What Is Target Panic and How to Overcome It

After some lessons at the club, when I first started, the training changed a lot.

In my first weeks I had targets at close range, just 10 meters away. Sometimes we even shot at balloons. It was a lot of fun, of course, not with my own bow, the club lent us wooden bows to begin.

Then when I bought an Olympic recurve bow, the real training began. First the club made me move to 20 meters away and at the same time, they took away the targets, making us into the hay bale behind. The objective was for all our shots be as close as possible to the first one. To keep our shots grouped. They told me it was an exercise to prevent target panic in a later stage of our training.

What is target panic?

It is a phycological state where the mind tries to get ahead on the shot, getting afraid of not hitting the yellow circles in the target.

You’re already thinking of how the arrow will travel before the shot actually goes.

When that happens, your mind is not focused on your position, your body or your draw. Causing archers to have a bad release, maybe even holding the bow in a bad standing position, altering their release and sometimes making them not to get to their full draw length.

Many athletes require psychologists to help them overcome fears at competitions, to cope with defeat and to prepare their minds for a hard training session. The situation is not that dissimilar for Archery.

That’s the reason why my first coach made us start by shooting straight to the bale, that way we will begin our training  focusing on our technique rather than the target. I didn’t pay much attention to it at first, I was more interested in just shooting the bow, but with my second coach, he has mentioned target panic several times so I decided to look into it.

How do I know if I have target panic?

This is not a sickness! But I like the analogy and think it works well for discussing target panic, so let’s go over the common symptoms.

First, and one of the worst things that can happen, is that you’re unable to reach your maximum draw length. This happens because you’re focused getting something wrong rather than what you should be doing and following your usual shooting routine. Shooting before reaching the draw length is something that happens to many of us at the beginning, but if you find it happens when you’re thinking about other things, it’s probably not because of your strength in the back muscles failing or lack of training, it’s probably because of target panic.

Another common symptom is awkward shooting releases. Since our minds are more focused on the trajectory that our arrow will take before it’s even left the bow, our hands tend to pull a little more than usual or it makes the string move to the side, not being completely stabilized and making the arrow have an errant trajectory. This is also joined by another problem – letting the string go lax a little bit. This makes the arrow have less strength when being released.

The last and the most common one is not being able to group your arrows when the target is in place. If your shots are all together when shooting without a target, but then they get scattered as soon as the target appears, that means that your release is being affected by the presence of the target. And it is something most coaches will notice immediately and that you must be willing to fix as soon as possible before it becomes a constant in your shooting technique.

Best recommendations to overcome target panic

My coach told his simple rule for overcoming target panic – lots and lots of practice. But practice without the target, shooting straight to the bale.

It might be boring, and it takes away part of the fun from archery for some people, especially when you’re with other archers.

For me, it’s a lot of fun to see who can get the highest score, but it is true that practicing without the target gives you a chance to focus on placing each shot next to the other. It is a great exercise to group your arrows and get consistent with your shooting form. Once you have a great mechanic, repeated the same way in every shot, it is harder for you to be affected by target panic in the same way.

Second of all, a great recommendation I have comes from the ancient roman instructors, they used to say that a training day, is really combat without blood; and that real combat was a bloody training day. It’s a way to say that you must take the real action as any training day. Just do what you know, stay shooting by the book and it will all be fine. Take it easy at competitions and do not focus your mind on the place where the arrow will land, instead stay focused on your shooting and remember that there will always be a next shot. My coach has a similar phrase to the Romans, only that it’s less fun! He just says that a competition is another training day but with a protocol to follow. So just take it easy, practice with and without the target and it will all be alright.

Is it really psychological?

Yes, it is totally psychological. The fear of having arrows outside of the yellow areas is fully in your mind.

It is just a name given by archers, actors have stage panic just like any other big star in a football or basketball team. We are all afraid of failure, if you have target panic, don’t ever feel ashamed. Many basketball players need a psychologist to overcome final shots missed in important games. There’s a reason why the sports psychology is an entire field of studies in the modern day. That’s why many archers realize that they are being inconsistent, take away the target and all the colors and realize they are able to group their arrows with no problem.

Can I fix it physically?

Sort of. You can practice your way out of it. Almost like shooting with your eyes closed. You stop aiming and just trust your instinct to do the job. Many people that have been practicing a sport for several years have an almost automatic instinct in their field. Messi’s kick is almost an instinct, just like Stephen Curry’s 3 point shot. With archery it is the same. You can be afraid, but if you practice your way out of that zone and just trust to repeat the exact same shooting, you can be psychologically afraid, but still hit the target.

Difference of target panic with guns and bows

While they are both tools that will shoot an object far away from you, the effect of fear functions in a different way. With archery you are afraid of missing the yellow area, with guns you are not afraid of where the shot will land, but what the gun recoil will do. Studies show that in archery, since you can’t control entirely where the arrow will land because it can be altered by slight movements in your draw, you’re afraid of missing and you try to move your hands to prevent it from happening. This alters your shooting mechanic.

On the side of guns, when they shoot at close range, they are so powerful that the shot will be a straight line. What people’s minds are afraid of is the recoil of the gun, people try to compensate for the recoil before they shoot, just like archers try to compensate the trajectory of the shot they haven’t made jet. We are literally trying to be in the future, trying to see what will happen.

With guns it’s not such a bad thing since you’ll get familiar pretty soon with the recoil of the gun. Normally that fear is just at the beginning when you’re not aware of how strong the gun is. Of course, there are some firearms that are a lot more powerful than others. There are several videos in the internet of people being thrown several meters away because of a bad positioning and maybe poor strength.

Personal experience with target panic

My experience was not that as hard as it was for some of my friends. Like I said at the beginning of the article, my coach made me practice several times without the target as well as with target.

It is his way of getting ahead to the issue with his archers. It has only happened to me during my first competition, I was so afraid for the results, and didn’t want to let my club down, that I actually started pretty well. But like I’ve said in other articles, each round is a new beginning, so, I had great rounds followed by a bad one, which made me scared and then I started modifying my shot thinking that I would “help the arrow”. In my case, I started shooting faster, figuring that it would prevent my hands from shacking which will allow the arrow to go in a straight line.

It didn’t work! My next round was even worse. Thankfully it was my 6th round so we had a short break, in which my teammates that were competing after my category, realized that and spoke to me. They made me practice a little bit with some elastic bands so that I focused on the positioning and mechanic instead of the arrow. Then I went back and my shot was better. I didn’t win, but my score was good enough for my coach to consider promoting me to the next distance.

Closing thoughts

As we have seen, target panic is a state of mind. It is a name for the fear of missing the shots and feeling like you need to do something different for a shot to compensate that something might go wrong.

Remember that your shot can be affected by several things like the wind or rain. Those things are totally out of your control, so you have to trust your instinct and training and follow the book. A competition is just another practice. If you feel nervous, try talking to your teammates, relax and enjoy the moment.

That’s on the side of the psychology – for your mind. On the other hand, if you need something physical to do to try and help overcome target panic, remember what I told you that my coach did with us from the beginning, practice without the target.

The exercise is pretty simple, make sure all your shots are as close as possible to the first one. If you practice grouping your shots together, then you’ll try to do that automatically when the target is set in front of you. Then, it’s just a matter of adjusting the sight a little bit to make sure it’s going to the yellow area. Keep your mind clean, and practice with and without the target in a religious state of mind.

Last but not least, if you think too much when shooting, talk to your teammates, their experiences will help you and make you realize you’re not alone. Don’t keep thing for yourself, share and let them share.

Keep practicing and happy shooting.