Shooting a bow is an extremely cerebral undertaking. Let’s face it, once you’ve been shooting awhile, have mastered the physical basics of drawing, anchoring, aiming and releasing an arrow, it’s what’s going on between your ears that makes or breaks your shooting; especially when drawing on trophy game. We’ve all been there: Standing in your relaxed backyard you plunk shot after shot into the 10-ring of your battered McKenzie target. As soon as someone is there to witness your shooting arrows begin to stray. More pointedly, add the pressure of 3-D competition or a shot at coveted game, and missing the “slam-dunk” shot becomes all too frequent. The latter are misses that haunt. You are convinced you could take that shot 10 more times and never miss. These are mental factors participants of any competitive sport are subject to. The archer, just like the tennis player or big-league slugger, has much to gain by strengthening their mental game.
Missing is inevitable. We are only human after all, not machines–and even machines glitch occasionally. But archery is a path, not a destination, and all of us should strive to become the best we can be, to keep easy misses to a minimum. The animals we hunt deserve no less. We practice endlessly to this end, working to shrink our groups, tune for cleaner arrow flight, tweaking form for greater consistency. But many of us practice mindlessly, without regard to the mental aspects so important to the outcome of any hunt. It’s all too common: The 3-D champion who crumbles on game, the hotshot shooting the bull’s-eye out of the camp bag target at 90 yards who later misses a broadside elk at 20. Make no mistake, the mental aspect of your shooting is just as important as matched and tuned equipment and solid physical fundamentals.
Performance anxiety in bowhunting takes on many forms. “Buck fever” is one of these, as is any form of target panic (fear of missing). Making the difficult shot, keeping it together under pressure, is largely about controlling anxiety and even working to channel it positively. Anxiety is unavoidable, portion to our hardwired “fight or flight” survival response, man’s subconscious reaction to perceived harm or attack. In our case that threat is posed only to our ego or self esteem, but unfortunately these psychological factors can prove just as frightening in our minds as real physical harm.
When performance demands exceed our perceived abilities, anxiety is the inevitable result. Obviously, there’s nothing damaging about the stress experienced while bowhunting. Remove the anxiety (the uncertainty) and few would continue bowhunting. Such welcomed anxiety serves as a positive influence, leading to stimulating challenge and a rewarding existence.
Bowhunting certainly provides considerable uncertainty. As a trophy buck approaches your stand, when game is in range but screened by brush, even at that precise moment when you release an arrow, the outcome is largely unknown. Buck fever, even target panic, is linked to this inherent uncertainty. The more important the “trophy” the greater the pressure, and the more likely you are to feel stress. Conversely, bowhunting brings us such joy because it is a theatre of unpredictability.
An expectation of success might also exist. I’ve witnessed this in guided hunters most regularly; the need for a return on their investment, the wife who wasn’t so keen on an expensive hunt and the “told-you-so” demoralization sure to follow an unsuccessful return, the heckling peers. This is additional pressure that causes anxiety at the moment of truth.
Professional sports trainers suggest many techniques for controlling performance anxiety. Of these, breathing exercises might prove most practical to archery hunters; whether making an important 3-D shot or faced with trophy game. Begin by inhaling slowly, deeply and evenly through your nose. Hold that breath momentarily before gently exhaling through your mouth (enough to move a candle flame but not extinguish it). Take a breath, hold it, and allow your face and neck to relax as you breathe out. Take a second breath and allow your shoulders and arms to relax as you breathe out. Next your chest, stomach and back; then your legs and feet; finally concentrate on allowing your entire body to relax while breathing out. Continue as long as needed–or time allows! Each time you exhale silently say the word “relax” or “calm.” Call it silly, but it has helped my 3-D results immensely.
The Mental Edge
Studies of elite athletes prove that mental imagery is an integral part of their success, creating, or recreating, an all-sensory experience that has positive effects on physical performance. This becomes important when faced with the almost overwhelming pressure of shooting a bow (an involved mental process) at a trophy buck (something you want badly). Imagery helps create a mental map for performance by building confidence and reducing performance anxiety.
This is not as automatic as it might seem. In the times we live in, systematic education focuses largely on logical and analytical processes which engage the brain’s left hemisphere, not the right hemisphere where imaginative (creative) thought originates. Without constant practice the brain’s right-hemisphere imagery center moves toward atrophy. Though imagery can be applied to very dynamic situations, learning to do so on demand requires a quiet, relaxed, non-competitive setting. Begin this learning process by relaxing, closing your eyes and concentrating only on deep rhythmical breathing. With practice detailed mental imagery becomes easier.
Imagery is not the same as visualization. Imagery includes feelings of movement, sound, smells and even emotions. The deer hunter not only sees his arrow zipping through vitals, he attempts to hear an approaching buck’s hooves crunching leaves, acorns rattling through oak branches, the dank smell of wet forest. You place the correct pin just so, release your arrow smoothly, follow through with a sense of determination. The subsequent sounds of the bow going off and the feel of the riser jumping in your hand are also portion. The goal is to develop vividness, promote overall clarity. Even the nervous energy involved helps to stimulate all of the senses.
final stage involves control. As you’re rehearsing an encounter with game and how you will react, it’s important to maintain control over images. Imagery is helpful, but can also turn destructive. Seeing yourself crumble, missing the easy shot, is hardly helpful.
The wonderful thing about imagery is that even if you’ve missed an easy shot before it provides opportunity to correct that error, to create a desired outcome. You should see a positive result. If you do begin experiencing negative thoughts, imagine a sudden and literal STOP sign, then work to redirect thoughts by recalling a previous success and replicating this in your mind, with yourself in the role of successful performer.
With time you can use mental imagery in conjunction with physical action to create more productive shooting practice. Don’t simply plunk one mechanical arrow after another into a block target. Set up 3-D targets in a realistic setting, approaching them from various angles, addressing them from different shooting positions, stalking them, looking for shooting holes, timing your draw cycle and release. In other words, treat that piece of foam like the real thing, making that one shot count just as you would do in the field.
The Inner Voice
I’ve also found it important, on occasion, to talk to myself sternly (if silently) when faced with an impending shot at game. Sometimes I simply have to remind myself of important steps in the shooting sequence; especially shooting form, most notably to slow down. Sometimes when your mind’s reeling you have to remind yourself of the obvious. The mind under pressure can lose its ability to accurately account for passing time. Everything seems to occur in a blur, when nothing at all has actually changed.
Remember when you were young and lost your temper and your mother asked you to count to 10? By the time you reached the final number in the count you were calm again. The same trick can be used while bowhunting, when delaminating under pressure. Count slowly and evenly, recite the alphabet. Slow your mind down so it can operate more efficiently.
Learning From Mistakes
Just as importantly, don’t let a single failure, a missed shot in particular, defeat you mentally. Develop the ability to forgive yourself, leave the past behind. For this reason alone I find 3-D extremely healthy for bowhunting mental health. No one likes to lose, or miss a target. It’s easy to give up on an entire tournament due to a single missed shot. This is a cop-out. Instead use that same miss to instill mental fortitude, to gain determination.
In the real world of bowhunting, after a miss on a trophy buck, instead of delivering an oath, throwing your bow or giving up in disgust to climb from your stand and catch a football game, say to yourself, “Thank you, got that out of the way. Now I’m ready.” This is much more productive than allowing self doubt to fester and grow. It takes willpower. Use positive mental imagery to create that will.
I call it getting over the hump. In the beginning bowhunting success can seem outright elusive. It can take years to tag that first deer. Then you do kill the first and wonder if it was simply luck. You struggle some more and with a few more animals under your belt you begin to gain momentum, finding fairly regular success. You might experience the occasional slump, but you know deep down you can and will do it again. Given enough success you might even look for new challenges, climbing from your tree stand to still-hunt, adopting traditional gear. You have arrived.
It’s all about confidence.
Confidence is bred of success. When I was a preteen, neophyte archery hunter the older hunters I kicked around with were decidedly anti-doe, though shooting them was quite legal. The writings of Fred Bear saved me from an obvious trap. I shot two does in as many years despite the brutal ribbing that resulted. More pointedly, I shot two deer before those very friends had shot one at all. When they finally did shoot their first bucks I was right there with a “trophy” buck of my own. I still pass Bear’s advice on to beginning archers: In the beginning take advantage of every legal opportunity presented while bowhunting. Shoot those does and spikes and yearling six points. It makes me sad to see a group of seasoned hunters, driven by recent game-management mania, brow-beating a beginner for taking a small or young buck. Try to remember when you were young and inexperienced and every small accomplishment was a triumph. Fred Bear’s reasoning was that you were gaining all-important confidence, experience that means that when a trophy buck does come along you’re better prepared mentally.
While the experienced archery hunter will certainly become more selective as years pass, this doesn’t mean they can’t use the occasional self-assurance enhancer. Off-season wild boars are my favorite confidence booster, not only widely available and great to eat, but highly challenging and a wonderful test of terminal tackle. I never pass an opportunity to hunt off-season game, be it western jack rabbits or feral game such as hogs, goats or sheep. This not only helps me discover chinks in my equipment setup, but also buoys my confidence so that when a big buck or bull steps into range I have what it takes to pull off a clean shot.
And I’m still an unabashed doe killer. Of course this has become a perfectly acceptable portion to the game management craze, but I’m always surprised by the number of hunters I meet who still hold to old values. There’s also the factor that many fear shooting a doe will ruin an opportunity at a trophy buck. On the latter, experience has shown that shooting a doe seldom hurts your chances of buck success, even from the very stand a doe was taken from. Too, I love venison, and there’s something simply soothing about whacking a doe early in a hunt to calm my bloodlust and warm me up for that big-buck encounter.
Practice, practice, practice! That has long been the archer’s mantra. This still holds true, even in this age of high-tech equipment. But just as important to regular success, whether competing for a first-place finish in 3-D or tagging that big buck, is a strong mental game. Shooting a bow is not difficult. It’s our minds that get in the way. Strengthen your mental game and your shooting can only improve.