LAST UPDATED: May 1st, 2015
If you’ve been shooting bows awhile you can bet your best compound you suffer some degree of target panic. If you don’t believe this you’re either in denial or unfamiliar with actual symptoms. Let’s say, for instance, on a scale from 1 to 100 (1 equaling zero symptoms, 100 meaning you’re completely incapacitated) your symptoms have reached a moderate level 25. Target panic in this form is easily overlooked during relaxed backyard practice or passed off as “having a bad day,” but rears its ugly head while shooting under pressure. But target panic’s there, lurking and growing.
When target-panic affliction reaches levels higher than, say, level 50, there’s no way to ignore it, or the fact that it’s adversely affecting your ability to shoot to your full potential; especially under the pressure of competitive shooting or while faced with coveted game. In a strictly bowhunting context this means missing easy shots for no apparent reason, lost opportunities resulting from taking more time while aiming than necessary, or simply making pressured shots more “forced” than necessary, elevating anxiety levels caused by the natural thrill of an impending shot at something you want badly.
Recognizing the Symptoms of Target Panic
The biggest problem with target panic is a single label addresses a multitude of sins; as well as a tendency for well-meaning “experts” (who have likely never suffered run-away target panic) to offer quick-fix solutions to a single aspect of a multifaceted problem. And just so we’re straight, buck fever (a function of nervous energy preventing you from thinking clearly) is not the same thing as target panic (ingrained mental processes preventing you from shooting properly even when your mind is operating flawlessly).
Common symptoms include an inability to let down when a shot isn’t coming together, freezing off target at full draw, hurrying each shot or snap shooting, or having a difficult time committing to any shot – more likely a combination of two or more of these. An inability to let down, mentally committing to every shot no matter how flawed, is normally the first sign of trouble. Freezing denotes a mental inability to place your pin where you wish, locking up under (most common), over or to one side of the bull’s-eye as if your bow arm has a mind of its own.
Recruiting a trusted assistant, or partnering with a friend who also wishes to beat target panic, is a great help in running through target-panic reprogramming, assuring safety during blind exercises and instilling a stronger sense of discipline.
Hurrying the shot or snap shooting are essentially the same, the anxiety of shooting so intense you hurry through the process to alleviate discomfort. This is particularly prevalent with traditional shooters due to a lack of let-off; or compound shooters pulling too much draw weight. Commitment issues include attempting to aim and re-aim, trying to make every shot more perfect, until you begin to quiver from physical fatigue. All of these symptoms involve deeply-engrained mental habits, making them more difficult to correct than simple physical shooting form. Too, obsessively addressing a single aspect of target panic often results in symptoms simply switching to another area, leaving you jumping from one foot to another. I know. I’ve been there. It’s frustrating business yielding childish temper-tantrums and howling frustration.
If you’re only beginning to experience slight symptoms (or can currently detect none), running through these habit-changing exercises will help you become a better shot, nipping bad habits in the bud and preventing bigger problems later. If your target panic is more entrenched, now is the time to regain control, as hunting seasons are months away and this will take time. Of the latter, understand you really have to want this badly; like the cigarette smoker or problem drinker who has had enough and is truly committed to quitting. You’re facing a lot of tedious effort and forced discipline. It won’t be fun, and it certainly won’t be easy.
Behavioral psychologists will tell you at least 23 days are required to rid yourself of any established habit and replace it with something of value. To assure target-panic control sticks (it is never completely “cured”), I recommend setting aside an entire month for nothing but target panic withdraws – excluding anything fun like stump shooting, bowfishing or small-game hunting, and especially 3-D tournaments. In the end I guarantee you’ll shoot better – but only if you invest an honest effort.
The initial step is eliminating all results-oriented shooting. Target panic’s a function of performance anxiety — remaining focused on the end rather than the means. You must begin by establishing the notion that executing a technically-perfect shot is always more important than where your arrow hits.
The first tenant of beating back target panic is instilling the notion that executing a technically-perfect shot is more important than where arrows ultimately hit. Shooting blind while mentally envisioning the perfect shot is a good step in that direction.
To help solidly instill this concept spend the first week of your control program standing a couple yards away from a safe backstop (a large haystack, sand bank or entire indoor range wall is best), blindfolded (or with eyes tightly closed), drawing your bow, relaxing, pointing at the target and mentally envisioning the perfect shot in your mind — and then letting down. Letting a drawn bow down can prove extremely difficult for those with firmly-entrenched target panic, but it’s critically important at this stage. You’re deprogramming bad habits and this requires taking things one baby-step at a time. Each step is conducted for no more than a half hour a day, avoiding wearing yourself down mentally and losing control or allowing discipline to falter.
During the second week of this program, hopefully having gained more control, drawing and anchoring solidly with zero shot anxiety, use the same backstop and blindfold and go through your entire shot process, this time patiently squeezing off shots, striving for a surprise cut-away. Remember, don’t concern yourself with where your arrow lands (so long as you’re endangering no one’s safety) only that the shot feels and “looks” good in your mind’s eye. Unless you’ve a huge backstop, an entire haystack or sand bank, it’s typically best to recruit a trusted friend or partner to keep an eye on you, assuring you don’t fling arrows in some random direction to cause losses or safety issues.
Better yet, when recruiting an assistant for this tedious business, find a friend who also suffers from target panic and sincerely wants to regain control, walking the path to recovery together. This makes the frustration involved more tolerable for both of you, taking turns with exercises, each of you receiving a mental breather between sets to make the training more profitable.
Freezing, or having your pins lock up below, above or beside the bull’s-eye, is a common target-panic symptom. Reprogramming your brain for anxiety-free shooting takes time but is well rewarded afterwards by better shooting and more venison in your freezer.
Through this entire process strive to remain relaxed while settling into proper shooting form and anchor, and especially during release, allowing each release to occur of its own accord. If you find yourself locking into a predetermined shot clock, it might prove helpful to choose random numbers between 3 and 20, counting aloud slowly and evenly to vary the tempo between releases, avoiding the tendency to dump the string the moment the final count is reached. In other words, use the count as a loose minimum, not an absolute maximum.
By the third week you should be able to remove the blindfold (or open your eyes) and conduct some relaxed and controlled “blank-bale” shooting. Again, you want to eliminate any results-oriented feedback. Choose a large backstop, covering it with blank cardboard or butcher paper, and standing very close (within 5 yards) so there is no aiming anxiety involved. Now, with both eyes open, attempt to maintain the feel of a perfectly-executed shot while aiming at nothing. If a vast enough space is available – a dry lake bed, plowed or harvested field, or empty, sand beach – try installing Judo Points and flight shooting instead, executing technically-perfect shots while firing into nothingness. If any degree of anxiety persists, return to the previous step for a week and start again. To push on will only invite target-panic back into your life.
The SAFEDRAW from Vibracheck/PSE Archery is another great way to work through target-panic issues, allowing you “shoot” (even indoors) without results-driven feedback that can slow progress, and without harming expensive equipment.
During the final week of this reprogramming have your partner randomly count through a serious of aimed shots. They pick a random number from 3 to 20, ask you to draw and anchor, to place your pin on a precise spot on a target (different for each shot so as not to fall into a preprogrammed rut), asking for confirmation that you’re locked in. Only after you’ve settled in do they begin slowly counting through to the predetermined number. When the number is reached they order you to let down (sternly, in a loud chant if needed), occasionally allowing you to release. By this point you should have regained enough control to be able to follow orders without the slightest anxiety or twitches. If not, return to the previous step. During this exercise, about every third to fifth shot, take control of the shot yourself, placing your pin on spot and pulling it off, placing it and pulling off, creating a series of clover leafs before releasing, further eliminating the anxiety of aiming.
Target panic deprogramming is frustratingly tedious stuff – though seldom boring – requiring a good measure of discipline. Maintaining what you’ve gained also requires vigilance and a commitment to continued discipline. If you’re truly serious about quashing debilitating target panic for good, making every shot count, you’ll find these exercises invaluable in the long run.