Buying your first equipment

Like most clubs, we have a range of basic bows and other kit in varying sizes to suit beginners, but sooner or later everyone wants to buy their own equipment. Some are itching to start buying right away, some can take longer to raise the money or just decide what they want. The thing is, there is a huge choice out there, so how do you decide?

The first thing we always say is please don’t buy the first thing you like the look of on eBay or a dealer’s website. It really is important (honestly) that you get the right size bow, at the right draw weight, and the right size arrows to go with it. Other bits and bobs like tabs and bracers are less critical, but still come in a wide range of styles and sizes.

The consequences of buying the wrong kit could just be that it doesn’t work very well and you end up having to pay out all over again for stuff that does work. In the worst cases, badly-made or poorly-maintained equipment can be dangerous. There are many second-hand bows that are shown strung back to front, for example. Have they been shot like that? The bow could be damaged. Arrows that are too weak could snap as they are shot and there is no telling where the bits are going to end up. There are some good deals to be hand on used equipment, but you need to know what you are getting. If it is enough money that you would be upset about losing it then don’t!

Talk to your coaches. It is best, if possible, to go to a specialist dealer who will take the time to measure you up properly and let you try out different things until you are happy. Most dealers are good like that. A few are not, but experienced archers will usually know which is which. The good dealers generally have short shooting ranges where you can try things out. This is so you can find out what fits best, but also so the dealer can check everything is working as it should.

Arrows, in particular, can be tricky. The spine charts published by the manufacturers are generally pretty good, but the actual spine that works best for you might be different. Better quality limbs are more efficient and faster than cheap ones, even at the same draw weight, and will need stiffer arrows. It also depends how you shoot. I once heard both sides of a dispute between an archer and a dealer where the archer claimed he was sold the wrong arrows because they were not what Easton’s chart recommended, but the ‘wrong’ arrow actually worked better with his technique.

Talk to other archers. Most people will let you have a look at what they use or even try it out. That will help to give you an idea of what draw weight you want, and ho well different things work in practice.

Beware of reviews. They can be useful, but any review is only one person’s opinion and they might not be entirely unbiased.

The people who know best are generally the ones who won’t focus on particular makes or price points but will do their best to find kit that suits you. Listen to them!

Hydration

When we feel thirsty, we drink something, that’s how it works, isn’t it? Actually a small drop in water levels in your body can have a big effect. We take in water through drinks and also contained in most of the food we eat. We lose it in more ways: in urine, through breathing and perspiration. Physical activity makes you lose more water, because as you get warmer you sweat more.

The surprising bit is just how much difference small water loss can make to athletic performance. A 3% loss of water leads to up to a 19% loss in muscle strength. You generally don’t feel thirsty until you get to about a 5% loss, and by that time you could be 30% down on strength. The solution is not to wait until you feel thirsty, and not even to rely on having a cuppa halfway through the round, but to have regular mouthfuls all the way through, say after every couple of ends. Try it and see what difference it makes.

What to drink? Well, water, but a small amount of carbohydrate and salt will help top you up. This is what isotonic sports drinks are all about – they have the same concentration of salt and glucose that is normally found in your body. So use them if you like. They can be expensive, though, and it is easy to make your own. A mix of half fruit juice and half water, with a pinch of salt per litre of drink will do the job. There are plenty more recipes for home-made isotonic drinks on the web as well.

Holding the bow

The instinctive thing to do is to grip the bow firmly. However, doing that, or worse, grabbing the bow suddenly as you execute the shot, will force the bow to twist. You might think the arrow is gone by the time you grab the bow, but it does affect the shot. You will never do it exactly the same each time, so it results in wider groups.

To start with, you really must have a sling (unless you shoot a longbow). This will catch the bow and stop it falling on the floor. Choose a style that you like, and adjust it so that it is slightly loose. The bow needs room to move forwards and leave your hand for a moment as the arrow leaves the string. If you shoot a longbow, you can still use a relaxed hand, just touch your first finger and thumb together to act as a sling and let the bow leave your hand. This will only work if your arrows are correctly spined, though, otherwise the bow will kick too much in your hand.

When you pull the string slightly in the pre-draw, this is the time to get your bow hand right, before you lift the bow to the target. Your hand should be placed on the bow with your knuckles at about 45 degrees. Allow your wrist to bend downwards slightly so that you feel the bow being pushed against the muscle at the base of your thumb. A lot of people seem to be trying high wrist positions at the moment, but a high wrist is actually less stable than a low one. The point of contact should be aligned directly down your forearm, i.e. your wrist must not be bent sideways. Most important, your fingers must be be fully relaxed. You then need to keep this relaxed position as you lift the bow, draw and execute the shot. The bow is allowed to move. A properly set-up bow will move forwards as the arrow leaves the string. You need to let it do that and trust it to do what it wants to do.

Having trouble? If you find yourself grabbing the bow, try holding a cork gently between the tips of your thumb and first finger. If the cork is tied to the bow with a piece of string it makes it easier. When you let go, the bow should knock the cork out (which is why you tie it to the bow so it doesn’t fly off down the range). The biggest hurdle for most is having the confidence to let the bow leave your hand and trusting that the sling will catch the bow. Shoot at a short target with no face so you have no distractions. It can be a bit of a leap of faith, but trust the sling. Take your time and shoot lots of arrows at the short target to get used to how it feels.

Does the bow kick sideways? That is a sign that something is wrong with the set-up, so fix that first. It could be your arrows are the wrong spine, or your pressure button/launcher is in the wrong place.

Some people will deliberately hold their fingers out straight. This is better than grabbing the bow, but isn’t great as you are still putting tension in the muscles in your forearm which work your fingers, and tension inevitably means unwanted movement, not to mention a waste of effort. Relax those fingers, even if you have to spend time just drawing the bow without shooting to get used to how it feels.

The shape of the grip is important to all this as well, although ‘grip’ is a slightly unfortunate term. The ideal shape for most people is a flat surface angled slightly away from your fingers so it matches the shape of your hand. See the Hoyt Ortho or Jager grips for examples, or make your own. Grips on newer recurves are generally better than they used to be, but don’t be afraid to modify a grip with tape, body filler or whatever to get it the right shape. If it all goes goes wrong, file it down and try again, or just start with a new one. OK, you might not want to do that if you have splashed out on a Jager :-), but most grips are quite cheap. Grips on compounds tend to be very narrow, but bear in mind the vast majority of compounds are designed for the US hunting market rather than for competition target shooting. Target archers need a grip that is comfortable and consistent over a lot more arrows. Some say that a narrow grip minimises torque, but if your hand is in the right place and relaxed you won’t be torquing it anyway.

Your first tournament

Most archery clubs organise tournaments that are open to any Archery GB members. New archers are often reluctant to go to tournaments as they feel they are not good enough, might feel out of place or whatever. Nothing could be further from the truth. Tournaments are a little more formal than normal club shooting, but they are always friendly events where new archers are made very welcome regardless of how good you are. Having said that, you do need to keep to a distance you are comfortable with – just keep it realistic and nobody will mind if you miss a few. Most archers regard the tournaments as social events rather than competitive ones, so give it a go and treat it as a bit of fun.

You will generally need to fill out an entry form and send it to the club’s tournament organiser. You will be asked who you are, for your Archery GB membership number, what kind of bow you shoot and your arrow colours. The latter is so that organisers can try to avoid having people with the same fletching colours on the same target. If you are new enough that your ArcheryGB card hasn’t arrived yet, make sure you have a copy of a receipt from a club official. Tell the organiser you are a beginner, then they will make an effort to put you on a target with experienced archers who will help you out. When you arrive, someone will ask to see your membership card or receipt to prove that you are a member, just to be sure you are covered by the insurance.

Food and drink is sometimes provided on site, sometimes not. It is a good idea to bring your own anyway. Depending how long the shoot is, there will be at least one break part way through. Good things to bring: water, diluted fruit juice, tea, bananas, cereal bars. Bad things to bring: sugary fizzy drinks, chocolate bars, alcohol, anything stodgy. The idea is to keep nibbling at things with complex carbohydrates to keep your energy up. Despite what some people think, carbs are not bad for you if you are burning the energy off! Sugar is no good as it gives you a short boost but then leaves you more drained afterwards.

Try to arrive with plenty of time to spare before the start – at least 30 minutes. That will give you time to find the place, get set up and get used to the surroundings. DO WARM UP properly before you start, even if nobody else is doing it!

Tournaments start with an assembly, where the organiser and the judge will say a few words about how the shoot is being run. The role of a judge is to make sure everyone follows the rules, but they are there to help archers, not to shout at you. That’s unless you try to cheat or do something dangerous, but you are not going to do that, are you? 🙂

Somebody will tell you your place on the target when you arrive, normally a number from 1 to 4. This just means there are up to four people shooting at one target, although only two shoot at a time. Numbers 1 and 3 shoot together and 2 and 4 shoot together. You shoot in details, meaning that the pairs alternate as to who shoots first. Shoot the round, but don’t worry too much about what your score is. It is perfectly normal that you don’t shoot quite as well as you normally do at your club. It will soon pick up as you go to more shoots and get used to them.

At the end you hand your scores in, making sure you sign for your score. Some people are tempted to leave at this point, but it is good manners to stay and see the awards being handed out. All shoots have raffles alongside as well, so you never know, you might even win something after all!

Practising vs scoring

It seems to be tempting for a lot of people to do a scoring round each time they come and shoot, particularly indoors. There is nothing wrong with scoring. I mean, archery is a competitive sport, it’s what we do, and it is how you measure your progress. However, if you are serious about improving your shooting then you need to have practice sessions when you don’t score your arrows. When you are scoring you are naturally focussed on where the arrows hit the target, and to achieve the best score you have to make each shot the same as the last. So, you can’t be changing anything in your technique.

If you want to work on improving some aspect of your technique, say hand position on the bow, or shoulder alignment or whatever, you are acknowledging that what you are doing now is not perfect and needs changing in order to make it better. If you are changing your technique your arrows will fly differently and (in the short term, at least) your score is likely to go down. If the change is worthwhile then your scores will improve when you get used to it, but scoring is likely to discourage you from making that change. Even having a target face on the boss can be distracting, so take it off and shoot on a blank boss, using just a target pin or a small piece of tape to give you something to aim at.

If you are practising, don’t score. If you are scoring, don’t practise, just shoot!

Too much to remember? Build a sequence

Let’s face it, a good shot looks simple when you watch somebody else, but there is a lot to remember to get right all at the same time – hand position, shoulder alignment, fingers on the string, reference position, where your feet are and much more. It can all be a bit overwhelming, especially when you are holding the weight of the bow and trying to keep it pointing towards the middle.

Actually, it needn’t be quite that difficult. The trick is to build up a sequence to the shot, so you start with step 1, then step 2, then step 3 etc. The movement should flow smoothly through the steps, but if you take the time to do things in the right order then you don’t need to try to think of everything at the same time.

Resist the temptation to get to full draw as quickly as possible once you have nocked the arrow. Slow down, and take the time to get each step right before you move on to the next. You can work the details out for yourself to some extent, but the steps should go something like this:

Step 1: make sure you are standing in the right place.
Step 2: place your arrow on the string.
Step 3: place your fingers on the string.
Step 4: adjust the position of your hand on the bow.
Step 5: pull the string a few inches to settle your fingers in.
Step 6: lift the bow without pulling the string any more.
Step 7: get your shoulders in alignment.
Step 8: draw to your reference position.
Step 9: keep steady pressure on until you let go.

The idea is that you set up as much as possible of the shot before you pull the string. At each step, once you are in the right position it is relatively easy to maintain that position through the rest of the shot without thinking about it too much. At least, it is much easier than yanking the string back first and then trying to fix everything else!

Warming up

Just something they teach you in a beginners course because they have to, isn’t it? Nobody else bothers, so why should I?

Actually, warming up is important. Everybody should do it every time. Make it a habit before you shoot, and it is easy. It is often said that it reduces the risk of injury. The evidence is actually a bit mixed on that one, but on balance it seems sensible. Warming up does literally warm up the muscles, and warm muscles work more efficiently, there’s no doubt about that. Why handicap yourself by not doing it?

DON’T STRETCH! How many people do you see do a cursory pull of the elbow round with the other hand a couple of times before shooting? I know a lot of people were taught to do that, but please don’t, it isn’t good for you. Stretching before physical activity can actually make you perform worse.

Don’t get me wrong, stretching is good. Those of us over 40 in particular benefit as the range of movement in your joints tends to reduce as you get older, if you do nothing about it. A regular stretching routine can help keep you supple, but do it after you shoot, not before.

I’m not going to go into details of the specific exercises – there are lots you can do, so ask your coach or look it up. Spend a good five minutes on it, concentrating on the upper body but doing something for the whole body. Your whole body is involved in shooting, after all. Warming up should be gentle repeated movements to get things moving, gradually increasing in intensity, but always staying within your normal comfortable range of movement.

Cause vs effect

Cause and effect – it isn’t always obvious which is which. In archery, they are often confused. When looking at any aspect of shooting technique it is important to know why something happens the way it does. How many people do you see snatching their hands behind their heads as a separate movement after release? Somebody has probably told them they need to pull their hand back behind their ear when they let go, so that’s what they do. What should happen is that the hand moves back of its own accord (effect) because there is a steady pull from the shoulder and the string suddenly isn’t resisting any more (cause).

Here’s another one: current thinking is that correct use of the shoulder muscles through the draw (cause) should result in a slightly curved path of the drawing hand (effect). Making the hand go through a curve is not the same thing.

Focus on the cause, and the effect is a sign that you have got it right. It doesn’t work the other way round. Forcing the effect doesn’t make the cause happen!