A Beginner’s Guide to Archery’s
Mental Game A Beginner’s Guide to Archery’s Mental Game

When you’re standing at the line, face-to-face with the target, it can be easy to give in to the pressure. In archery there’s nothing standing between you and the target but yourself. That’s why it’s so important to develop your mental game as well as your physical one. You could be in the best shape of your life, practicing every day, but if you can’t focus, you’re all but guaranteed to miss your shot. We talked to Lanny Bassham of Mental Management Systems to discuss his approach to coaching the mental game and how archers can develop it, plus his advice for implementing this training during competitions. 

Why Is the Mental Game Important?

“If you ask any top archer or athlete what percentage of their sport is mental, you’ll usually get 90% or higher,” Bassham said. “If you ask them what percentage of their time and money they spend on their mental game, it’s much lower. If you ask them when they started thinking about their mental game, they say, ‘Probably too late.’”

Bassham knows firsthand how important the mental game can be to performance. When he failed to win Olympic gold his first time out, Bassham realized he needed to refine his mental process. “I was not going to win by just training my form,” Bassham said. “I started paying attention to my mental game, and the winning of World Championships and my Olympic gold medal became a reality. You can’t ignore it anymore. If you do, you’re going to get beat by the people who do pay attention.”

Bassham acknowledges that it’s not as commonplace to have a coach for your mental game as it is to have one for your physical or technical game. “Taking a lesson from a technical coach is fun,” Bassham said. “When they come in my door and we start talking about having to change the way they think, it’s not something they are used to doing.” Bassham has worked with some of the top archers for a long time, and Mental Management Systems has been associated with USA Archery for at least 20 years. He notes that competitive archers are far ahead of other athletes when it comes to accepting coaching on the mental process. USA Archery is a particularly strong advocate for this type of training. USA Archery provides online courses on mental management as an integral part of their coaching certification program, and Mental Management Systems offers additional online courses within their archery program.

Developing your mental game is vital to consistency. Bassham notes that if you don’t have mental consistency, you don’t have technical consistency. “When the mind is not consistent, the form suffers,” Bassham said. “What you physically do is called your routine, and what you’re thinking about is your mental process. A lot of archers are thinking about whatever pops into their head. If they shoot a good shot, they think one way; if they shoot a poor shot, they think another. Find a consistent way to think. That’s helped me through my career.”

I’m a Beginner. Where Do I Start?

“The things that we focus on first are safety on the range and integrating a mental process with your form,” Bassham said. “As you develop your technical skills, you should be developing your mental skills too.” He advises archers to practice their reactions to their shots right at the beginning of training and to learn to focus on the solutions, not the problems. “You need to learn how to respond to and not react to your shots,” Bassham said. The most important thing is accepting your mistakes and learning from them. “Making a mistake is not a mental error,” Bassham said. “Making a mistake and learning from it is a requirement to get better. You either get a good shot and you’re rewarded, or you get a poor shot and you get a lesson. Making a mistake and not learning from it is a mental error. Making a mistake and beating yourself up about it is a big mental error.”

Bassham notes that archers shouldn’t wait until it’s too late to address their mental game. “If you train for years focusing exclusively on your form and don’t address the mental mistakes in the very beginning, those mental errors will become embedded, and they’re much more difficult to eliminate later on,” Bassham said. 

What If I’m Fine During Practice but Can’t Focus During Competition?

“I would say you definitely have a flaw in your mental process and you need to fix it,” Bassham said. “You should not have a major difference between your practice scores and your tournament scores. Either your mental process is not the same during tournaments or the process you use in practice doesn’t work in tournaments.” Whatever you do during tournaments is what you should do during practice. “You learn how to shoot in practice,” Bassham said. “You learn how to compete during tournaments, not during practice,” Bassham said. “It’s very difficult to duplicate pressure in practice.” 

Something you can try to duplicate is weather conditions. If you compete in outdoor competitions, practice shooting in the wind. There are ways to account for windy weather conditions, so make sure you know how to adjust — and avoid being thrown off your game on the big day. Practicing in the competition environment will help you prepare for the main event.

How Do I Develop My Mental Game?

“Very accomplished athletes will come to us, and they’ve won quite a bit, but they’re suffering and can’t get past where they are,” Bassham said. He then encourages them to ask themselves some questions:

  • Are you missing some critical information that you need to know?
  • How defined is your mental process?
  • Do you know exactly what to think about before, during and after the shot?
  • Do you know exactly what to think about before, during and after tournaments?

“If you don’t know, then you can’t duplicate it,” Bassham said. “That might be the reason your tournament scores aren’t consistent.”

He also acknowledges other obstacles, like over-trying, over-thinking and not being able to handle the fear or pressure. Archers can overcome these as well. Bassham suggests breaking down the emotional process into three steps:

  1. Know the essential information and principles.
  2. Develop a mental process that works, then duplicate it.
  3. Defeat the obstacles to winning, like over-trying, over-thinking and worrying about what other people say and think.

Repetition and consistency are powerful tools: Use them. The more you practice your mental process, the more comfortable you’ll feel. “Define something you’re going to think about before you shoot and after you shoot,” Bassham said. “The important part is that it’s the same all the time.” 

Visualization can also be a helpful tool. “We call it ‘rehearsal’ in my program,” Bassham said. “It’s imagining what each action looks like and feels like. Every step has an element of rehearsal. It’s a big part of what I think works to develop a mental process you can count on.” Bassham cautions that you should still visualize the actual process, not just the feeling of winning. “I think some people have described visualizing the arrow hitting the ten ring, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing to do, but I don’t think that’s as important as rehearsing what it feels like to take a shot,” Bassham said.

It’s also important to compete against archers that are at a higher level than you are for motivation. It will push you to perform at your best, and you’ll learn valuable lessons from the others. Bassham trains Olympic medalist Brady Ellison of Team USA and admires his dedication to his mental game. “He’s a long-term achiever,” Bassham said. “I’ve never met anyone more disciplined in running their mental process.” 

Bassham encourages archers interested in developing their mental game to contact him.

Trust Yourself

If you’re prepared for anything, nothing will shake you. Practice often, get used to the competitive environment, and go to your next tournament with confidence. If you trust your abilities and follow the same mental process every time, your muscles will do their job. We are often our own worst enemy, so don’t lose to your own self-doubt.

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