One time when I was living at the Olympic Training Center in Chula Vista, California, Mark Hainline, former world championship team member, and I were teaching archery lessons to a group of beginners. Mark simplified archery form and summed it up in a way that has always stuck in my memory.
"Stand with your feet shoulder width apart perpendicular to the target," he said. "Put your arms straight out to your side and make a T. Look at the target. Now touch your hand to your face. There, that's all you need to know about archery."
How true that is, I thought. Although there is more to know about archery than that, what he said really is the foundation upon which everything else is built. This knowledge alone will take you further than you might ever imagine. However, there is one thing you do need to know before ever shooting a bow.
Whether you shoot right-handed or left-handed is not determined by whether you are right- or left-handed, but whether you are right- or left-eye dominant. (A right-eye-dominant person shoots right-handed and holds the bow with his left hand.)
The easiest way to determine eye dominance is to hold your hand out at arm's length and make an OK sign with your fingers. Now focus on an object looking through the OK sign. Close one eye and then the other. If the object moves when you close your right eye, you are right-eye dominant. If it moves when you close your left eye, you are left-eye dominant.
With that settled, let's take Mark's form foundation and build on it. Form is the most important factor in archery, so the bow should always be adjusted to fit the archer. The archer's form should never be adjusted to fit the bow. Shoot a comfortable weight that does not make you strain or tire quickly. The draw length of the bow should be such that you have the T form described by Mark. The back elbow should be almost in a straight line with the arrow and the target.
Guns have a front sight and a back sight. Bows have a front sight. To aim the arrow consistently every time, we need to establish a back sight. We do so by establishing a constant anchor point with the release hand on the face. The anchor point you pick must be easy to replicate exactly with every shot. This is best done by interlocking the bones of your hands and fingers against the bones of your face, primarily your jawbone and cheekbone. There are many variations of anchor points, depending on what style of archery you shoot, or what kind of release you might use, but here are some of the most common.
Hand-held-release shooters often lock the knuckles of their pointer and middle finger on each side of their jawbone, or just behind their jawbone. Archers who shoot trigger releases set off by their p
ointer finger often put the top knuckle of their pointer finger underneath their jawbone or behind their jawbone, or wedge the base of the L formed by their thumb and pointer finger against their jawbone. Compound and some recurve finger shooters may utilize this last technique or raise their anchor slightly so that their pointer finger is butted up against the bottom of their cheekbone.
Olympic-style and other long-distance finger shooters lay the top of their pointer finger snugly against the bottom of their chin. Shooters not utilizing sights often anchor close to their eye to better view the direction in which the arrow is pointed. The use of peep sights greatly aids in establishing a back sight reference point. For those shooters not using peep sights, line the bowstring up across the sight pin or side of the riser while at full draw. This helps in achieving consistent right and left grouping.
After drawing back and reaching your anchor point, it's important to maintain solid backpressure at all times. Shooting an arrow is a dynamic action -- not a passive one.
Your arm should be relaxed and pressure should come from a squeezing motion in your back that pulls your elbow around behind your ear. The pressure and motion are similar to those of elbowing someone, but it is a much slower and smoother action. All other muscles not being utilized in this motion or not being used to keep the bow arm up should be relaxed. This backpressure should continue throughout the entire shot.
For archers using release aids, set the trigger off by placing your finger on the trigger and then rotating the trigger into your finger or thumb by the same backpressure that is causing your elbow to rotate behind you. You may also squeeze the trigger slowly but do not punch or jerk the trigger. Finger shooters should let go of the string with all three fingers simultaneously. The motion is similar to that of flicking something with your middle finger. Some talented shooters can release the string by relaxing their hand all at once.
When following through after releasing the arrow, let your release hand slide back quickly along the side of your face and neck. The release hand should stay in contact with your face and neck as long as possible and should not fly away from your face. If you have proper back tension during your shot, this should be a very quick yet smooth motion. Continue keeping your bow arm up and pointed at the target after the shot. The entire shot sequence should take about two to six seconds from the time you reach your anchor point.
The bow arm is one of the most critical factors of the shot. To keep it simple, the bow should always be pointed at the target. This means before, during and after the shot. The follow-through should be straight at the target, and in no instance should it collapse to the right for a right-handed archer. I often hear my dad tell students to "pull the bow apart."
It is this type of active pressure on the bow that will keep you from making a weak collapsing shot. Do not grip the bow with the bow hand, but let it stay relaxed to the point that the bow would fall out of your hand if you were not wearing a sling to catch it.
A combination of consistent form and aiming is what causes the arrow to go where it does. For almost all people, the larger error occurs in their form. For this reason, let your form be your primary focus, and let aiming the bow be a secondary or subconscious focus.
If I had to leave you with just three thoughts that will help you succeed as an archer, they would be:
- 1) Use the classic T-shaped form.
- 2) Upon release, let your release hand slide back quickly along your face and neck.
- 3) Keep your bow arm pointed at the target.
These are the essential keys to successful archery.