The psychology that goes along with shooting a bow well is oftentimes interesting. I don't know about you, but in the spring and summer I tend to be much more relaxed and dead-on with my shooting.
However, in the weeks and days leading up to opening day, my nerves can rear up a little, depending on how much I shoot and how well I focus on every shot. If I shoot too much, or lack concentration, anxiety can ramp up out of nowhere.
I've been practicing archery and bowhunting for a long time now. I've done a lot of stupid things, and one of the worst is to keep "pressing on" when my shooting nerves go haywire. In these situations, the best thing I've found is to absolutely not shoot at all...not until I know my mind is at ease again, just like it was back in the spring and summer.
Nowadays, if I find myself over-shooting, I can usually stop the progression before it does too much mental damage. This typically means letting three to five days go by before I'm anxiety free again and ready to shoot smoothly. However, if this isn't the case, then I went too far. Going too far means I've likely sprouted a small seed of target panic that usually requires a more extensive shooting plan, especially if opening day is just right around the corner.
In this instance, there are two things you can do to help recover. This way you can head into hunting season feeling focused on your hunting strategy, and about making an accurate, ethical shot.
Regain Shot Order
When you shoot, your mind needs solid direction — that direction should revolve around either aiming, or pulling through the shot using back tension. In other words, your conscious mind should focus on one thing and one thing only, until the arrow lands on the target.
When you over-shoot, you tend to feel fatigued (both physically and mentally), and with this fatigue also comes a lack of fresh focus.
Bowhunters often wait until the last few weeks to sight-in and shoot broadheads. And when their broadheads just aren't hitting the way they should be, this immediately sends out an "alert" message to the brain, causing a feeling of uneasiness. As you continue to adjust your sights and arrow rest to remedy the problem, somewhere along the line your shooting focus becomes lost. It's no longer focused on that one thing like it's supposed to be doing, which is aiming, or applying back tension, or other basic shooting fundamentals.
Instead, the focus is now on trying to fix the broadhead point-of-impact issue. If you keep pressing on without reminding yourself of the shooting basics, you'll encounter a wave of mental issues...all of which lead to problematic shooting.
The key here is to develop a shot sequence, and to follow that system on each and every shot, even when your broadheads are impacting wildly. Try to separate your shooting system from the accuracy result.
My shot sequence goes like this:
1.) Set foot position (stance).
2.) Hook up release and raise bow to level position.
3.) Apply tension to bowstring and set "pressure point" on bow grip to hand.
4.) Slowly draw while inhaling a deep breath.
5.) Find my anchor.
6.) Glide sight pin up to visually acquire the target (do not aim yet).
7.) Exhale half breath.
8.) Begin pulling with my back while my finger is comfortably hooked around the release's trigger.
9.) Jump into aiming mode and then switch focus to tightening my back muscles.
10.) Say my mantra (pull...pull...pull...), and let aiming become subconscious.
11.) Keep bow arm up until arrow hits the target.
On the surface, this shot checklist seems quite complex. But as you go through it over and over again, it flows smoothly and without a lot of conscious thought. Practicing it with your eyes closed at close range will help reinforce it as well.
Besides a shot list, it's important to shoot with 100-percent focus. This usually means fewer arrows during your practice sessions. In the weeks leading up to hunting season, I like to shoot one arrow each time before pulling it and shooting another. This prevents over-shooting, and ensures I do my best to make that one shot count — just as if I was out hunting.
Redo The Release
Despite following a good shot sequence and practice regimen, the shooting anxiety can still be there. A telltale sign is eagerness to punch the trigger while aiming.
If this is the case, then I'd recommend a more abrupt change, and this usually involves switching to a different style of release aid. I've found that an index-finger release is very user-friendly, but it can also be harder to shoot when you're stricken with a lot of anxiety. One reason is the feeling of the trigger against your index finger — the most sensitive finger on your hand.
A thumb-trigger release can quickly reduce this sensitivity problem, provided it's adjusted and shot correctly. A triggerless back-tension release is another option. However, this type of release usually requires a whole lot more instruction and practice to shoot well, especially in a hunting environment. For this reason, we'll stick with the thumb trigger for the purposes of this article.
One reason why a lot of tournament archers use a thumb-style release is because it allows for a tremendous amount of shooting control. These releases also come with high-quality trigger mechanisms that prevent trigger creep. These two qualities make them very consistent to use.
The secret is to adjust the trigger properly on the release, so that the pad of your thumb rests on the release's body, and not so much on the trigger. Instead, the trigger is contoured around the middle point of the thumb joint — an area that is less sensitive and fixed in position.
When set up this way, the trigger can be activated with back tension, and by pulling through the shot. (See photo for proper hand/thumb placement on the trigger.) This eventually causes the release's body to pivot somewhat, forcing the trigger into the side or middle joint of the thumb. There is no finger movement involved with firing the arrow. This promotes a lot of control and accuracy. This also forces archers to shoot with more purpose and concentration — helping them shift out of bad habits, and into the proper way of shooting.
There are a lot of T-handle thumb releases on the market, but the best ones are pretty expensive — and worth every penny. Carter, Scott, T.R.U. Ball, Spot-Hogg, STAN, Hot Shot, and a few others are all top brands to consider, with quality models costing around $125 to $200.
I will say this, thumb releases aren't as user-friendly as our tried-and-true wrist releases, but they do work well enough in a hunting situation, and, most importantly, they will help restore your shooting control — a worthwhile compromise.
In a treestand, a thumb release with a "closed-loop" fastener can be clipped onto the string loop and left to dangle until it's time to shoot. However, if the release has an "open-hook" head, or when still-hunting or stalking, these kinds of releases can be more troublesome. In this case, it's best to slip the release into your pants pocket for easy access, but make sure the pocket is loose enough for fast use in the event of a sudden shot opportunity.
Another option that I prefer is to fasten the release to your arm via a wrist strap and lanyard. This gives you immediate access to the release. However, you'll have to learn how to tuck the release into a shirtsleeve, or keep it fastened to your wrist area using a loop of elastic webbing. Then you can slip it out when it's time to hook up and shoot.
After two or three weeks of shooting a thumb release, you'll begin to see your confidence climbing. However, you must be very careful not to shift into a "rapid" way of shooting again, or to lose your focus. Stay organized in your shooting sequence, and shoot only a few arrows at a time. Focus on each and every shot. By doing all these things, I have no doubt you'll head into hunting season feeling ready to fill your tag.
Joe Bell is the Executive Director of the Pope and Young Club. To learn more, please visit Pope-Young.org.