Birthday Candle?

I was watching a semi-cheesy series on TV when one person let loose with a genius statement, which I shall transliterate for you for my own purposes:

Shooting an arrow during an important competition should be like blowing out the candles on your birthday cake.

You don’t overthink it.  You just focus on the “flames” and you do it – you blow them out.    You breathe in, you focus on executing the shot, and let the arrow go where it will.

How and why do you teach this act of simplicity to your athletes? .

In preparing an athlete for Athens, I did *everything* I could think of to her for the stresses involved.  I feel I failed somewhat in preparing her for Athens, and she still shot world record scores.  I simply did not anticipate the crowd pressure – the cheering throngs, the self-imposed stresses she put on herself, especially when it (inevitably) comes down to that “one” arrow. It was so different from every other competition I had been to, had witnessed, that my imagination was too conservative.

For Beijing, four years after Athens, I had learned and was a much more professional coach than I had been for Athens.  I used those 4 years to analyze my shortcomings and devise remedies, to seek the advice of experts with much more experience such as Kisik Lee, Lloyd Brown and especially Don Rabska.

I taught the athlete how to choose to ignore and how to focus.  I started by simply talking to her as she shot, to get her to shut me out. (I know, NOT a good thing for an athlete to do – ignore the coach?!<G>)   I literally and liberally water hosed her down while she shot, since it rarely rains here.  I banged pots and pans continually while she shot.  I poked a camera in her face.  I used a metronome to help her lay down, to play, a mental soundtrack of pacing like the countdown clock.   Yes, I also waved my hands in the air, right in her face, gesticulating like a wild man.  George Tekmitchov kindly provided an audio file of the crowd noises from the games ,while he announced the archer’s name in an imaginary match – a great aid to visualization exercising which we played loudly over and over as she exercised her mind.

Recently during the London games, I laughed right out loud to myself when seeing the commercials showing a Korean coach screaming face-on to the female archer in a gym shooting.  Then, a few days later, Team USA came back with the head US Para coach, Randi Smith, duplicating this scene with Jeff Fabry (the soon-to-be gold medalist from the London Games and the two-time bronze medalist from prior games) – screaming into his face as he mouth-tabbed an arrow off of his bow.

Note that this was screaming. (not going “BOO”) Consider: the goal is not to scare, but to distract and learn to focus through distractions.   Banging pots and pans continually, not a single firecracker going off suddenly right at full draw..

I laughed because I had also used my training as a player in Judo and Tae Kwan Do to create the most profoundly distracting screams arising from my chi center – guaranteed to freeze you in your tracks for that instant I would need to follow up with a knee to your chin or chest, or groin – to prepare an athlete bound for the games.  The first time I did this she collapsed in a laughing heap it was so startling!  But soon she was able to ignore it completely.  I used every method I had in my imagination to interrupt the concentration of the athlete short of actually striking her physically.  In some countries, as I understand it they do actually push and shove and strike(gently) their archers to stress them – they also require them to carry heavy loads up hills and train with “seal-like” troops in hardships….   so yelling at your archer may seem extreme but failing to prepare him or her adequately is far worse! What exactly are you preparing for?

CIMG5900In Beijing, there were three stands, likewise in London very similar – the two sidelines each holding 5,000+ people, and the small endzone stand behind the archers having 4 to 5 thousand more. Say, 15,000 highly partisan people in Beijing right on top of the shooting line, to watch arrow flinging.

The width of the shooting line in Beijing was perhaps 30 yards, total.  I was able, through the shelter of the para team mates of my athlete, to kneel amongst the wheelchair athletes in order to talk to my athlete, to film her in action.  Youtube  the term “UTARCHER” to see her competing there, and on her final arrow with mere seconds on the clock, listen as I say “deep breath”, and watch her respond, her focus total.  When the shot was done, it took her several seconds to realize, she had won and the match was done. Intense.

As her opponents (each one had been competing in archery for more years than she had been alive) shot, she had to surmount various obstacles.  In one case, her Hoyt Helix bow gave her, without reason or rhyme, an arrow in the wooden frame at 9 o’clock – a complete miss – for her opening arrow of the match.  She looked at me in a moment of unsureness – eye to eye – and I motioned her to ignore it as bullshit – her form was perfect, the flier was “something else” – she shrugged,  came back with a nine, then an 8, and proceeded to win the match despite that loss of ten points. She blew out the candles without thinking.OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In these competitions, the two archers alternate arrows. She had only 20 seconds from the moment the opponent shot, to complete her own shot. Of course, the crowd cheers loudly for the opponent, right when the archer is most used to having calm and quiet to start her own shot.  It is so intense that frequently the athlete will not remember anything that happened during the match!  If you have trained the athlete properly it will be as if she is simply, automatically, blowing out the candles, and the crowd noise will be as nothing.

So whats the point?   The coach must train the athlete for the worst case and you cannot wait till the last minute to prepare your athlete for this.  It must be an ongoing process over many months at least.  Use your imagination for what the situation will be and train your athlete to the most stressful conditions you can think of.  I’m not suggesting abuse, but pro-use.  Proactive preparation for the toughest shooting conditions imaginable.  The roar of thousands of people, the pressure of desire to succeed, the nagging doubts we are all prone to, you find ways to deal with these factors early on in the career and return to them often.

TO belabor this point, I want to emphasize that there is a huge difference between EVERY archery competition apart from the “games” (Olympic/Paralympic).  In the games, cheering is uncontrolled, while in almost all other archery competition situations a hush is part and parcel in tournaments, like the gallery for a golf tournament where everyone hushes.  The games are a complete opposite to everything the archer has known previously.  Prior to this level, “golf-like” conditions in the gallery of onlookers is considered good manners – hush hush hush –  but in the games, the bigs, as soon as the opponent shoots her arrow the crowds erupt with noise … just as your athlete has to execute her perfect shot cycle she discovers the entire 15,000+ crowd right on top of her is screaming and banging noise-tubes together, creating a weight of sound pressure that is hard to imagine.  For the unprepared, it can complete unnerve the athlete and destroy her normal shot process!

Teach your athletes to be able blow out the candles when it truly matters.

 

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