You're sitting in a blind, senses alive as the sun wakes up. A branch cracks. You shift into high alert, slowly turning to look in that direction. There is a tapestry of trees, leaves, branches, and then something breaks the pattern. A nice buck, moving in your direction.
Adrenalin pumping into your bloodstream shifts your mind into high gear. He's coming closer. You want to bag this one. Take a breath, and exhale slowly and silently to get steady.
For archers, the most common miss is shooting over the deer's back. This can come from the deer quickly dropping down at the sound of the bowstring to get spring in the legs to take off. The other common reason for missing comes from failing to hone in on a spot in the kill zone, and staying with that spot as a point of focus. If you aim at the whole deer, rather than the spot, chances are you'll miss it or just wound it, not punch a shot into the quick kill zone.
Taped on my computer monitor, just above the screen, is a quarter-sized orange stick-on dot. It has a hole directly in the middle. This reminds me of an arrow that I shot at a target where this dot was pasted on the center of the bull's-eye. In that moment, I did everything right.
I recall the shot. I was standing at 45 yards away. I'm an instinctive shooter. It's all in the mind. A Zen thing.
I took in a breath, slowly exhaled as I focused on the target. Then I inhaled as I drew, held for a moment and released: a pattern that I've done hundreds of thousands of times over the decades. This time I made a perfect shot.
My little perfect shot patch is a reminder of a positive moment in sports performance. Such memorabilia have more than a sentimental value. Research has shown that before a performance situation, if you can quietly sit and recall past positive experiences when you were "in the zone" and you performed at your best, you will be more relaxed, focused and positive in the event you are about to participate in. The more vividly you can recall such events, the better.
Positive memory recall is one of a number of different ways that images in the mind's eye can be used to aid a shooter's performance.
In this case, as the buck is coming into range, I recall the image of the orange bulls-eye with a perfect hole in the middle, and then I imagine the quarter-size orange dot stuck on the deer in the kill zone. Then I blend the mental image with the real thing and execute the shot. Roast of venison coming up.
Daydreaming and hypnogogic imagery
The mind speaks in images. Remember when the teacher caught you daydreaming in class and you were embarrassed and/or reprimanded?
When we are not immediately focused in the here and now physical reality, the mind can wander anyplace, imagining almost anything. With "controlled day dreaming" you can turn boring, or stressful situations, into more relaxed and positive experiences that put you in a better mental state.
Day dreaming can be a tool to help improve your performance. Suppose you are going to compete in a tournament, consider doing some purposeful daydreaming, thinking of a peaceful tropical island, or maybe a secluded glen in a forest with a spectacular waterfall. Such thoughts can reduce your anxiety level and put you into the "alpha" relaxation state, which is where the zone of peak performance unfolds.
When you are in bed lying quietly, about to slip into sleep, images may suddenly pop up in your mind's eye. This is called hypnogogic imagery, which differs from day dreaming as the images arise spontaneously from the unconscious or subconscious, like a visual report about what's going on below consciousness, perhaps a little like the evening news on TV.
Such imagery may be more abundant and vivid during times of stress, and act like a safety valve to let off pressure when tension builds. Learn to relax and observe such imagery, rather than reacting to it.
Out here in California we call this "mindfulness meditation." If you do not tense up when unexpected imagery appears, you will be more likely slip off into sleep more quickly, as well as training your mind to be less distracted in waking states.
We all dream. Freud showed us how dreams can be a voice of the unconscious and important to our lives. Learning the language of dreams takes time. There have been volumes written about dreams and still we are all students. It is as if, every night, a Zen master sends us koans to guide our lives.
There are many different kinds of dreams. Psychiatrist Dr. Stanley Dean at the University of Florida Medical School identified over a dozen kinds of dreams of personal and collective consciousness. Some of the most memorable are "lucid dreams," which have a surreal, extraordinary vivid quality; and precognitive dreams which foretell a future event.
There is often a pattern to our dreams. Dreams of the first part of the evening are often personal, relating to immediate problems or situations. Dreams that appear later in the evening are more likely to have broader social or collective themes, and perhaps mythic images. Just before waking is the time when precognitive dreams are most likely to appear as our mind is preparing for the coming day.
Dreams are voices of truth, albeit sometimes watery, creative and difficult to understand. If you have trouble recalling your dreams, drink water before going to bed. This will force you to wake up during the night to go to the bathroom, and as you do, you will be more likely to recall your dreams.
During times of stress, like right before a competitive shooting match, you may be more prone to have vivid dreams. Keeping a journal of your dreams always is helpful, especially at such times. Simply writing them down makes a connection between the unconscious and mind, which helps build congruity in your life, as well as aiding interpretation?
A dream journal helps you see patterns in symbolism that represents your own personal dream language. This may tell you important things about your life and how you live it.
Most often dreams involve imagery and symbolism. However, sometimes a voice will speak in dreams and give you some direct information. Carl Jung felt that such dreams were important, almost as if a divine voice was speaking to you directly. I have known a number of hunters who have actually dreamed of animals that they would see in real life the next day.
If you aren't sure what a dream means, some people can use mental imagery to replay the dream, like watching a movie. Often if it's a dream with a lot of emotion, you will wake up before it's over. Learning to replay dreams can sometimes help you unlock secrets in your dreams. As you replay the dream, note what the characters do, as well as how you are feeling.
Suppose that you are sitting in a blind and a big buck is approaching. You accidentally make a noise; the buck bolts and runs off. You are going to be angry. If you swear and throw things, you can be sure that buck or any other deer will not come back. So, what do you do with all that energy?
A technique used in emotional management is "active imagination." Simply, what you do is express and release that emotion through imagery. For example, mentally see yourself cutting down a tree or throwing rocks, anything that releases pent up energy.
Do this a couple times and you'll find that the charge of anger goes down. This is also a good technique to help keep your cool in a heated discussion with someone. Don't project violent images onto a person in such a situation, just find something else to do with the juice that's stirred up, like imagining kicking a wall, etc.
Harnessing mental imagery
If you watch the Olympics you may have seen many athletes with headphones, lying down with their eyes closed prior to a performance. Sometimes they are simply listening to mood music. Other times the audio may use imagery and positive affirmations preprogrammed to help direct the mind in a mental rehearsal for the upcoming event.
Mental rehearsal is one of the most popular and successful applications of mental imagery. Sports psychologists have been teaching athletes to visualize themselves performing their sports with perfection for over 30 years. Golfers, basketball players, baseball batters and pitchers, field goal kickers, volleyball players, divers, gymnasts, as well as archers and shooters, etc., all now use visualization to improve their performance.
One quick way to illustrate the power of imagery is to hold your arm out in front of you and have someone put downward pressure on the arm to test your strength. Once you have established raw muscle strength, again extend your arm, but this time imagine that a beam of white light is shooting out of your fingers and striking a target on a wall. Hold that image of your arm being like a flashlight and have someone test your arm strength again. You will find that your arm strength has increased considerably. The applications are obvious.
Mental rehearsal is one of the most common and well-documented mental training techniques. Serious athletes will do at least 20 minutes a day of mental practicing. A typical practice begins with sitting in a quiet place with your equipment. To help establish positive imagery, bring some photos of you or someone you admire, performing what you want to practice. Study the pictures until you feel your muscle-memory sensing how you would carry out the act you want to practice.
When you are relaxed, hold your bow in your hand and imagine how you would shoot each shot perfectly, going through the shooting process in slow motion. You may focus on one particular aspect of shooting, or the entire process from nocking the arrow to release. When you visualize shooting an arrow in your mind's eye, follow the shot through to the bull's-eye. Perfection begins with a powerful positive image of success.
If you learn to use mental imagery for practice, you can practice shooting every day, regardless wherever you are. And you know what they say, practice makes perfect.
James Swan — who has appeared in more than a dozen feature films, including "Murder in the First" and "Star Trek: First Contact," as well as the television series "Nash Bridges," "Midnight Caller" and "Modern Marvels" — is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting." Click to purchase a copy. To learn more about Swan, visit his Web site.