I still recall the sickening feeling of watching the Kansas monarch disappear into the brushy abyss, my arrow lodged into planet earth, clean as a whistle. The shot had been 23 yards, which is a gimme for practically any bowhunter. The difference in this instance was that I’d been battling a bout of target panic for the entire fall.
It began in Idaho when I rushed and missed a shot at a solid 5×5 public-land bull elk. I worked my tail off for that opportunity, and when it was time to launch, I shot anxiously rather than confidently. And the same thing happened in December following my Kansas hunt when I lobbed an arrow over a beautiful mule deer buck. Nothing frustrates like walking into the woods with the failure cloud looming over you.
Interestingly, the target panic only afflicted me when hunting. At distances out to 100 yards, I could shoot targets all day with good shooting mechanics, including surprise releases. But for some reason, doubt would linger the moment I’d move toward a bull or settle into a treestand. I just knew that I was prone to rushing and punching my trigger when faced with a shot opportunity, and that made for some heartbreaking moments in the field that I don’t want to relive ever again.
I’m glad to report that I’ve completely overcome my target panic and confidence issues. Below are some steps that I took to beat them.
Admit You Have a Problem
The first step to healing for me was to admit I had a problem; something few folks want to do. There’s a level of embarrassment involved, and I’m sure that some of you will be surprised that a guy like me who makes his living as a hunter would deal with target panic and trigger punching. The fact is, nearly every archer experiences it at one point or another. Even pro archers like John Dudley and Levi Morgan have admitted to struggling with target panic in the past.
Once you admit that you have a problem, you empower yourself to change and improve. This leads us to the next step of the process.
Identify the Cause(s)
Everyone has slight differences in target panic. This is based on what is causing the target panic to happen. While it always has a mental element, you must identify what is triggering the mental element, which in turn is causing the target panic.
For me, it was adding the pressure of a bowhunting shot opportunity where missing has consequences. And, my thumb release and I weren’t working synergistically. For others, it could be that the bow’s draw weight is set too high or the draw length too long.
Usually, some sort of physical discomfort triggers the mental collapse, which inflicts a sense of anxiety and urgency to shoot.
I mentioned that I was previously shooting a thumb-trigger release. My beloved Carter Hunter had been my staple release for 15 years. With it, I arrowed dozens of big game animals with well-placed hits. But despite all the success stories that release and I created, it was time to part ways. Why? Because I was missing more than I was hitting.
I tried out a couple of different index-finger releases and landed on the Spot Hogg Wiseguy. It obviously was unnatural to shoot an index-finger release after more than 15 years of shooting a hand-held thumb-trigger release, so I took some time to get used to it.
Making a major change — switching releases or adjusting draw length — takes some acclimation. I know of no better way to do this than shooting at a large target —a tightly bound round bale works well — with eyes closed from 5 yards away.
This removes the aiming element and therefore disrupts the target-panic cycle. It allows you to focus entirely on executing each shot using proper back-tension mechanics.
You also get to focus intently on your form. You’re thinking solely about developing muscle memory and shooting well without any concern about accuracy. That will come next.
After at least several sessions of shooting blindly at a bale with excellent mechanics, reintroduce aiming to the program. Don’t run back to 30 yards and start shooting a normal practice routine. Instead, start at 15 yards and practice drawing back, aiming at a baseball-sized spot, slowly setting your finger or thumb on the trigger without building pressure, then removing your thumb or finger and letting the bow down. Repeat several times.
If you can master this technique, then try it at multiple distances. It gets you used to the idea that you aren’t obligated to shoot. It also lets you grow accustomed to the fact that pin movement on the target is normal and that you need not punch the trigger the moment your pin hits the dot. Once you do this successfully, you can move on to shooting again.
Put it all Together
Beginning at top-pin range, combine everything you’ve trained for previously, except add a shot into the mix. Don’t go out with the intent to shoot a specific number of arrows. Instead, focus on shooting every arrow properly and with the same mechanics you used while shooting blindly.
If all goes well, don’t shoot until exhaustion, or the target panic could resurface. Shoot just a few arrows per session, again focusing on perfect execution. Hang your bow up for a while, then come back and do the same thing for another arrow or several.
When you’re confident that you can replicate everything the same way at distance, move back only 5 to 10 yards. Shoot from that distance for a few days before you step back another 5 to 10 yards. Gradually increase distance as you develop confidence.
Make and Rehearse a Checklist
When you finally feel comfortable at all ranges, the next step is to create a checklist of everything you do to shoot well and with proper shot execution. Then, rehearse that checklist every time you shoot and especially while you’re hunting.
Ideally, add pressure to your practice regimen before you go hunting to determine just how well you can execute your checklist. Have some friends over and setup some difficult shots in your backyard. Pool together a prize for the top shooter.
Having something on the line creates pressure to produce, and when you can produce under pressure with great shooting mechanics and shot execution, then you know you’re ready for the woods.
Target panic is like getting the hiccups. You must disrupt your breathing cycle in order to stop the hiccups. Likewise, you must disrupt your shot cycle in order to find your way out from under target panic.
There are some other steps out there, but those listed above helped me out of my target-panic bout, and as a result, I’ve been making consistently better shots while hunting. It feels incredible.