I don’t golf. I honestly can’t think of a less appealing sport, except for maybe mountain climbing or bull riding. I do appreciate the mix of the mental acuity with the physicality of a perfect swing of the club, however. There’s a quote from English golf instructor, David Leadbetter, that perfectly frames this up.
“Your final goal is to convert your athletic swing to pure instinct rather than conscious thought.”
Leadbetter’s words are as appropriate for the front nine as they are the target range. Learning to shoot well in real hunting situations should always be an exercise in developing your own level of autopilot, yet so often we go the wrong way with our practice sessions.
This actually hurts us. Few hunters know this more than Tom Miranda, who is as close to a living legend in the bowhunting arena as anyone.
“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 full draw without getting the jitters.”
This might sound intuitive, but it’s often not a goal archers work toward. The mistake here is that without the physical ability to smoothly draw a bow straight back and then hold it for long periods of time, you’re not going to be able to do that in the woods, either.
This is exactly what live deer and other critters often demand of us. They rarely walk in, pose up, and let us sky our bows while coming to full draw for a few seconds before the arrow is on its way. If you aren’t thinking about developing muscle memory and ease of shot execution through the summer, you’re not laying the foundation of becoming a better shot.
This is different for rifle hunters, obviously. Their struggle, like the second part of becoming a competent archer, happens between the ears.
“I always take the first good shot I get, because it might be the only shot I get,” Miranda said. “I also set up branches in front of my target and shoot around other obstacles so that I have to concentrate on what I want to hit, while thinking about my arrow trajectory.”
On the surface, Miranda’s strategy seems simple. You’re going to take shots 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 your divided attention during a shot. If you think about hitting a twig instead of a buck’s lungs, guess what you’ll hit?
I’ll never forget chatting with a fellow at a sportsman’s show one time who told me he never experiences buck fever. He also mentioned that he shot the first big buck he ever aimed at, but then elaborated and said that he hit the buck in the antlers.
You know where he was looking? Not at the buck’s ribs, I promise. Practice sessions that don’t flex your mental muscles are good for physical development, but you should mix in other aspects that involve developing the right headspace around each shot. Bowhunters can do this with Miranda’s obstacle strategy. Rifle hunters should consider this as well, but also consider random distances that aren’t always on-the-nose specific-distance shots. Shoot at 125 yards, instead of 100. Or, shoot at 235 instead of 200 or 250. The goal is to learn exactly where to hold no matter your zero so that it becomes automatic in the field.
Repetition is a necessary component of practice. To develop muscle memory and proper form, repetition matters. But you don’t get 20 practice shots before a buck walks in. In that situation, you might not have fired your weapon in three weeks. You still want to be able to make good on that shot, which requires quality-over-quantity shooting.
“I’ll go out in the morning before work,” Miranda said, “to shoot one arrow. I’ll do the same thing after work, as well. These one-off shots are where I really get my high-pressure confidence, because they show me my practice is working.”
While this is easy(ish) for bowhunters to try out, it’s not always the case for rifle hunters. The lesson still stands, however. If you want to be able to make a perfect shot without warming up this fall, you need to prove to yourself you can do it this summer. That one, high-pressure shot, is often more valuable than a range day where you shoot 100 arrows or burn through 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 get to a place of confidence this fall that will transcend the ease of a pre-season practice session to where, and when, you need it most—this fall while you’re actually hunting.