Practice Done Right
Posted on July 31, 2012
How you practice will seriously affect how successful you are as an archer and bowhunter.
Many people are under the misconception that practice makes perfect. However, years ago, I was taught something better: Practice doesn’t make perfect; perfect practice makes perfect. Today, I adhere strongly to that motto and believe it to be the underlying key behind my archery and bowhunting success.
There’s no doubt that following this philosophy takes a lot of discipline, at least in doing it right, but isn’t that the secret to achieving all great things in life––through discipline? I think so, and I am sure most of you reading this won’t have a problem with that either, given that you know the outcome will be good.
With that in mind, here are some proven practice techniques that have worked well for me.
Simulate the Real Deal
It’s vital that you practice how you play. For example, the preparations and how you practice will differ somewhat from hunting, as opposed to an archery tournament; the same applies to how you prep for a Midwest whitetail hunt, as opposed to a hunt out West for elk or mule deer.
Basically, don’t waste your time shooting certain targets or at distances you probably won’t encounter during your hunt. Practice for the specific conditions you are expecting.
During my competitive career, I noticed that practicing on certain targets or in certain types of terrain that duplicated what I’d experience in a competitive match made all the difference in the world for getting me more physically and mentally prepared.
Here’s a good example: Once, while practicing for an upcoming ASA 3D event, I practiced judging distances and shooting high volumes of arrows like crazy in open fields near my house. The problem was that the tournament was held in Gainesville, Florida, and the course was laid out in dense vegetation, with mowed-down, tunnel-like pathways leading to the targets. This ruined my depth perception for accurately judging shooting distances in this environment, because I spent all my time in wide-open pastures. It was one of the worst weekends in my life, as far as practicing judging distances, and I practiced a ton––but it was the wrong kind of practice.
The following year, in preparation for the same shoot, I found some thick timber and mowed down paths to my targets. It looked similar to the course I shot in the tournament. However, after spending the same amount of effort practicing as I had the year before, I shot this ASA event again; my scores were far superior. Perfect (situational) practice does, indeed, make a difference.
Practice Like You Hunt
You should approach your hunting the same way. If you plan on stalking mule deer in open terrain, practice on 3-D targets in a similar setting and probably most frequently at mid- to long-range. Wear a backpack and binocular, too, and shoot from your knees (since this would be the most likely scenario). If you hunt whitetails in deep woods, practice from a treestand in deep woods and at distances of fewer than 30 yards. The same goes for shooting variables such as wind, especially when hunting the West. If you anticipate windy conditions, practice shooting in it.
You can even take this practice to the next level and shoot with the same gloves, head net and jacket you plan to use during your hunt. The closer you can duplicate the real deal, the better off you’ll be mentally. Trust me; I’ve been in tough conditions countless times and know how terrible the feeling of being underprepared is.
Preventing Target Panic
Target panic (snap-shooting, punching the release, freezing off target, etc.) is an awful “mind disease” to which many serious archers are prone, but you can keep it at bay by practicing wisely and patiently.
Years ago, some buddies and I used to engage in friendly competition by shooting at swinging ping-pong balls. Although it was fun, I paid a serious price in the way of battling trigger-flinching and anticipation for years to come.
Good friend Darin Cooper had the same experience when he competed at the ESPN Outdoor Games years ago. Most of the shots were speed shots and on moving targets. After shooting the qualifier and then practicing for the finals, he felt target panic creeping in. Consequently, he avoided that competition in the following years.
Target panic is one of the worst archery “diseases,” and you’ll be sure to “catch” it if you are practicing in a way that promotes trigger-punching and rushed shots. You might be considered a sour puss at the club by not participating in moving targets and speed rounds, but you’ll be everyone’s favorite when you make a perfect shot on a giant trophy!
As an alternative, try to take things more seriously and encourage friendly competitions on smaller spots or longer shots, instead of on moving targets, during club and shop practice. Make up your own novelty shots by shooting from your knees or from a seated position. It will still be challenging and fun, and it will prove to be smarter practice for bowhunting. Also, you can create group competitions in which you watch each person shoot. If someone punches the trigger, it doesn’t count!
Challenge yourself and your buddies to “pull through” (back tension) on every shot and make surprise, unanticipated releases. Sometimes, that added pressure of having your buddies watch is what you need to keep it together during the moment of truth on a big buck. Practicing in intense situations really is good practice.
In addition, keep track of how many good shots you can make during one practice session and reward yourself as you improve. Keep it positive. That helps a lot, too.
Prep Your Gear
Perfecting your gear is just as important as perfecting your shooting form and practice. Everything goes hand in hand.
This means organizing the arrows (same weight), tuning the bow and seeing to other pertinent gear and details and making sure everything is simply perfect. If you hunt, or plan to hunt, a variety of game, make sure you adjust the gear as needed to optimize results.
As I mentioned earlier, if you plan on hunting mulies in open country, you’ll probably need to make a few equipment modifications to best match this scenario, especially if you’re a treestand whitetail guy.
I hunt whitetails a lot, but when pursuing open-country Western game, I want to shoot a setup that optimizes my accuracy in open, windy conditions. This means using a smaller-diameter arrow such as the Easton N-Fused Axis or FMJ. More-compact fletching helps minimize wind drift, as well.
Proper rangefinder use is paramount. Be sure to always use the same rangefinder, since some give different readings from one to the next. Be sure your bow is sighted-in for the one you’ll use in the woods. If your guide or buddy will do the ranging for you, make sure he’s using your rangefinder and not his. On steep shots, verify the accuracy of your rangefinder’s angle-compensator. Not all are spot-on with all arrow speeds, so know how your arrows impact, based on various distances and angles.
Get in Shape
Physical readiness is often ignored, especially among treestand hunters, but being in better shape can allow you to handle shooting stresses better and improve your accuracy.
I take fitness seriously. I learned this years ago from Randy Ulmer––one of the best. I shot many times in competition with Randy when he was at his prime. I saw him separate himself from all the other competitors in score on every course that had challenging terrain. Randy was always in shape, and when it came to climbing a hill to the next target and making a steady shot, he was one of the best. After competing with him, I started applying as much of my time to physical preparation as I do to the mechanical preparation. My numbers of filled tags have grown impressively.
I would encourage you to make physical preparation part of your everyday lifestyle. Being fit for life is something you owe to yourself and your loved ones. You will live longer, have more time for your family and friends––and be ready for every challenge in the woods. If you know you have a high-elevation hunt coming up, put in some time on a stair climber or jog the hills in your area. Build your lungs and your heart; if you are able to keep up with your guide every step of the hunt, you know you aren’t going to miss any opportunities for a shot. However, if you are sucking wind and lagging behind, you are certainly in trouble.
I’ve always found it difficult to count up the number of arrows I’ll shoot for the day. The reason for this is simple: I strive for quality over quantity, and each day brings different availability of time and stress. I like to shoot as much as possible and make it part of my everyday routine, but the number of arrows I shoot during any given session will vary.
The bottom line is to focus on making only good shots. This means that on some days, you’ll shoot more arrows, sometimes fewer. When I’m shooting well, I shoot for a longer time than I do if I am not shooting well. There is a very fine line on this concept, and you must recognize that shooting poorly isn’t a reason not to practice. “I’m shooting badly today. Oh, well,” is not a valid excuse. Sometimes, it’s about recognizing your mental and physical capacity for the day.
Similarly, overcoming a little laziness is also important, because a successful hunt seldom goes hand in hand with laziness. Quality over quantity is a simple recipe, and fewer good shots will reinforce better habits, as opposed to a lot of mediocre shots. With that said, there are also times when you need to focus more of your practice on endurance, stamina and being what I call “archery-strong.” That is, being capable of pulling your bow and shooting a good arrow––regardless of the situation.
A common bowhunting mistake is not being archery-strong. I believe that many bowhunters shoot more draw weight than they should, and perfect practice is not possible with too much draw weight.
If you are not shooting all the time and are not in good archery shape, you need to do something to boost your stamina. I’ve found it beneficial to shoot a higher number of arrows before resting, rather than a lower number more frequently. So, instead of shooting five arrows 20 times, shoot 10 arrows 10 times. Although the total amount of arrows is the same, the latter scenario helps more with shooting strength. The end result is that you’ll be prepared to make good shots for longer periods of exertion. At first, it may be difficult to get those last few arrows off, but you will adapt quickly. This comes in handy when runnin’ and gunnin’, shooting in extremely cold temperatures or exerting yourself for hours before having a shooting opportunity.
Gauge the Results for Yourself
Certainly, any practice is better than no practice at all. But why not do it right? After all, the investment seems higher and higher nowadays––rising prices on tags and gear, leasing costs on property, devotion to food plots and yearlong nutrition, to name a few. The stakes are high, so why cut corners when it comes to how you practice and the time you invest in it?
When compared to not shooting at all, I would say you are right: A little is better than nothing. However, I am here to tell you that less perfect practice is better than lots of so-so practice. Adopt this philosophy and mindset; you’ll soon see that true archery success is waiting around the corner––only a bit of discipline and work away.
By John Dudley