Overcoming Target Panic

It's sort of like "buck fever," but is even harder to deal with and overcome. Here's your primer on defeating this insidious condition.

A simple aiming drill can train you to focus on

only that one aspect of shooting -- and thus

overcome target panic.

Photo by Michael Corrigan.

"Buck fever" is the term for what happens when a hunter or archer is presented with a perfect shooting opportunity, but loses his cool.

In the process, he fails to implement fundamental shooting principles, and a bad shot is the result.

More of a bowhunters' affliction, "target panic" is very different and has nothing to do with shooting opportunities on game. There are several forms of the disease, but one thing's for certain: It's debilitating.

It can be either the inability to aim steady at the middle of the bull's eye, or freezing somewhere outside that target. Another manifestation is difficulty in triggering a release without "punching" the trigger.

If you're not able to aim steadily and achieve accuracy at the target, it becomes very difficult to find gratification in the sport of archery.

I know a few bowhunters who gave up on the sport because they were so stricken with target panic. A few years ago, I too became "infected."

But after educating myself and through self-imposed rehabilitation, I was able to overcome the malady. Now I have an entirely new love for the sport of archery and bowhunting.

Most professional archers agree that it results from some sort of short circuit in the psyche. For years, I was able to aim steady at the center of the bull's eye and gradually apply pressure to the release trigger with my index finger until the arrow flew.

Suddenly -- almost overnight -- I could no longer do that. I felt anxiety while aiming. As my sight pin approached the center of the target, the feeling got worse. Next, I developed a compulsion to rush the shot. As soon as the sight pin neared the bull's eye, I would punch the trigger.

That was when things really started to spiral out of control. Recognizing that punching the trigger was a bad idea, I then became fixated on "not" punching. Eventually I started to anticipate the punch, thus freezing with the sight pin somewhere outside the center of the bull's eye. No matter how hard I tried, I simply could not move the sight pin to the center of the bull's eye. How could something I once did so well, thousands of times, suddenly become so difficult?

Looking back, I now realize I was going through a very stressful period at work. Stress can reduce your capacity for concentration, so it makes perfect sense.

Over the years, unfortunately, I've yet to hear of a story where someone developed target panic, only to have the symptoms dissolve. Once you catch it, it only gets worse with time. Only through implementing methodical re-training can you truly overcome target panic.

To reach your full potential as an archer, you must be able to separate your conscious act of aiming from your subconscious act of triggering the release.

Early on, most bowhunters learn to aim and then squeeze the trigger. This simplified view of archery pushes us to aim and trigger "consciously." But until you can separate aiming from triggering, you are susceptible to target panic. Those who can regularly hit a bull's eye dead center without thinking about it are already making that separation.

Once you understand that aiming is a conscious act and that you must trigger the release subconsciously, then you're able to take steps to cure target panic.

Some research has shown that to develop any habit takes about 21 days. That's exactly what you want to do here. First, you want to "stop" doing what you have been doing -- shooting poorly.

Next, you want to develop a new habit that ultimately results in repeatable accuracy at the target.

To accomplish this, you need a plan and must stick to it for three weeks. That may seem like a long time, but what are your alternatives?

Are you going to continue to shoot poorly, give up the sport altogether -- or take steps to correct the problem?

No matter how hard I tried, I simply could not move the sight pin to the center of the bull's eye.

How could something I once did so well, thousands of times, suddenly become so difficult?

To fully grasp the mechanics of focusing all conscious effort on the aiming process, you must remove all other shooting elements. You must practice just aiming. This means no triggering, no arrows striking the target and no instant gratification.

Top tournament shooters use an aiming drill to hone their skills. Simply stand three to five feet away from a target with a bull's-eye, draw the bow and aim. Continue aiming for about 10 seconds and then let down the bowstring. Wait at least a minute before repeating the drill.

Each time, focus on the center of the bull's eye and let the sight pin "splash" into this spot. Don't worry if your sight pin drifts in and out of the bull's eye. Keep focusing on the center, and the pin will find its way back.

The exercise may feel easy while you're standing so close to the target. But if you have target panic, the drill may not come so easy.

Newcomers to the drill will often flinch at full draw because they're so accustomed to switching their effort over to punching the release.

Since the finger is not on the trigger, the "punch reaction" has to go somewhere. A full-body flinch often results.

After several repeats of the drill over the course of a week, you should notice a vast improvement in your ability to aim. For some, the results are nothing short of staggering after only a few days. Over time, you can slowly back up to 10 yards, then 20 yards and beyond.

You can then use an exercise called "blind bale shooting" to hone the skill of triggering a release. Simply stand three to five feet away from a large target, such as stacked hay bales. Draw the bow, anchor and then trigger the release.

Again, it sounds easy, but there's a twist. You must wear a blindfold or keep your eyes closed from start to finish. This removes all visual distractions from the shot process.

As you draw and hold the weight of the string at full draw, focus on using your large back muscles. Relax all the muscles in your hands and arms.

Next, put your finger on the trigger and squeeze your back muscles together. Visualize your release elbow pulling straight away from the target as you pull with your back muscles.

If you use a release aid equipped with a wrist strap, imagine trying to pull your release hand through the wrist strap. In doing so, you build pressure on the trigger, and a "surprise" release results. The actual release must occur without anticipation. Control and anticipation is what got you into trouble to begin with.

The exercise may feel unnerving at first, but over time, it becomes fluid and eventually subconscious.

Every day, repeat the aiming and trigger practice drill. At the end of three weeks, you can again begin shooting with your eyes open. But this too should be an incremental process. Start off no more than 10 yards from the target and use a large bull's eye --the size of a paper plate works well.

Keep your practice sessions short. No more than five shots works fine.

Once you're satisfied that you can group arrows in the center of the plate, you can begin to shoot at longer distances. Take it slow. If you falter and begin to feel the effects of target panic, stop and fall back on the practice drills.

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