COVID-19: What now for archery?

Bow looks at the effects of the pandemic on the sport.

One of the more durable cliches in the media over the past three months has been stating that we are living in ‘unprecedented times’. It may be a cliche, it has a strong element of truth to it.

Most of the apocalypses we thought we were likely to face in our lifetime were immediate and catastrophic, something literally or metaphorically slamming into the Earth. Instead, a tiny package of cunning cells has upended the world in curious ways; forcing governments into difficult decisions, ruining the plans of billions, and causing who-knows-what kind of effects we will feel in a year or ten’s time.

It’s not hard to feel that archery is suddenly not so important in the grander scheme of things, with livelihoods ruined and difficult choices to be made, and the sport’s issues fully capped by the postponement of the Olympics by a year, to 2021. At least, everybody hopes it’s just a postponement.

Nevertheless, archery is what we do here at Bow, and it seems unlikely you need to read any more about Joe Wicks or sourdough bread making. So we decided to take a look at what might lie ahead for some of the people involved in the sport to see what things are looking like. Here, we’re going to look at athletes, coaches and shops. (In the next issue, as they gradually re-open for shooting, we will take a look at the issues facing clubs.)


THE ATHLETES

Sarah Bettles (GBR)


Sarah Bettles is on the elite performance team and was likely going to be a part of the GBR women’s team for Tokyo. The squad were barely a week away from travelling to Antalya for the final Olympic selection competition, when lockdown (very) suddenly started.

“It was very surreal.” she told Bow. “We were all sat having lunch, and Richard [Priestman] came in with a message saying Lilleshall [the national training centre] was being closed at the end of the day, we weren’t allowed to come back.

Alex [Wise] was driving down from Newcastle at the time, so we rang him and he said: “I’m only twenty minutes away!”. We all shot a 720 to
finish the day, we were laughing and joking, but it felt a bit like ‘laugh or cry’.”

A couple of days later, as the whole country began lockdown, the postponement of Tokyo was officially announced. “To be honest, my expectations were dropping all the time, every time you read the news. But I was still clinging on to a tiny bit of hope, waiting to see if it was
going to happen.”

How is the mood in the GBR squad? “I think there’s a fairly good range of emotions going on, and every single one of us has felt different things at different times. It’s been a bit confusing. We were all training to peak this year, and there’s a bit of “I want to do it NOW.”

“To be honest, I’m fine about another year’s training. It’s another year that I don’t have to go back into work, and another year of full-time
archery. That’s good! I got Athlete Performance Award funding last year based on the medals from the worlds and Minsk, which has made things a lot easier. I can’t shoot at home, but I’ve been training with the bow and working on my physical fitness. There’s been a little shift of focus.”

Bow also spoke to Sarah Prieels, the compound athlete from Belgium who lives in the UK and studies in Edinburgh.

“I started my own lockdown a bit earlier than the rest of the UK as I felt under the weather the week before BUCS finals in mid-March) and so decided to self isolate for a week and the lockdown started on the 18th. It has been quite difficult as I live in a different country than the rest of my family and don’t share my flat with anyone.”

“Here in Scotland not much has changed, there’s still no archery happening and we’re not allowed to travel further than five miles from your house. I am not sure how the situation will evolve over the next six months but I think it will be very challenging for organising committees to hold competitions safely.”

“I think travelling will be the biggest issue that archers will be facing as many countries will ask for quarantine period for incoming travellers, which makes it very difficult for us who usually travel around the world to fly out for only a week or a weekend of competition. Last year, during the indoor season, I travelled to and from six different countries in 15 days. I went from the UK, to Hong Kong, to Macau for the indoor World Cup, back to the UK, to the Netherlands, to Belgium, back to the UK, to Belgium, and finally to Luxembourg in that time. I don’t think travelling like this will be allowed anytime soon.”

“Hopefully within 12 months I will have shot some arrows at 50m, and have attended at least a couple of international tournaments. I don’t think there will be anything happening in 2020 but I hope I am wrong. “

Can you tell us something about the situation or mood among professional compound archers at the moment? “I am not sure what the mood is among the rest of the professionals, but I see on social media that competitions are starting again in the US and that everybody is excited about it and I understand it but I am not sure I would feel safe about competing right now.”

“This year is going to be very complicated for the professionals amongst us who do not have a salary but live off contingencies like I do. It is going to be a very long year with a lot of challenges and I would not be surprised to see several professionals looking for a ‘normal’ job while there are no competitions on the schedule.”



THE COACHES

Richard Priestman (left) training with the GBR squad

Richard Priestman, twice a bronze Olympic medallist, is the head coach of the senior GBR Olympic team. For him, years of increasingly intense training and competition all came to a sudden halt, bringing with it a big sense of shock and bewilderment.

“It took us all some time to come to terms with it.” he said. “Archers train and coaches coach, and normally it never stops, so to be confined in isolation in our homes with no real vision of the future is quite surreal and very unsettling. From a coach’s point of view the initial reaction is a great sense of loss and worry. Archers not being able to train is scary, the archers could lose their fitness, technique could deteriorate, and there could be a loss of impetus and confidence. And in a country like GB, where team training is a big part of what we do, to be denied group training and face-to-face training terrified me.”

The squad faced multiple challenges as to how they were going to continue training. “I like to look for opportunities in any situation, I didn’t like the option of just damage control or maintenance, just to do the best we can doesn’t excite me.”

“We set up a support network of specialists to work with each archer, developing new individual training and fitness plans, weekly feedback and reflection, group meetings, using the Hudl app and video. Communication has been the key to all of this. The biggest challenge is to keep everybody motivated and minimise anxieties – there is enough to worry about in the
news without us adding any – and to be positive about the future.”

Priestman also worked on a change of mindset after the Olympics postponement was announced, putting the archers back into ‘pre-season’ training mode. “The intention was to take away any unnecessary pressure away from the archers having to perform or waiting to perform, and go into training mode mindset, a mindset to come out of the lockdown in a better
place. Their actual readiness to return to training and competition when we are allowed to is really important.”


“As the lockdown eases, the possibility to train centrally again at Lilleshall is really exciting, we’re entering into a new era of socially distanced one-to-one coaching. But there is no rush to all of this, we have lots of time. Economics appears to be taking precedence over health in the UK; this is really worrying, but be assured we certainly won’t be taking any unnecessary risks with the health of our archers.”

“I see [the indoor season] as being essential to get back into competition mode. We are planning as if the Olympic Games do go ahead next year and that we will have had World Cups and the Europeans as preparation. There may be a new order both in GB and internationally. It depends on how individuals and teams use their time wisely.”

“But the possibility that Tokyo is not happening is still real. The thought of travelling without a vaccine will be such a risk and the prospect of quarantine before and after travelling to events will make logistics and preparation very difficult. But nothing is really impossible, we keep an open mind, continue to train in a positive way, and will remain flexible to respond to whatever changing regulations and challenges will hit us.”


Bow also spoke to Ron van der Hoff, head coach for the senior Netherlands recurve team.

“Broadly, it’s been the same story for everybody.” he said. “The national training centre was closed at the start of lockdown. We’ve had to manage everybody training at home. We’ve been lucky that everyone has had the opportunity to shoot at home, and most the team have been able to train at 70m. You really need to be able to shoot a decent amount of arrows every day at this level.”

“There have been some parents and girlfriends’ back gardens put into service. We’ve been using video. I’ve also had people training at my house, in my garden, when that was allowed. The rule was a maximum of three people and they had to be 1.5m apart, which we could make work. I have a small veranda on my range with a wood fire. It’s actually been pretty fun and were able to have a deeper connection during these training sessions. You have to come up with a plan and do whatever is necessary.”

A Dutch garden during lockdown. Nice, eh?


“The national training centre finally came out of lockdown a few weeks ago, but in the beginning only for ‘A status’ athletes. The ‘sports hotel’ on the premises opened up later, which was a challenge for the junior archers. It looks like we will be able to have some competitions in September, so we can probably still have our nationals. There will be no audience allowed, but that’s not such a big problem for archery [laughs].”

“There’s been some positives from the experience. It’s been good for people to have some time to work on things, to realise they might have made some wrong decisions in terms of technique, and they have time to make some changes. Some of the team have taken the time to work on business ideas, which is important, as you are not going to be an athlete forever. The competition landscape is obviously going to be different next year. It’s going to be difficult to get groups of people from all over the world together.”

“We are going to have to work on competitions that are considered safe under the regulations which then apply. But as an experience, it’s not all been bad.”

Home training setup (pic courtesy Bogensport)


THE RETAILER

Bow also took the time to speak to someone at one of the UK’s archery retailers, who asked to remain anonymous. He painted a slightly bleaker picture of the future.

“Like all retail businesses we were concerned about the effects of the lockdown, and did not expect that it would last so long. Overnight, all the unique selling points of our shop became irrelevant and as a consequence a large percentage of our turnover was wiped out,” he said.

“Whilst we forecast that demand for archery equipment would slow down, a mad rush for bosses to shoot at home kept us busy, even if Archery GB in particular did their utmost to discourage this.”

“The archery community has been supportive and understanding during this time, suggesting that we are more than just a place to buy stuff. But once things had settled down and we had moved all our communication and advice on to social media, email, messaging and over the phone, demand for archery equipment via the internet and mail order has grown far in excess of our forecasts and now raises questions about our business model going forwards. This along with government help including the furlough scheme has ensured that we are still here and fighting fit.”

“Clubs being able to shoot again is a big plus, encouraging those that completed their beginner’s courses before the lockdown to have a reason to buy their own equipment and established archers to have the confidence to
upgrade. It has taken a lot of planning but we are confident that we can safely fit out all archers with the correct equipment and still observe all the government’s guidelines.”

Across the archery industry cost prices have apparently increased by around 5-8%, a pattern reflected in other retailers in the high street and elsewhere. Retail has long been facing systemic changes, but with fixed costs rising and a deep recession on the way, it is clear there are plenty of challenges ahead.

“Our two biggest concerns for the future are a second lockdown, and a drop in the numbers participating in archery as the membership churn we see every year will not be replaced. A straw poll would suggest very few clubs are planning to run beginner’s courses this year and without social distancing changes the indoor season will not be financially possible for many clubs. The other primary concern is how quickly the economy recovers, as the effects of redundancies on people’s disposable income will have an effect on how we revise our business model.”

“The next twelve months are going to be tough, and all we can do is plan for the worst. Maybe it will provide some urgency to solving the membership churn problem, and retail and NGB’s will realise that for the long term good
health of archery in the UK everyone will need to work together – something that has always been sorely lacking.”

More on the impact of COVID-19 in the next issue of Bow, out August.



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