What Archery Can Teach You About Goal Setting

Goal setting is about focus, aim, skill, consistency, discipline, order. Archery is also about these things.

Archery is a primal sport; one that demands concentration, composure, vision, confidence, strength, belief. Goal setting is an interesting practice; one that demands prudence, deep thought, dare, rationality—and, in practice, concentration, composure, vision, strength, and belief. It appears there could be a connection, no? Well, true it is that the same could be said for an unknowable number of activities, but there is an interesting analogy to be drawn; to see how so, let’s dig a little deeper into the art of archery.

If you have never done archery, then this should be an interesting introduction to the basis of hitting the bullseye.1 If you have done archery before, or a seasoned professional, or Robin Hood, or Jennifer Lawrence, then allow this to be a reminded of the fundamentals that are so easily forgotten, if not practiced every time you pick up the now; also, you will probably have an easiest time drawing the analogy.

Archery is more of a mental game than anything. Generally speaking, if you are distracted, stressed, tense, tired or incapable of conjuring an ounce of concentration, then you will shoot poorly; and if you are calm, composed, feeling good, confident, and concentrated, then you will shoot well. There are exceptions to this; and certainly, the better one becomes at archery, the more able one is to shoot well under adverse conditions. Yes, archery is a mental game, but it is also a matter of skill—and skill must be developed, with time, patience, dedication, grit; with discipline.

So, what are the basics? One of the first things you learn in archery is to get your feet right—to get yourself in a proper position: in line, straight, firm, strong. Get the foundation right, and everything else becomes that little bit easier to get right. Get it wrong, and everything else becomes that little bit harder to get right. But harder isn’t the problem, here; the problem without a foundation, there is nothing to build upon, no strength, no place to return to. If the foundation is weak or non-existent, then everything one encounters will seem like a foundation—yet nothing will perform the role properly. If the first thing you learn is not how to position your feet,2 but instead, how to hold the bow, then unless you are corrected by a good teacher soon, your development as an archer will be slow and much more painful than necessary; and most likely, the inconsistency will wind up destroying your interest. Of course, there’s an amalgam of reasons why you may want to throw the towel in—in any activity—but confusing and frustrating inconsistency has to be right up there.

How does this apply to goal setting? Well, it means, simply, getting your head in the right place before thinking about goals—or, if you already have goals, it means reassessing their roots. The only way to do this properly is to ask yourself a series of cutthroat and specific questions—and answer them as truthfully and as bluntly as you can. But before you do this, even, it is important to make sure thinking different because of a recent event in your life; for example, if you have just lost a loved one, gone through a serious illness, had a row with your partner, or you have not slept in a week, or you are just not in a good mood, then it is not a good idea to instigate a serious bout of introspection in which the intention is to determine, at least in part, how you want your life to turn out. Better to wait until you are calm, energies, composed, and in a ‘good’ place, so to speak.

A better way to think of the ideal state of mind with which to start setting goals, or examining those you already have, is to think of your default state. This does two things: first, it prevents the excuse, ‘I am never in the state, therefore, I don’t need to do this’, or ‘when I am in that state, I don’t have the time’, and so on; and therefore, secondly, it means anybody can do it.

Regarding the questions you can ask yourself, the key point to remember is that your intention is to strip your goal(s) down the atomic level; to discover the intentions behind the goal at the most fundamental level; to know why it is that you want to achieve X. Some examples would be, ‘Does this ambition stem from internal or external forces?’, ‘What will the achievement of this goal do for me, my family, the world?’, ‘Is this a moral goal? Virtuous?’, ‘Is this something I can actually work on?’, ‘Is this a fantasy?’, ‘When did this ambition first take hold of me?’ and ‘Is this what I really want?’. You may find, through asking yourself such questions, that some go your goals need to be thrown out the window, or some, entirely reformed; and you may find renewed vigour and focus for any goals you may already have in mind. The point is, you want to get your foundation strong, right, reliable; and these question will allow you to do just that. It may be painful, exhausting, repetitive, but the long-term benefits, though they cannot be known in their precise form today, are sure to be beautiful. A small hole can sink a might ship—or, if you prefer Benjamin Franklin’s version, ‘Every little makes a muckle’.

 

Moving on, another crucial matter in archery is the release of the string. When firing an arrow (and skipping the part where you learn how to hold the bow, nock the arrow, and aim), once you have your feet in place, the penultimate thing3 you do before your job is done is simply just let go: in the most subtle, delicate, but rapid manner, just release your grip on the string. As simple as this sounds, it also requires much attention and practice to get right; but this attention and practice is prolonged and made significantly more painful if the foundation is not right: if your position (starting with your feet) is not optimal. If the foundation is right—if the preceding principles are being applied—the release becomes that much easier. Paradoxically, the release then becomes the most important place to direct your attention, because once everything else is in order (at least in principle) it is going to be the release that has the biggest impact on the shot; but—and this is what matters—the attention that you place on it will be the best expenditure of that attention. If, however, you place all your attention on the release but have failed to apply the previous principles (getting in the optimal position), then no matter how much attention you put on the release, it cannot overcompensate for the foundation.

It becomes quite clear, now, to see the connection to goal setting. If you get your intentions right, then subsequent actions (subsets of the main goal, habits you are trying to instil, tasks you must complete everyday, etc) become necessarily more important, impactful, and ‘easier’.

 

Another interesting connection we can make between archery and goal setting is to do with long-range shooting. This is the case more so with beginners (who will use a lower poundage bow), but when the target is far away, you have to aim higher. Obvious, yes. But the lesson is an interesting one: if you are going to set goals, set high goals, be ambitious, aim for the stars. Newton gave us the reasons why in mathematical jargon, but in layman, every shot feels the pull of earth’s gravity. If you aim directly at a long-range target in archery, unless you’re God or are using an extremely high poundage bow, your arrow will fall short. If you aim for the stars with your goals, however short you fall, you’re still likely to fall in a very, very good place. There are a couple of other interesting perspectives to take here, also. One is that if the target is closer, then you need not aim as high, but you can therefore go after it with more precision, intent and seriousness. Another is that we can compare the high poundage bow to competency and experience: if the target is long-range, but you have a good skill set and/or considerable experience with such targets, then you need not aim as high and can instead go at your target with a more determined, narrow and linear focus.

 

Finally (as far as this article goes, anyhow), the benefit from consistent, monotonous and disciplined application of the basic principles of archery is that it incrementally removes the element of luck—by teaching you, slowly and painfully, how to distinguish between good luck, and skill. You see, in archery—and in a many other domains—it is quite easy to think than you are better than you indeed are. There are many reason for this. First, most of us have a basic overconfidence in our ability to do anything, not to mention something ‘as simple as shooting an arrow’. Second, optimism and excitement, which tends to be present when we start something new, actually upgrades our performance, and creates what can best be thought of as the illusion of competency. And finally, third, it is quite normal for the experience of a good run in a comfortable environment—familiar, distraction free, etc—to instil in us the sense that we are good. This is completely normal and in fact necessary; overconfidence allows us to get by in life—to develop skills, meet new people, build business, and so forth.

An example would be the first few weeks of archery: the environment you shoot in is friendly, comfortable, repetitive, and likely, relatively easy-going; in such conditions, poor adherence to principles (lack of attention to basic principles) is easily disguised by excitement and the lack of challenge—and so the illusion of competency becomes stronger. This is not a theme exclusive to archery, of course; it can be seen in the workplace, gym, in sports—everywhere. The point is, due to both the environment and our own inherent tendencies, we easily fall into the delusion that we are better than we are. The problem is that once this incompetency is confronted with the truth and exposed for what it really is, the experience is not pleasant, which means the towel is regular thrown in. It is understandable, therefore, that we will go out of our way to avoid such an experience. But this is the antithesis of growth; in removing the truth and pain element it also removes the learning element, without which we cannot develop.

Knowing about this tendency can do wonderful things for how you go about setting goals and making them a reality. It is totally plausible that you could set a goal, and via a series of miraculous strokes of luck, you achieve it. Why this is dangerous is that you will not know that the reason you achieved the goal was 90% luck, and 10% you; you will instead think—and again, naturally so—that it was all you and your discipline, skill, touch, and other volitional or non-volitional faculties. Is there an effective antidote to this? Well, only a fool bemoans good fortune, so if it does come your way, it is a good idea to go with it. That said, you do want actually understand what is going on; you do want to become better; you do want be the difference—and the only true way to do this, is to do it over and over, to confront the truth, to ask yourself honest and specific questions, to test yourself, and to embrace failure. If you set a goal and achieve it, be critically honest with yourself in your analyse of the reasons you achieved it. Luck is always involved; the danger is ignorance of it.

Being a good archer means being able to shoot when the coach isn’t watching your every move—when you are able apply the principle to any given environment—when you are able to explain the principles to another beginner—when you know how to shoot. You may have encountered the proverb, ‘Give a Man a Fish, and You Feed Him for a Day. Teach a Man To Fish, and You Feed Him for a Lifetime.’ There is a deep and pertinent lesson in that saying.

 

To recap, then, we have discussed the importance of getting your foundation right, how that foundation narrows focus and makes the future more simple, long-range shooting and aiming for the stars with your goals, and the difference between receiving fish and knowing how to fish.

  1. And if, in the future, you wind up being cast for the next Robin Hood movie, do remember, it will be all thanks to this article…
  2. ‘Getting your feet right’—the position they’re pointing, weight distribution, etc—as a foundational principle, applies to weight training, martial arts, yoga, and so many more activities. The feet are also where most postural problems stem from.
  3. The final task, once you release, is to hold your ‘holding arm’ in place, keeping the bow in the same position, to prevent any nanosecond unintended redirections of the shot. Beginners do this all the time, and the way to identify it is when the shot has a perfect line, but is too low.

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