Practice Like a Pro

By Nico Gallegos, Owner & Chief Fletching Officer, Ohlone Archery

There is a very small percentage of people in any endeavor who are naturally gifted and able to excel at that endeavor without much practice. For the rest of us, how good we want to be will depend on how much we practice and how we perform that practice.

Archery looks easy but anyone who takes it up seriously enough to try and improve learns quickly that it is not. There is a learning curve and practitioners experience plateaus of competence.

Practicing once per week is barely enough to develop subconscious familiarity of basic motor skills. Once per week means you will not practice for 3 or 4 weeks when you go on vacation, get sick, get bogged down at work, or go through a period of intense competing obligations. If you shoot any less than once per week you should consider yourself a recreational archer should expect improvement to come very slowly if at all.

In mid-April of 2017 I posted a video on Facebook that someone shared with me titled “How to Practice Effectively.”

This is a very straightforward and informative video, so I am summarizing the key points here and embellishing on them a bit for archery.

One of the technical points made at the outset is that “muscles don’t have memory.” I can’t confirm or dispute that statement but, here is a link to a Wikipedia post defining muscle memory – you should read it and decide for yourself. The video authors instead explain that there is a brain/muscle connection resulting in the myelination of axons. It is very compelling. I’m not qualified to verify this either, but it establishes the basis for what follows.

Effective practice is:

  1. Consistent
  2. Intensely focused
  3. Targets content or weaknesses that lie at the edge of one’s current abilities

When you cross that threshold to practicing twice or more per week you are making a commitment to improve and excel. You open space for more thoughtful and deliberate practice – you have a plan. Archery can still be fun and recreational for you, but there is a serious side too. Your practice has become consistent and intensely focused.

In  order to target content or weaknesses that lie at the edge of your current abilities, you need to know what your weaknesses are. When you make a bad shot you need to know why. You’ll notice I did not say, “when you do poorly at a tournament.” Unless a qualified professional has identified a problem with your “mental game,” doing poorly at a tournament is simply the result of a whole bunch of bad shots. You need to be able to know when you’ve made a bad shot and how not to repeat that bad shot in a tournament. Self assessment is one of the most important skills to develop. The bridge to self assessment is coaching. Get enough coaching from a qualified person to help you identify your weaknesses and then learn how to notice what kinds of bad shots those weaknesses create and what to do to correct them.

In fact I want to clarify something. You’ll see here references to shooting at a blank bale. I’m not saying shooting at a target face is bad. What I AM saying is that if the majority of your practice time is done shooting at a target face, it is imperative to know why you shot a bad shot when you miss. If you miss and don’t know why, you can’t make any progress. Shoot at a target face to practice your aiming skills and to familiarize yourself with a specific face that you will shoot at an upcoming tournament. In fact, you may be at a level when shooting at a target face is the ONLY thing that gives you the shot feedback you need – people at this level know why they shot a bad shot and more often than not don’t shoot a bad one on the next arrow.

To practice effectively one should:

  1. Focus on a specific task
  2. Minimize distractions
  3. Start out slowly or in slow motion; gradually increase the speed of quality repetitions
  4. Perform frequent repetitions with allotted time breaks
  5. Divide time into multiple daily practice sessions of limited duration
  6. Practice in your mind in vivid detail

The why and reasoning behind these suggestions are given in the video – watch it if you want that background. Here are my archery-specific embellishments.

Focus on a specific task

You or your coach have identified one or more things you need to work on. Maybe your follow through is bad; maybe you pluck; maybe you don’t have a consistent anchor. FOCUS ON ONE THING AT A TIME. Focus on form components shooting at a blank bale from close range – 15 – 30 feet. Most of us have that in our garage. Buy a bag or block target, set it up on a table high enough to allow you to shoot straight ahead without making much elevation adjustment, and fire away without any concern for aiming beyond making sure you hit the bag/block. Set a goal; for example commit to shooting “100 arrows with perfect follow through.” That’s ALL you focus on is the follow through.

For those of us with Target Panic, our goal might be to train ourselves to aim at a spot without flinching or freezing. AIMING WITH CONTROL might be your specific task. So be it – do that. This might mean leaving the garage and practicing your ability to shoot good shots at the distance that starts to mess with you. Be one with the target panic. React to it like you would a sore muscle or a cold: “Well that’s annoying, but I’m gonna push through it.”

A top archer and coach inspired me to track my shot counts with a mechanical “tally counter.” I like this one available from most sporting goods stores:

The one pictured here allows me to tally what I consider “good shots” on one side (home!), and “bad shots” on the other (road!), allowing me to track percentages, etc. When you set a practice session process goal of “50 shots with a good release”, that doesn’t mean each shot will be with a good release – it might take 75 shots to get the 50 you want!

It’s especially helpful for me as sometimes I try to work on my weekly shot count (min. 500 arrows) during slow periods at the shop. Sometimes I’ll start shooting and it suddenly gets busy – Yay! – not to worry – I’ve logged my shots on the tally counter and get back to it when I can. This is in alignment with no. 5 above – dividing time into multiple daily practice sessions. Picture yourself doing this at home in your garage: you shoot 20 arrows, then start laundry; shoot 30 more arrows, then make a few phone calls; shoot 15 arrows then get interrupted by something. This “broken up” practice is actually good for you according to the video. And here’s a helpful perspective. When you shoot tournaments you NEED to learn how to “shoot cold.” At tournaments you NEVER sit there and shoot arrow after arrow. You shoot a 3-arrow end, wait for other archers to shoot if shooting multiple lines, walk to the target, record your score and retrieve arrows, walk back to the shooting line, wait for everyone slower than you for whatever reason to do the same. If you are at a Field Archery tournament, you might have 10-20 minutes between ends. I’ve waited as long as an hour to shoot a target at a big tournament!

Minimize distractions

This might be hard for a lot of us. The fact that most places you can shoot a bow are public, it’s kind of hard to minimize distractions. If you can set up a short range bale in your garage, or even your home, do it – just make sure the people you live with are cool with it, that you establish safety protocols, and that you know how to protect against property damage. It is illegal to shoot your bow in your back yard in most if not all urban areas. However, if your neighbors are cool with it and won’t call the police when they see you do it, you’re fine. If your only option is to shoot at a public range (indoor or out) you could wear head phones. Or, get into a day/time routine at the range where you practice, get to know people, and for lack of a better term, “set boundaries” – “When I’m here on Tuesdays I’m really focusing, so probably won’t be too chatty.” The bottom line is, you can’t control the environment at a public range, so do the best you can. And, here’s the rub: one thing all competitive archers NEED to become skilled at is shooting with distractions!

One top archer friend of mine was working through some things in preparation for a big tournament and actually considered isolating himself for a period of time and shooting ONLY by himself at home – for something like 3-6 months. He deliberated on the pros and cons of this and came to the conclusion that it was not the right move – he enjoyed shooting with friends and other archers in general way too much and decided he needed to come up with another way to focus when he needed to.

Start out slowly . . .

This is probably THE most important aspect of this whole thing. SLOW. THE HECK. DOWN. Most people shoot way too fast, at a target, and sometimes get annoyed when others don’t shoot as fast as them. This is not practice as we are describing here. I would liken this to weight lifting or running; it’s exercise repetitions with a little bit of focus sprinkled in. Watch any archery competition video and you’ll notice that there is a time limit of 2 to 2-1/2 minutes per round of 1-3 arrows. What does this tell you? These archers are struggling to get their shots off in that amount of time; if there was not a time limit, the tournament would probably never end. This doesn’t mean that YOU have to always shoot this slow or that you intend to compete – but there is clearly much to be gained by taking your time and focusing on each and every shot – at least when you set out to practice with intention and focus as described here. In fact I want to clarify something here.

As the video explains, when trying something new there will always be a period of awkwardness, so you will naturally be slower. Watch any beginner archery class and you’ll see newbies struggle mightily with things as simple as nocking the arrow. After 15-20 minutes of practice most do it subconsciously with ease. So this is another reason to start out slowly. Slow repetitions help you get familiar and more comfortable with the task – at some point you will naturally be quicker at it, and because of the speed will do more repetitions. As described in the paragraph above though, don’t speed up too much at the cost of quality. I also see many people overreact to the awkwardness of a new task and give up on it too quickly, and/or give up on it when they don’t see IMMEDIATE results. Their expectations for results are very unrealistic. They can’t for example consistently group at a distance of 10 yards, but get disappointed when the suggested grip change does not result in 5 bulls eyes. It is important to establish a performance baseline from which to assess the helpfulness of a change. If you or a coach has decided a change in your form or shot process is worth doing, STICK WITH IT until you can confirm it does not help. And, be very clear about what it is you are basing that conclusion on – what is your “baseline” performance that you are judging it against?

One final note: we are talking about form and shot process here, we are not talking about equipment changes. I see way too many people who can’t yet group buy new stuff and fiddle with their setup constantly. Try not to fall into this trap.

Perform frequent repetitions with allotted time breaks

If you are serious about improving your archery this is something you can do at home without your bow. Doing work at home with something like this will advance your archery skill better than doing noting at all:

The third and fourth photos show people using a simple resistance stretch band you can get at any drug store or sporting goods store. The person in the 4th photo is shown observing herself in the mirror – A+!

You can create a regimen for yourself using these devices at home, at the office, in the hotel room when you travel, etc. You can achieve numbers 4 and 5 on the list even if you can’t get to an archery range.

Practice in your mind in vivid detail

The video cites some great research stats on the effectiveness of this. It is referred to as visualization, imagery, guided imagery, hypnosis, and self-hypnosis. I worked with a hypnotherapist to learn this skill; we did just a few sessions that concluded with me learning self-hypnosis. I’ve found this very valuable in my own training and highly recommend it.

If getting trained by a professional is not in the cards for you, I like this particular “how to” article because it acknowledges that not all people are “visual” and discusses how to benefit from this even if you are not:

There is a lot on the Internet about this, you could also use the above article as a “breadcrumb” for further exploration.

So there you have it. Practice with a plan and intention and you’ll make quicker progress. If you practice like a pro, you’ll get closer to being able to shoot like one!


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