July 22, 2021
There, my friends, are the two scariest words in archery. If you know, you know. And if you don’t? Well, just pray you never do.
The effects of target panic can be so debilitating to an archer’s performance that most speak the words only in hushed tones, if they are spoken at all. In fact, most bowhunters would rather discuss politics, religion or rifle hunting than dive into the ugly details of this unpleasant topic.
Yet with target panic an epidemic within our ranks, this is a conversation that desperately needs to be had. Much like puss inside an abscess, the only way to deal with target panic is to expose it. No, the process isn’t pretty, but the short-term pain is worth the long-term gain.
Besides, summer is the perfect time to address your target-panic issues. Getting over this malady isn’t an overnight process, but with several months between now and opening day, you’ve got plenty of time to embrace the journey and not only be shooting as good as you used to — but better than you ever have — come fall.
With that, let’s take out our scalpels and get to work.
What Is Target Panic?
It is often said there are only two kinds of archers; those who have target panic and those who will. I don’t know if that’s entirely accurate, but I’d say it isn’t too far off the mark.
At its core, target panic is a form of anxiety related to shooting your bow, or, more specifically, accurately shooting your bow. In other words, you experience anxiety when aiming the bow and releasing the arrow. This anxiety is directly connected to conscious and/or unconscious anticipation of the shot and a desire to control that moment when the bowstring is released.
Target panic manifests itself in a variety of ways, and the more important the shot — such as during a tournament or when a big buck is standing broadside — the more pronounced it can be. In mild cases, much of this anxiety is subconscious and may appear only occasionally. In acute cases, this anxiety can literally overwhelm the senses, resulting in the inability not just to hit where you are aiming but to hit the target at all, even from close range. As someone who has suffered from severe target panic in the past, I can tell you it is a very helpless, lonely place to be.
Diagnosing Target Panic
One of the most common symptoms of target panic is “freezing,” or the seeming impossibility of placing your sight pin where you want your arrow to go. Once at full draw, just about every archer begins aiming by pointing at the target and either coming up or down onto the chosen point of impact. Those suffering from target panic will often freeze several inches above or below their desired point of aim. If you have ever experienced this, it can feel as though an invisible force is literally holding your arm muscles back, preventing you from placing the sight pin where you want it to go.
Meanwhile, your body quickly tires as you struggle to hold the bow steady and move the pin into proper position, leading to an incredible sense of urgency to make the shot. The end result is that you either release the string without ever being settled on target or attempt what is often referred to as a “drive-by shooting,” in which you quickly jerk the bow arm in the direction of the bull’s-eye while attempting to squeeze the release trigger the instant the sight pin meets it. In either case, the end result is poor accuracy; arrows that consistently hit high or low or extremely erratic shooting that sometimes misses the target altogether.
Interestingly, back when I was suffering from severe target panic, if I told myself I wasn’t going to shoot, I could draw, anchor and place the pin exactly where I wanted. But if I let down and repeated the process with the intention of shooting, bringing the pin to the exact same spot was impossible. Talk about frustrating!
Other common symptoms of target panic include an unexplained desire to shoot before settling the pin on target, taking an abnormally long time to shoot or even the inability to shoot at all. Lastly, there is the ever-popular “punching” of the trigger (the inability to execute a surprise release) and telltale “flinching” among archers who physically react as if the shot has been fired when in fact the arrow is still on the string.
Overcoming Target Panic
OK, so we’ve got some idea of what target panic is and how it manifests itself. What we really want to know is how to cure it. Well, the first step to solving a problem is admitting you have one. The second step is admitting you can’t solve it on your own; you’re going to need help.
Unfortunately, many bowhunters deny they are suffering from target panic, or believe they can overcome it by sheer will power. As a result, many people only seek help after hitting rock bottom. For example, by the time I sought advice from my friends Randy Ulmer and John Dudley — both world-class shooters — my target panic had gotten so bad I struggled to consistently hit a Block target from just 20 yards away!
If you are a basket case like I was, you have my sympathy. Hopefully, you aren’t nearly that bad. Perhaps you aren’t experiencing any symptoms of target panic at all. If so, you may be tempted to ignore this article completely. However, I urge you not to do that, because the same steps involved in helping people overcome target panic will help prevent you from getting it in the first place!
What I know now, but didn’t know then, was that my entire thought process about shooting was wrong. I was obsessed with momentarily getting the sight pin on the bull’s-eye and hitting the release trigger as soon as possible. However, a good bow shot is not a moment; it’s a process. And when that process is executed correctly, it happens freely, easily and with consistently good results.
When you are suffering from target panic, that is a sure sign your shot process has gone haywire. So, the key to the cure is tearing that process down and rebuilding it the right way.
The No. 1 piece of advice given to those suffering from target panic — and the very advice Ulmer and Dudley gave me years ago — is to get a hinge release and learn to use it. This is excellent instruction, as a hinge release will teach you the proper way to execute a shot and force you to employ proper form with every arrow you shoot!
Unfortunately, I am convinced this advice, while valid, is the No. 1 reason so many people who suffer from target panic don’t get the help they need. Simply put, people are stubborn. Archers are no exception, and I can’t tell you how many bowhunters I’ve known who — despite raging target panic — flat-out refused to abandon their wrist-strip, index-finger release aids.
Release aids with index-finger triggers are, by far, the most popular style among bowhunters. Sadly, relatively few who use them truly understand how to execute a surprise release with one. Punching the trigger is far more common, and because there’s literally no way for the left hand not to know what the right hand is doing while shooting, it’s no surprise so many archers anticipate the shot and unknowingly develop anxiety.
Thankfully, over the past several years, release-aid makers have introduced a number of new wrist-strap models (see sidebar) that can be used just like hinge-style or tension-activated releases that force shooters to “pull through” the shot in order to release the bowstring. Although a hinge or resistance-activated release is a great training aid — and one I wholeheartedly recommend — I believe these new offerings will help many more archers finally enter rehab and regain their shooting confidence.
Regardless of which model you choose, the first step in rebuilding your shot process is to put down your traditional, trigger-activated release and choose one that allows you to execute the shot via back tension or resistance (gradually increasing the amount of pressure against your bow’s draw stops once at full draw). Remember, much of the anxiety associated with target panic is wrapped up in “firing” the shot, so we need to completely eliminate the distraction the trigger creates in the shot process.
Once you have your new release, you must learn to use it properly. The best, and easiest, way to do this is by making a practice “bow” with a loop of paracord equal to your draw length. Place your bow hand in one end and attach your release to the other. Hold your bow hand out as you would while shooting, anchor your release hand against your face and slowly pull through “the shot” until the release activates.
The moment of release should catch you by surprise, because you are not making it happen with a specific, conscious act (squeezing a trigger). Repeat the process until it becomes second nature. Each shot should feel completely natural, with no anxiety.
Only after the operation of your new release aid has been mastered should you use it with your bow. However, that doesn’t mean you are ready to step onto the range and shoot targets. Instead, start out with a prolonged period of what is called “blank-bale shooting.” This means standing in front of a target with no aiming points, roughly five feet away, and simply drawing the bow and executing the shot without any concern about where the arrow hits.
At this point in your rehab, accuracy is irrelevant. In fact, you shouldn’t even be aiming! The purpose of this exercise is to reprogram your brain and learn the “feel” of a completely natural, relaxed shot process that culminates with a surprise release. Many archery coaches recommend this stage of training should be done with your eyes closed, removing any distractions caused by what you see and eliminating the temptation to stare at your sight pin and pick an imperfection or old arrow hole in the target as an aiming point.
Keeping your eyes closed also allows you to concentrate on every step of your shot process, from setting your feet and bow hand to drawing the bow, anchoring, slowly building tension between your bow arm and release arm as you pull through the shot and maintaining steady follow-through until the arrow hits the target. Interestingly, Ulmer and many other top-level archers will take several warm-up shots using this method at the start of every shooting session or before a big competition as a way to relax and remind themselves exactly what the perfect shot sequence feels like.
Remember, the whole point of this rehab is to rebuild your shot from the ground up. You want to become so intimately familiar with every step that it happens without thinking. There is no universally agreed upon time frame for this first stage of the rebuilding process, but committing several weeks to it will not only give you a welcome break from the shooting-related stress you’ve been experiencing but also help engrain the muscle memory of what a relaxed shot feels like.
Let It Float
Now that you’ve gotten comfortable with your new release and what it feels like to draw, anchor and patiently pull through the shot, you are going to be very eager to start shooting targets. Don’t do it! Remember, you are on a long journey to overcome target panic; if you rush the process, you’ll find yourself right back where you were.
Instead, start out just five yards from a target, draw your bow and simply aim at the bull’s-eye. Concentrate on keeping your pin as close to the center of your target as possible, but also understand that no one — not even world-class shooters — can remain completely still at full draw. Accept the fact that your pin will float, and as it does, just bring it back toward the center, over and over again. Because you are so close to the target, your pin should remain very close to the middle even as it moves. Hold for roughly 15 seconds, let the bow down and rest. Then, repeat the process until you get totally comfortable watching your sight pin float on the target.
Once you are completely comfortable and confident in holding your pin on target at very close range, you can gradually increase your distance from the target and repeat this exercise. Remember, the further you get from your target, the smaller it will appear and the more noticeable the movement of your sight pin will be. Again, there is no absolute answer for how long this step of your rehab should take. Progress slowly and remind yourself that it’s perfectly natural for your pin to float as you repeatedly bring it back toward the center.
Connect the Dots
If you’ve taken this process seriously, you’ve likely spent the past month or more proving to yourself that you can both aim your bow and release your bowstring while feeling absolutely no pressure. The final step in your rehab process is to take these two critical steps of the shot sequence and put them back together.
As you did while aiming and releasing, start at very close range. Five yards is a good starting point, and adjust your sight so your top pin hits the bull’s-eye at that distance. Because you are standing so close to the target, it should be easy to keep your pin in the middle, and as a result, your results should be very good. You are now shooting at targets again, only this time, your confidence should be sky high and you should feel no anxiety about the outcome.
Once you are comfortable at five yards, you can gradually move back to 10 yards and then 20 yards, remembering to readjust your sight for the range. Although you are now keeping score again, if only in your mind, don’t be preoccupied with the accuracy of every arrow. Rather, remain focused on maintaining that “feel” of a perfect shot that you’ve been working on for the past month or more. Do your best to remain relaxed as you watch the pin float and gradually pull through the shot until the release fires. Consider doing this with a single arrow, walking to the target to retrieve it in between shots. This will help you focus on every shot rather than being distracted by how well you are grouping arrows. In the long run, learning to trust and repeat that shot process will yield far better and more consistent accuracy than the way you used to shoot — and it will help prevent the return of those pesky target panic symptoms that sent you to rehab in the first place.
Assuming you still feel comfortable, you can crank your bow back up to your normal draw weight and resume regular practice sessions at all typical hunting distances/angles/shooting positions in preparation for opening day.
Back in the Saddle
At this point, many people are tempted to believe they have been "cured" of target panic. However, I agree with Ulmer, who believes target panic is a lot like alcoholism; you never truly cure it, you just do your best to steer clear of its effects.
In either case, that means a daily commitment to the process that helped us get well, all the while avoiding old behaviors that can lead to a relapse. While it may be tempting to go back to your old, index-finger release aid at this point, I strongly encourage you to continue practicing, and even hunting, with a release that will reinforce good shooting form and help you avoid the anxiety that is always looking for an opening to creep back in.
Back when I had my own battle with target panic, I trained with a hinge release and eventually settled on a resistance-activated release for hunting. I found a resistance-activated release to be the perfect middle ground between a hinge and a trigger release, because it both forces me to properly pull through the shot but also allows me to shoot quickly when needed in bowhunting situations by pulling hard into the draw stops.
Other archers who have struggled with target panic find they did much better after rehab by switching to a handheld, thumb-trigger release, and yes, many folks do just fine with their tried-and-true index-finger release. Ultimately, you have to decide what works best for you. Just be on the lookout for the first sign of target panic and nip it in the bud by going back through the steps outlined here.
If you fully commit to this rehab program now, I feel confident that by the time you climb up in your tree saddle (or stand) on opening day, you’ll be shooting with less stress and more confidence than ever. As a result, you’ll be hitting more vital areas and punching more tags, too.
Release Aids for Target-Panic Rehab
Nock On Custom Archery teamed up with the folks at Carter Enterprises to develop the all-new Back Strap ($219.99; nockonarchery.com), a wrist-strap release aid designed to be shot just like Carter’s handheld, tension-activated releases. Featuring a release head with the patent-pending Center Pivot Trigger, the Back Strap is designed to be shot by adjusting the activation tension several pounds over your bow’s holding weight. Then, simply hook onto the bowstring, draw, pull the trigger and continue increasing tension until the shot fires. The Back Strap can also be shot just like a traditional index-finger release by adjusting the tension below your bow’s holding weight, which will cause the release to fire as soon as the trigger is pressed. The Back Strap also features a BOA closure for easy on/off and custom fit, a removable release head that can be flipped for use by left- and right-shooters and an adjustable connection strap that can be lengthened or shortened to fit archers of all sizes.
The Scott Archery Longhorn Hunter ($159.99; scottarchery.com) is the answer for bowhunters who want to shoot a hinge release. The Longhorn Hunter features a 3-finger hinge release attached to a Realtree camo wrist strap with a cord that can be length adjusted for a perfect fit. This way, archers can keep the familiarity of a wrist strap and keep the release at the ready while enjoying the accuracy and shooting-form benefits of a hinge. Other highlights include adjustable release sensitivity (with or without click) and a knurled thumb knob that can be flipped to accommodate left- and right-handed shooters.
The Spot-Hogg Keeton ($139.99; spot-hogg.com) is a unique, wrist-strap, index-finger release with an integrated finger grip that allows you to draw and shoot using more than just the shoulder to handle the weight. When the release length is adjusted properly, the archer can distribute the weight evenly between the grip, wrist, arm and shoulder. At full draw, the grip pivots, quickly aligning the finger with the trigger. Once at full draw, the Keeton can be fired as a traditional index-finger trigger or used in tandem with the grip to gradually pull through until sufficient trigger pressure is achieved to release the bowstring.
Unlike traditional index-finger releases, the Tru-Fire ThruFire ($159.99; feradyne.com/trufire) has no obvious trigger and is designed to be shot by wrapping your index finger around the semicircular opening on the release stem. By increasing resistance at full draw, the trigger hidden inside the post comes into contact with your finger, allowing archers to “pull through” the shot until the bowstring is released. The amount of tension needed to expose the trigger can be adjusted from 2-30 pounds via a setscrew, allowing you to customize the release’s operation for your bow setup and personal preference.
The T.R.U. Ball X-Tension R/T ($189.99; truball.com) is a new wrist-strap, index-finger release that can be shot in your choice of two ways — both designed to promote good shooting form while fighting target panic. The release head features T.R.U. Ball’s Tri-Star Hook System that makes loading the release onto your nocking loop easy. There are also tension levers for the thumb and index finger. To shoot the release in pull-through mode, set the activation tension to five pounds over your bow’s holding weight. Then, draw with both levers pressed and release them at anchor. From there, you just pull until the shot is fired. To shoot the release in relax tension mode, set the release to fire five pounds below your bow’s holding weight. Draw with both levers pressed and fire the shot simply by relaxing your thumb and index finger while aiming. In addition to adjusting the tension required to trigger the release, you can also adjust the spring tension on the thumb and index-finger levers to suit your personal preference.
The Stan PerfeX Resistance ($269.95; ishootastan.com) is a handheld, resistance-activated release designed to help shooters maintain great shooting habits. Simply adjust activation to your preferred amount above your bow’s holding weight and pull through the shot until the bowstring is released. The PerfeX also offers tons of customization and comes with attachments that allow you to use the release in a 3- or 4-finger configuration with adjustable finger sweep angle. There are also your choice of two thumb-barrel sizes and five barrel posts for a perfect fit and feel for left- and right-handed archers alike. Further, the PerfeX is available in two colors and four sizes, all with either standard or short-neck versions that will increase your draw length by a quarter inch.