Last Sunday I tried archery for the first time in my life. As always with such things, I was hooked immediately. If it weren’t for dinner reservations, I wouldn’t have stopped even after six hours of shooting arrows, blood-painting my arm, and straining my shoulder in a bliss of flowing joy.
It took me a while to get somewhat comfortable with the primal weapon, but once I had roughly assimilated the basic motor patterns, I learned something fascinating.
Whenever I wanted to hit gold, I missed. That is, whenever I worried about performing well, I performed poorly. And whenever I thought of my ego, victory, or others watching me, I did the worst.
Letting go of the bowstring, I knew whether the shot would hit or miss. If at the moment of release there’d been the slightest touch of worry in my mind, the arrow was doomed.
We all know that worry—a lack of mindcoolness—hinders the success of our actions in all areas of life, but nowhere is this link between failure and a bad mental state clearer than in archery.
The link isn’t psychic, of course. Worry simply triggers minor misadjustments based on what we think and feel rather than what we see. A fickle mind makes for wavering hands. With jerky mini-motions of anxious overcorrection, typically below the threshold of conscious awareness, a hot mind, heated by thoughts and worries, alters the stick’s trajectory and thus its place on the target.
Moreover, worry disturbs the quiet eye—a steady gaze fixation within 3° of visual angle for at least 100 ms prior to relaxing the fingers of the string hand. In sports science, a longer quiet eye duration characterizes both the expertise of the shooter and the accuracy of his shots. During the quiet eye period, visual and proprioceptive signals are integrated, movement parameters are fine-tuned, task-irrelevant variables are suppressed, and focus peaks. Anxiety, however, shortens the quiet eye duration, and the mental heat of worry impairs attentional focus by disinhibiting the suppression of irrelevant variables. With the quiet eye disturbed, hitting the bullseye becomes highly unlikely.
A beautiful thing about shooting with bow and arrow is that it vividly demonstrates the link between mental worry and motor failure in a plain and undeniable manner. Everybody sees where the arrow lands on the target; there’s no denying it. As a feedback so simple, immediate, and numerically objective, the arrows sticking in the target disclose the shooter’s mindcoolness or lack thereof. Relative to his general archery skills and training, the perforated target is an outward representation of his inner state of mind. The more arrows penetrate the middle, the more centered the archer has been during shooting.
Put simply and practically: Worrying is bad, having a cool mind is good, and so we shall exercise—on a daily basis—the cooling of our minds! Among many other activities, archery is a prime example of training in mindcoolness.
Behan M & Wilson M (2008). State anxiety and visual attention: The role of the quiet eye period in aiming to a far target. Journal of Sports Sciences 26(2), pp. 207-215.
Gonzalez CC, Causer J, Grey MJ, Humphreys GW, Miall RC, Williams AM (2017). Exploring the quiet eye in archery using field- and laboratory-based tasks. Experimental Brain Research 235(9), pp. 2843-2855.
Gonzalez CC, Causer J, Miall RC, Grey MJ, Humphreys G, Williams AM (2017). Identifying the causal mechanisms of the quiet eye. European Journal of Sport Science 17(1), pp. 74-84.