So, waiting the fortnight for the next lesson, I decided to read Total Archery – Inside the Archer by KiSik Lee. This book, by a man who has “Olympic coach” amongst his qualifications, basically breaks down every inch of what a recurve archer should be doing. It’s a fascinating book and I doubt any other book goes into so much detail about the archer’s form.
I made notes as I read through, taking what I got from it and trying to apply it to what little I know. This blog post it mostly just me writing up my notes and thinking about how it applies to me.
It recommends a stance with (if you’re a right handed shooter) your back foot straight and the other 30 degrees open, with 60% of your weight forward onto the balls of your feet, letting your toes grip the ground. When I tried this in my fourth lesson, I found it worked, but I spent too much time messing about with the angles of the feet, trying to make them point just where the diagrams show. I found the slight shift in weight forward helped though, and the stance is quite relaxed.
Correct posture involves tucking in the hips to make the back straight, with tight abs in the stomach area. The coaches in my lessons call this “gripping a penny between your buttocks”. So, essentially the same teaching. It talks about the benefits of dropping your weight like in a martial arts stance, and having done some martial arts I can see why they say this, but I don’t think it’s actually particularly helpful to an archer. Stand straight, don’t swell out your chest or raise up on your toes is probably the advice I would give myself based on corrections I’ve been given so far.
The hip should be aligned with the open foot, but about 10% less open. I think this happens more or less naturally. There’s apparently a twist creating strength in the body from the hips being slightly open which the shoulders aren’t. So, hips left, shoulders right, and feel the core strength created by the twist.
Next, he talks about hooking the string. It’s my understanding that a full, deep hook is a fairly new thing in archery. The author wants the fingers to hook upwards around the string, putting the pressure on the lower edge of the fingers. Also, to put pressure on the plastic bit of the tab between the fingers, to, counter-intuitively, open up the end of the fingers to prevent pinching. The third finger, the lowest, doesn’t hook, it just stabilises. He says to roll the fingers on to the string from the fingertips to avoid twitching. I find all of this a bit useless. I tried a full hook and basically twanged the 20lb recurve the club beginners use so much that arrows went flying everywhere. I find that I need all three finger to be exerting pressure on the string, but mostly the top two, and I find that there’s a sweet spot: too much hook and I pluck the string, too near the fingertips and I do a bad job of keeping the string where I want it, but somewhere in the middle it just seems to work nicely.
Obviously it seems a bit ridiculous for someone who has only had five lessons to be debating the merits of the teachings of a world class coach, but really that’s not what I’m doing. Obviously his techniques do work, they just don’t work for me at this stage and without his personal coaching. Plus, I don’t think the whole recurve thing works for me. I’m definitely veering towards traditional instinctive archery.
The position your grip holds the bow is important and I had already worked out how much difference this makes to my accuracy. I find a very light grip is best, so as I’m barely holding the bow at all. My thumb is loose, the bow sits in the web of my thumb, and the other fingers curl in. When I try to hold the bow more solidly, my accuracy fades. Lee recommends a 70 degree angle to the hand, pinky finger tucked in… so far so good. But he wants the index finger pointed to the ground and after release for it to come round to pointing at the archer’s shoes as the bow swings. He says you should feel the pressure through your hand, point the thumb forward, and have a gap for the bow to fall through after the shot, so as to release stored energy effectively. Well, I’m not far off in my grip, and I’m pretty happy with my grip as it is. It seems to work. I can’t say I’ve done any of this bow-swinging malarkey yet though.
The head must point straight toward the target. Stand tall, relaxed, keep still and let your steady head be independent of the other moving parts of your body. This is good advice. I find when I focus on keeping my head still it does make everything else work as well. He also recommends wearing sunglasses as they work a bit like a stabiliser on a bow, in that they make it obvious if your head is at the wrong angle. Indoors, this would look a bit strange.
The bow arm needs strong triceps and you need to keep the elbow down. That’s fine, I have to focus on this every time because of pain I have in my left elbow (from before I started archery) and because I have an elbow that overextends, so I need to keep it rotated and away anyway or the string thwacks it.
Next, you set your position. The bow arm should be extended out, with the bow pointing to the left a bit before drawing. I haven’t really thought much about this. The point is to enable angular motion, which is what he calls the torque in the body, the twist, the core strength, which the archer needs. He compares this to a golfer’s swing, or kayaking. It’s twisting to create control and you never reverse the direction until after the shot.
In drawing the bow, the hand should move straight to the face. He recommends you practise in front of a mirror. Drawing should be a rotational motion from the shoulder where the drawing hand starts at the highest and most outward position, with the wrist above elbow height, but no higher than your nose. The drawing arm should end up being in line with the arrow. I still find the idea of elbowing someone who is standing behind me in the face the best way to draw, but when focussing on the shoulder muscles during the release I notice that sometimes this works for me, in that it makes the release smoother. I need more practise.
Next up is the “loading position”, which in the point where you finish drawing, hit a wall, with your hand one inch in from your chin, but haven’t anchored yet. It’s a position, a pause before anchoring, but the string would already be on your chin in same position as it will be for anchoring. I find it hard to separate this from simply the notion of drawing and anchoring, it seems a bit like splitting hairs.
The anchor position is a bit like a fixed rear sight, he says. The top finger sits in a natural pocket under the jaw against the neck, and your head doesn’t tilt so the string will fall into an off-centre position on your chin, but not so much as to create a drag on the string. Your hand should be fully connected to your chin-jaw-neck, with no gap. The string will also sit on the tip of your nose, but don’t contort your face as it is more things to worry about keeping identical each time you shoot and wastes energy. To anchor effectively, you should have your thumb tucked into or in front of the neck muscle. He says the hand is the anchor, not the fingers on the string. Well, this might work for Olympic shooters and perhaps with enough practise it might work for me, but it doesn’t at the moment and I guess as I move more towards instinctive shooting I’ll find it less and less useful.
There’s a rhythm to the draw, and it goes like this (apparently):
By counting this in your head, or having it practised so much you don’t need to, you’ll achieve fluidity of technique. It probably is better explained in person than as it is written in the book, but it’s clear what he means. If you watch an archer like Brady Ellison shooting, the movements are so smooth that it all seems like one simple action.
Next up, he discusses “transfer”, and this is splitting hairs again. It’s a small turning motion to load a bit more weight onto the back. It’s not a staccato motion, and is partly just mental readiness, but it’s real enough that you may notice a small opening of the chest. So, basically, once you’ve hit the wall when drawing, and anchored, there’s a little more to go.
Holding is the next step. It’s called “stepping inside the bow”, where you’re now positioned between bow and string. He says to practise holding with your bow and stretch band for 30 seconds, then rest for 1 minute, and repeat. Do for 20 minutes regularly.
Having got this far, we’re now onto the first step of the follow-through, which is starting before the release. It’s called “expansion” and it’s just one more millimetre of string expansion as the clicker is used. I’ll hold my hands up here and admit I’ve never used a clicker, so I guess I just have to assume this is the last step of the draw. He says not to accidentally squeeze your fingers. Focus on your back muscles, rotation around the spine, and feel it in the head not the jaw.
Try remembering all these tiny steps when you’ve just hit full draw! What happens is that you lose all core strength because you’re spending far too long thinking about each element. I guess with enough practice it all comes together, but standing in a line of people shooting a target during a lesson is not the time to practise this – take it from me.
Now comes the discussion of the release. I wanted this to contain some amazing revelation that would make the release become clear to me, because I often struggle to do a clean release. Sadly, there was nothing so dramatic. He explains that the string slips from the fingers. He says, “There is no release!” One must focus on the back muscles, not the fingers. (The bow hand must release at the same time or your body will absorb the energy.) He advises picking up and dropping a bucket to get used to the release sensation. I find that the best releases are, indeed, ones where you’re not thinking about them, but for me that means focusing on the target and letting go with my fingertips when the sight or arrow tip is just in the right position. When this happens best, it happens automatically. Let the moment pass and I find myself trying to bring the sight or arrow tip back around and the moment and tension is lost. As they say, 1.5 to 3 seconds is all you’ve got before you lose the moment.
It’s worth interjecting here to say that the release is my nemesis. About half the time I pluck the string and the shot goes askew, albeit it might still hit the target, but the string will also hit my arm. I’ve tried thinking about back muscles and so on, but just drawing to full length and then aiming is the secret, it seems to me. At the right moment, if it exists, you’ll let go. The good shots are always smooth, quick and the least explicable when you come to trying to work out how you did it so well.
He describes the bow hand release as not so much about relaxing, as with the string hand, but a casting motion to dispense with energy. The bow arm must not drop. Index finger goes from pointing at ground, to pointing at the feet. I’ve yet to experience this bow swing thing, but I do find that a loose grip is important, so loose that the bow release hardly seems necessary.
When you shoot, the force should travel back through you. The follow-through involves maintaining core strength, maintaining the “barrel of the gun” (which is your strong body and arm positions), and preserving the shoulder alignment. He says to think of it as a position more than a movement. I absolutely don’t have a follow-through. My fingers might release, but there’s not enough tension in my back to have my hand carry on moving backwards. I know they say a bad workman blames his tools, but I’m a lot stronger than the 20lb draw on the club bows and my coach has confirmed my lack of core strength and tension comes from this fact. Maybe on a heavier bow I can work on the follow-through in future.
There’s further talk about shoulder alignment. The bow arm aims 15 to 20 degrees past the target, achieved through internal turning and compression, not pulling or extending. You use your triceps, but must also keep a slightly lower drawing shoulder to access deep back muscles. This is all well and good, but try remembering all this while you’re trying to remember all these other little details! I’ve no idea if my bow hand aims past the target, but when I picture it mentally I think it probably does this anyway. How could it not, if the bow is pointing forward with my hand on it, and my left shoulder is to the left of the bow?
He comes on to breathing. He says to breathe in through the nose, then breathe out a tiny bit at the set up as you lower your bow arm. Next, hold your breath from transfer until follow-through so you’re steady. More tiny details: the lung should be a natural 40 percent full. I can’t say I have practised this. I suspect I just gulp some air down and hold it until release. Anyway, he says calm slow breathing controls anxiety. He also says that 30 seconds of slow breathing, involving 6 seconds in, 6 seconds out, can improve eyesight and gives muscles extra energy for a few minutes.
Now we’re on to string alignment. He says all right-hand archers cant the bow very slightly to the right to get the correct head position. He talks about what I’ve heard described as the string picture, saying the left of the string needs to be touching the right edge of the sight aperture (and not the centre of the limbs) and to maintain it from the holding stage onwards. There’s not a lot said about aiming, but basically focus on the target, not on the sight pin, not on the string. Pin float is where the point in the sight swims around a bit before you shoot – apparently this is OK if it’s in a small area. Aiming off-centre to account for wind is also acceptable.
We come back to timing now, and he says that after expansion (that last bit of back tension) there’s between 1.5 and 3 seconds before release. That’s all the time you have for string picture and aiming. You can count this by saying internally: “OK, now I am ready… Go.”
We’re getting near the end now and he talks about body control. It is best to drop your weight like a martial artist to make use of your core strength. He says to work on your efficiency of movement, removing unnecessary actions. Hook only once. Set the head only once. He says problems with the finger release often stem from the bow arm not being forward enough and not casting the force out the front of the body. I wonder if this is where my release is actually going wrong – maybe it is my fault. I think there’s something to be said for extending the bow arm. This did help me with the release when I tried it – although possibly only by giving the bow string that extra bit of pull making just enough tension on that 20lb bow so that the string really did slip from my fingers. Anyway, most of all, he says to focus on keeping the head still.
Talk about splitting hairs? The pupil of the eye should be in the centre of the eye, in the most relaxed position. This chapter on eye focus really makes you realise how intense it must be at Olympic level. I can imagine a coach telling an archer the mistake they made was looking at the target with their eyes being slightly off-centre and not to waste energy this way! Anyway, you should focus before raising the bow. Deal with wind by aiming off. And don’t watch the arrow in flight! (I never see it fly, and can barely see it when it hits the target at 20 yards away!) You must keep focused on the target with your head remaining still.
Finally, the second to last chapter is about putting it all together. This was about achieving four things: fluidity, efficiency of motion, control and angular motion. Apparently, top Korean athletes shoot almost a thousand arrows a day for years as teenagers, developing fluidity of the techniques. (At this point, I thought: well, that’s me screwed – having neither the time to do that and being way older.)
The angular motion thing is really important throughout the book and it involves a kind of turn/twist/torsion/torque in the body. To explain this, I quote: “Turn, an angular word, is the action the drawing shoulder must continually do.”
There’s not an awful lot on the mental side of the sport, despite the book being called Inside the Archer. He does talk about the emotionality of shooting, though. Basically, he says not to make it all about hitting the bull’s eye. He urges you to shoot for the beauty of it. I like the phrase: “Only a fool would ask favours of the wind.” In a way, he’s saying focus on form (which you hear a lot) and look inwards to perfect your technique.
Obviously, this isn’t a review of the book, since I’m in no position to question an Olympic coach, so much as a summary of my understanding of it, and my thoughts on it. I’ve learnt a lot from it and whereas everything was a bit vague and nebulous before, I now feel like if I am unsure of something, I at least know what an Olympic recurve archer would do, and can use that as a starting point. It at least made me think about a heck of a lot more aspects of my shot than I knew to think about before. As you’ll see from lesson 5 though, when I post it, I think the path my archery will take lies some way off from what KiSik Lee is describing.
I look forward to coming back to this post in a few years and seeing how wrong or right I am in what I’ve said and in how I’ve interpreted what the author was saying!