“The buck stepped out from behind the tree, a scant 20 yards away. I raised my bow, picked a spot directly behind the foreleg, and without thinking the arrow flew directly into the middle of the heart-lung kill zone. I cannot remember releasing the arrow, but it was a perfect shot and the deer died within seconds.”
Does this sound like you? There are those moments in all sports when mind and body melt together into a dynamic unity of concentration and perfection just unfolds: “the zone”, as some sports psychologists call it. When you are in it, whether you are shooting an arrow at a deer or a target, hitting a golf ball, or throwing a touchdown pass, things seem to slow down, your concentration is flawless, and you effortlessly execute with precision. Then, there are those other times.
We all miss on occasion. Game animals are not stationary targets. Branches do get in the way. The wind blows. But, when “buck fever” strikes, it is as if a demon spirit has possessed us to prevent making an accurate shot, or even getting the bow drawn. “My hands were shaking so hard that the arrow was beating like a drumstick against my bow.” “I dropped the arrow off the string.” “I broke out in a cold sweat, and my eyes were watering, and then I sneezed, more from excitement than any allergy.” Sound like you?
If there was no excitement at the approach of game animals, then it is probably time to hang up the bow or gun and try photography. Or, if all you want is excitement, there’s always sky diving or bungee jumping. The real issues for the hunter to be successful are how much excitement that approaching buck stirs up and how you manage it. In this article I am going to offer some suggestions for turning “buck fever” into successful shooting. The suggestions are based on some of the latest training and preparation methods in sports psychology that are used by many world-class athletes.
Before we begin, let me say that I have hunted and shot competitive archery since the 1950s. In my teens, I shot in a Detroit-area league of Olympic-aspirants that included former Miss Michigan, Ann Marston. I had always been an instinctive shooter, but to try to increase my score, I switched over to a sight. It worked for a while, but when the arrow did not go where the sight said it should be go, I found myself in conflict about whether to trust the sight or my old eyesight and instincts. The result was a bad case of target panic that resulted in my setting down my bow and focusing my athleticism on playing intercollegiate football and rugby at the University of Michigan.
As a place kicker (leading scorer on the 1964 U. of M. rugby team) I learned some things about mental imagery and concentration that sparked my interest in sports psychology, which was really not even a field in the 1960s when I was in college. Eventually I came to see that I was happier shooting archery instinctively. It fit more with my personality. And so without the sight, I got back into archery and, wouldn’t you know it, my scores started going up as I applied new techniques from sports psychology about concentration, focus, and relaxation to shooting my bow.
I spent a decade using these techniques as a counselor, working with a number of Olympic, world-class and professional athletes in a wide variety of sports ranging from track, to football, basketball, and horse racing to mountain climbing and even ping-pong. Today I use many of the same techniques not only for shooting my bow, but also for acting. Concentration, focus, mental imagery and relaxation are critical skills in any kind of performance. Let me introduce you to some of those techniques.
Clearing Away Barriers to Full Concentration
Your self-image influences your physical performance. Practice helps build confidence as you learn to know that you can make the shot. This becomes a mental and physical platform to build upon. Practice does make perfect, but repetition alone is not enough. Perfection is rooted in learning to master the skills involved. Practicing by yourself, taking time to think after every shot helps you develop a routine, just like a golfer grooves his swing. Each person will have a different way that they are best able to evaluate their performance. Some will use physical feeling. Others have a checklist of what they must do each time. Some people have an image of perfection they create as a basis to judge themselves. Find a system that feels right for you to evaluate your performance, and use it to become aware of your faults so you can correct them. The goal here is for shooting to become automatic because you have integrated all the basic requirements into a system that works each time.
The key to consistent peak performance in all sports is concentration. Not so much willful bearing down, but more attaining a very focused mental state of mind-body coordination where intention and execution arise from a conscious decision that seems to happen without thought. Before we get to actually concentrating, though, the spadework must be done. All action happens out of context. Technically, “buck fever” is a form of performance anxiety. It differs from “target panic,” in that you are shooting at a living animal with the intent to kill it. The emotional issues associated with killing do influence some people’s shooting. That’s one reason why some tournament archers can’t hit the broad side of a barn in the field.
Let’s face it; some people miss shots at deer or other game animals because they have guilty feelings about killing. This is especially true for novices. The guilt acts like a voice over your shoulder saying, “No, don’t do it,” when you know you should be aiming. It either keeps you from shooting, or may make it difficult to concentrate and make a lethal shot. If this is an issue for you, I suggest reading my book In Defense of Hunting, which has a whole section about the honest motivational psychology of hunting which should make it very clear that hunting is a very healthy thing. You should feel no guilt about ethically and legally killing an animal.
Guilt is something you can exorcise before you hunt by thinking through the acceptability of killing an animal. You may also find it useful to plan how you will honor an animal that you shoot. In doing research for my book, The Sacred Art of Hunting, I found that a lot of hunters create ways to express thanksgiving to animals they’ve shot. Some may take along a little bag of corn meal and sprinkle some beside the animal as they say a prayer, like an Indian does. Some hunters will recite phrases from the Bible, or make up their own prayers. Veteran screen actor Marshall Teague (The Rock, Armageddon), who is an avid hunter, says that when he kills a an animal he prays, “Lord, bless this noble creature that has given his time and spirit to engage in the chase. Permit him green pastures to graze, thick forests to roam and take his heart and soul into your blessed hands.”
Having set aside the influence of guilt, there is one other preliminary attitude to be banished: fear. Excitement is good; fear of excitement is not. Reacting fearfully to excitement builds a vicious spiral of anxiety that results in target panic every time. The key to accurate shooting, whether at a target, in competition or at a trophy whitetail, is to manage the excitement much like a surfer catches a wave and rides it out in control. Fear contracts and tightens muscles. Movements become jerky. Learning to relax at will helps dispel any hindrance of fear in performance.
In recent years, sports psychologists have borrowed a number of techniques and concepts from meditation and martial arts and applied them to help athletes improve their performance. The results are dramatic. I can assure you that all major professional, national, and Olympic sports teams, as well as many college teams, use psychologists to teach methods and work with individuals on their mental game. Jack Nicklaus, Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods all will tell you that after you are in physical shape and have the fundamentals down, success is 90% from the neck up.
The following modern sports psychology techniques may be useful in strengthening your concentration to conquer your “buck fever.” They may also be helpful for curing “target panic.”
1) Use Visual Imagery
To illustrate how mental thoughts influence performance, try this simple experiment with a friend. Hold your arm straight out in front of you and make it strong, as if you are holding up a weight. Ask your friend to push down to determine your strength. He need not push too hard, just enough to affirm your strength. Now think of your arm as a wet noodle and have him test your strength again. You can try to resist as hard as you want, but if you have an image of your arm as a wet noodle, it will lose a significant amount of strength. This is essentially what happens when buck fever destroys your hunting success. Questioning your ability to hit the target translates into decreasing muscle strength, doubts, and reduced concentration, which contribute to the anxiety that is part of buck fever.
Now pick a point on a wall. Extend an arm and direct your hand at that point. Imagine that a beam of light is flowing from your arm. Point that beam of light so it hits directly on your target. Now ask someone to pull down on your arm. Resist their pressure. If your concentration and visualization are strong and focused, your muscle strength will dramatically increase, but your muscle tension will not.
Take your visualization technique with you when you pick up your bow. In practice, take a large sheet of cardboard and make a number of small spots, about the size of a half-dollar, with a magic marker. Now try practicing by never shooting at the same spot twice in any round. Move around the cardboard in different patterns each time. Make yourself concentrate on a new spot each time. Most deer are killed by shots of 20 yards or less. If you can hit a half-dollar consistently at a distance beyond this, then your chances of killing a deer at that range are pretty good.
Picking a spot to shoot at on a target, or on a deer, helps narrow focus and improves concentration. If you are an instinctive shooter, some people find it useful to imagine a laser light beam coming out of their arrow, extending all the way to the target, like a laser sight on a pistol. Some people imagine the half-dollar spot on the deer right over the kill zone.
2) Choose Words to Increase Focus
Recall how the image of your arm as a wet noodle decreased strength and confidence. Try the same exercise of extending your arm, making it strong, and thinking the word “focus” or “the spot” to yourself. Select a word that feels appropriate to what you are doing. “Bullseye,” “zone,” or “jackpot” work for some people. That word, mentally repeated while shooting, will drive away useless mental chatter that decreases your ability to be totally focused on what you are doing. Combine the imagery with the word, called an “affirmation,” and your concentration will improve more.
3) Learn to Control Breathing
Breathing is an important part of concentration. The breath is a physical act that unites mind and body, as well as an essential act of life. Breathing is an involuntary act that changes according to our level of excitement, but it is also an act that can be easily controlled consciously. If you can control your breathing, you can control your excitement as well.
To quiet your mind, try this exercise. Inhale slowly for a count of 10. Then hold your breath for a count of five, and exhale slowly for a count of 10. You may experiment with the number of beats, gradually increasing them to increase relaxation. Some people can develop a 32-count exhalation! Take your pulse before doing this exercise. After doing it five times, take your pulse again and you will see a drop in heart rate. It is a useful method to steady oneself before competition, and for that matter, in any tense life situation, including when a bull elk steps out of the brush 20 yards away.
If you combine your breathing with the draw of the bow, you increase your ability to concentrate as well as stay relaxed. A common rhythm is to inhale slowly on the draw, hold your breath when you are at full draw, and exhale after you have released the arrow. Combining breathing with imagery steadies your concentration even more. If you practice slow, steady breathing with each shot, it will make the jitters-factor go down a long ways.
4) Enlist a Helpful Witness
Sometimes it may seem difficult to concentrate. Your thoughts are elsewhere. At full draw you worry about whether the arrow is lined up correctly or the right elevation. Do you have the right anchor point? Have you drawn the bow back all the way? Is your posture correct? Did you draw correctly? Have you canted the bow too much? All these thoughts pull you away from your basic concentration on your target, and make it more difficult to hit the spot you are aiming at. Repetition in practice helps answer questions that can clutter the mind and get in the way of full concentration. Out of that repetition comes a form or style that is your unique way of shooting. Remembering your checklist, however, may seem to get in the way of your concentration. That’s when you need to turn over the checklist to someone else.
When actor Tom Hanks received his Oscar, he thanked his high school drama teacher, Rawley Farnsworth. Hanks said that a key in his success is that he always imagined Farnsworth sitting in a corner, off-camera, watching him act. That’s an example of a positive witness.
Your choice of a witness is personal. When Ted sings about Fred Bear being in the wind beside him, I would guess that Ted sometimes imagines that Fred looking over his shoulder, being a witness to his shooting. Hard for a bowhunter to get a better witness than Fred Bear!
When you go to the range and shoot, the first few times you shoot, be very conscious of your witness. As you develop a strong awareness of their presence, you will not need to consciously keep focused on them. Their guidance should become integrated into your shooting, because it is you shooting the arrows for yourself, not for them. Ultimately, you become your own witness.
Shooting in “the Zone”
“The zone” that athletes are talking about is a state of mind where time seems to slow down and physical performance seems effortless, despite whatever effort you may be expending. It is a state of excitement and relaxation. If you get “buck fever” know that you are half way there, because you’ve got the excitement part down. That adrenaline rush is the raw material from which perfect shots are made. All you have to do now is apply these techniques to bring that excitement under control; much the same way that rider brings a horse under control. As this happens, your senses will come more alive. Scenes take on freshness and nature becomes more rich and enjoyable. This is what “hunter’s high” is all about. “Buck fever” is just hunter’s high shifting into a higher gear. They key to success is to learn to ride that high, like a surfer takes a wave, and not lose it when the moment of truth comes to make that perfect shot.
I hope these tips are helpful. I’ve recently made a 60-minute instructional video, “Conquering Buck Fever With Sports Psychology Techniques,” that illustrates these techniques and others applied to archery and firearms. It includes appearances by Ted, Dave Watson, two-time Olympic Gold Medalist Kim Rhode, and former national sporting clays champion Lily Sieu. See http://www.jamesswan.com/snowgoose/conbuckfever.html for details on pricing and ordering.
Images courtesy of and copyright James Swan