"I've got target panic."
Those words are uttered by a vast majority of archers at some point in their shooting journey. Many talk about it as if it is a disease. Others refuse to talk about it for fear that merely speaking the words will cause the affliction. There may be some truth to that, but more on that later.
Throughout the years, there have been many solutions devised to combat this problem. An entire industry has been built because of target panic in the form of trigger-less release aids, clickers, and coaching. But what is the core problem that every archer faces?
Why is it that every human, with an extreme few exceptions, deals with shot anticipation in one form or another? Is it the fear of missing? Is it the adrenaline surging through your body when faced with shooting at an animal? Is it a lack of concentration? Target panic has been said to be all of those things, but there is a deeper core problem that we are all born with.
As shooters, we are all dealing with target panic, and to truly control this beast, we must first understand the core problem of shooting — the mind will not allow the body to cause an explosion as a surprise without having a response to that explosion. If given the chance, your mind will always brace the body for impact, or an explosion, especially if it has a way of predicting or controlling when that explosion will occur.
When we think of impact or explosions, we instantly think of the recoil and explosion of a firearm. A bow firing is an explosion as well, just on a smaller scale. Also, shot anticipation is greater with a bow because the body is in tension, and this tension is the only thing stopping the explosion from happening.
I say we are born with target panic because we are born with a natural self-preservation response to loud noises and impact from falling. When a loud noise is presented to an infant, we see a startle response where the hands go up, the head goes down, and the eyes close. All of this happens involuntarily.
Further, when someone falls, they involuntarily catch themselves to brace for the impact. It is because of this self-preservation response that we are all dealing with target panic and shot anticipation. If your mind knows an explosion or impact is imminent, it will form a response to brace for that phenomenon.
This response is readily seen in firearms when an untrained shooter thinks the safety has been deactivated when it has not, and they jerk the trigger but the gun does not fire. When this happens, we see the response of the body with the tensing of muscles and the closing of the eyes. In archery, this response is more difficult to see because the bow has no safety, and it always fires when we activate the trigger or release our fingers. In firearms, it is commonly referred to as "flinching." In archery, we call it "target panic." Whatever you call it, this phenomenon lives within all of us and is directly linked to the core problem of shooting.
The core problem is dealt with by the mind in three main forms. We see them as the three most common forms of target panic. Either the mind locks the sight off the target, it does not allow the archer to get to full draw if the arrow is already aimed, or the archer punches the trigger of a mechanical release.
The mind knows that aiming at the spot or getting to full draw with a traditional bow is linked to the explosion of the bow firing. We have all been there. We bring our sight up from the bottom or down from the top, and just before we get to the spot the sight locks up and it's like the bow is in a vise. Any movement towards the target's center causes the trigger to be punched, or the hand to relax, and the arrow is gone.
The mind is simply readying the body for the moment of impact/explosion. The mind wants to control exactly when the explosion will happen, so it can precisely brace the body for the impact.
With traditional bows, we often see archers lock up on the draw and stop their drawing hand inches in front of their face. Their draw weight now feels like a thousand pounds. When the mind is ready for the explosion, the archer jerks the string back towards his or her face in a rapid motion and releases the string at the same time. The mind just successfully got the archer through another explosion.
Some archers even keep their finger behind the trigger, because it is the only way they can get their pin on the target without punching the trigger. Once the pin is on the target, we see the trigger finger slowly creep up above the trigger like a rattlesnake ready to strike. Because the trigger is linked to the explosion, the mind keeps the finger away from the trigger. When it is ready for the explosion, the mind sends the recoil-bracing motor program along with the trigger-punching motor program and the arrow is away. However, because the motor programs are now linked, the recoil bracing happens just before the trigger is activated and all of the muscle contractions affect the point of impact.
"The core problem is dealt with by the mind in three main forms. We see them as the three most common forms of target panic. Either the mind locks the sight off the target, it does not allow the archer to get to full draw if the arrow is already aimed, or the archer punches the trigger of a mechanical release."
Unfortunately, we practice this braced shot over and over and expect to get better at shooting. Our mind loves us for it because we are not surprising it with explosions all the time. The mind has developed a response to lessen the effects of the explosion on the body. Know that you, as a shooter, will always be battling this hardwired response. However, if we understand this core problem, we can start to practice the right things to override this system.
Decide to Succeed
Before an archer can gain control of their shot, they need to know what decisions need to be made within a shot, when to make those decisions, and how to carry out those decisions once they have been made. So, what decisions need to be made within a shot? You need to stop expecting things to work for you, especially under stress.
I see people all the time buy a new bow, or a new release, or take instruction, and they expect the new shiny toy to be their cure for target panic. There is no system out there that will work for you. You have to work for it. Embracing this new mindset is where you begin. Once you have taken this first leap, the next decision that must be made is that you will not shoot an arrow unless your shot plan is going perfectly.
Most archers have no way of knowing whether the shot is going perfectly or not, because there is no movement in their shot that they can evaluate. They move their trigger finger quickly, using an automatic movement that is too fast for them to evaluate and catch feedback within the movement. Again, that automatic movement has been linked to recoil bracing. It has been linked to jerking the sight to the target and punching the trigger all at the same time. The same can be said for traditional bows when the string is jerked back towards the face, or the bow jumps to the proper sight picture and the string is released simultaneously.
To take a movement that has been made automatic through repetition and slow it down to the point that it can be evaluated, modified, or stopped anywhere within the movement will always require a decision. The shooter has to decide to work through the trigger perfectly, with a movement slow enough to catch feedback within the movement. If this movement is allowed to be automatic, it will be linked to recoil bracing. The shooter must decide to send the motor program to the back muscles instead of to the trigger finger, thumb, or fingers. Directing motor programs requires intense concentration.
The How of Concentration
The end goal of all this is to concentrate on the movement of the back muscles, and keep that movement going at a rate that you can stop or modify anywhere within the movement. The shooter must keep that movement going until the trigger breaks, or the psychological trigger (like a clicker on a traditional bow) activates. When concentration is placed on this movement and nothing else, the shot comes as a true surprise, and there is no input from the shooter while the arrow is still in the bow. The shooter is now only catching the recoil of the bow after the arrow is gone.
To truly concentrate on a movement that causes an explosion is extremely difficult, especially if you do not know how to concentrate. What is a shot sequence made of? What is a grocery list made of? Many of you are thinking that these things are made up of items, ideas, or thoughts, but let's go one level deeper. These things, like any list, are made up of words that can be used for attentional cues. What you say is what you think. Knowing that, you must use "self-talk" to direct concentration into the movement that activates the shot.
If the movement of the back muscles that we desire is pulling, then we need to use that motor-program word in our self-talk or mantra. The way the mantra is said is the way the movement will go. I prefer to use the words, "Keep pulling, keep pulling€¦" until the shot comes as a surprise. The mantra must be rhythmic and smooth if the movement is to follow the speech pattern. When these words are spoken during the activation portion of the shot, then the concentration is on that movement and it can be evaluated, modified, or stopped anywhere within the movement.
The intense concentration and involvement in the process of the shot-activation movement will never be automatic. Shooters never just find themselves moving their back muscles perfectly and executing the surprise release.
Some professional archers claim they only think about aiming, and they just let the shot happen subconsciously or automatically. However, if those archers really analyze their shot, they would realize there is a point at which they make a decision to follow their shot sequence. They are constantly evaluating their shot within the shot process, and they have the ability to stop a bad shot before it happens.
So to get around target panic, the archer must decide to succeed. They must break the shot into two very separate jobs. Job number one is: Draw back and aim. Get it done. Watch it to keep it.
Job number two is: Put the concentration into the movement that activates the shot. That is done through the use of words and the decision to use them. If any portion of the shot is not going as planned, recognize the error and let down your draw. With every perfect shot, realize how you did it, mentally. What were you thinking about during the movement? Were you saying your mantra? Could you have stopped the shot-activation movement?
As archers, we don't need to get better at shooting. We need to get better at recognizing our thoughts during a shot. Refuse to shoot an arrow that is not going perfectly, and have the ability to recognize errors in the process. Instead of going to the range and practicing your shooting to get better at shooting, go to the range and use the unnatural act of shooting to practice your concentration. Good shooting comes from good concentration, and if used properly, the reverse is true as well. By not deciding to concentrate, you are deciding to be the victim of target panic.
The author is the Founder of Ironmind Hunting and Controlled Process Shooting. Visit his website at ironmindhunting.com, where you can register for courses in Target Panic and Shot Control. He is also a two-time RMEF World Elk Calling Champion.