I once took my family up to the Iowa High School Track Championships at Drake Stadium. That wouldn’t be a big deal for most people, but for me, the day was monumental. It was the first time I had been back there for a track meet since 1982. Twenty-eight years before, that oval was the scene of one of my most painful failures. I have had many failures since, but few have haunted me as much as that one.
As a young man, God gifted me with foot speed and the ability to jump. This naturally made me the perfect candidate to run the high hurdles. I entered the state meet in 1982 with the fastest time in Iowa for that event. It was my senior year, and I really wanted to win the hurdles to close out my high school career.
I breezed through the prelims and earned the center lane for the finals — the perfect starting spot. I had put a lot of pressure on myself. My entire hometown was pulling for me to win. As I lined up in the blocks for the final race of my high school career, my goal was simple — get out fast.
The gun cracked, and I lunged forward — all the adrenaline focused on forward progress. I never broke concentration until the fourth hurdle. Between the fourth and fifth hurdles, I allowed my thoughts to drift. My peripheral vision told me I was clearly in the lead. I was always very clean and rarely hit hurdles, so I knew I was going to win if I just stayed clean. I would have to beat myself to lose.
The realization I was six seconds from accomplishing a huge goal was more than I could handle. It hammered me like an uppercut that nearly set me back on my heels. I’m not sure what happened physically, but the coach said I slowed down. I had lost my edge.
In a flash, everyone caught me. Then, I fought back and eventually finished fifth. I was crushed as I walked those 110 meters back to the starting line to get my sweats. I knew I had the championship in my hands, and I let it slip away.
For years, I tried to take something positive from that day. I didn’t participate in any college sports, so I had to find more creative ways to make that heartbreak pay some kind of dividend.
Here is what I learned: Mentally, I wasn’t prepared to win. I wanted to win. I hoped I would win. But I wasn’t mentally prepared for the enormity of the moment. You have to be there to understand, and I had never been there before. My mistake eventually revealed itself as I got further into life and learned how truly great athletes prepare for competition. I hadn’t spent the time needed visualizing a successful race — putting myself in that huge moment time after time in my mind so that, when it happened for real, it would feel more natural.
How Visualization Works
I once read a study about three groups of people who shot free throws and tracked their success. One group did nothing for the next week, another group practiced shooting free throws for an hour each day and the third group spent an hour each day visualizing themselves making free throws. After the week, the groups shot again. Not surprisingly, the group that practiced scored best, but the group that only visualized successful shots wasn’t far behind and showed dramatic improvement, while the control group was little changed.
Your subconscious mind has a hard time separating reality from a vivid daydream. I’m sure there is a proper way to do this, but I simply get comfortable, close my eyes and imagine an entire hunting scene — the smells, the sound of the wind, even the feel of the air. My heart starts racing as I see a big buck appear along the edge of the cornfield and make his way in my direction. Of course, this vision culminates with me making a perfect shot.
If you can’t visualize a successful outcome, it will be very hard to execute the shot when it counts. So, stick with it until all of your daydreams end successfully. Don’t accept negative images. Instead, erase them with positive ones.
Application to Hunting
You may think I’ve been sitting in a tree too long with nothing to do but make up crazy stuff, but if you look deeper, you will discover a very clear application for bowhunting. One of the few places I’ve been able to apply the lesson I learned from my great track and field failure has been in hunting. Shooting a deer is a big moment, and getting a chance at the biggest buck of your life is an enormous moment. It’s actually a moment that is too big to handle without careful mental preparation.
There is nothing in our daily lives that prepares us for these pulse-pounding, throat-tightening moments we experience when encountering big game at spitting distance. In fact, I’m not sure anything else can duplicate the feeling. I know a guy who has done huge business deals; he told me none of those exciting transactions produced the rush he gets when a big buck steps within bow range.
I remember hearing about a humorous episode involving the hunting debut of an Olympic gold medal archer from the U.S. team. The setting was a whitetail hunt that took place back in the ’90s. Early in the hunt, the poor fellow missed two slam-dunk shots at good bucks within a span of just 15 minutes. Realtree was there filming the hunt, so it was all on video. What a laugh everyone had when the cameraman played the footage back in camp that evening. Fellow hunters rode our hapless Olympic hero like he was a broken-down Shetland heading to the glue factory.
The Olympian threw out many unaccepted excuses until he finally admitted the pressure of shooting a buck is much different than the pressure of shooting in competition. He had simply choked — as we all have in similar situations.
This is all to say one thing: The only real way to prepare for successful bowhunts is to engage in successful bowhunts. Since we have very few opportunities to actually do that, we never get completely comfortable with the jangling nerves and the raw emotions. As a result, we tend to lose focus in the middle of the action and do something dumb.
The only way to gain the required experience to build shockproof concentration is through visualization. By simply visualizing yourself making good decisions and good shots at big bucks in the stands you plan to hunt, you do more than feed your addiction with Technicolor daydreams; you also train your nervous system to grow comfortable with these raw emotions and perform well in the midst of them.
I can understand why some parents attempt to remedy their past shortcomings by pressuring their children to succeed. If you see a wild-eyed dad jumping up and down in the first row of the Iowa state track meet one day, it might very well be me. I have a bit of unfinished business at the Blue Oval. I can’t go back and change what happened, but I can keep from leaving unfinished business in the treestands of the Midwest.