The bull-bodied Kansas 8-pointer marched my way after I’d made some aggressive grunts and snort-wheezes. He’d been holding tight with a doe in a patch of sumac more than 100 yards away until I imposed the threat of another buck moving just a little too close. When he first started my way, I was fairly calm, but when he reached my 23-yard shooting lane, mentally, I fell apart and blew the easy shot. I let the intensity of the situation build to the point of no return.
That heartbreak happened several seasons ago as I struggled with a precarious bout of target panic. That season, I also blew shots on a bull elk, a dandy mule deer buck and even a couple of fall turkeys. If you’ve bowhunted long enough, you’ve likely had this happen, too. And if you haven’t had it happen, don’t assume that you’re immune. It can and does happen to the best bowhunters.
In my case, my 2016 season loomed with doubt. I even got anxious just thinking about potential shot opportunities. If I imagined a buck offering a shot, I felt sure I’d blow it. For someone who’s previously arrowed dozens and dozens of animals, it’s a weird and frustrating “rookie” feeling. The good news is that I overcame it and have been on a winning streak since.
If you’re currently struggling or want to take steps to avoid a future mental collapse when a dream buck appears, here are five ways to get your noggin straightened out before you head afield.
One of my biggest problems from the time I started bowhunting until 2016, was shooting way too much during practice sessions. If I shot a 1-inch group at 80 yards, I didn’t walk away satisfied. No, I tried proving to myself that I could do it again.
I was never satisfied. And the more I shot, the more enflamed my back muscles became and the closer I fell toward bad habits, including trigger punching. Without even knowing it, I was creating a vicious cycle that went to my head.
Following my heartbreaker 2016 season, I vowed not to over-practice. Now, if I shoot a 10-ring group at 100 yards, I don’t try proving to myself that I can do it again. I already did it. It’s done. I’m capable. I shoot fewer arrows during my practice sessions, and then I always try to finish with one well-executed and perfectly placed shot, often from 20 yards. And because I do that, I walk away feeling confident and deadly, not exhausted and frustrated.
Rehearse the Steps
How much attention do you pay to each step of the shot process while practicing? If you don’t pay attention and rely on “autopilot,” you’ll eventually fail when hunting. While practicing, rehearse the steps and pay attention to each individual one. Get your stance right. Draw your bow. Find your anchor point. Center your sight in your peep. Level your bubble. Begin aiming. Gently apply your finger or thumb to the trigger. Increase back tension to execute the shot. Follow through.
When you do this during practice, it will help you calm down while hunting because you aren’t focusing on the bigness of the moment, but the steps needed to make the shot. Talk yourself through them over and over again while you’re waiting for your opportunity.
Create a Controlled Breathing Cycle
One of the quickest ways to fall apart in a critical situation is to lose your breath. Years ago, I learned from a police officer, that utilizing a controlled breathing cycle is one of the best ways to handle yourself during stressful situations.
The breathing cycle he uses goes like this: inhale for 4 seconds, hold for 4 seconds and exhale for 4 seconds. Controlling your breathing helps regulate anxiety, and focusing on counting takes your mind off the bigness of the moment, which can calm you down substantially.
I’ve shot bows with a lot of different people. Most shoot too quickly. I don’t mean the shots themselves. I mean the entire process. We speed things up between each shot. We rush down to the target and pull our arrows. It becomes more of a chore and less enjoyable and purposeful.
The intention of practice isn’t to shoot arrows quickly and get done so we can move on to something else. The intention should be to make every single arrow count. To do that, spend time in between shots so that you can identify anything that you need to work on or fix.
What happens when you rush through a practice session is that you feel rushed when a buck is standing broadside in your shooting window. Often, the mentality is, “I need to shoot now, or he’ll get away!” Sometimes, that is true, but often, we have way more time than we realize to make the shot. However, we’ve engrained the rushing mentality in our minds, and then we rush. If you do this a lot, you’ll eventually make marginal hits or miss altogether. Slow down on targets and slow down in the field.
Take a Break
Hunting hard is a notable attribute of successful hunters. However, some hunters are designed to grind it out and still perform after nearly exhausting themselves, where other hunters become worn out to the point of mental collapse.
The only thing worse than giving up early, is to hunt too hard and then fall apart at the seams when you finally get your opportunity. If you feel your confidence wearing down as you hunt for days on end, take a day off to rest and recuperate. Then, hit it hard again with a refreshed mind and spirit.
Now, you have to decide in advance that if you’re nearing burnout, you’ll take a break. In the moment, your optimistic side will tell you to keep hunting, so you need a voice of reason to speak louder during that moment so that you make a sound decision and not one that costs you.
There are so many mental elements to bowhunting. We’ve covered several here that you can get straightened out on your own. It will take some effort to disrupt bad cycles and find your confidence, but the effort will result in better performance when a buck or bull pauses in your shooting lane. That’s something every bowhunter must strive for.