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Mind Games: Overcoming Shooting Pressure

If you want to shoot well at the moment of truth, follow this proven plan.

Mind Games: Overcoming Shooting Pressure

(Photos courtesy of the author)

The mind is not tolerant of abrupt physical and emotional changes. It performs task-oriented jobs much better in a normal or controlled setting. Throw in abnormal variables, such as a heightened heart rate, fear of missing, inclement weather, and the presence of something rarely seen up close (e.g., a giant buck), and the mind tends to go haywire or otherwise not operate smoothly. This presents a major problem when wanting to perform well in a serious bowhunting situation.

To achieve success in such “fight or flight” situations, bowhunters must prepare accordingly. Below is a four-step plan for improving your performance when shooting pressure is ultrahigh.

Develop a Subconscious Release

The conscious mind tends to trip us up more than anything else. For this reason, it’s best to keep it away from the main source of the problem — thinking too much about the actual firing of the arrow. Instead, put all your attention on using the correct sight pin, placing it precisely on the best spot on the kill zone, and aiming with incredible intensity. The triggering of the shot must go to the supercomputer in our minds — the subconscious. It can do multiple things at one time, incredibly well, as long as we program it carefully through repetitive action.

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Shooting well at the moment of truth often comes down to how we approach the shot. By utilizing a subconscious-style release method, an archer can learn to fire the shot by surprise. This helps the archer focus more on aiming and proper shooting form, rather than thinking about the timing of the arrow’s release. This will improve shooting performance when the pressure is high.

Muscle memory is at the heart of this programming task. It takes at least 30 days of doing something the same way, over and over, to develop a habit. So, you’ll want to mimic a certain way of releasing the arrow that puts the subconscious mind completely in charge. One effective method is to expand your back muscles until the elbow, arm and release hand move ever so slightly rearward and away from the target, causing the finger on the trigger to move and trip the sear. If you learn how to do this smoothly, through repetitive motion, in due time the subconscious will lock this movement into its memory bank. Once it’s there, it’ll know what to do with it, even when emotions are running high.

Blind-bale shooting gives you the best opportunity to program the subconscious, since you can shoot with your eyes closed, only thinking about the muscle movement in your back (i.e. shoulder blades tightening). By using the back to move the elbow/arm/hand ever so slightly until the release fires, you’re allowing muscle memory to control the “timing” of the shot. This helps eliminate anticipation, keeping your conscious mind at ease. Once this muscle movement is conditioned to move at a slow pace, it’ll operate exactly the same way regardless of physical or mental influences. It simply doesn’t know any better, and that’s what you want. Best of all, this arrow-releasing method works with all types of release aids: index, thumb, and hinge-style releases.

Set Up the Release Aid Correctly

Proper release-aid setup is paramount with this style of shooting. With an index-finger release, be sure the finger grasps the trigger somewhere between the first and second crease. This will allow the finger to “hook” around the trigger peg solidly, so you can use muscle memory to slowly pull the elbow/arm/hand ever so slightly until your hooked finger activates the release. The deeper you curl the finger around the trigger the better, since the tip of the index finger is super sensitive and prone to punching the trigger.

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Index-finger releases are easy to carry and operate, but they tend to cause trigger-punching problems for a lot of archers. To help override this tendency, the author suggests using the middle finger and not the index finger to activate the release’s trigger. The middle finger is less sensitive and allows for improved subconscious shooting to maximize control and accuracy.

If you find yourself punching the trigger, no matter how you adjust your index-finger release, consider switching to the middle finger to hook the trigger with. The middle finger is not nearly as sensitive, thus less likely to operate on its own and induce trigger punching. To do this, place the hand over the release’s body, straddling it with the index finger on one side and the middle finger on the trigger side, then draw the bow back. After several weeks of operating the release this way, it will become second nature and you’ll find yourself shooting better than ever.

Using a thumb or hinge-style release can also be extremely helpful to improve muscle memory focus, since both can be triggered by moving the elbow straight back, while the hand naturally twists to activate the sear. On a thumb-style release, you can place the tip of the thumb on the handle itself, while the middle portion of the thumb curls around the trigger. When back-tension is applied, the handle will turn naturally due to the rearward movement of the elbow/arm/hand, forcing the thumb into the trigger until the arrow fires.

Use Mental Training Exercises

Once you’ve developed a solid subconscious release, you can begin practicing at normal shooting distances. Instantly, you’ll notice added control and smoothness as you trigger the shot. This is good, but it’s important not to backslide into old patterns. If you slip up and allow the programming to deteriorate, you’ll ruin all your efforts. So, stay methodical in how you shoot going forward — no exceptions.

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Mental-training exercises include shooting only when you’re physically strong and focused on shooting properly. It also includes visualization techniques, such as imagining your heart thumping out of your chest as you take aim at a giant buck standing in front of you, despite only shooting at a 3D target in the backyard. The more you condition the mind for the real thing, the better you’ll perform when the chips are down.

How you practice has a lot to do with nurturing a subconscious release. Here are three things you should do to forge productive shooting habits:

Take Each Shot Seriously: That’s right, every shot you take should be with 100-percent focus. Make sure you’re drawing the bow smoothly, breathing correctly, and using a consistent method to acquire the target and begin your aiming sequence. Then stay hooked-up on aiming while “pulling through the shot,” until the arrow is gone. If you ever find yourself losing focus, be sure to let down and start the shot process all over again. Teach yourself to shoot properly by being disciplined.

Don’t Practice When Tired: One of the worst things you can do is shoot with fatigued muscles. When your muscles are tired, your shooting form worsens, causing the mind to lose focus. In many ways, the old adage that says, “archery is 90% mental and 10% physical” is incorrect, because your physical state will certainly impact your mental state, at least in terms of programming the mind the right way.

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Bow tuning can sometimes be problematic since it prompts archers to shoot excessively while altering their setup to improve accuracy. However, nothing is more important than the condition of your mind, so only tune when you’re well rested and be sure to break up your tuning sessions over the course of several days to avoid taxing your body and mental focus.

Simulate Real Hunting Shots: It doesn’t hurt to visualize real-life hunting shots while you’re shooting at a 3-D target. Imagine intimate details, such as your heart thumping out of your chest as you picture the biggest buck of your lifetime now within your effective range. Create such an image as you remember to breath and draw your bow using a consistent rhythm. Run through your shot sequence and always keep each step in the proper order. Then focus on aiming with intense concentration, giving the “let go” of the arrow to your subconscious mind. Aim… aim… aim… and activate the muscle memory until the shot just fires all by itself. Practice these visualization exercises as much as you can during your weekly practice sessions.

Dial In Gear

Do you have any nagging thoughts about your bow setup? Is it hard to draw in a tree stand? Does it seem to shoot way off when you’re cold, tired or wearing your normal hunting clothes? In many ways, problems with your bow setup can make shooting pressure worse, so do what you can to fix it.

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Your complete bow setup should complement your shooting efforts. If the bow draws harshly, it’ll detract from consistent shooting. Ultimately, the bow should act like an extension of your arm. This means, it should draw back with utter ease, so you can hit full draw and find anchor without even thinking about it. This will give you the ability to go on auto-pilot when you’re in a pressure-packed hunting situation.

Personally, I like my setup to be as forgiving as possible, so if I make a small mistake when shooting it won’t cost me as much. This seems to ease my mind when I’m in a tough shooting situation and my thoughts are racing.

To begin, make sure the bow is easy to draw. You should be able to draw the bow with moderate ease. If not, consider lowering the draw weight until you can pull nearly straight back without a lot of movement. A good test is to shoot from a stool or chair, while aiming at a 10-yard paper plate. If you can’t keep your top pin on the plate while drawing, you’re probably overbowed.

Solid bow balance can also improve shooting forgiveness. Be sure to experiment with different stabilizers, counterweights, backbars, and even bow quivers until your bow holds more rock solid and plumb. Overall, the bow should be an extension of your arm in a hunting environment. You want it to operate with tremendous smoothness, so you can be on auto-pilot as you acquire the target quickly and aim confidently until the arrow fires all by itself.

Using consistent arrows and broadheads is critical as well. Save your money and buy the highest-grade arrow shafts on the market that come with consistent spine. I spin check all my broadheads for absolute concentricity between the broadhead shank, insert and arrow shaft. I weigh each hunting arrow to ensure the overall weight across all complete arrows is no more than plus/minus 2 grains. I also shoot each arrow a couple times from various distances to ensure it is hitting perfectly, then change out the broadhead blades with new ones. This attention to details helps with shooting forgiveness and confidence.

Bowhunting shots can be nerve racking and capitalizing on a good opportunity under such conditions can be rather difficult. However, by training your mind correctly you can perform exceedingly well in such pressure-packed environments. The key is to be systematic and disciplined in your shooting approach, while adopting a subconscious-style release method. These elements will greatly improve your focus and shooting control at the moment of truth, helping you become a better bowhunter.




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