Since you are reading Archery World, we can assume you are an archer who is interested in “shooting more, shooting better and having more fun,” since that’s the guiding force of this publication. That seems to be three possible goals but I think we can distill it down a bit. I believe if you do succeed in shooting better, you will undoubtedly have more fun and will naturally want to shoot your bow more often.
Over the years, I’ve written articles designed to help coaches and pro shop owners and their employees correct form flaws in customers. It’s natural to assume that if you are doing something wrong, having a second trained person to observe and guide you can help you do it better. However, maybe you don’t have a coach, or the one you do have is cautious about meeting in the current health environment. Maybe your retailer doesn’t have a range or you haven’t felt comfortable seeking shooting instruction there in the past. Don’t despair. In your pocket or purse, you likely have a phone capable of doing video segments.
Mount it someplace steady where you can film yourself shooting or have a friend play cameraman. Go through these steps; do them in order or start with he areas that you already know you need to work on. Be patient with yourself as you perform the action and review the video, as it can take 20 days of practice to form a new habit. Just learning how to do something correctly one time doesn’t make you a better archer. You have to practice! And you have to practice while consciously concentrating on the form elements you are trying to fix instead of on hitting a target.
Consider practicing your corrected form at a distance of 3 yards with no target face and your eyes closed, aiming at a big target butt. You have to feel it before it becomes a habit.
The form I teach is called “Core Archery” and relies on the proper use of the spine and skeleton to build archery form that is consistent in the long term. I’ll give you some tips for correcting common form flaws using the fundamentals of that form system. My book and DVD of the same name, “Core Archery,” may be helpful reference resources.
With that in mind, let’s begin identifying and fixing some of the most common form flaws.
IMPROPER BOW HAND POSITION
Most archers use the word “grip” when referring to how they should hold the bow handle and immediately, there’s a problem. Saying the word “grip” is fine when referring to the place where you should hold the bow but not for how to hold it. A very negative picture is sent to the new archer when they hear “grip.” New archers and plenty of old ones grab the bow handle like a baseball bat, golf club or tennis racket and choke it tightly. Others stiffly spread their hands and fingers in an effort to avoid gripping around the bow handle. I’m sure you’ve seen both as you have been around other shooters.
Everyone wants to control the bow so the arrow goes in the middle, but “controlling” does just the oppo-site and the arrow won’t go in the middle. The more the archer controls the handle, the fewer arrows go in the middle.
If you have grip issues, start by making a “stop sign” with the bow hand. The bow arm should be extended with the wrist turned up, showing the palm toward the target. Then the hand should turn slightly so the knuckles are at a 45 degree angle to the ground. Relax the fingers completely without dropping the wrist and the hand is ready to receive the bow.
Slide a vertically-held bow into the bow hand. Pay attention to if you are tightening your fingers as you do this and remember to relax. The fingers should be drooping if they are relaxed. The thumb should be pointing straight toward the target, not up or down. If it’s curled up or down, muscles are tightening in the hand. To relax, relax, relax is the first order of business.
With the hand relaxed, the bow will be pulled into the hand consistently during every draw stroke. When the string is released, the relaxed hand will not transfer any torque to the handle and the archer will get more consistent results and improved grouping.
Practicing at close range with no sight and no target is the best way to attain a relaxed hand placement. Shooting 10 shots several times a day is more effective than shooting a hundred shots at one time. Take video of yourself before and after the shooting so you can check your progress. Do not use the word “grip.” Think and say “bow-hand placement” so you create the proper mental picture.
IMPROPER RELEASE HAND POSITION
Using the “T”-Handle Release Aid: Most new archers try to control the release aid. They grip the device so that it doesn’t fly out of their hands, but like the bow hand, the release hand should also be relaxed. The fingers should be curled only at the first two knuckles, creating a “hook” that holds the release aid.
The big knuckle should be straight (flat) and relaxed. If an archer is making any kind of a fist, then they are using muscles in the forearm: a common mistake. Once again, tight control is not the name of the game. Tightening the forearm muscles creates unnecessary tension, which actually prevents transfer of the holding into the archer’s back muscles.
A bent wrist is another sign of forearm muscle use. An archer can’t bend their wrist without using forearm muscles and we hope to minimize muscle use so as to maximize consistency.
The goal is to relax the knuckles, wrist and forearm. If they’re relaxed, the pulling force needed to draw the bow string will straighten them; they must only act as “connectors” between the back/shoulder unit and the first two finger joints.
Correcting this control habit is difficult but there’s a simple way to learn the correct feel. Use a bucket filled with a few pounds of sand. Newer plastic paint cans work well for this, provided they have sturdy handles. You can also buy empty plastic cans used for painting at most hardware or home improvement stores. Plastic won’t rust and won’t mar your floor as badly as metal will when someone drops one. You can hold the bucket at your side with the arm hanging straight and relaxed. Work on the “relaxed” part. No matter if you shoot recurve/fingers or compound/release, you need to relax your drawing arm and this will teach you how it feels.
Finger shooters can practice further by “refusing to hold” the bucket handle. Their fingers should go limp and the bucket will pull through them and drop to the floor. No thrusting motion should be used in the release because they can’t repeat that action on every shot.
From the bucket, move to the bow and arrow with no sight and no target face. Practice several times daily if possible. A release shooter can practice using the release and a 27- to 30-inch nylon rope loop in place of the bow. Practice at different times during the day; at lunch or on break is a great way to learn this new habit. (It still takes 20 days.)
Using the Index-Trigger Release Aid: Most bow-hunters use wrist-strap-style trigger releases and most of them use the tip of the index finger on the trigger. I realize that this makes it easy to use the trigger but there is a better way. Using the fingertip to control the trigger links the conscious brain to the trigger and that’s when “anticipation” problems begin.
We use our fingertips to “sense” everything we touch all day long. They feed our brains information about hot, cold, hard, soft, smooth, rough, sharp or blunt. We can even sense the thickness difference between one sheet of paper and two. So when you place your index fingertip on the release aid trigger, your conscious brain is very much aware of it and focuses on that touching and control instead of the shooting process, which should involve your back muscles. The result is some form of dysfunction that interferes with good shot execution and the “surprise” release you’re supposed to get.
There is a simple change that everyone can make to avoid this set of problems. Set the trigger tension “heavy” and shorten the release aid handle so you can surround the trigger with the index finger. Wrap the finger around the trigger deep into the second crease of your finger; use a full hook around the trigger with full contact from the beginning. This technique places a much less sensitive part of the finger on the trigger.
Also curl the other fingers as shown here so all of the fingers can tighten to activate the release aid trig-ger. For good technique, an archer needs to first trans-fer the holding of the bow into the back muscles and relax the holding arm. Next, continue contracting the back muscles, and at the same time, tighten all of the curled fingers until the release aid discharges the bow-string. Mental focus must remain on the back-tension process until the arrow impacts the target. This is how archers win world championships and shoot deer on the first shot every time!
IMPROPER HEAD POSITION
An archer shooting with any amount of head tilt is working harder than they should be. An archer’s back muscles work most effectively if the head is straight over the spine. A head tilted to see through a peep sight, touch a kisser button or get in front of the string is easy to spot and a quick video will show you any problems in your form.
Correct head position can be set by standing erect with the chin level. Then shift the head 1/8 of an inch back. Don’t tuck the chin down; keep it level. This rear-ward shift gets the head over the spine to ensure that the back muscles will have maximum leverage and strength. The final step is a 70- to 80-degree head rotation toward the target.
Head position is easy to teach up to this point, but next, the archer must keep it there while drawing and aiming. Once head position is set, draw the bow to it. Moving the head to find the bowstring and peep is not going to get you to your “A” game in archery; under the pressure of bowhunting, you will not find your peep sight.
Here’s where closed-eye practice is helpful. You can set the head position and then draw the bow and open your eyes. The peep should be in front of the eye. Practice makes the difference.
BOW-SIDE SHOULDER POSITION ISSUES
Most bow shoulder problems occur before the archer draws the bow. The tendency of many archers is to point the bow high into the air and draw as they lower it to target level. By this time, their bow shoulders are higher than they should be, rolled forward or bothhigh and forward. In either case, the draw force of the bow cannot be resisted without using arm and shoul-der muscles.
Both shoulders must be on the same level to be most effective. Raising one higher or lowering one will promote muscle overuse, fatigue and inconsistency. Level shoulders allow proper skeleton use to bear the load of the drawn bow.
Learn to level your shoulders first before raising your bow. I teach my students how to raise their bows without the bows in their hands by having them drop their bow arms to their sides, relax them and then raise their extended arms from their shoulder sockets down. Keep fingers limp and elbows straight and do not raise the shoulder in any way.
Once the bow is raised and the shoulders are level, then I teach my students to never raise or lower them until the arrow is in the target. Practice in front of a mirror and/or shooting video while learning this “raise” maneuver is helpful.
Archers should practice rolling their bow shoulders forward (toward the chin) and setting them back and down to the shooting position in order to learn what the right position feels like. One winter and spring, I had to practice this skill every time I passed through a door frame. Use your skeleton instead of your muscles to resist the force of the drawn bow.
IMPROPER DRAW SHOULDER HEIGHT
As is the case with the bow shoulder, the draw shoulder gets either dropped or elevated before or during the draw stroke. Once out of position, it’s hard to put in place while you are at full draw. You need to set it correctly before drawing and then keep it there.
Both shoulders should be at the same level, as mentioned earlier. Once this shoulder level is set, the bow should be raised and drawn without the shoulder height changing. That means the bow should be drawn with the drawing forearm horizontal. Once full-draw position has been reached, the drawing elbow can be held level or raised slightly, depending on which works best for the given shooter. A lowered elbow is not recommended, as it lessens the leverage from back muscles.
Quite often, archers draw far too much weight and can’t execute the draw stroke with good form. Well, guess what has to change? That’s right: the draw weight. An archer’s top priority is to learn good form first, then work on higher draw weight later. The old adage “a fast miss is still a miss” always applies to this situation. All the speed in the world won’t help an archer if they are missing left or right; good form always helps accuracy.
Practicing the raise, draw and full-draw-position setting can be done with a light-draw-weight recurve, a lightweight compound or stretch bands. I make sure my students get it correct before they move to higher-weight bows. I also provide lots of video during the process so my students get lots of instant feedback.
IMPROPER DRAW ELBOW
An archer’s draw-side elbow is highly visible and when it’s not properly positioned, it sticks out like a sore thumb. Getting it right means you can shoot with maximum efficiency. When it’s wrong, you can’t get synchronized effort from your back muscles and shoul der anatomy.
Look for three things when examining the elbow: whether it is too high, too low or, from a top view, not rotated to be in line with the arrow. In any case, the scapula and the attached rhomboid muscles won’t have their best leverage to first hold the bow and secondly complete the release with rotation.
When the drawing/holding elbow is too high, the archer’s scapula is rotated outward and upward too far from the spine to allow proper transfer of the holding into the back muscles. In this position, the contracted back muscles will not be able to exert enough rotating force on the elbow to cause the back tension release aid to discharge the bowstring. The elbow should be positioned level with the arrow or slightly above it to attain optimum rhomboid muscle leverage.
A drawing elbow that is below the arrow level pushes the scapula closer to the spine. This decreases the leverage of the rhomboid muscles and their ability to hold the bow and rotate the elbow. Therefore, your student must use the arm, the hand or both to execute the shot: a situation that leads to inconsistent release technique and poor accuracy.
Many archers concentrate so much on the ”anchor points” on the sides of their faces that they lose touch with or never know that they should be focusing on their scapula position. When this anchor point is too far forward on the face or jaw, they don’t get the drawing/holding elbow rotated far enough around to align the forearm with the arrow as seen from a top view. In this position, the bow’s draw length is most likely too short for them and this further complicates the matter.
I teach my students facing this problem to think less of the touch-points on the chin or jaw and to draw until they can feel the elbow in line with the arrow and the transfer of holding force into the back. Complete transfer enables them to relax their forearms in full-draw-position, hold their heads upright over their spines and execute the release with coordinated back-muscle contraction.
Most archers have a natural stance that is a little open. That is, they have their hips turned slightly toward the target face. Reviewing the “closed-eye” test with them will quickly determine what degree of openness is correct for them with the particular bows they happen to be shooting.
Many archers I see have their stances set with their feet too close together. To feel the stance, assume a “T” position with your heels together and your arms out-stretched level. When you close your eyes in this position, you will feel unstable; with your heels together, you will teeter-totter back and forth similar to when standing on one foot. If you keep your eyes closed and then spread your feet apart, you will feel a very high degree of steadiness return to your legs and body’s core. Experiment with varying spreads to get a feel for what may stabilize you the best.
Next, using the proper spread distance, assume even stances and shoot several shots. Then use the closed-eye test several times and adjust your lead foot accordingly. Drawing, aiming and closing the eyes for a count of eight seconds completes this test. When you open your eyes, you will detect left or right drift.
Right drift away from the target face indicates a need for a more open stance. If so, the archer should rotate their stance several degrees so more of their hips face the target face. You should test your stance regularly, as you will experience form changes while you learn to shoot.
PROBLEMS DRAWING THE COMPOUND BOW
I ask most of my students to reduce the draw weights of their bows by 10 pounds when we start our lessons together. There are two reasons for this. First, they may need to shoot more than a few arrows. Second, struggling to draw the bow promotes poor shoulder position and overall poor shooting form. It is more important to learn to shoot properly first than it is to shoot quickly! Students must get good first and then go look for speed if they think they need it.
Archers shooting with too much draw weight and those who just never learned proper technique tend to draw the bow with their arms. I see many of them raising the bow high and drawing on the down stroke. To do it properly, they should draw with both arms on the same level, the bow pointed just above the target center and the shoulders set in a level line parallel to the arrow.
To get better at drawing the bow, you can learn to rotate your hips several degrees toward the target as you raise the bow. Next, you need to tighten the torso muscles so the torso is joined to the bottom. Then, as you draw the bow, you can rotate your hips back to the stance position and use the whole upper body to assist the draw.
I’ve often fallen into the bad habit of rolling my drawing shoulder forward toward the arrow line rather than keeping my shoulders in a line parallel to the arrow. Rolling it forward forces an archer to draw more with their upper arm muscles and less with their back, making transfer into the back more difficult and less likely to happen. Poor technique promotes shoulder injury while proper technique prevents injury and helps establish muscle control in the back.
Other archers start with their bows much lower than target level when they draw. Here, their drawing shoulders end at different levels than their bow shoulders. This may lead them to tilting the body or thrusting the hips either toward or away from the target. Use the same strategy as outlined here to correct your draw, keeping in mind that before you draw, your shoulders must be level and on a line parallel to the arrow and must remain level for the duration of the shot. You must learn to use more of your body’s core and back to do the work on the draw stroke.
VISUAL TARGET ACQUISITION ERRORS
Many archers tell me they have trouble shooting the three-spot target because they can’t find the right spot when they get to full draw. This is an indication that they are not locking onto the spot early in their form sequence and need to do so. Another possibility is that they are not maintaining visual lock-on once they do establish it.
Early in my form sequence, I turn my head to the target and visually acquire the spot, gold or X-ring I intend to hit. My body posture then organizes around that line of sight and I never look elsewhere until after the arrow impacts the target. This is not easy to learn but it’s necessary. Just ask the golfer how important it is to keep their eye on the ball beyond club impact.
Many archers, myself included, want to look at the sight just as they get to full draw. When they do, they are no longer looking at the X-ring and have to then reacquire it with the sight. Somewhere in there, they can get in the wrong spot and make a good shot score a zero.
Training to focus on the X-ring and bring the sight into the line of focus takes time. That’s the best hope an archer has for getting lined up on the correct spot and maintaining body alignment toward that spot. Obviously, you must have good body position to make this happen and without a coach, you may not ever get it right.
There is so much more to do here to fix all of the flaws you see in yourself but not enough space in this magazine to write about them. Getting started with these top nine flaws will help you get on a shorter path to consistent shooting. Be sure to remember that continuous practice of the proper techniques is the only way to build good form. There are no shortcuts to good shot execution: only hard work.
A final note to all the coaches who may be reading this: all a coach can do is instruct with proper technique and get their students excited about shooting better. From there, you have to develop your own motivation to practice. The old “horse led to water” adage applies, so when your trough is filled, drink.