There are few things more precious than a sense of control. We cling to it like small children grasping their mother’s hand. When it’s lost, we’re helpless at sea. What could be worse than losing control of something we love as much as hunting?
This is what I, and tens of thousands of other bow hunters, battle in regard to target panic. But rest assured, there is hope. Here’s how I’ve found my way.
What is Target Panic?
Target panic comes in many forms. For some it’s a sight pin locking just below or above a target. For others it’s a nervous flinch just before firing. In other cases it’s punching the trigger too soon. In my case, it manifests itself in high-pressure situations, like shooting in front of friends or at an animal—almost uncontrollably I release my arrow as soon as the pin hits the target. After chatting with a number of friends and archery coaches, I realized this was not at all unique to me.
“If people are wondering if they have target panic or not—if you’re a human being, yes, you’re dealing with shot anticipation,” said archery coach and target panic guru Joel Turner. “It just depends on how well you deal with it.”
Turner is one of several archery experts I turned to when I realized I had an archery problem several years ago. What I was dealing with, he explained, wasn’t anything to be ashamed of, but rather a normal physical response.
“Its completely against human nature to cause and ignore an explosion. Your bow going off is an explosion,” Turner said. “Your mind wants to brace you for that impact. And if you allow it to do that, if you allow your subconscious to tell itself when to release that string, you will always be a victim of your own mind.”
The fact that your subconscious mind controls your shot process and reaction to it causes the issues we refer to as target panic. So, how do you fix it?
Changing the Process
In the early days of my target panic journey, I turned to Turner and others who advocate a controlled shot process for banishing shot anticipation. Rather than having a shot sequence that is relatively thoughtless and subconscious, the idea here is to put in place a series of steps that force your brain to work through each step in a controlled manner. Turner calls this a closed loop control system, meaning each step in the process is completed slowly enough that you can evaluate the quality of each step and make decisions throughout.
In my previous life, I’d simply draw back, settle into form, aim, and then pull the trigger when on target. My new controlled loop process involved three steps, each with a phrase attached (which I’ve borrowed from others who’ve dealt similar issues).
As I draw back and reach my anchor point, I mutter splash it on there to remind myself to focus on quickly acquiring the target. Next, I say watch it while staying focused on simply seeing the pin float across and around the target. Finally, after a breath or two, I activate the firing sequence with here we go where I slowly begin pulling my shoulder back until the shot fires. The goal here is a controlled process, but a surprise release.
Changing the Practice
The next step is to practice ad nauseam with this new process. In a deliberate fashion, focus on each step and restart if at any point you falter.
Once this was second nature for me, I added two other drills to my target panic recovery regimen based off advice from tournament archer and Bow Life TV host Levi Morgan. The first drill involved drawing back, aiming at the target, holding until I couldn’t any longer, and then drawing back down.
“What you’re telling yourself is that I am in complete control. I do not have to shoot this shot as soon as my pin gets to the middle,” Morgan said. “You’re easing your mind of this anxiety of having to shoot. What this does is relax you and builds your stamina and ability to hold your shot, too.”
The second drill he recommended is known as blank baling, which involves standing just a few yards from your target and closing your eyes. Then go through your shot process, focusing on nothing but the perfect execution of the release with no worry of aiming.
“Do this over and over, until you feel what that perfect release feels like,” Morgan said.
Changing the Release
All of this helped me substantially, and I killed several bucks with my new shot process in 2018. But by the following year I could see target panic tendencies still slipping in. This led me to one final change—switching from an index finger release to a back-tension style release.
As I wrote last fall about this change, “The shooting process with this release is almost Zen-like. I draw back, settle into my anchor position, drop the pin onto the bullseye, let it float, and then pull, pull, pull, pull. The next thing I know the bow has fired and an arrow is downrange somewhere very near where I was aiming. No longer am I worrying about a floating pin and trying to time the trigger pull right when the pin hits the bull, no more am I stressed about flinching at the shot, or rushing the trigger pull when the pressure rises from an audience. It’s almost a meditation, and it works.”
The Final Test
Last fall, with the new release and fine-tuned process, I put a perfect shot on a mature whitetail buck on our Back 40 farm. Dealing with target panic is an ongoing process—one I’m sure I’ll need to stay mindful of for years—but I now have the tools in place to control my bowhunting fate. And nothing could feel better.
Feature image via Captured Creative.