Josie : Attention in Archery

Hi all, I’m on a slightly different tack this week and thought you might like to come along for the ride. I’ve been musing on concentration recently in an attempt to improve my shooting technique. In the course of my research I’ve come across this issue in many archery books and articles I’ve read. It may sound like something that won’t become relevant until later on, but believe me: it’s as important to the absolute beginner as the seasoned pro. Different people approach it in different ways. This is my take on it.

Attention in Archery

Attention moves around the visual field independent of the direction of gaze. This is the “attentional spotlight”, utilising peripheral vision as almost a second set of eyes. We use this in everyday life all the time, in general totally unaware of the split connection. Even if we find ourselves looking directly at something we don’t expect to see, we’re no more likely to notice it than if it appears at the edge of our vision. Hence, attention roves across the field of vision like a spotlight, picking out points of interest that are not necessarily where our eyes are pointed. It also acts as a kind of built-in risk assessment, constantly scanning the environment and submitting information to the subconscious which informs motor function.

Attentional spotlight has a major role to play in target archery. Have you ever got to full draw, focused on the gold, held on just a second or so too long and found your arrow tip wanders away from the centre? Attention is critical for this. It also works the other way: taking too little time may allow your eyes to point the right way but is by no means a guarantee of attention.

It’s why I find rhythm so important for shooting: I know, more-or-less, how long I can keep my attention fixed to my gaze and I know how long it takes me to get to full draw and do the necessary pre-flight checks. The tricky bit is marrying the two to create the perfect shooting conditions. Working to a rhythm or counting the draw can help you become more consistent. If you try this then remember also to develop a breathing pattern that is the same every time you draw. (While we’re on that tangent, try to avoid taking a deep breath while drawing, especially when at full draw; it causes too much upper body movement and it’s harder to hold position when the lungs are either completely full or completely empty. Try various breathing patterns and see what works for you.)

Attention can take up to half a second to divert, which is a long time in psychological terms. On some days you may find your attention just won’t stay. This can make shooting extremely difficult and frustrating. It’s up to you whether you stick with it on that day. There are mental techniques that are said to be able to help with this which take time and training to master (I’ll be coming back to this another time). Despite how long it may take I believe it’s not only worthwhile but crucial if you wish to discover how good an archer you can be. 

It is possible to shoot fairly well without getting to grips with attention-mapping, just don’t expect top-quality scores! If you are willing to invest the time it will add an extra facet to your ability that will be useful in everyday life too.

There’s another side to the same coin known as ‘ironic processes of control’. Sometimes too  much attention is just as detrimental as too little. Imagine you’ve just shot two 10s. You’re on course for an excellent score and mentally rehearsing the final shot as you prepare to draw. Concentrate, release and – it’s a 6. Been there? I have. This is a prime example of the ironic processes of control. You over-think the shot in anticipation, moving what would usually be a subconscious process into the conscious mind. The conscious mind cannot treat the process in a likewise fashion and makes subtle alterations, enough to throw the shot off completely. There are ways of dealing with this, though none are foolproof. The best way I’ve found is to gain control over your conscious mind, push its focus to one side and let the subconscious regain control of the shot. For example, focus your attention somewhere closer to home: focus on your grip on the bow, keeping your bow shoulder down, what you’re planning to do after the session or what’s for dinner. Don’t expect miracles, but you’ll improve your chances of a great shot.

I took some advice from a friend about focus. He shoots high-powered rifles over long distance at targets the size of a 50p piece so focus is a major factor. He told me that when he shoots he gets into position, sights, then drifts his eyes and his attention away from the target for just a moment before snapping them both back to the target and squeezing the trigger. This overcomes the split-attention issue by refreshing the mind just enough (and releasing any built-up tension at the same time). I’ve tried this myself at the club with good results so I’d recommend trying it. Just don’t try shifting attention too far or the conscious mind will move your arm. I drift my focus down to the border between black and white on the target face. Down works best for me as I find it doesn’t lead me to move my physical position. Make sure you drift your eyes only, don’t move your head.

I should point out that even if you follow this to the letter there’s no guarantee that every shot will be perfect. There are so many factors to consider and I don’t even know them all yet!

What are your thoughts?