June 20, 2023
For this month's column, I am going to open up my brain like a tiny, little suitcase so we can try to figure out what’s going on in there when a buck approaches. There is no telling what might come fluttering out of that cobweb-filled void, so hold on to your seat. But, to really understand how we react to the adrenaline, a deeper look inside the gray matter must be part of the journey.
The nice thing about writing this column since before many of you were born is the fact that I am no longer expected to impress anyone. You all know me way too well for that by now.
It is quite possible I am less capable of handling those huge moments than you. Maybe you should be the one telling people how to zero-in mentally when the chips are piled high, but that may not serve the greater good of hearing it from someone who has failed yet survived.
That brings up a good analogy. I had a close call on a float plane back in September 2021. To be honest, I really thought we were going to die. Obviously, we didn’t. And when it was all over, Ron — the pilot — admitted he had crashed four times. Then he asked me, “Who would you rather be flying with, the guy who has crashed four times and survived or the guy who has never crashed?” I had to think about that for a while. The guy who had survived those crashes probably knew something important — like how to come out alive!
That is the same question I am asking you, “Who would you rather learn from when it comes to mental stability during the moment of truth — the guy who has crashed many times but is still intact and enjoying the quest, or the guy who has never crashed?”
To be honest, I am not sure I want to know the answer to that question. The point is, I have crashed enough during my bowhunting lifetime to have a certain level of perspective.
The hardest part for me is always the same: slowing things down enough that I can pick a spot and then squeeze off the shot. If I can get those two things right, everything else falls into place. So, why is it so hard to do something as simple as just picking a spot and squeezing?
The fight or flight response hits most of us when our system gets flooded with adrenaline. As bowhunters, when that happens, we have two choices: either figure out how to keep the adrenaline at bay or learn to perform despite the rush.
I don’t want the adrenaline to go away. In fact, if possible, I want more. Ice water in my veins might be great if I am shooting a free throw, but the rush is why I love bowhunting, and I bet it is the same for many of you. I don’t want to eliminate it; I want to enjoy it.
In bowhunting, the rush is the payoff. It is not something to eliminate, it is something to relish. So, the trick is to learn how to thrill in the experience but still make good decisions and good shots. That is a tough balance, and hopefully I can guide us on a path where we can make that happen.
Pick a Spot
Slowing down enough to choose a tiny spot to aim at will likely be one of the hardest things you have to do this season. What is too often taken for granted when standing in the backyard seems as difficult as reciting the Pledge of Allegiance backwards when a buck is standing there at 20 yards.
For this to have any chance of being ingrained into your pre-shot routine, you must be very deliberate during practice. On every shot you take this summer, make a conscious effort to pick the spot you want to hit before you ever draw the bow. Make that simple act as pronounced as you possibly can.
Think about it on every shot. In fact, move your aiming point around on the target, so the “spot” doesn’t just become routine. Shooting at a target face with one aiming point eliminates the important skill of learning to pick a spot. Look for random aiming points, like old arrow holes or discoloration on the target. Don’t just stand there, brain dead, slamming arrow after arrow into the printed spot.
Once you hit full draw, dial in your focus. When concentration is sharp, that small spot will snap into clear visual focus. You may not even have a conscious idea of exactly where the pin is during the shot because the spot you are trying to hit will absorb so much of your mental energy. That’s a great visual trigger that lets you know you are ready to shoot.
After you learn to pick a spot, learn to hold that focus until the arrow hits. Strive for the feeling that your focus is so sharp you’re steering the arrow with your mind. This type of mental follow-through — while the arrow is in the air — will really raise your standard for accuracy. If you saw the movie The Patriot, you’ll remember the statement, “aim small, miss small.” Even when the situation isn’t life and death, it is still a critical step.
The Slow Squeeze
The most important step I ever took to improve my shots at game was when I started to consciously — both on the range and in the field — squeeze the trigger. Not only does this further slow me down enough to settle on my chosen spot during panicked moments while hunting, it is a proven way to shoot better on the range too.
Producing a surprise release — the shot goes off without a mental “Now!” command — is a huge step forward in your progress as an archer. That means you have to squeeze the shot off while the sight pin floats around and over the spot you are trying to hit.
You don’t have to hold the pin still to make great shots — that was a huge revelation to me. Float it and squeeze. It is amazing how the arrow seeks the middle. Doing that on the range and in the field will make you more confident and proficient.
Mental Prep and Rehearsal
The biggest mental battle is the desire to rush. We somehow fear that the animal will bolt at any second. That, again, is our fight or flight instinct. Don’t mash the panic button; make a conscious effort to avoid it. This won’t happen by just hoping it will. Slowing down must become an intentional part of every shot you take. Maybe you even build that step into your pre-shot routine when practicing — take a moment before you draw to remind yourself to slow down. Do it on every shot, even if you are just out back shooting a few arrows.
The final step in pulling all this together is spending time visualizing an exciting encounter. See yourself doing all the things I talked about in this column. I still do that every day on stand, even after all these years.
It is critical to know you can slow down, pick a spot and squeeze the trigger, and the best way to know that you can is to have done it recently. Through regular visualization, you can trick your subconscious mind into thinking you have this mastered.
Regardless of what faces you when a buck or bull steps within bow range, there is only one way I have learned to execute in the face of adrenaline. That is to slow down — slow down enough that I can pick a spot and squeeze the trigger. This seemingly simple act is the metal strapping that keeps you from imploding when the pressure is high.