the spot, then let down.

Step 2 – Hold then maybe shoot on command

Once the previous step is mastered, have the coach add in a couple shots per end. Draw and get to your aim point, then the coach will mostly say “Let down” as before, except sometimes he says “Shoot!!” If he says “Let down” you let down. If he says “Shoot” you loose the arrow. Maybe 1 in three draws is shot, the rest are let down. The coach should make an effort to judge when you are steady on your aim point. Hopefully, he can see that you are holding on the aim point for a couple seconds before giving the command. Some back and forth between you and your coach to make sure that he is seeing the correct moment may help.

The point here is that with this exercise you are able to hold on your aim point, then either let down or loose. You don’t know which, so your hit-the-aim-point-must-release reflex cannot work. You are controlling the shot. Do this for a couple ends. After a couple ends, try increasing the frequency of draws that lead to a shot. But make sure you master this before moving on.

Step 3 – Shoot Every Arrow, But You’re Not the Boss

This is like the previous step, but now the coach calls “Shoot!” for every arrow. You and the coach agree that every arrow will be shot, but the coach still calls it out. You don’t make the choice, the coach does; but you now know that you are going to release the arrow.

With this step, you should be able to hold on the spot until the coach calls the shot, and you should be able to make the solid release. You are still not deciding the timing, but you know the shot is coming, and you are making the release. Do this for a couple of ends, until you are confident that you can do it under full control.

Step 4 – You’re the Boss – aim-hold-shoot

Once you have mastered all the previous steps, then you will turn off the coach, and you are the boss. Draw, aim, and release are under your own control. Draw and get to anchor, ready to go, and get the arrow to the spot. Then hold it there for a couple seconds, then loose the arrow. It is fundamentally important that you do not release until you are holding steady on the spot. Two seconds of steady hold should be about right. Then shoot.

At this point, you are shooting under control. Do this for a few ends. You are at the end goal here. Unfortunately, the effect probably won’t last more then a couple ends. When you start losing control of your release, go back to the previous step for a few ends; then when the control is back, come back to this step.

Retraining That Reflex

The previous steps are a process for retraining your release reflex. When you get the arrow point to the spot, you do not want to reflexively release, but if you are target panicking, you are reflexively releasing. Unfortunately, a reflex is tough to get rid of. It has been my experience that steps 1-4 above can kill that reflex for maybe 15 minutes; when the reflex comes back (and it will) go back to previous steps, master them, and work your way back to aim-hold-shoot. Over time (measured in weeks, not minutes) the reflex will gradually fade. Be aware that it will never completely go away, so you must be diligent.

Aim-Hold-Shoot To Prevent Target Panic

This reflex that we are trying to kill comes from (barebow) archers not giving sufficient attention to the hold after aiming. If you aim then shoot, then you are training the reflex to shoot when you hit your aim point. You are practically training in the target panic. So it is important to not do that; you must decouple the aim from the shot.

Barebow archers must consciously hold after aim and before release. If there is always a conscious hold between the aim and the release, then you don’t feed the release reflex, and thus you don’t feed the target panic. If you are teaching barebow shooting, then impress on your students the importance of  releasing only after they are holding steady on the spot (or aim point.) If you are learning barebow shooting, do not release until you are steady on the spot. If you are recovering from target panic, really work on decoupling the aim from the release. Try counting out a hold (a count of 2, for example) in your head as part of your shot cycle. Be diligent about this.


[1]Recurve shooters have a thing called clicker panic, which seems to be pretty similar to the target panic that barebow archers get. Again, this is different from performance anxiety.

Traditional Field Archery Round Guidelines

By Nico Gallegos

The standard Field Archery course layout with 50% of the shooting positions at 40 yards and beyond is unrealistic for the rapidly growing segment of archers who:

  • Have newly chosen to shoot traditional or technical barebow archery without a sight; they have no idea yet how to “gap shoot” or are new to string walking, etc.
  • Are shooting a bow with 25 LBS or less of draw weight
  • Have a short draw length; they may be shooting a bow with 25-30 LBS of draw weight, but for each inch of draw length less than 28″, the bow loses 2 LBS of draw weight
  • Have only recently developed the skill to shoot at 20 yards
  • Are traditional or primitive archery enthusiasts shooting heavy wood arrows off the shelf

I decided to create guidelines for a Traditional Field Archery Round that makes more sense for the short distance practitioner and establishes a standardized round for friendly competition and skill progress tracking.

Sure, you can just go out and wing it, but if you want to score it with a reasonable semblance of how it all works normally, this is good training. If you are an experienced Field Archer, this can be a walking course workout where you focus on form (that’s how I use it!).

General Guidelines

The basic idea is to match distance to target size:

  • 65 CM targets are shot from 30 yards
  • 50 CM targets are shot from 25 yards
  • 35 CM targets are shot from 20 yards (often as marked)
  • 20 CM targets are shot as marked

In order to do this, one needs to start from the farthest stake for a given target and walk forward if necessary until the target size can be identified and see if there is a stake (of any color) at the required distance for that target. If not, one needs to walk a number of “paces” in front of or behind that stake to get to the required distance. For example, you get to a 65 CM target and the nearest stake to it is 20 yards, but there is also one at 40 yards – simply stand as close to the middle of those two stakes as you can estimate. It would be a good idea to practice how many “paces” you need to walk for marking off 5 yards and 10 yards, etc.

Target size identification is only potentially difficult for the 50 CM and 65 CM targets; the 35 CM target is almost always one of four targets on a bale, and the 20 CM “birdie” targets are always in four vertical columns of four targets.

Specific Guidelines

To make sense of the downloadable conversion charts, remember that the Hunter Targets are the black targets with white spots meant to be shot from the red stakes. The Field targets are the white targets with a black 3 ring and a black spot meant to be shot from the white and/or blue stakes.

Target scoring is as follows – four arrows per target, 14 Hunter targets and 14 Field targets for a total possible 560 points.

Downloadable Conversion Chart with guidelines

Traditional Field Round Guidelines.full

Downloadable abbreviated Conversion Chart (for those who already know a Field Course layout)

Traditional Field Round Guidelines.abbrev

My hope is that this will catch on more broadly – I would ultimately like to maintain an ongoing digital leader board where people nation wide can submit or upload scores themselves.

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.

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.

A Perspective on Instinctive Aiming

By Paul Fender

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 most notably by G. Fred Asbell.

It is briefly described in a document attached to my 2015 post, “Aiming Without a Sight”:

https://ohlonearchery.com/new/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Aiming.pdf

World Champion Paul Fender goes into greater depth about it in this new post:

A Perspective on Instinctive Aiming by Paul Fender

Over the years I have accumulated personally witnessed evidence that what is commonly called “instinctive shooting” just doesn’t work worth a darn. However, at the CA State Broadhead Tournament I got to witness evidence that it does work. I, a confirmed gap shooter (reference to this also in my above mentioned post), took third to two confirmed instinctive shooters. Oh, the horror!

I have always had a hard time with the idea of instinctive shooting. We’re told “It’s just like throwing a baseball.” A moments reflection though and we realize that that can’t possibly deliver the accuracy necessary for either hunting or target shooting. Sometimes it’s called “proprioception”, the unconscious perception of the relative position of our various body parts. Think about that for a minute. I don’t know it for a fact but I find it doubtful that this sense of proprioception is so precise that it can drive the difference in elevation of the bow arm to accommodate for a 25 yard shot versus a 15 yard shot. But I have seen instinctive shooters do just that. Then of course there is the argument that there is no such thing as instinctive shooting as humans are not born with any instinct for shooting a bow and arrow. It is a learned behavior.

I have run across apocryphal (accounts of uncertain validity) stories of informal studies of instinctive shooting. In these studies, the performance of shooters who consciously aim is compared to instinctive shooters. The most common format is to have the shooters shoot at a “target” like a laser dot projected onto a wall in a totally dark room. In some of these “studies” the instinctive shooters perform best, in others the aimers do best, and in yet others there is no measurable difference in performance. So even if we do accept these stories as being valid, it’s still a wash. However, let’s just keep these stories in the back of our mind for a bit, OK?

Some time ago I read in the 5/2010 issue of Scientific American an article titled “Uncanny Sight in the Blind” by Beatrice de Gelder. She is a professor and the director of the Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience Laboratory at Tilburg University, Netherlands. Turns out that people who have gone blind due to injury to the visual cortex in the brain, yet whose eyes remain basically healthy have a “sense” termed “blind sight”.

People who have demonstrated blind sight are able to distinguish colors, shapes, and even emotions portrayed on other people’s faces, even though they are not conscious of having seen anything! One particularly striking case is that of a blind man who was able to successfully navigate an obstacle strewn hallway. Here is a link to a video of him accomplishing this:

What I found to be important and what has lead me down this long and tortuous path is that upon questioning, the blind man was not consciously aware of having perceived anything or having made any maneuvers to avoid the obstacles!

So, by accepting the stories about the instinctive shooting studies and their equivocal results, (yes I’m going out on a limb here) and combining them with the concept of blind sight I have arrived at a theory of instinctive shooting. For one thing, yes it can work. In order for it to work though, the arrow, or the bow’s shelf, or sight window, or other reference MUST be visible to the eye. These references are actually processed. They are used to drive what the shooter does with his body, much like the blind man in the hallway. However, the instinctive shooter has managed to train himself into a sort of blind sight condition in which this processing is no longer happening consciously. This processing is occurring in the more “primitive” areas of the brain. An oversimplified view of brain functions, but think of it as if this processing is occurring in the “reptile brain” we all have. Perhaps the term “instinctive” isn’t quite such a misnomer after all?