Shooting for Perfection


I remember the shot very well. As I have done hundreds of thousands of times before, I steadied myself, focused on a quarter-sized orange dot in the center of the bull’s-eye. An imaginary beam of light from my eye to the bull’s-eye appeared in my mind’s eye. I took in a breath as I did I drew my 55″ laminated recurve, made by master bowyer Don Adams. I was about 35 yards from the target.

My glove hand reached my anchor point. Almost immediately I let go of the shaft. Why I released at that moment I do not know. It felt right. It just happened. I let out a sigh.

I tracked the flight of the Port Orford cedar shaft from Rose City Archery fletched with feathers from a turkey who got in the wrong place for him and the right place for me a couple years ago. The shot looked really good. No arrow wobble. Good release.

“Thunk,” it hit home.

I stood and looked. Man, that arrow seemed to really be on the money.

Now I’ve hit that orange spot before. Not as often as I would like to, but I have hit it. That in itself is an accomplishment from 35 yards, in my humble opinion. This one looked special.

Rather than shooting the other arrows in my quiver, I walked to the target to have a look.

When I got to the bale, I could not help but exclaim, “Wow.”

The black bull’s-eye was two inches across. Not only had I hit that, but also I had hit the orange dot exactly in the middle. Thirty-five yards. No sights. Instinctive shot. What else can you call it, but “perfection?”

Man did it feel good.

What makes for a perfect shot? You can get lucky, and maybe my perfect shot was simply that, but whether it’s Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Tom Brady, Kim Rhode, or you, for consistent good-quality execution in sports, your mind and body have to be united. And when that happens, it’s likely you are in “the zone.”

I got interested in studying the psychology of perfection in sports following a college career in football, rugby, and golf, when my performance went from sometimes being outstanding to mediocre and I did not know why or how I could have improved. Sports psychology in those days was simply “try harder.”

Years ago, I had the good fortune of shooting a round of skeet with actor Robert Stack, who was a former national skeet shooting champion. When he was powdering clays, Bob always had a one-line quip for any shot he missed, like “Looks like it’s time to see the chiropractor, or another damn mosquito bit me just as a shot.” (This is a great way to not get down on yourself if you miss, incidentally. Analyze what happened and why, and then move on with a positive attitude.)

After we finished, I asked Bob about his mental game for being such a good wingshot. Bob recited the formula for sports performance, focus, and breathing to still the mind, self-confidence, and then he added, “You should have a positive image of your intention.”

This one hit home for me as I came to know this as a place kicker in college. Before every kick, you imagine where that ball is going to go, and keep that image in mind as you kick.

The same is true for hitting a golf ball. Jack Nicklaus says that after you’ve got the fundamentals of the swing down, at least 90 percent of success in the game of golf is from the neck up. This also true for shooting a hockey puck, catching a pass, shooting a basket, or running through a maze of tacklers to score a touchdown. A positive mental image of your intention helps you bring to bear all your mind-body resources as you execute.

So what was Bob’s mental image for wingshooting? “My image is a stream of water coming out of the barrel of the gun. You have to lead the bird, and it takes some time for the water to hit the bird, so you have to lead the bird for the shot to get there at the right time, just like if you wanted to hit the bird with a stream of water,” he said. “I find a fire hose is about the right speed for me.”

Discipline, focus, and concentration are big factors for consistency in sports performance, and controlled breathing helps. Breath helps unite mind and body and calms the mind. You can practice breathing in any number of ways to gain greater awareness of breath as a force in coordinating mind and body. For shooting, I inhale slowly as I am preparing to shoot, hold during the shot, and then exhale slowly afterwards.

Another helpful image is the “wise witness.” I don’t necessarily mean an actual person, but an image of someone standing beside you who you respect and who is good at the sport. I like to imagine that Bob Stack is standing beside me when I am shooting clays. When it’s archery, I like Howard Hill to be there. If it’s golf, Jack Nicklaus is a great cheerleader.

But there’s also something else to execution. Knowing.

You see players who make desperation half court or more shots to win a basketball game. When this happens, the shot is automatic. What’s important to making that perfect shot is not thinking–just doing with clear intention when it feels right. That’s why they call barebow archery “instinctive shooting.” You shoot from a feeling, not a sight.

Sights have not been on any bow I have owned for decades. I’m a barebow instinctive shooter. Zen in the Art of Archery is my archery holy book. Searching for that feeling of rightness of when to shoot is what it’s all about. And yes, I do meditate. I also consider archery a form of meditation.

A man practicing a kyudo shot.
A man practicing a kyudo shot.

A few years ago on a trip to Japan, I had a chance to shoot kyudo at Tenri University in Nara. If you’re not familiar with kyudo, this is a form of Japanese martial art using archery (the “way of the bow”) that has strong ties to Zen. The shooting place is called a dojo, which normally is a range covered on both ends, but open air in the middle. The target end of the range is a bank of soil with straw bales. The shooter, wearing a black and white martial arts uniform, uses a long bamboo bow which has a handle a little below center, as opposed to the center-shot bows of the rest of the world. The Japanese arrow is also longer and commonly drawn behind the ear, as opposed to the cheek anchor point of Western archers.

The floor in the shooting side of the dojo is polished wood, like a bowling alley. There is a ritual process that leads to making the shot: take a step, focus on target, take a breath. There is timing of when and how the bow arm comes up: the draw takes place, you reach the anchor point, hold, and release. The shooting pace is slower than normal Western archery, and there are at least two schools of thought on the goal in kyudo. One, as in Eugen Herrigel’s Zen archery book, is to ultimately be able to hit the bull’s-eye consistently and seemingly without effort. The other, is simply to release the arrow at the perfect time and form, and then it will go where it is supposed to go–seisha seichū, “correct shooting is correct hitting.”

Did I show them how it’s done in America? No, by a long shot. The ritual process was new to me, and the equipment was very different. The bow, for example, is a much lighter draw and the arrows are at least a foot longer. It also did not help that my host told people I was an archery champ, so everyone was expecting me to be a crack shot instantly (that’s another story). I did hit the general area of the target on the sand bank on the other side of the dojo, but no bull’s-eyes.

I asked the kyudo sensei (master) about perfection. He replied:

“If you can learn the art of effortlessness, then perfection is a joy, for there is no worry.”

I am working on that one. Think of how much pressure we can put on yourselves to hit the target, let alone the bull’s-eye.

Incidentally, I practice shooting that perfect shot even when I don’t have my bow. Waiting in line for the light to change, I focus on the street light, and imagine shooting it out at the precise time it turns from red to green.

Wherever you are, you can practice by finding a spot, concentrating on it, taking in a breath, and releasing your imaginary arrow or shooting your shotgun. It’s even better to practice by raising your arm as if it’s holding bow, if it’s appropriate in that particular place.

The importance of focus and concentration on performance is illustrated by a simple exercise. Hold your bow arm out straight. Now ask someone to push down on your outstretched arm. See how strong you are. Now shake your arm out and again raise your bow arm. Pick a spot on a target, and imagine that a stream of white light is coming out of your hand or finger. Focus on that stream of light and now have the other person push down on your arm. You will find that the better your concentration the stronger your arm will be.

World-renown archer Byron Ferguson tells people to point a finger at the target and imagine a stream of light shooting from their finger to the bull’s-eye. Sure works for him. Check out some of the incredible shots Byron has made on YouTube, like hitting a quarter or a Life Savers candy in the air.

And Byron, does not hold forever. He releases very quickly, in fact, as did Howard Hill. But he is incredibly accurate. An outstanding example of concentration in action. He is a Zen master.

And, after you make a perfect shot, what’s your goal?

Do it again, of course.

When shooting arrows at a target, sometimes you will knock off the nock of a previous arrow. That’s not that uncommon. Shooting aluminum arrows, which are hollow, I have had a couple “Robin Hoods”–when you hit an arrow already in the target dead on and the second arrow does not break the plastic knock and glance off, but instead it buries right into the shaft of the first arrow. Never done that with a perfect bull’s-eye. That would be two perfect shots in a row. Closest “Robin Hood” I have ever shot was about two inches to the left of the orange spot. But the two identical arrows make for an image of perfect repetition and let me know it’s possible.

I promise that I’ll let you know if I shoot a perfect “Robin Hood.”

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