Jay Kidwell, Ph.D.
Target Panic is a disorder any archer can develop, yet, it actually affects only a small percentage of archers. If you happen to be one of the unlucky few that is haunted by target panic you are undoubtedly anxious to remedy the problem so that you can once again enjoy your shooting.
What is Target Panic?
Describing or defining target panic usually causes us to focus on the symptoms of the disorder. These symptoms can be manifested with slight variations given individual archers. These symptoms do have one thing in common: There is a premature release - or the strong desire for a premature release - of the arrow. This premature release - or desire for a premature release - occurs first, before the bow can be positioned to bring the arrow fully onto the target, or second, before the anchor can be fully achieved. It is also possible that an individual archer can experience the premature release - or the desire for a premature release - before both the target and anchor can be fully achieved depending on the timing between the full anchor and target acquisition. So then . . . you release too soon or you lock-in and find it impossible to bring the arrow onto the target because your mind wants to release the arrow. The specific way in which target panic manifests itself is highly dependent on the individuals form and equipment, yet, the premature release is at the core of the problem.
What Causes Target Panic?
I was impressed by a few things the other day when I did a search for "target panic" on the Internet. First, I was impressed by the number of web sites that discuss the issue of target panic. I was also impressed by the fact that no one seemed to know exactly what causes target panic in the first place. Of course, that didn't stop them from coming up with their subject common sense explanations of the cause like "being over bowed" (actually it can be a contributor) or "faulty concentration" (whatever that means) to my favorite "an inherent fear of failure" (that one really made me laugh!). I'm surprised no one mentioned that it was likely caused by a "chemical imbalance!" Finally, I was impressed by the fact that even though no one really knew what causes target panic, most of the techniques and advice offered on these pages was scientifically sound and would likely help someone suffering from target panic. This is likely because they are founded on the "what worked for me" principle of personal experience. Of course this poses a question. Do we really need to know the cause of target panic to formulate a cure? Sigmund Freud believed that in order to cure something you must have insights into the unconscious motivational conflicts that cause it. That was 100 years ago and we know better than that now. It really is not necessary to understand how target panic is learned to overcome it. If you don't understand the following information, you can still use the techniques discussed to overcome target panic effectively. For those formulating the techniques to cure target panic a thorough understanding of the cause is necessary. Additionally, many of you inquisitive types will appreciate an understanding of the learning that leads to target panic and thus allows us to formulate effective strategies to remedy it.
The Real Cause of Target Panic: "Classical Conditioning"
As a psychologist I naturally look to classical conditioning, also called respondent learning, as the culprit of target panic. There are many other disorders with very similar characteristics that are understood, explained and remedied effectively by working from a classical conditioning perspective. Phobias and panic attacks are two that quickly come to mind. Let's briefly visit the original experiment performed by the Russian Psychophysicist, Ivan Pavlov, that brought us to an understanding of this method of learning. Pavlov experimented with dogs and discovered that he could elicit salivation (the response - R) by a tone (conditioned stimulus - CS - neutral stimulus that does not cause salivation) by pairing the tone with meat powder (unconditional stimulus - UCS - that always causes salivation). Pavlov presented these stimuli in a specific order beginning with the tone and quickly following with the meat powder that always caused the dogs to salivate. The process description of classical conditioning is CS > UCS > R. The dogs quickly learned to associate the tone (CS) with the meat powder (UCS) and would begin salivating (R) when the tone (CS) sounded. So, once the association has been made the tone caused salivation or CS > R. The "Law of Contiguity" states that "any two stimuli paired this way (CS > UCS) in time and space will come to be seen as classically associated." Humans and animals alike learn through association. Of course, humans can overcome this learning through analysis and insight that leads to action designed to eradicate the learning that occurred. A few varied examples of classical conditioning will be helpful.
"Outdoorsy" Examples of Classical Conditioning
Example #1: If you have ever trained a retriever for hunting or your pet at obedience class you have used the techniques of classical conditioning. If you want the dog to sit (this is the response - R) you must present a stimuli that always causes this response to occur. Typically, we physically put the dog into a sitting position by pulling rearward on the leash and pushing down on his hind quarters till he is in the sitting position. This action (the unconditioned stimulus - UCS) always leads to the response of sitting (R). Of course we want the dog to actually sit on the verbal command "sit" (this becomes the Conditioned Stimulus - CS) that will be associated with the (UCS) to elicit the (R). So we say "sit dog" (CS) followed by pulling back and pushing the dog (UCS) into the sitting position (R). Within a short period of time the dog begins to sit as soon as we give the verbal command and learning has occurred or CS > R.
Example #2: I recall an eventful trip to the field to set up my tree stand and do some serious scouting and stump shooting. That sentence makes it sound kind of like I was scouting stumps! Oh, well - on with my story. I strapped the tree stand on my back and grabbed my bow and walked into the barn that I always passed through to get to the pasture that would ultimately take me to the "whitetail forest." I rolled the rear door of the barn closed and proceeded to walk toward the far end of the pasture. There was only one place that I could safely enter the whitetail forest from this pasture due to the three-strand electric fence that the farmer always kept set to "stun!" He did this to keep the Limousine cattle confined to their yard. A small stump offered enough altitude to safely negotiate the fence after placing my bow and the tree stand safely over first. It was always a careful and deliberate maneuver and to this point in my life I had engaged in it dozens of times safely. This day, however, was going to be different! About half way across the pasture I noticed some restless cow sounds back toward the barn. As I casually turned, I could see that a brand-new calf was among them and coming toward me at a moderate pace. At first I thought "look, a cute new calf" which was quickly replaced by "get out of here" as the mother made it clear that she saw me as a threat to her new calf. Twenty yards away a newborn calf trotted toward me and forty yards behind her was a ticked of mom quickly picking up steam. I yelled for her to stop and made an aggressive move toward her (and also toward the calf I realize now) that caused her to pick up speed. I glanced ahead toward the climbing stump and back at my attacker. I realized I never would make it and would have to go over the fence at another location. I quickly formulated a plan - run to the side of the pasture - leave the stand on my back - toss over the bow - grab the top strand of the fence with both hands and get over as quickly as possible to reduce the duration of the pain! That's exactly what I did too - with one addition - I screamed out in pain all the way over. Once safely on the other side I shook my hands and took a quick mental inventory to make sure everything was all right from head to toe. I'd made it with no detectable damage and was resolved to take the long way back to the truck. As I picked up my bow, I heard the back door of the barn roll open. I straightened up to see the farmer standing in the doorway. "I see you made it across the fence" he said. "Yea!" I yelled back. "Well, I was just coming to tell you I haven't had the fence on all day and you could cross it anywhere." After a little more small talk he closed the barn door and I touched the fence - quickly - to see if what he said was true. Indeed it was. The fence was OFF. I guess the yelling part wasn't necessary after all! No, I'm not a wimp as some of you are no doubt thinking, just the victim of classical conditioning. In this case the yelling (R) is always caused by the stun of electricity (UCS) which is preceded by touching the fence (CS). So. . . . you touch the fence > get stunned > yell out in pain! Once learning occurs (and with a noxious UCS like electricity it only takes one pairing for learning to occur) you remove "the get stunned part" and the touching of the fence leads directly to yelling out in pain! Reflecting back now I don't think I really yelled. It was more like a whimper. Actually, more like a macho kind of controlled whimper. Well, on with the next example.
Example #3: People who shoot magnum handguns often develop what is called a "flinch" where they seem to jerk the gun when pulling the trigger thereby causing them to miss the target. If we were to put some dummy loads (loads that will not fire) in the gun without the shooter knowing, we would see the shooter pull the trigger followed by a display of the typical recoil movement associated with the firing of a magnum round. If we break the process of shooting a handgun down into its classical conditioning components, it is easy to understand why this occurs. First, ask yourself this question. In a normal shooting sequence of one shot what is the response (R)? This has to be the natural recoil (R) that occurs that causes the hand to move up and back as the gun kicks. Okay then, what is the unconditioned stimulus (UCS) that always leads to that response? This would be the ignition of the magnum cartridge that causes the projectile to move in one direction and the gun in the other (recoil) which is the response (R). Pulling the trigger is not an unconditioned stimulus because with no ignition of the cartridge there is no recoil. Every time a cartridge ignites (UCS) recoil (R) is present! What is the conditioned stimulus (CS) that precedes the ignition of the cartridge and does not by itself cause a recoil response (R)? That would be pulling the trigger. If you pull the trigger on an unloaded gun (dry firing) it will not elicit a recoil response. It is only when the (CS) pulling the trigger is paired with a (UCS) ignition of the cartridge that conditioning occurs through the pairing of the CS and the UCS. Once learning has occurred, pulling the trigger will cause recoil movement without ignition of the magnum round or CS > R. While flinching is often referred to as target panic for hand gunners, a more appropriate name might be recoil panic! Now that we can see how classical conditioning works, we can apply the principles to archery.
Target Panic in Archery
Let's take a look at how target panic is learned through classical conditioning for the archer. In archery, target panic is seen as a premature release. So, the release is the response (R). Now we need to determine what the unconditioned stimulus (UCS) is that always causes this response (R) to take place? In archery, we release (R) when we acquire the target (UCS). Acquisition of the target is that point in the process when we feel the arrow is properly aligned to hit the target and the mind gives the command to release. Now we ask what it is that comes just before (CS) the target is acquired (UCS) and the arrow is released (R)? There are actually two possible scenarios we should look at here.
Scenario #1 - We draw and anchor - begin to move toward the target (CS) - acquire the target (UCS) - release (R). So the neutral stimulus that is now causing the response of release is moving toward the target! Aha! The premature release we've been talking about. Once learning occurs, moving toward the target (CS) causes the release (R) of the arrow or (CS) > (R). This scenario likely covers most compound shooters and some traditional archers.
Scenario #2 - In this scenario we don't draw and anchor. Some shooters, especially those who use traditional equipment, are quicker and more fluid at acquiring the target. In this scenario we draw and begin the process of anchoring which we time so that full anchor is achieved as the target is acquired. This causes a perceptual change in the symptoms even though the cause is the same. This type of archer experiences the premature release occurring not only before the target can be acquired, but also before the anchor can be fully achieved. This is due to the fact that target acquisition and a full anchor occur simultaneously.
Formulating Techniques to Cure Target Panic
Remember that I said that you don't have to understand target panic to effectively cure it. Many of you will be interested to know how we go about formulating effective techniques based on classical conditioning. If we examine psychological disorders where classical conditioning is implicated we discover that the effective techniques used to deal with these disorders fall into two categories. Some of the techniques follow the principles of "systematic desensitization" and the others rely on the principles of "thought stopping." Let's examine these two categories in more detail.
Systematic Desensitization is a process that allows us to gradually overcome a learned behavior by challenging it with a conscious, controlled behavior. Let me give you an example of systematic desensitization that you can easily identify with. The first time a child rides a roller coaster they are terrified. Each subsequent ride on the same roller coaster dissipates the fear to the point that they have to find a bigger roller coaster in the park to get the adrenaline flowing again. The ride didn't go slower or have fewer twists, turns and loops on subsequent rides. What happened was that their perception changed because the fear while being on the ride (CS) was paired with getting off the ride safely (UCS) and becoming relaxed (R). If the ride is paired over and over again with relaxation it will lose its power to frighten.
Thought Stopping is very similar to systematic desensitization in that we consciously introduce a stimulus so that the response cannot occur in its typical way. Let's say that you have an obsessive thought that keeps going through your mind over and over. If I shock you with a cattle prod the obsessive thought will be pushed from your mind. The cattle prod shock (UCS) always leads to a different response. By pairing it with the obsessive thought (CS) learning will occur and within a few trials the obsessive thought will clear itself from your mind.
The following techniques are based on these two therapeutic principles and will work if applied consistently. Remember the Law of Contiguity states that "any two stimuli paired this way in time and space will come to be seen as classically associated."
In order to overcome the associations created by classical conditioning that causes target panic we must create new associations. The following techniques have been proven to be effective and will work to accomplish this only if you consistently follow them.
The "Button" technique should be used every time you shoot and the "Imagery" technique should be used when you are not shooting. This is true regardless of whether or not you suffer from target panic.
You can use both of the other techniques, "Shooting Blind" and "Multiple Target Acquisition," or choose the one you are most comfortable with to treat your target panic.
The "Button" Technique
Before we get onto the other techniques, I want to mention another technique that is founded in classical conditioning and stimulus confusion. One of the best ways to avoid target panic to begin with, or counter target panic that has been learned, is to apply the button technique discussed in chapter 4 of Instinctive Archery Insights. This technique has generated more excitement among archers than I ever could have imagined. Not only does it end target panic and stimulus confusion, it actually allows you to become much more accurate at all distances. This concept is dealt with in a complete chapter in the book and actually addresses additional problems beyond target panic. If you have the book start using the "button" technique (even with the following additional techniques) and you will be amazed at the overall improvement of your shooting.
Shooting Blind Technique
This technique works well to help the mind to relearn that "release" is associated with "target acquisition" by creating new associations. Choose a large target area such as a grassy hill side or large hay roll. Face the hill side or hay roll and close your eyes. Now draw, come to anchor and with your eyes remaining closed imagine a target in front of you and arrow aligning with the bulls-eye and then release and follow through. Continue this with the eyes closed from draw to follow through. You might also draw, come to the anchor and move the bow around as if you are passing through the bulls-eye two or more times before you release and follow through. Make sure your eyes are closed through the whole process. Since there is no visual "acquisition of the target" going on you are creating new and healthy associations. After four or more blind shots open your eyes and shoot some arrows at a very specific target on the hillside or hay roll. As soon as you begin to feel panic returning, repeat the shooting blind technique for a number of additional trials.
Multiple Target Acquisition Technique
Step 1: Choose a target with some kind of bulls-eye. This may be a formal archery target or a clump of grass. Tell yourself that you are going to acquire the bulls-eye two or more times and not release. You draw - come onto the bulls-eye - acquire the bulls-eye - move slightly away from the bulls-eye - move toward and acquire the bulls-eye - lower and relax your draw. Vary the number of times you acquire the bulls-eye before you lower and relax your draw. This will effectively create new associations with the moving toward the target stage that usually results in release. Repeat this step three or four times and then go to step two.
Step 2: In this step you will follow the same process only instead of lowering and relaxing your draw you will release and follow through. Tell yourself how many times you will acquire the bulls-eye before you begin and release on the appropriate count. Go back to Step one periodically and/or the shooting blind technique to vary the new associations.
For many this will appear to be the least effective technique, yet, it is likely the most effective technique to learn correct associations and cure target panic (and improve overall shooting performance). I'll have a chapter on this if I ever get around to doing a revision on my book. First let me say that when you use imagery your body actually is getting into the act and learning as if you were practicing. When you imagine yourself shooting a bow through all the stages with a perfect release - that arrow hitting the bull - and a follow through your muscles actually respond at a very low level and develop muscle memory associated with correct imagery. These low level responses are called ideo-motor responses and research has demonstrated that practice through imagery is almost as effective as the real thing. For a person suffering from target panic it is more effective than the real thing because you actually going through the process correctly and releasing the arrow at the appropriate time with imagery as compared to the real thing where your target panic kicks in. The neat thing about using this technique is that you can practice anywhere you can close your eyes and reinforce the correct associations. Give it a try and you will be a believer.
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Copyright © 2001 - Jay Kidwell, Ph.D.