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Sean Flynt
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PostPosted: Thu 31 Jul, 2008 1:15 pm    Post subject: Archery and "Target Panic"         Reply with quote

Here's a fascinating article from today's NYT. It's about modern Olympic archers, but I wonder if it could be of historical interest as well. It isn't simply a matter of modern competition stress-- it may be a physiological problem.

Note this line:

"Sufferers might actually have a disorder known as 'focal dystonia,' a common affliction of musicians caused when the neurons that guide a particular movement — be it aiming a bow or sinking a putt — become worn from overuse."

If the problem is related to "overuse," that certainly would include medieval longbow practice. Add to that the stress of combat, the physical strain of repeated drawing of a warbow and whatever natural human-target aversion a longbowman might have felt. I wonder how many, if any, medieval longbowmen were fine in practice but suffered these problems in combat. Would anyone notice?

I vaguely recall research about soldiers of some period firing as ordered but deliberately missing their enemies. May have been WWII, but I'm not sure. The percentage of such incidents was surprisingly high, IIRC.

The Secret Curse of Expert Archers
Published: August 1, 2008

There is an affliction so feared by elite archers that many in the sport refuse to even speak its name. Archery coaches who specialize in treating the problem are sworn not to reveal the identities of archers in its grip, even though they estimate that up to 90 percent of high-level competitors will fall victim at least once in their career.

Target panic, as the condition is known, causes crack shots to suddenly lose control of their bows, and their composure. Mysteriously, sufferers start releasing the bow the instant they see the target, sabotaging any chance of a gold-medal shot. Others freeze up and can’t release at all. Target panic is akin to the “yips” in baseball and golf, when accomplished athletes can no longer make a simple throw to first base or stroke an easy putt.

The results can be mortifying, and archery is filled with tales of those who have caught the curse, never to shoot again. The problem has spawned a cottage industry of coaches, books, and specialized accessories that claim to cure target panic.

“It’s devastating,” said Terry Wunderle, a professional archery coach whose son, Vic, is an archer on this year’s U.S. Olympic team.

“For someone who has a good case of target panic, I could offer them a thousand dollars if they would just pull the bow back and let the pin float over the bulls eye,” Wunderle said, referring to the way archers let their arrows gently bob as they wait for the perfect shot. “I guarantee you, I would not lose the thousand dollars. They can’t do it.”

Few admit to being sufferers themselves. “Most shooters will deny that they have it,” said Len Cardinale, an archery coach who says he has treated “hundreds and hundreds” of cases of target panic since the 1970s. “It’s more convenient to say they need a new bow, they have to switch arrows, or stand differently.”

Wunderle, who himself admits to battling target panic from time to time, won’t reveal whether any of the Olympic archers he coaches have faced target panic. “I would not say it if I knew it,” said Wunderle, who also did not want his son interviewed on the subject with the Olympics just a week away. “It’s like being an alcoholic. They don’t say much about it. They don’t fess up to it.”

Although few academic studies have been conducted on target panic, several sports psychologists said the condition is nearly identical to the much-analyzed yips in golf and other sports. Golfers Ben Hogan and Lee Trevino were notorious sufferers; so was Chuck Knoblauch, the Yankee second baseman who discovered he could no longer throw to first. Some say Shaquille O’Neal’s dismal free-throw record is due to a case of the yips.

While nearly everyone agrees that the problem is primarily psychological, the latest research suggests that in some cases, the problem might also be neurological. Sufferers might actually have a disorder known as “focal dystonia,” a common affliction of musicians caused when the neurons that guide a particular movement — be it aiming a bow or sinking a putt — become worn from overuse.

“It’s like a hiccup in the wrist,” said Aynsley M. Smith, research director of the Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center, which has conducted three studies on the yips in golf since 2000. Her research, as well as that of a team from New Zealand, has concluded that there are actually two types of yips — one that is purely psychological, and another that is primarily neurological. In both cases, two opposing muscle groups contract at the same time, leading to what Smith and other sport scientists call a “double pull.”

Even those with a neurological disorder can develop anxiety that makes the problem worse, said Robert Bell, a sports psychologist at Ball State University who specializes in golf. “It kind of gets into the mind that this could happen, and that’s where the anxiety and the stress come in,” he said.

One of the worst cases of target panic that Wunderle ever treated was in a 16-year-old boy named Joey Hunt.

Hunt, who has been shooting archery “just about my whole life,” competes with a compound bow, which uses pulleys and levers to flex the bow back compared to the manual recurve bow used in the Olympics.

When Hunt got to be just 9 or 10, he discovered he had lost his preternatural ability to send arrows thunking into the target’s gold center. “I would start to bring the bow down, and as soon as it got anywhere near the target, I would click it right off, right then and there,” said Hunt, who lives in the small town of Minot, Maine. “It just takes over your mind and it’s hard to concentrate on other parts of shooting.”

Target panic, also known as “gold fever” because sufferers become obsessed with hitting the gold center, is rich in lore, and online message boards are filled with cautionary testimonials from those who caught the disease.
Skip to next paragraph

Times journalists and special contributors explore the Olympics in Beijing and on the Web from every angle — the politics, the culture and the competition.

“I could draw the bow without the arrow and had no trouble holding on the dot at all,” wrote one victim on the message board at, referring to aiming at the center of the target. “But put an arrow on the string and Satan himself was holding it off ... strange stuff some of us endure to play this game!”

Lanny Bassham, a former Olympic rifle shooter and “mental coach” whose clients include the U.S. Olympic archer Brady Ellison, says the archery community has a peculiar obsession with target panic, which he notes has a horrifying ring. “The words ‘target panic’ have induced an unnecessary amount of severity and concern about this condition among archers,” he said. “I think if they had a better word for it, they’d have a lot less problem trying to cure it.”

Many archers and their coaches refuse to use the term target panic. Those words are forbidden around the Nichols’ household, which is home to U.S. Olympic archer Jennifer Nichols, and her younger sister Amanda, also a world-class competitor. “We try to stay away from the labels that are put on things by people in the archery industry because once you feel you’ve got that label, it’s hard to stay away from it,” their father, Brent Nichols, said. “We don’t want to hear those things.”

Theories vary on how to cure target panic. Some switch their shooting hand, or change their grip slightly — techniques that have also proved successful in golf. Others use visualization techniques and positive reinforcement. Wunderle advises his clients to imagine seeing and feeling what a good shot is, without focusing on aiming the arrow. “Do not focus on results,” he said. “When you focus on results, it builds anxiety. And anxiety is the kiss of death.”

One of the most popular cures is to entirely remove the target. Sufferers instead practice shooting at a blank target, sometimes for weeks at a time, to retrain the mind. “The empty bale restores your confidence in your subconscious,” said Bernie Pellerite, author of the book “Idiot Proof Archery” who describes himself as a target panic expert. “Nobody flinches or punches or chokes on an empty bale.”

Hunt spent weeks shooting at blank targets, but he also purchased a special release for his bow, which helped retrain him when to shoot. “It’s trying to engrave in your head when you should shoot. You just pull it back, let the safety off, and pull it until it decides to go,” he said. “Then you get used to every shot being perfect.”

Hunt placed second in his age group at the Junior Olympic Archery Development national championships in Oklahoma City earlier this month. His target panic, he says, has been cured.

For now.


"Everywhere I have searched for peace and nowhere found it, except in a corner with a book"- Thomas a Kempis (d. 1471)
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Thomas Watt

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PostPosted: Thu 31 Jul, 2008 2:09 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I vaguely recall research about soldiers of some period firing as ordered but deliberately missing their enemies. May have been WWII, but I'm not sure. The percentage of such incidents was surprisingly high, IIRC.

I had some papers from the Army War College that discussed that and more... that the incidence of soldiers in battle not firing their weapon at all was relatively high even in WW2 (something around 50% IIRC).
And soldiers during the American Civil War that loaded their musket, then loaded it again, and then again - all during the stress of battle - and were killed when they finally did pull the trigger.
I would not be surprised at all to learn that more ancient forms of combat., where "laws of war" were less observed would find themselves in quite a panic and perform unpredictably.
That's a neat article, and not something I'd have ordinarily run across.
Thanks for posting it up.

Have 11 swords, 2 dirks, half a dozen tomahawks and 2 Jeeps - seem to be a magnet for more of all.
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Glennan Carnie

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PostPosted: Thu 31 Jul, 2008 2:14 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

You have to remember that statutes set the minimum range an archer should practice at to 11 score yards - 220 yards. You don't have sights or sighting aids to help you when shooting that sort of distance, and there's little chance of becoming target-fixated (Trust me - you're far more focussed on hauling back a BIG bow to get a medieval arrow that far!)

The practice distances were for military training. That suggests that military archers didn't stand in neat lines, flat-shooting at individual, close range, targets. The aim was to cast a mass of heavy missiles - with accuracy - at a distant enemy. That implies the bow was a tactical weapon.

This is a common mistake made in the arrows-vs-armour argument. The assumption is made that the bow was used as a one-on-one weapon, with each archer picking a target and shooting it til it's dead (or he is).

The records we have suggest that this is not how the bow was used in war.
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J. D. Carter

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PostPosted: Thu 31 Jul, 2008 4:42 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

"target panic" Watched it 1st hand and although we laugh about it today it was anything but funny at the time. My cousin and I started shooting around 11 & 12 respectively and while I became fair he developed a real passion for it both hunting and target shooting. He practiced 2 to 4 hours a day and before turning 15 had won more than a few awards and trophies. By the early 80's he was by competition standard's "Expert" and bow hunting was really beginning to take off with some of the better selling brand name companies just beginning to sponsor people at both competitive shoots and exhibition shows to promote their products. He found himself in a dream situation where he was going to be not only given the best available equipment to use for free but a chance to travel and get paid to shoot, although nowhere near what the top archers make today.

His big day came around and he was finally ready to take his mark. He toed the line, selected an arrow, drew and promptly shot it into the ceiling of the indoor range a good 30 feet short of the target. He spun around and looked at his father and myself with pure terror on his face stalked over to his bow bag, zipped up his gear and walked to the parking lot. Later that day he was given another chance to shoot and with 6 shots put 1 in outer gold, 2 in red and 3 in blue. The day before from that same mark he was sticking 7 or 8 of every 10 center gold with 2 or 3 outer gold. We had October whitetail tags less than 3 weeks later. He filled his 1st day, 1st shot ( he has a whitetail listed in Pope & Young ). It also had no effect on his ability to outshoot all of his family & friends by embarrassing margins but it was many months before he could shoot in front of a crowd without his skill being badly effected.
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Jean Thibodeau

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PostPosted: Thu 31 Jul, 2008 7:56 pm    Post subject:         Reply with quote

Just my theory or guess: When shooting anything one does best when one lets the subconscious mind make the decision with the timing of releasing the shot ( release with a bow or squeezing the trigger and getting a surprise release ).

With firearm the sights are never 100% still and usually make a figure 8 or small wavering circle on the target down range: if one tries too hard to consciously control the release one may jerk the shot off target. If one become too conscious of the wavering, that is unavoidable, one may lose confidence in ones subconscious mind to make the timing decision and one tries too hard, one may alternatively rush the shot or freeze and not be able to make the decision to shoot.

The right mindset is sort of a focused but not too focused attention to the task + confidence in ones skill.

Another flaw might happen that continuous success may make one assume that one has engaged one's targeting mechanism and one might not be actually trying ! Sort of fantasizing about aiming/thinking about aiming but failing to actually aim. ( Hope this makes sense as it's mostly intuitive on my part about what can go wrong ).

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Daniel Michaelsson

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PostPosted: Fri 01 Aug, 2008 12:40 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I'm a traditional archer (longbow) and have only ever heard of a single incidence of target panic in traditional archery. Whereas the phenomenom is widespread in olympic style archery. I think this is because the ethos is very different between the two sports.

In traditional archery when you hit the gold you are very pleased - it's something to celebrate. In Olympic archery you hit the gold most of the time so getting a gold is not something to grin about, you just aim not to miss it. So, in Olympic style archery you are struggling to maintain a high gold count. Missing the gold equals failure, hitting it is not celebrated.

Modern archery is a competitive thing, traditional archery is largely for pleasure. Therefore modern archery tends to attract competitive people, who, I think, are more likely to succumb to Target Panic due to the psychological pressures they subject themselves to.
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Richard Hare

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PostPosted: Fri 01 Aug, 2008 6:22 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I tend to think you're dead on, Daniel.

Re. the traditional longbow used in war, it appears it was used at close quarters also.
Seems that records indicate that fully armoured men often got shot in the face, when they raised a visor for a breath of fresh air.
This would call for snap-shooting, and not put the same pressure on the bowman as aiming at an olympic mark!....No time to think, ...Just do it!

Best wishes,

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Sean Flynt
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PostPosted: Fri 01 Aug, 2008 6:38 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I was a competitive small-bore rifle marksman for four years and never knew anyone to suffer obvious target panic. There were a few instances in which shooters prematurely let fly due to the extremely light triggers, but no yips, as far as I know. I saw some frustration over a surprisingly bad practice or match, so maybe that can be explained by target panic. There were certainly times when my sight swayed so much (in the standing position) that I wouldn't have taken the shot if not for the time restrictions of a match (with small-bore the target is the size of a pinhead ten meters away, so we're talking about a sway of maybe two milimeters). Maybe that was target panic. But I usually shot better in a match than I did in practice for some reason. So, I'm sure there are psychological factors at work in this kind of thing.

Good point about the mass-missle tactic. That's similar to the "empty bale" treatment for target panic described above.


"Everywhere I have searched for peace and nowhere found it, except in a corner with a book"- Thomas a Kempis (d. 1471)
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Shayan G

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PostPosted: Fri 01 Aug, 2008 7:29 am    Post subject:         Reply with quote

I got target panic once while trap shooting. I had hit the first clay when suddenly the range manager decided that my firearm wasn't allowed on the range--it has an external hammer, which they don't allow apparently even though it has a transfer bar system to prevent accidental firing--and made me use a clunky over-under from the club rentals. I missed the first few shots and then started getting frustrated, and then anxious, and then by the time the 20th clay was in the air and I still hadn't hit a single one, I started to panic...and still missed all of them except the first one.

Now undoubtedly the equipment change was a big part of that, but to miss ALL of them? Had to be some sort of psychological thing too. It felt like I had been black magicked or hexed or whatnot. I couldn't center the firearm on where I wanted it to be, it was like my hands were covered in grease and it just kept slipping away from my point of aim (figuratively greased, my grip was fine).

Now I laugh about it, but it was very embarrassing!

You have to be a man, first, before you can be a gentleman!
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