We've all heard these two forbidden words..."target panic". A phrase banned in certain arenas, this ailment is undoubtedly the worst possible thing that can happen to an archer, besides losing the ability to shoot altogether of course. It is also knows in some circles as "gold fever" or "yips". Over the past several years, I have dealt with countless shooters coping with target panic and have even gone through several small bouts of it myself. For all archers, it is important to understand what target panic is so you can prevent the problem before it starts. If you've already been bitten by the bug, I'm also going to cover a 4 step remedy that will not only cure the disease, but make you a better all around shooter as well.
What is target panic?
Target panic is an extremely unpleasant psychological state that causes impulses for a shooter to "punch" their release when their sight is in or near their intended target. As this bad habit continues, a stronger relationship between the eye and trigger finger develops, and the condition tends to get worse. Sports scientists describe it as a "double pull", or two opposing muscle groups contracting at the same time causing a flinch and a poorly guided arrow. It may also cause a shooter to release an arrow prematurely in anticipation of the sight reaching the target. Other symptoms include loss of bow control, loss of composure, and anxiety. It often results in loss of confidence, humiliation, new bows, new arrows, new releases, new form, and an overall bad attitude (only some of which improve the situation). Some of the greatest athletes in the world have experienced some form of target panic, but it is found most commonly in golfers, baseball players, and of course archers. The biggest step in curing target panic is realizing and accepting the fact that you have it. Even if you don't think you do, practice these next drills anyway and improve your form and your scores.
Step 1: The "Loop"
The best starting point to fix your yip is to put down your bow and practice shooting with a length of string. You may want to first change your mechanical release to one that is new and unfamiliar. It can be very difficult to learn to shoot the release you are already punching improperly. To begin practicing, take a piece of string that will fit inside the caliper or hook of your release and hold both ends in your bow hand. The string should be long enough so the loop end is very close to your normal draw length to simulate shooting your bow. The key here is to practice shooting your release without the distraction of a sight or target, and become accustomed to pulling through your release. If you are shooting a trigger release, place your finger index directly on the trigger firmly at the crease of your first knuckle and focus on a slow consistent squeeze to activate the trigger. If you are shooting a back tension or thumb release, focus on a slow and consistent squeeze of your back muscles to shift the tension from one side of your hand to the other to activate the release. If you were to watch yourself practice this, you would see very little to no movement from any fingers or any part of the hand. Your focus is to shift pressure and pressure only. You may need to practice this for several weeks to create a consistent squeeze and follow through before you are ready to pick your bow back up again. Do NOT advance to your bow too quickly, or you will be back to square one. Only move forward when you have conditioned a proper habit.
Step 2: Blind and Blank Bale Shooting
The next step in the process is blank bale shooting. Depending on how bad your condition is, you may be able to skip step one and start here. All archers should practice this drill regardless of target panic to fully solidify proper form and release technique. Introduce your bow back into the equation, and arrange a blank target surface with no target face and no intended point of aim less than 5 yards from you. Shoot with your eyes closed to begin, neglecting your sight and the target. Practice this drill with only one arrow. You will be forced to slow down and concentrate more between shots. Focus on the proper release you worked on with the loop. It is imperative to create a mental routine now that you have your hands on the bow again. Use simple words for each step and repeat them to yourself out loud as you move through your progression. Now move on to a blank target at 5 yards, and repeat the process with your eyes open, focusing only on the blank target and proper technique. You may want to remove your sight for this step to keep things simple.
Step 3: Visualization
For step 3, reattach your sight to your bow and add a target face or a point of aim to your target. Although it may seem like you're ready, you won't be shooting that target until step 4. Stand about 5 yards from the target, and practice drawing and aiming at the "X" you have designated. You should begin this process by focusing solely on that "X". Draw your bow while still staring at the "X" and anchor as you normally would. Line your sight up with the "X" you are still focused on, pause there for 8-10 seconds, and then let down. Take a 30 second break, and repeat this process. Get accustomed to your sight on the "X" without triggering your release. This step is designed to eliminate the connection between your eye, the target, and your release. Always have an arrow on your string when you practice this step. Do NOT under any circumstances draw your bow with an active release without an arrow nocked.
Step 4: Progressive Shooting
Now that you have created some new habits, it is finally time to approach and shoot a target. It may take as long as 6-8 weeks to get to this point, depending on the severity of your target panic and how much time you have to practice. Address the same target at 5 yards with one arrow, and move through your shot routine. You should be talking to yourself mentally every step of the way. Be patient and take your time with every shot. You may even want to use an official scorecard if you are practicing with a 3 or 5 spot target to track your progress. Shoot a full round focusing on proper form every shot, and avoiding old habits. When you have mastered 5 yards, move back to 10 and repeat the process. By the time you have reached 20 yards, you should have developed proper form and release technique in a live situation. Your rhythm should be automatic at this point, and you should be rid of your target panic.
Treating target panic can be a long and monotonous process. It may take many weeks and even months of repetition to find your cure. Regardless of how long it takes, and how boring it may be, it will be well worth the hard work in the end. Don't bother spending thousands of dollars on new bows, new sights, new arrows, and the latest gadgets that promise to destroy target panic. Sacrifice is the name of the game, and you may have to give up most of a shooting season to correct your problem. However, from that point on you will have a full and much more effective shooting career, and save yourself loads of headaches and frustration.