I don’t play golf. I honestly can’t think of a less engaging sport, except maybe mountain climbing or bull riding. However, I appreciate the combination of mental acuity with the physicality of a perfect club swing. There is a quote from the English golf instructor, David Leadbetter, which perfectly frames this.
“Your ultimate goal is to turn your athletic swing into pure instinct rather than conscious thought.”
Leadbetter’s words are just as appropriate for the top nine as they are for the target range. Learning to shoot well in real hunting situations should always be an exercise in developing your own level of autopilot, however we often get it wrong in our practice sessions.
This really hurts us. Few hunters know this better than Tom Miranda, who is closer to a living legend in the field of bowhunting than anyone.
Master the physical first
“For my kind of hunting, you have to keep your body in shape,” Miranda said. “You have to be able to hold your bow at its widest draw without getting nervous.”
This may seem counterintuitive, but it’s often not a goal archers work toward. The mistake here is that without the physical ability to gently draw a bow back and then hold it for long periods of time, you won’t be able to do it in the woods either.
This is exactly what live deer and other creatures often demand of us. Rarely do they come in, pose and let us fly our bows as they come in full close for a few seconds before the arrow is on its way. If you’re not thinking about building muscle memory and shooting ease over the summer, you’re not laying the groundwork for becoming a better shooter.
This is different for rifle hunters obviously. His fight, like the second part of becoming a competent archer, happens between the ears.
…And now the mind
“I always take the first good shot I get, because it might be the only shot I get,” Miranda said. “I also put branches in front of my target and shoot around other obstacles so I have to focus on what I want to hit, while thinking about the path of my arrow.”
On the surface, Miranda’s strategy seems simple. You are going to shoot in the woods where twigs, branches, barbed wire fences and other obstacles could deflect your arrow (or bullet). While this is true, the real problem lies in divided attention during a take. If you think of hitting a twig instead of a deer’s lungs, guess what you’ll hit?
I will never forget a time I chatted with a fellow athlete at a show who told me that he never experiences deer fever. He also mentioned that he shot the first big deer he aimed at, but then elaborated and said that he hit the deer in the antlers.
Do you know where I was looking? Not on the dollar ribs, I promise. Practice sessions that don’t exercise your mental muscles are good for physical development, but you need to combine other aspects that involve developing the correct headspace around each shot. Bowhunters can do this with Miranda’s obstacle strategy. Rifle hunters should also consider this, but should also consider random distances which are not always specific distance shots to the nose. Shoot 125 yards, instead of 100. Or shoot 235 instead of 200 or 250. The goal is to learn exactly where to hold regardless of your zero so it becomes automatic on the field.
Repetition is a necessary component of practice. To develop muscle memory and proper form, repetition is important. But you don’t have 20 practice shots before a male comes in. In that situation, you may not have fired your gun in three weeks. You still want to be able to get that shot right, which requires quality shots over quantity.
“I’m going out in the morning before work,” Miranda said, “to shoot an arrow. I will also do the same after work. These single shots are where I really get my high-pressure confidence, because they show me that my practice is working.”
While this is easy for bowhunters to test, it is not always the case for rifle hunters. However, the lesson still stands. If you want to be able to hit a perfect shot without heating up this fall, you need to prove to yourself that you can do it this summer. That high pressure shot is usually more valuable than a picnic where you shoot 100 arrows or burn a couple of boxes of ammo.
Practice with a plan. Try to develop a level of autopilot, regardless of distance, obstacles, or ability to warm up. If you aim for these goals this summer, you’ll arrive at a trusted spot this fall that will transcend the ease of a preseason practice session to the place and time you need it most: this fall while you’re actually hunting.