John Dudley explains how to prepare for when it all comes down to one shot.
I was 18 years old and standing alongside two other guys looking at the final target for an ASA World Championship. All three of us were estimating the distance to a 3D target out in front of us at about 30 metres. We each made our best guess and had only one arrow to decide which of us would be the next ASA 3D World Champion. The first two guys stepped up and shot 10s. The window of opportunity was left wide open for me. All I needed was a 12 to be a clear-cut winner. My heart was beating so hard I could barely draw my bow back. I don’t remember anything about the shot other than I could barely keep my pin on the target, let alone the 12-ring. I’m pretty sure I did everything possible wrong and the shot fired. I watched my arrow tick-tock right into the eight-ring. Instantly, all the pressure was gone, my nervousness lifted. I had blown it and all I could think about was how I ended up last in that shoot-off. A matter of seconds completely changed a really long archery tournament. First place was within touching distance, and I had let it slip away.
It was extremely tough to deal with, and an arrow like that can leave you second-guessing every shot all weekend. The reality is that nearly every major win you may ever get in archery will boil down to the last few arrows. This is the one moment that really separates the good from the great. It is this one moment where all the weight of your archery skills falls onto how your mind will handle it. I will be the first to tell you that I didn’t come out of the archery gates a winner and I have certainly lost more than I have ever won. However, after learning to lose I was able to pick up some very helpful lessons that, in the end, taught me how to win. These are the mental lessons that I want to share with you today to help you seize that moment when you finally have your big shot. The mental lessons that will help you perform as well during your tournaments as you do during practice.
There are a lot of archers out there that can shoot champion level scores in their back garden or at their home range when they are practising. What is it that changes when we go from the practice range to the tournament line? What is it that makes a person go from shooting six out of six arrows in the 10 ring to shooting four or five out of six? Why was it that I couldn’t shoot a simple 12 on the same 30-metre 3D target that I had shot a thousand times in practice at home? The answer is pressure. Pressure is such a simple word yet one of the heaviest of things to have to carry. I have learned the long and hard way that pressure is a powerful thing that usually takes control when you are lacking confidence in what you do. Pressure comes when you are up against someone that you know is at or above your level. It comes during the time you need it the least. It feeds on doubt. What I have learned is that by removing your doubt and increasing your confidence you can in fact learn to control that pressure. It just takes a little practice.
Practice with pressure
As a beginner, one of the hardest parts of shooting in major tournaments was being around such high-quality shooters and learning to hold my own around them. At home or on my local range I felt confident, but when I was on the road and shooting against someone I didn’t know, I wavered. With that slight doubt came pressure. It is a type of pressure that will feel very different, and in many cases overwhelming, if you haven’t ever had to deal with it before. For many years I struggled with this, and week in and week out I would practice like a pro at home but then go to the tournament and underachieve. Tournaments felt so different to practice and I never really felt prepared for how my nerves were acting. Luckily for me, that all changed one day when I was at a coach’s house for a long weekend and I practised with that same pressure for the first time.
Since I had been struggling with tournament performance I booked a long weekend with a coach that I hoped could help me with my problems. What I didn’t know was that this coach had also booked another top archer to stay there with me. Those four days would be my first experience practising with a little competitive pressure. My companion was good, already a winning pro, and I knew I had shot scores at home every bit as good as his – but not while standing on a line with him. During our practice I felt the same nerves I was experiencing during the tournaments, much like the feeling of going head to head with someone. It took some getting used to, but after a day or so I forgot about who was next to me and really started to focus on what I was doing. As my comfort grew, so did my confidence. Sometimes I think what is missing from many naturally talented archers is belief: belief in themselves, and in what they are capable of doing. I learned that finding a practice partner that pushes you can determine how you perform when it matters most. I came to realise that practising on my own and sheltering myself with comfort during home practice was not doing me any good. By practising with pressure and learning to embrace it you will get important things from it. You will reduce the pressure you feel by the increased confidence that you build, overcoming anything that may arise.
I came away from that experience knowing that it was a mistake practising by myself and keeping my mistakes hidden from my competition. It was a mistake keeping pressure away from the practice field. What we should do instead, is find a practice partner to push us harder, apply some pressure and expose the faults so that we can learn to fix them. Practising with pressure taught me that I could practise with confidence and belief in myself. After learning that lesson, I took a completely different approach and I would make it a point to find someone to practise with before a major event – someone that I knew could put some pressure on me. For my first World FITA Field Championship I met up with Dave Cousins for a week of practice. We were huge rivals at the time and several friends thought it was a stupid idea. I knew, though, that if I could practise alongside Dave I would feel totally comfortable competing alongside him – or anyone else for that matter. We pushed one another hard that week and I quickly saw where I needed to get better. I had a lot of confidence at that World Championship and finished with a silver medal, losing to Chris White in a fun gold medal match. And so, two years later, when I was preparing for the next World Field, who do you think I trained with? You guessed it, Chris White! We pushed one another hard and pretty much refused to be the first guy to miss the gold. It is still one of my most memorable practice days – and yes, the formula worked again for another medal.
Since you now know that confidence is a key factor in performing well under pressure, I want to share an easy way for you to increase your confidence. There are several ways to grow your confidence, but one of the best ways is by increasing your self-image. A simple definition of ‘self-image’ is how you view yourself, or how you think others view you. This is not only about appearance but also about performance. Do you see yourself as a good archer or do you have doubts? If your self-image is high then I can assure you that your performance will be as well. Likewise, if it is low, then you will lack confidence and likely feel more pressure during important moments of competition. A great way you can boost your self-image is simply by taking photos of the good times. I have learned over the years that seeing photos of the awesome groups I have shot creates this solid mental image of ‘this is how well I can shoot’. I have built a library of images of some of the best groups and practice days of my life. For me, these are solid evidence of what I am capable of. Regardless of how I may be shooting at any given time, I know from reviewing photos that I can say to myself, ‘this is how I can shoot, and this is how I do shoot’. I recall many times where I have stood on a shooting line thinking to myself, ‘I need three more 10s.’ Then I try to think back to a photo that I have when I have three arrows in the 10 ring. Then, I mentally burn that image into my head and say to myself ‘do it like that’.
I would encourage you to build a photo folder and call it ‘my groups’. Use your camera phone if you have one and regularly take photos of your best groups and awesome shots that you make during practice. Then review that folder periodically and make it a point to add to the folder with new groupings and other great shots you may make. The saying ‘seeing is believing’ couldn’t be more true! Your self-image is your mind’s photo of yourself and what you are capable of. If you consistently remind it of the best it has been then it will start seeing itself as the best. This is an essential factor in having a strong mental game in sport.
I remember one year I was in India coaching a huge group of archers. For two weeks I didn’t shoot my bow, all I did was work with them on their shooting and stand in front of the projection screen as I went through my powerpoint presentations. The one thing that I saw a lot of was the photos of the groups that I use throughout my seminars. My groups were a solid mental picture for me. On my last day there we had some free time and everyone wanted to watch me shoot. All eyes were on me and it was a perfect time to feel some pressure. Instead of letting the pressure get to me, I stood on the line and closed my eyes and envisioned the groups that I had been looking at on the screen for the past two weeks. I told myself ‘that is how you shoot’ – then I drew back and did it for them. My photos were the little mental boost I needed to make it through an important moment.
I wish I could sit here and write about how easy it was for me to deal with tournament pressure, and how I was near-perfect as a target archer. The truth is that these are the things that we have to take the time to learn how to deal with and, in many cases, it takes several wrong ways of dealing with something before finally finding the right way. Bringing pressure into my practice schedule made a huge impact on my tournament performance. I found some competitive practice partners to help me raise my game, and I learned to practise even better than I thought I was able to. I learned to trust myself and that my natural shooting was enough to win as long as I believed in it. I reduced doubt by maximising my confidence, and learned that having a picture-perfect self-image can dramatically reduce the pressures both on and off the field. I learned that simple photos could be all the positive reinforcement I needed to get those last few arrows in the middle of the gold. Shoot well my friends!