Bowhunting is deadly serious business. As such, I take great pride in being meticulously prepared for my time afield. I fletch my arrows with precision and tune my bow to perfection. I train my body year-round for tough hunts by running and lifting, so I’m ready for whatever adventure throws my way. I use trail cameras and scout behind my spotting scope religiously, always trying to better understand my quarry and figure out the best game plans for future hunts. I practice shooting almost daily, always wanting to improve my accuracy. In short, bowhunting is a never-ending endeavor.
But while fine-tuning your equipment, honing your shooting skills and whipping your body into shape are good, those things alone don’t necessarily prepare you for the moment — that brief instant when you have a fleeting opportunity to take one shot that will make or break your season. That’s when your mental game is really critical.
In this article, I’m going to discuss how to successfully handle those moments and execute perfect shots underintense pressure.
Looking for an Edge
In my early years as a bowhunter, I focused all of my attention on one thing: getting into position to kill an animal. On the surface, this seems like a great game plan; after all, you can’t kill an animal unless it’s in bow range, right? So, I scouted like a man possessed and obsessed over ways to get within range of the whitetail bucks I chased all around my home in Ohio. And my hard work paid off. Within a few years, I got to the point where I was able to get at least one, if not two, solid chances with my bow each fall.
The problem was, more times than not, I came out on the other side of those opportunities with nothing to show for them. Needless to say, this really bothered me. After replaying my failures over and over again in my head, I had to admit that most of the blown chances pointed to a weakness in my mental game.
Simply put, I wasn’t executing during the moment of truth. Sometimes, I made bad shots because I mentally broke down and failed to stick with my practiced shot routine. Other times, I never even got to take a shot because I made quick movements or other bad decisions during crunch time. Although I hate to admit it, there were also a few times when I got so mentally drained and defeated that I simply gave up on the quest to kill a buck that was getting the better of me.
Clearly, if I was going to keep putting in all of the time and effort required to get within bow range of mature bucks, I needed to up my mental game and be ready to launch a perfectly placed arrow into the vitals. I knew I needed a change in my thought process, but as is so often the case, accomplishing this was easier said than done.
Gaining an Edge
So, how do we gain a mental edge? What does it actually mean to be mentally tough? These are questions I’ve asked many professional archers and disciplined bowhunters whom I respect. Their answers are always quite similar, which is not surprising considering the fact that all of these individuals are quite successful. In a nutshell, top target shooters and bowhunters tell me we gain a mental edge by pushing ourselves in our training, our shooting and our thought processes from day to day. Derailing from the normal workout or shooting routines, for example, these individuals will take their training to a higher level that gives them a mental edge over those who don’t. Let me explain.
When I first started training for adventure hunts out West, I knew I would have to be in great shape to succeed in the steep terrain and thin air of the Rockies. Normal jogging and weight training in my basement wasn’t going to cut it, so I joined a gym and really started getting after it! I pushed myself past a limit I had never before exceeded, as I would work out late at night and then run several miles afterward, which was quite the struggle. What this did was make me mentally strong by working out at the end of the day, when my body was tired and didn’t feel its best. Mentally, I knew I had to do it, and every night that went by, the task became a little easier. Along the way, my confidence grew and grew, and after a few weeks, it was just second nature to go work out and then run afterwards, even though my body was tired and worn down. Mentally, I knew I had something left in the tank, so I pushed myself to achieve whatever was needed to complete the day’s workout. This is no different than pushing yourself day after day on a long bowhunt or during a long season chasing a specific buck. Sometimes you just have to embrace the battle and keep grinding!
My point isn’t that everyone needs to join a gym; it’s that sometimes on a tough hunt we need to mentally “grab another gear.” This type of hardcore training gave me the confidence to continue on and push through during a hard hunt because I had done it every day for weeks on end. During last year’s Idaho elk hunt, my confidence was at an all-time high, and that made me a more efficient predator. By day 12 of my 15-day, DIY, backcountry hunt, I was physically exhausted and had yet to punch my tag. The weather had been extremely hot and dry, making elk nearly impossible to find during the day, and to make matters worse, I was running into other hunters daily.
But I never gave up. I often thought back to those long days at work when I didn’t feel like going to train that night, but I pushed through it and persevered! Those long nights, pushing myself to the limits, are what reminded me on this hunt to keep going and not quit.
Making the Opportunity Count
In bowhunting, one arrow can and usually will dictate the outcome of an entire hunt — or season, for that matter. As I mentioned previously, back in my younger days, I always visualized getting to the moment of truth. There I was, 20 feet up an oak tree as the buck made his way down the path that would bring him to a mere 25 yards! Time and time again, I would visualize these scenarios of my sought-after trophy walking into the red zone, but that’s where the visualization ended. I was so focused on the opportunity that I forgot to mentally envision the most important thing: drawing, anchoring and releasing the arrow.
It took a few mishaps and blown opportunities to realize that I needed to up my mental game when it came to my shooting ability. So, I decided to focus on shooting outside my normal comfort zone. Basically, I wanted to get comfortable being uncomfortable and not allow my form to break down regardless of the circumstances.
To help accomplish this, I decided to take up long-range shooting with my bow. Basically, I started shooting regularly at distances of up to 130 yards, more than double what I’d ever shoot at an animal. What this did was force me to mentally visualize my arrow hitting the target before every shot. At long ranges, even the slightest form or mental mishap can throw you off drastically. So, every shot had to be taken with the utmost concentration and mental strength. I’d visualize my arrow hitting the center and then draw and shoot. My groups were awful at first, but I slowly gained confidence. I could feel myself becoming calm and collected at distances I’d never thought possible. This confidence and mental strength improved my accuracy dramatically, particularly on those 20-50-yard shots more common in typical hunting scenarios.
So, what about during crunch time? How do we prepare for the stress, anxiety and sensory overload that occurs when we draw back and anchor for a shot at game? Unfortunately, I’ve been on the losing end of not being mentally prepared for my opportunity. You name the reason — not settling my pin, using the wrong pin, rushing the shot, allowing my form to collapse — chance are I’ve missed because of it! And I’ll be the first to admit that there’s nothing more deflating for a bowhunter than knowing you did everything right except put the arrow where you wanted it to go.
To correct these mental breakdowns, I had to diagnose what was actually taking place when I missed. The answer was simple: I was allowing emotion and anxiety to short-circuit my shot process. I needed to become better under pressure, better when my heart was beating out of my chest.
To accomplish this, I started shooting around people as much as possible. Friends, family, strangers; it didn’t matter to me. I just wanted to feel that pressure of people watching. What this did was elevate my heart rate and create conditions that resembled a hunting situation. Knowing I was being watched by a friend or group of people at a local 3-D shoot made me really hone my shot process and focus. This gave me the confidence I needed when the moment of truth arrived in the field.
Another drill that has really helped me is doing push-ups or running a quick sprint before I shoot. Again, this gives me the mental edge of practicing in a high-stress situation, so when I’m actually in that position in the field, I can feel comfortable and confident.
This reminds me of my antelope hunt this past fall in Montana, in which I had to make a long shot after a fast hike. I was tired and struggling to catch my breath, but as I drew back, I had nothing but confidence. I knew I could make the shot, and I did.
Winning in the Red Zone
When the hunt is on the line, we need to be at our best and make the shot count. Over the years, I’ve learned the hard way how priceless these moments can be and why we must make the most of every opportunity we get. To do this, we must not lose focus on the process.
What I like to do in these high-pressure situations is slow my mind down by thinking about each step individually before going to the next. An example would be, OK, I need to get my bow off the hook as the buck goes behind that tree. Once that’s accomplished, I move to the next step. What this forces me to do is slow down the entire process and concentrate on doing each small task perfectly before proceeding to the next task. This keeps my mind focused on doing my job rather than a huge set of antlers!
The more we can slow down these high-pressure moments in our minds, the more successful we will be. There will be no rushing and no false steps, as our mind is now a steel trap and we’re focused on the task at hand. Our confidence is high, our training has been done and our mental edge is sharp. Make this the year you gain your mental edge, and I’m sure you’ll be happy with the results.