When it comes to making clutch shots, there is arguably no one better than world-champion archer Levi Morgan. From high-stakes 3-D tournaments to high-pressure bowhunts, Morgan has an uncanny knack for placing arrows exactly where they need to be when it matters most.
Considering that, you may be surprised to hear that when Morgan is anchored at full draw with a tournament victory or trophy animal on the line, he doesn't even think about his arrow hitting the mark.
"In archery, you've got to think about the process and not the end goal. Most of the time, I don't remember anything except aiming," said Morgan, who co-hosts Bow Life TV on Sportsman Channel and boasts a resume that includes an eye-popping eight world championships, 40 national championships and 10 world records.
You see, Morgan already knows what most archers desperately need to learn: when it comes to accuracy, shot execution is the only thing that matters. And when you can do it perfectly — over and over and over again — the results take care of themselves in the form of big-money tournament payouts and record-book bucks on the wall.
"If you have to think about all the things that have to happen to fire that shot — your release, your grip and everything else — you are setting yourself up for failure," Morgan said. "It has to be second nature because you've practiced it so many times."
To be sure, most of us will never shoot as well as Morgan. But that doesn't mean we can't improve greatly by adopting a similar mindset. Thankfully, there are coaches such as Larry Wise to help us do just that. A retired teacher and former pro shooter with six world championship titles of his own, Wise has spent the last three decades helping archers improve their shooting skills.
The author of six archery books, Wise's clients include numerous pro shooters and national teams, and he is currently assistant coach for USA Archery's Compound Junior Dream Team, which features the top 35 young compound shooters from across America.
Part technician and part archery Zen master, Wise is driven by a philosophy that strives to combine perfect form with a disciplined mental approach. He believes archers only reach their full potential when they shoot by "feel" — both a physical feel of the bow's holding weight in the back muscles and a mental oneness with the process. And as world-class competitors such as Morgan know, the only way to achieve that oneness is by perfecting the shot process through countless hours of practice.
I recently had the opportunity to train with Wise at his Pennsylvania home, where he offered some valuable advice on both my shooting form and my mental approach to archery. My purpose in visiting was not simply to improve my own game but to share my experience with the goal of helping you become a better shot this summer and a more effective bowhunter this fall.
In for Maintenance
Even the greatest athletes in the world rely on good coaching to maintain peak performance. If Michael Phelps needs a swimming coach, Mike Trout needs a hitting coach and Tom Brady needs a throwing coach, it's fair to assume we can benefit from the wisdom of a successful archery coach.
As Wise explains it, archery is really a simple, two-step sport. Step one is hitting the target, and step two is repeating step one. Of course, repeating a perfect shot gets a bit more complicated in practice than it is in theory! So, most of Wise's effort is focused on helping his pupils eliminate flaws that lead to inconsistency while ingraining a shooting system with maximum repeatability.
"The ultimate analysis for everything is, 'Does this help me repeat at a higher level?'€‰" Wise said. "If it doesn't, what the heck are you doing it for?"
Wise begins his time with each new student simply by watching the archer shoot. He also takes a series of photographs of the student in action to capture a baseline of existing archery form and a starting point for discussion about necessary adjustments. I found this a painless process, since I only shot a blank target face in Wise's yard from 10 feet away, making accuracy a non-factor. Still, in the back of my mind I knew some criticism was sure to follow€¦
After a dozen or so shots, Wise had what he needed. So, we headed inside to his office, where he loaded the photos on his computer for review. Thankfully, Wise did have some good things to say about my shooting, most notably that I properly employ back tension to trigger the shot. As a quick aside, I credit this mainly to my Carter Evolution handheld release that is fired not by squeezing a trigger but simply by pulling into the shot to increase tension until the jaw releases.
Resistance-activated release aids are not only tremendous training aids (particularly for those who struggle with target panic), they also perform well in the field, and I've taken many big-game trophies with my Evolution over the past several years.
Wise also noted that my bow was set to the proper draw length for my body, which is key for maintaining proper "T" form between the bow arm and release arm at full draw. Wise said most archers he works with either have a draw length that is too short, resulting in a release shoulder that is under rotated, or a draw length that is too long, resulting in a shoulder that is over rotated. In either case, the release arm is out of alignment with the arrow, which introduces sideways torque to the bowstring and adds tension to the shooter's muscles.
In spite of his praise, Wise also pointed out three areas of my shooting posture in need of improvement — my bow hand position, release hand position and head position. Wise said all three are common to virtually every archer he works with and key culprits when it comes to missed shots!
Bow Hand: Wise noted that, like many bowhunters, I tend to hold my bow with a palm that is too flat, or parallel, to the grip. As a result, too much of my palm was contacting the riser, resulting in unwanted bow torque at full draw and during the shot. Wise also noted that I was not fully relaxing my hand at full draw, resulting in tension that can also introduce torque.
Bow torque not only erodes accuracy on individual shots but also makes it difficult to shoot consistently, since the amount of torque applied to the riser can vary from shot to shot.
To remedy this issue, Wise simply had me rotate my bow hand to a 45-degree angle, which brought all the contact between my hand and the bow grip onto the thumb side of my lifeline. When the hand is placed on the bow in this way and the fingers are relaxed, the thumb will naturally point toward the target.
The main pressure point between the bow and your hand sits right at the base of the muscle adjacent to your thumb and places the force of the bow directly in line with the radius bone of your forearm and the rest of your bow and release arms when in proper T form. This eliminates torque and allows you to use your skeleton rather than your muscles while aiming for a steadier hold and reduced muscle tension and fatigue.
Release Hand: When looking at my release hand, Wise noticed I was holding the release aid too deeply in my hand, squeezing my fingers around it in a fist. He also noted I bent my wrist downward as I anchored against my jaw. The result of such a hold was both increased muscle tension in my forearm and improper alignment of the forces traveling between the bow and the rear elbow of my release arm.
To correct this, Wise advised me to move the release aid from behind the second knuckle to between the first and second knuckles on my fingers. This new grip allowed me to flatten the back of my hand and keep my wrist straight rather than keeping it in a fist. And because I was no longer making a fist, it also allowed me to relax my fingers and remove the tension from my forearm. The result was a much more efficient transfer of the bow's holding weight from my arms to my back muscles.
I immediately noticed that my release activated much more quickly as I started pulling into the shot, which made sense when Wise explained that the tension in my forearm was probably taking up 10-15 percent of the bow's holding weight. So, eliminating that made my entire shot process much more efficient.
Head Position: The final flaw Wise noted was my tendency to lean my head forward toward the bow string when anchoring. As he explained it, tilting your head makes it difficult for your muscle groups to work in unison. In fact, he said studies have proven that golfers, bowlers, tennis players and even Olympic swimmers must maintain a proper head position to get the most out of their back muscles.
The best head position for archery, Wise said, is to keep your head directly over your spine, with your chin level. To help yourself find the proper position, start out standing straight up with your head held straight, looking at a 90-degree angle to the target. Then, simply rotate your head roughly 80 degrees to
address the target, making sure to keep your chin level.
If you are like me, this slight adjustment to your head position will result in you looking at the target through the string opening above your peep sight, rather than the peep itself. Wise said this is common, and archers should not be alarmed if a switch to the proper head position requires a quarter-inch upward height adjustment in the location of your peep sight.
As with the bow hand and release hand positions, each correction Wise suggested was intended to enhance the efficiency and repeatability of my shot process by finding the most advantageous biomechanical posture.
Practice Makes Perfect
Of course, having a coach tell you what to do is great. But getting comfortable enough to consistently do it on your own requires practice. Whenever a form adjustment is needed, Wise tells his students to make doing things properly a habit by focusing on just one adjustment at a time and repeating the proper method over and over.
For example, let's say that, like me, you need to work on adjusting your bow hand position. In that case, put all your focus on that aspect of your form without worrying about other areas. Wise advises shooting 20 shots a day for 20 days, or even 30 shots a day for 30 days, focusing on nothing but maintaining a proper bow hand position. Most days, he advises against worrying about where your arrows hit. But two days each week, he recommends shooting a 20-arrow scoring round at 30 yards so you can track your progress over time.
By the time 20 or 30 days are complete, you will have made a proper bow hand position a habit, and then you can move onto the next area that needs improvement, such as your release hand, and then to a third area, such as your head position. In this way, you can address every area of your shooting form that needs attention until you have practiced each aspect of your shot so much that it becomes second nature.
Finding the Feel
While practice sessions are a great time to analyze the details of your shot routine, that simply isn't going to work in tournaments or treestands. To go back to an earlier analogy, when Tom Brady is engineering a game-winning drive in the Super Bowl, he doesn't drop back for every pass thinking about his grip on the laces, his footwork or the arm-angle on his throwing motion. He simply plays by instinct, employing all the good fundamentals ingrained during countless hours of practice.
Similarly, Wise says archers who consistently hit 12 rings and tag big bucks do so because they shoot by feel and focus on the process, not the result. "You have to give yourself over to the feel," Wise said. "It's tough for us Westerners to give up the analytical focus on things, because we are so results oriented."
During my time with Wise, he had me sit down and do a simple writing exercise that really hammered home the difference between using the analytical left side of your brain and the creative right side of your brain. Here's how it went: Wise handed me a paper and told me to sign my name. Done. Next, he asked me to sign my name with my right (non-dominant) hand. Suddenly, I had to slow down to a snail's pace and think carefully about every movement of the pen on paper. And even then, my signature looked as if it had been written by a pre-schooler!
Then, Wise told me to put the pen back in my left hand and sign my name again. Done. And again. Done. And again. Done. And again. Done. And again. Done.
I encourage you to take out a piece of paper and do the same thing. Now, look at the five signatures in a row and think about them. Do they look virtually the same? I'm willing to bet they do. And did you even think about the individual letters when you signed them? I'm willing to bet you didn't. That's because you have signed your name so many times it literally flows out of you without thinking. It's something you do by feel, and it feels perfectly smooth, comfortable and natural.
Now, think about that signature you signed with your non-dominant hand. Did it feel smooth, comfortable or natural? I'm betting it didn't. And were you happy with the result? Again, I'm willing to bet not.
So, what's the archery application? Well, it's simple. When you are shooting a shot that really counts — whether that be in competition or on a hunt — you cannot live in the analytical side of your brain. Things move too slowly and they don't flow.
Instead, you must shoot those shots by feel, thinking only about the holding tension in your back as you allow the pin to float on target.
"That's the heart of the mental game," Wise said. "You've got to shift your focus away from analysis to the feel. Feel the holding in your back. That's all important."
This summer, make it your goal to fine-tune your form and find your archery feel. You might not shoot like Levi Morgan, but I guarantee you'll shoot better than ever before!