March 14, 2018
Like all bowhunters, I have had my share of misses. Sometimes the shots were tough or the animal moved or I nicked a branch I didn't see. But sometimes, the shots were easy and I missed anyway. All misses stink, but those easy ones really stick in your craw and eat at you for years.
I missed a giant deer in Alberta a number of years ago that was walking through my shooting lane at 19 yards! It was a slam-dunk shot. But I shot right under him and had to watch the deer add insult to injury when it walked out into a nearby alfalfa field and started feeding. Not only could I not kill him, I couldn't even scare him sufficiently to make him change his destination.
I missed another buck a few years back that appeared suddenly and moved fast toward a nearby field. I had only a few seconds to decide if I wanted to shoot him and then to get the bow back and the pin on the vitals. I panicked and never got things organized mentally, even after I grunted to stop him. I shot right over the buck. I felt stupid when he bounded off. I am supposed to be good at this.
By contrast, I've also had a few shots that seemed easy (almost like slow motion) while they occurred but that were, in hindsight, fairly difficult. One of the biggest bucks I ever shot fell to my arrow in just such an encounter. I remember seeing the hairs on his side separate as the broadhead hit him. That is how "zoned-in" I was at that moment.
In each of these cases, the common thread — what made the hard shots easy and the easy shots hard — was whether I first chose a small spot on the animal to aim at. Picking a spot focuses everything that happens later. It forces your decision making to fall in perfect balance with the pace of the action.
Picking a spot is tough to do when the adrenaline is high and things are happening fast. What you may take for granted when standing in the backyard, or even at the stake in a 3-D tournament, seems as difficult as walking backwards on a tightrope when confronted with live game. We all suffer from buck fever to varying degrees, and it gets only worse when the time of the encounter is compressed. One of the surest symptoms of buck fever is overlooking the simple act of picking a spot.
Recently, I saw a recurve hanging in a bowhunter's basement with the message "Pick A Spot Here" written on the back of the upper limb in paint. Lest he forget where "here" was, the owner had painted an arrow pointing toward the sight window. I laughed, but I knew only too well what the guy was up against. I've had days when instructions as simple as an arrow would have been all I could handle.
Dealing With The Meltdown
I think we are kidding ourselves if we believe we will somehow learn to stop having mental meltdowns when shooting at game. If we had the opportunity to shoot many animals each year, we might get used to it, but ours is a sport with long periods of inaction followed by short moments of panic. It is hard to practice dealing with that.
Instead of trying to get good at pouring cold water on steaming hot adrenaline, it makes more sense to learn how to make good decisions in spite of this intense environment.
Having a great pre-shot routine you consciously practice every time you shoot is the key to doing the right things under pressure. I used to play golf all the time, and I learned that the top players always looked to their pre-shot routine in order to combat pressure. They stuck to their routine on every shot, no matter how important or inconsequential. When the pressure was on, they didn't have to invent some new way to deal with it. They just stuck with the routine, executed each step carefully and good things would follow. We need to do the same thing with our own pre-shot routines.
On every shot you take for the rest of your life, whether in competition, practice or while hunting, make a conscious effort to first pick a small aiming point. Build it into your routine by actually thinking about the need to pick the spot before choosing it. Don't get lazy in this regard; don't just let your brain auto-pilot through this critical step. Ideally, you'll pick the spot you want to hit before you draw the bow, and then you'll lock onto it until the arrow hits home.
Only when you build this key step into your everyday shooting routine will you be able to consistently do it when it really counts — just like the top golfers.
Practice Your Focus
When concentration is sharp, the very small spot you pick on the target snaps into clear focus. You may not even have a conscious idea of exactly where the pin is during the shot because you are directing so much mental toward the target. That's a great visual cue that you're ready to shoot. Do this on every shot you take. Lock on that spot until it comes into focus before starting your shot execution.
After you learn to pick a spot, you need to learn to hold that focus until the arrow hits. Strive for the feeling that your focus is so tight that you're actually controlling the arrow as it flies toward the target. This type of mental follow-through — while the arrow is in the air — will really raise your standards for accuracy. You won't be satisfied unless you hit that exact spot.
Aim small, miss small; that is when archery really starts to get fun and when your success leaps forward on both the easy and the tough shots. The challenge of making good shots really is 80 percent mental, and you can control 100 percent of that!