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  • Writer's pictureTim Swane

Teaching Beginners

On first glance, teaching somebody to shoot a bow should be easy. It is certainly the most coached activity. It is a shame then that so many problems that later beset archers stem from how they were taught to shoot.

There are several reasons why people do not always finish their Beginners Course with good foundation shooting technique. Some of these are not within the coaches’ control. Firstly, many people come to the course with high expectations of their own ability possibly from having played with bows and arrows as a child. They are shocked to find they are not as good as they think they should be and lose motivation. Alternatively, they become obsessed with getting scores to the detriment of everything else. They are only interested in hitting the gold and do not listen to the coach. These people are not able to be coached and the rapidly get frustrated with their level of progress. Most coaches will recognise this archer. They have shot three arrows, one is in the gold, one is in the white at 6 o’clock and one is in the white at 12 o’clock. The worst arrow they shot was the one in the gold but the archer is not interested in feedback because they hit the gold. Many coaches have tried to control this effect by not putting a target face on the boss during the early lessons. I have found this does get better results but these days I tend to cut the middle of the target face out and talk to them about getting all three arrows within the hole in the middle. I can then shrink the size of the hole to gradually increase their difficulty. This does start the conversation around group size at a very early stage.

Some people who arrive at a Beginners course are not capable of the physical demands of the sport. This is a growing problem with our juniors who spend less time than they used to outdoors. I am finding juniors have less muscle mass than juniors I taught twenty years ago and this is purely down to the change in the way children are brought up. I have had to drop the draw weight of the bows I start them on from around 18lb to 12lb and some still struggle with this poundage. I also find that juniors tend to be less fit as they generally do not walk or cycle as much as they did twenty years ago and they have lower attention spans. I put a lot of this down to the development and growth of both social media and computer games. These make few physical demands on the body but do give rapid and frequent rewards in the way of beating game levels or getting “likes”. In consequence I have found that children need shorter sessions with more varied content to try and meet these needs. This is harder for the coach to deliver and potentially frustrating as they are having to substitute less effective “games” for more direct but repetitive drills to target the same motor actions.

I am increasingly finding that mixing adults and juniors on Beginners courses is not a great idea as both populations tend to learn in different ways. Juniors are more accepting of an instructional approach where the coach tells them what to do and how to do it. As long as they get fairly frequent changes of activity to hold their interest then they will make progress. Adults tend to be more interested in the science behind the sport and want more control over their learning process. They are happy to work on one aspect of the shot for longer but want to understand why they are doing a particular drill and what good looks like when they have developed the appropriate motor skill. The more knowledge they have the harder and more effectively they work. Indeed, on my Beginners courses I am now spending as much time on teaching the group about what good looks like as I am training them how to achieve it.

You would think that teaching archery to a beginner is a simple process. You have a closed looped system that involves a finite number of specific actions. There is a little bit of eye hand co-ordination necessary to shoot a bow but there are few people in the world that cannot master the activity. That said, so many people get it badly wrong right from the first lesson and their shooting technique never recovers from it.

Shooting a bow is not an instinctive activity. Learning to walk happens by instinct. A child starts to teach itself to walk by testing the actions and trying them out. There is a lot of falling over and wobbling involved but the move to success is for most children hardwired into their brains. They can then use that instinctive action, practice and improve it so it develops into things like kicking a ball or hopping on one leg. Throwing and catching are examples of other instinctive activities. Practice improves the action but the physical co-ordination to move the hand to the right place to catch a ball and the finger actions to gather it in does not have to be thought about in the conscious mind. It is of course improved with practice but is not something that needs to be consciously programmed. The quickest way to drop a ball is to think about how to catch it as it comes towards you.

Archery on the other hand, involves motor skills that have to be learnt in the conscious mind and gradually internalised through practice. It is much more akin to learning to drive a car. To shoot a bow the body has to pull with one side of the body whilst pushing the bow out and resisting the pressure being generated with the other side of the body. This is an asymmetrical activity that requires different muscles to be activated on either side of the body whilst the limbs move in completely different ways. Very little of this is hard wired into the unconscious mind. Sometimes there are parts of a movement in the chain of actions that are slightly instinctive, such as the action of pulling. Unfortunately, the brain cannot interpret what the end position of the movement needs to be and in consequence unconsciously recruits the wrong muscles to effect the pull. The body knows how to pull which is a fundamental movement, but the pull action required in archery is very different from the pull action normally used. The brain pulls with the biceps which is the instinctive response. The archer needs to pull with the back muscles to generate enough power and to achieve good alignment which is a fundamental of a strong, accurate shot.

Too often when we teach beginners, we do not put in place any mechanism to teach these specific and unique bio-mechanical actions. The coach simply gives the archer the bow and shows them how to load an arrow. After that the coach lets their unconscious mind work out what muscles to use and how to move the body in order to complete the shot. In consequence, you can see some beginners use quite bizarre techniques. They do not have the instinct to even pull the bow with their drawing arm held high enough to enable the hand to pass the chest and they pull the arrow back into the chest in some sort of semblance of a pistol shooting stance.

This is a failure of coaching. Many archery coaches moan they spent a long time trying to fix problems that an archer has developed without realising many of those problems were allowed to start right back when that archer was taught to shoot. A good coach will endeavour to build into their teaching beginners process a systematic way of developing the necessary correct motor skills to train the body to start shooting well.

Over the years I have moved from looking at the content of a beginners course comprised of what I have to teach them to a viewpoint that asks what do I want to get out of the course at the end of it. Archers develop at very different paces and all have unique bodies. To try and define success of a Beginners course in anything other than broad terms is doomed to fail. I used to design Beginners courses on a plan which ran along the lines of:

Week 1 – Bare bow shooting using point of aim with a side of face reference.

Week 2 – Convert the archer to freestyle shooting by fitting a sight and moving to an under the chin reference

Week 3 – Supported practice and teach them about the different types of archery

Week 4 – More supported practice and teach them about scoring systems and rounds

Week 5 – More supported practice and teach they about different bow types

Week 6 – Introduce them to the club

I found a number of problems with that system. It can become quite labour intensive but at the same time limit the amount of time available for actual shooting practice. Some of the theory sessions went on rather a long time. The coaches had great fun talking about their sport but the prospective archers were losing time to practice their motor skills.

I also found that after the first week, as archers became more self-reliant, the coaching evident was not helping them to develop. One of two things would start to happen. If the coach was not that experienced or bored with the activity, once the archer was hitting the target regularly, they would give up any coaching input and just stand back and chat with their fellow coaches. Alternatively, they would tend to over coach the archer and after every shot give them a whole dialogue about what they had done wrong. The new archer was unable to interpret that stream of corrections as they had yet to develop a deeper perception of the shot. They could not feel how their arm was moving through the draw process so had no way of feeling how to correct it.

What I realised was that this system starts out with the perception that we have to have perfect archers by the end of the course because the assumption was being made that was the end of their learning. Clearly the archers were going to continue to improve after the course. However, when I looked into it in a bit more detail, I realised that a lot of that improvement was coming because the archer went out and bought better equipment and simply got stronger. Their underlying technique did not improve. In many cases they gradually got worse as errors started to creep in and they started to listen to well-meaning help from more experienced archers.

I then decided to go back and look in more detail about how motor skills are learnt and the requirements of archery to see if I could find a better way to teach beginners. This led me to challenge a number of the fundamental processes I had been following in the past. The realisation that I needed to teach specific motor actions in a certain way led to a different perspective on why I was doing things and in which order.

I first looked at the non-instinctive parts of the shot that had to be taught. It transpired there were rather a lot of them.

1. The position of the hand on the bow. If you give a bow to a beginner and ask them to hold it, they immediately grasp it like they were holding a vertical pole. This leaves the wrist joint very open and in the wrong plane to resist the pressure of the bow as the wrist lines up vertical to the ground rather than parallel. A good wrist position has to be taught.

2. The hook on the string is relatively instinctive in execution but the loose is not. The body will instinctively try and pull the fingers holding the string open rather than relax the muscles holding the fingers closed and letting the bow pressure push the fingers out the way.

3. The correct stance and posture is not instinctive and is actually quite a complex issue to learn. I will come back to this in future but along with achieving a good bow arm position these are learnt activities that will not be mastered in a traditional 6 week beginners course so I knew I had to find a way of dealing with these aspects.

4. The lift from set to set up was partly instinctive. Some new archers could lift their bow without their bow shoulder rising but most could not. I will come back to this aspect in a bit more detail later as the correct position and solution are unique to each individual archer and their goals for the sport.

5. The drawing action for most archers is not instinctive and needs to be taught.

6. Aiming is instinctive albeit some archers struggle to use a sight and that aspect needs to be taught or else the archer can select to shoot bare bow.

7. The shot execution is a fairly instinctive action once a good release has been taught. Most of the activity here is being driven by the release of pent up forces and is not within the archer’s conscious control. Problems of execution usually have their roots much earlier in the individual’s shot process. If the archer develops the habit of thinking too much about the release they can start to over aim which is the first step to a form of target panic.

Having established this process in my mind I then thought about which of these actions were important to teach beginners to execute well and which actions could be left for later training. I was focused on a 6 week Beginners course programme which is the limit of ArcheryGB’s insurance cover and I knew I could not get all of this dealt with in a 6 week programme whilst keeping it fun. If you are not limited to 6 sessions then you can take more time and go into the training in more detail but there is still a balance to be had in progressing the archers to the point where they cease to be a beginner and become more self-sufficient.

I then looked at my own coaching experience of working with novice archers and tried to think about what common faults do I see and how can I prevent them from developing at the beginners’ stage. I also looked at how easy those faults are to correct at the novice archer stage. Typically, archers who stay and progress to the novice stage show signs of shooting with high bow shoulders, poor draw actions leading to poor alignment and weak shot execution. These were all non-instinctive actions that had embedded themselves incorrectly, in muscle memory during their beginners learning and had become fairly, hard wired into their shooting technique. Changing those actions from that point in time and reprogramming muscle memory was difficult. Most archers did not make that transition to a more bio-mechanically efficient technique. Therefore, I made a decision that over a 6 week Beginners course those were the areas of a shot cycle I wanted to target. If I could get those correct then I may save the coach and archer many years of pain in their later shooting career.

Posture and stance are clearly important for effective shooting but I have found that these operate mainly within the conscious memory and can be changed and fixed much more easily than subconscious actions that are driving the draw process. I therefore decided to keep my postural training at the beginners point very simple and concentrated purely on getting the archer to stand upright and use a square stance. I have found over the years that many postural issues are caused by trying to shoot with equipment that is too heavy in both mass and draw weight for the archer and a good focus on equipping the archer with an appropriate beginners bow prevented many postural issues from appearing. It is no coincidence that the Koreans do not let their beginners shoot a bow until they have mastered the draw actions with a much lighter theraband. Unfortunately trying to implement this training process within a Western culture would not work and Western coaches are forced to compromise more.

I do not think you can write an article on beginners without covering the endless debate about whether archers should shoot to their handiness or their eye dominance. Coaches can get very passionate about this and for many archers it is not a significant issue. In about 85% of the population eye dominance and handiness match and the archer can be set up shooting to that side of their body. Where people are cross dominant there are a number of factors to consider. If somebody is right handed but left eye dominant there is a tendency for them to want to shoot right handed as they will find it easier to clip their arrow on their bowstring. However, when they shoot, unless they shut their dominant eye they will start to move their head across so their dominant eye is in line with the sight, this will compromise their ESAR and the arrow will fly badly left. This can only be cured by them shutting their dominant eye or better still covering it with a translucent patch. Many archers shoot like this and get reasonable results. However virtually all top archers in the world shoot with both eyes open. The stereo vision helps with depth perception and removes tension from the face caused by shutting an eye. If the coach decides to leave the archer shooting to their handiness and close an eye they are potentially limiting that archer’s ultimate potential.

I also think there is another reason why eye dominance should be preferred to handiness. The dominant eye usually sees better. There is normally a reason why a person has moved their eye dominance out of line with their handiness. I can cite personal experience for this one. I am very strongly right handed and was when I was a child right eye dominant. However my right eye became very short sighted before my left eye so after I was about eleven my left eye developed to be the dominant eye. I shoot right handed when I should have shot left handed because I was stubborn when I was trained and decided to shoot with my left eye closed. I have subsequently realised over the years this was a big mistake and I should have shot left handed. I simply cannot see as well out of my right eye and that has limited my accuracy. Archers who are cross dominant and choose to go with their eye dominance quickly develop the ability to load the bow with their non-dominant hand. It is only like learning the left hand at piano.

To me the argument is a "no brainer" and you rarely find a top coach in the world who will disagree with me. I am disappointed though that I have come across some coaches who get archers to shoot with their non-dominant eye closed regardless of handiness because it saves them the bother of dealing with cross dominance issues. I have also heard the argument that it stops people from feeling they stand out if everybody shoots that way. Once again the coach is limiting the archer’s ultimate potential by making decisions for them that are based on convenience rather than sports science.

Traditionally in ArcheryGB we taught beginners starting with a bare bow technique because we thought that was a simpler way to shoot. If you look at this perception purely from the point that there is no sight involved then I suppose this is correct. However there is sighting involved and there is little difference in the underlying technique whether the archer is using a sight or the point of the arrow to aim. In fact there is a much stronger argument that says moving the sight pin around so the archer is generally only sighting at the middle of the target is an easier action for the archer to manage than to introduce the concept of gap shooting and the fact they have to aim off to hit what they are actually aiming at. Until the archer can group well it is very difficult for them to master the gap they need to allow because with arrows spraying all over the target it is not that obvious to them where that gap exists. You could argue, and many coaches do, if you remove the target face or keep the boss very close to the archer then you will take the issue of sighting away completely. I have tried teaching beginners using this strategy and it does work well. However, I have a couple of other issues with starting archers on bare bow which has led me to now start all my beginners using a sight.

It is a commonly held myth that shooting a bare bow style is easy. Most experienced coaches will claim the exact opposite. Disregarding the sighting challenges as laid out before, shooting bare bow with a side of face anchor creates a couple of other bio-mechanical challenges that the bare bow archer has to work to overcome. Firstly, the anchor on the side of the face moves further out from the shooting plane than an anchor that is under the chin and tucked into the neck. It also moves the nock of the arrow outside the eye which can compromise the archer’s Eye, Sight Arrow Relationship (ESAR). On loose this will create a tendency to push the string sideways into the bow arm and create torque in the bow hand. Good vertical alignment is harder to achieve and the archer often compensates by canting their head and frequently their bow. Picture of primitive archers often show this effect. A canted bow or head will cause the arrow to fly off in the direction of the cant. The archer then has to learn to compensate for this cant by adjusting their aim.

The other issue I have found with starting archers on bare bow with a side of face anchor is that it is hard for them to keep their shoulders low. There is a natural tendency to raise the bow shoulders to match the higher reference position. The higher bow shoulder then makes it much harder to obtain any scapula rotation and the draw action is then forced back onto the biceps. Expansion of the shot also becomes difficult and the archer starts to develop a technique where they are rolling their shoulder, holding too much of the draw weight on their drawing arm and plucking the string on loose. Lateral alignment breaks down and the arrows have a tendency to fly high and left (for a right handed archer).

Experienced recurve archers can make a transition to bare bow archery and still seem to maintain good use of their back through their draw and good overall alignment. It would seem once the correct drawing action has been learnt then the body is able to maintain this action despite the body having to operate with the draw taking place at a higher elevation in respect of the chin. In conclusion I decided that starting with bare bow creates more problems than it solved and I stopped doing it.

Latterly I have also seen arguments between coaches around whether the archer should set up level with their bow shoulder or with a slightly higher set up position. Personally I do not think there is a correct answer to this but it really depends on the archers’ flexibility within their shoulders. The higher start position does enable them to get their Latimus Dorsi into play much earlier and helps transfer of the drawing action onto the back. However, to benefit from this the archer needs to be able to achieve the high start position whilst keeping their bow shoulder low. Few beginners over the age of 30 can do this as they lose shoulder flexibility with age. If they cannot keep their bow shoulder low then it will collapse during the drawing action and any benefits accruing to the high start position will immediately be lost. Each individual archer needs to be tested and their set up position adjusted individually as determined by their shoulder flexibility.

That said, when I give a beginner a bow for the first time and ask them to make a shot, if I do not teach them a high start position they will instinctively set up level. That suggests to me that their unconscious mind knows this is the best position to start from and any other position needs to be learnt and programmed into their muscle memory. Purely when teaching beginners, this effect is worth bearing in mind as this teaching process will take processing capacity away from other simultaneous tasks which need to be mastered first. In practice this means for the first week of their course I teach them about trying to keep their bow shoulder low but focus mainly on achieving a strong bow hand grip rather than worrying about setting an individual bow shoulder position.

When thinking about the design of a Beginners course I also had to think about the processing capacity of the brain. The brain can only process so much information at once. The best analogy is to think of band width in relation to I.T. If you try and teach the archer too much at once you overload the archer’s processing capacity and they just cannot take it all in. As they become more practiced at an action they use less processing capacity in performing it which frees up spare capacity for them to learn something else. If the coach tries to teach too much at once nothing will be processed and the archer will make no progress. Learning to drip feed new information to an archer is a skill best learnt through experience. In summary, new tasks need to be learnt slowly and the pace gradually picked up as the archer becomes more skilful.

In conclusion I have moved to training beginners along the following lines.

Week 1 – Select bows an appropriate bow length and draw weight for the beginner, Start with the 1-2-3- alignment drill to give a feel of good alignment and to help train shooting with low bow shoulders. Move onto the release motion drill to help give the feel of the correct anchor position and then how to use the drawing scapula as part of the release process. Next I use the finger release drill to teach the movement to relax the string hand fingers on release. Finally before they shoot any arrows I work on how to set a good bow hand on the riser. Finger slings are fitted immediately. I put the targets at 10 metres and use 120cm faces with the inner 6 zones cut out. I am happy for archers to find their own set up point and let them draw how they like because they will not lay down a strong pathway this quickly.

Week 2 – Here I quickly repeat the week 1 drills after a quick warm up. I move on to focus on the set to set up drill. This practices taking the archer from a set position up to set up whilst keeping their bow shoulder low. At the moment I am still happy for them to set up at shoulder level as I want to get them used to the feeling of lifting the arms whilst keeping the shoulders low and open. Again I am not worried about how they open the bow but I am keen to maintain a good bow hand position. I will also teach the elbow rotation drill towards the end of the session and get them to practice this for homework. It is rare than an archer can master this without considerable practice so the earlier they start the better. I also teach them how to rig and de-rig a bow.

Week 3 – On this week I am looking to refine the set up position to match each archer’s flexibility and start to work on activating the back. I do this by testing each archer’s shoulder flexibility and where I can set them up at mouth level then I will. Normally people under 30 can do this but people over 30 need to stick with a more traditional T draw. Shoulder flexibility can be improved with special exercises but generally most social archers do not have the time or the interest to invest in that process.

I then go on to use the half draw drill followed by the 3-step drill to help train weight transference and scapula rotation. The release motion drill is similarly important and is re-emphasised on this route. It normally takes 2 lessons for the typical Beginner to master the new drawing technique so I take it slowly and generally try not to get them too stressed. The archer needs to get the drawing action correct by going slowly and then increasing speed. There is a risk at this point that the archer becomes very frustrated with their slow progress and the coach needs to be prepared to introduce a bit of fun into the session by perhaps giving them the opportunity to pop some balloons.

Week 4 – This week is largely a repeat of week 3. Hopefully the archer will move faster and be able to shoot more arrows. They should now be coming into good alignment and their accuracy should be improving. I am always at pains to talk about group size rather than golds but at this point I usually increase the difficulty by moving the targets back and reducing the size of the hole in the middle of the target. I still do not provide them with a gold as I do not want them to think too much about aiming.

Week 5 – I find this is a consolidation night as the archer has reached the limit of new motor skills they can master in that time frame. Earlier learnt skills are starting to break down and need to be reinforced. This is a good week to make the archer more self-sufficient and get them to start to self- police their technique. Some eyes shut work is useful here to start making them think about proprioception. At this stage I have often introduced work with mirrors and video cameras so they can see how they are progressing. I have also introduced field archery on this week but prefer using paper faces on normal bosses to keep their posture stable and the spine upright. To date I have not found it adding any value to motor skill development but some people find it fun and it introduces a new form of archery.

Week 6 – This is given over to more consolidation, administration around how to join the club and how to buy their first bow. Finally it is an opportunity to introduce them to the rest of the club.

Looking at that sequence it is clear there is a massive amount we have not done. We have not covered posture, trained elbow rotation in any detail, looked at pre draw or shot expansion. I think all of this needs to be covered within their first 3 months of shooting so we can lay down a strong and accurate muscle memory in each archer. In ArcheryGB we only allow 6 sessions for beginners courses so I am keen that people who want to continue with their archery are picked up quickly and given further coaching.

I am also keen to stress that coaches should be setting appropriate skills’ based homework between each session to help archers master each element of the shot sequence. It gives them time to practice a movement slowly and pick up the speed of the motion in line with how people learn skills. I liken it to practicing scales on the piano. You start them slowly and then pick up speed as the mind learns. All the key movements can be practiced with a theraband or piece of elastic. They are best practiced in front of a mirror so that there is a visual check on how the archer is performing. Ideally they should be practiced in pairs so that the archers can help each other get them right. Where there are family groups coming to a beginners course I always try and get them to practice the drills in this way.

I would stress that none of the above weekly plans should be cast in stone. I have varied each course I have done in line with the nature of the group, the skills of the people coming to the course, the number of staff and their expertise. I also like to experiment by trying new things. That is why I say I focus on my course output. How close am I getting each archer to the requirements of the technical model I am working towards and if I did things differently could I get a better output. If I do not experiment a little each time I will never find better ways of doing things.

I am also very keen to self-reflect after each session on my own performance. I am always forgetting to do things and I find I like to run through what I covered against what I wanted to cover. My worst habit is to forget to warm the archers up. I am too focused on getting them to perform the drills I forget to loosen up their joints first.

I have also got into the habit of calling all the coaches together at the end of the session for a group review and to plan the next week. If the group have not mastered an activity or an individual is really struggling we need to make provision to pick this up and ensure they are helped the following week.

In summary, teaching beginners is not easy but vitally important. Many coaches work to a simple black and white formula when they need to be thinking about each archer in front of them. They are all learning at different paces and need specific training. Working with coaches from around the world has taught me there is no right way to produce a novice archer but ignoring the principles of how people learn motor skills is often destructive. The thinking coach develops a philosophy of teaching beginners which is grounded in bio-mechanical theory but flexible and responsive to the archer’s needs.

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