Archery, movement, and mental health

By Roger Marsh

Once again we have the pleasure of Roger Marsh joining us to share his archery journey. This month the topic I’m sure, is something that will resonate with nearly all of us. That Roger is penning this too from Australia shows how much in common as an archery community we have with each other, not to mention how much to learn.

An important part of my journey in archery has been using it as part of my mental health strategy. As a topic, mental health gets a lot of discussion these days, though sometimes it seems to me that there needs to be a lot less talk and a lot more action. Be that as it may, in my day to day life there are several key aspects I look at when it comes to maintaining my mental health; these include diet, exercise, spiritual fitness, mindfulness and mental hygiene.

Here I want to examine exercise and mindfulness, especially as they relate to my practice of archery. When I say mindfulness, I am thinking of a state of mind achieved by focusing awareness on the present moment, while acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. It’s helpful in stopping the mind careering off on some uncontrolled tangent, that can sometimes end up in a dark place.

I became a committed archer during a period of long, grinding stress, as (amongst other things like the shadow of the recent pandemic) my wife and I were dealing with having a child who was terminally ill with brain cancer.

It was a truly awful time, and there were many parts of day to day living that were entirely beyond our control, and for which there was no easy or quick solution — so there were plenty of dark holes down which the mind could run.

Thankfully, many experiences in my career as a soldier had taught me just how powerless humans are in the face of the hard things that happen in life, so, as awful as it was, I had developed ways of surviving adversity. One of the most important of these was exercise. I have always found it helpful, as expending energy helps release the knots in the brain; even if it’s just a little. Running is really great for switching off the brain and using a large amount of energy in a short space of time.

However, I found that doing a form of exercise that demanded singular focus in the moment was also very helpful, because it gave the mind a different focal point that could help in refocusing and redirecting it in times of stress. An activity like this forces us to be in the moment, rather than tossed about by the ebb and flow of our thoughts, or else consumed with the rubbish messages that proliferate in the modern world; especially those which come from a news cycle that seems consumed with themes like outrage, death and despair.

This is where archery became very important to me; because it incorporates both mindfulness and movement in one package. It demands focus and exertion, instead of permitting passive absorption. The rhythm of the shot process has so often helped me to chill out, but along the way I discovered that it could show me some other things as well.

Importantly, I found that archery is a great revealer of my moods and mental state. I have to admit that some days I shoot poorly, just like the rest of you; but if I am stressed or down, my shooting can really suffer as a result, because it can be hard to bring to bear the kind of focus needed to shoot well.

In particular, I find this problem manifesting itself in rushed shots, and in an erratic shot process where I’m not properly engaged with the task. The result is missed shots, broken or lost arrows, much muttering, and no improvement to my mood either. If we think about it for a moment, archery is a complex balance of technique and awareness; and if anything begins to affect us mentally or physically, then it is going to have an impact on where our arrows happen to fall.

Instead of the movement of archery calming our minds, things can flow the other way, and the stress of our minds can cause chaos with our archery. Now I’m not going to blame all my poor shooting on just some little thing being wrong, and as an archer I sure don’t need another excuse! However, it is useful to have as a question I ask myself.

Thankfully, as I grew in experience as an archer, I happened upon a way of grounding myself when the state of my brain was having marked affected on my archery; but this happened entirely by accident rather than design.

It began with me had using videos and timed photos of my shooting as a means of conducting self-analysis of my technique. While I was fiddling around with my iPhone, I discovered that if I turned the “Live” function off, then the timed photos would come as a burst of 10 sequential images. Initially I was a bit annoyed to have all these photos, but then I saw one where it captured the arrow just as it was flying past the limb of my longbow.

The “gee whiz” factor took over as I became entranced by the sight of flexing arrows and vibrating strings captured in motion. Employing my few remaining brain cells, I quickly figured out that all I needed to do was wait to release the arrow until the count was done, and then I could get more of these cool images, and then use them to bore my non-archery friends. So far so good.

However, one day when things were not going well for me personally, I had tried to relax by going outside and sending some arrows down range; however all that happened was that I spent a frustrating time unable to hit much at all. My mood got worse, and I couldn’t seem to get my mind into the moment.

A loyal companion enthralled by the other, but which one? Both I’m sure. Truly a mutually beneficial relationship. Also, it’s widely known now that anyone who likes Border Collies is sound in our books. Ed.

For some reason, I then decided to do some timed photos to see if I could at least get some interesting captures of arrows doing their thing in flight.

However, no sooner did I switch to doing this, than I found that my grouping at 25 metres went from what felt like the size of a football goal to the size of a football. My mood picked up a bit, and I continued to shoot, and the groups grew gradually tighter, until I was holding some very tight groups indeed. By the time I had finished shooting, I was feeling quite buoyant, and the other things that had been nagging at my brain had been driven into better shapes and perspectives.

The simple fact was that my shooting was vastly better when I was having to wait for the timer. As it counted down from ten, I would be fully focused on the target by five seconds, draw at three, and release just after one. Having an external structure was what I needed to wrench my mind out of wherever it was, and into the moment of archery.

This has since become my go-to technique when I’m taking up the bow; so now whenever I start to train, I spend time using the timer as an external structure to get me going in the right direction. This has resulted in some of my best archery shots in my Instagram posts, but the objective was not being photogenic; rather it was disciplining my mind.

Other things can help with calming ourselves when stress or nervous energy is pinging through the body. I have especially employed deep breathing, and other meditative activities,, however on that particular day only the rhythm of the timer was able to reboot and reformat my mental machinery.

Now there’s a lot more to a discussion of mental health than this. It’s a very broad topic that includes community, connection, and getting the best professional care we can when things get dark. However, in terms of simple things that we can do for ourselves that can help (at least a bit), exercise is one of the best. It has few side-effects and feels great afterwards, thereby releasing a lot of the pent up tension we may have been carrying.

However I am yet to encounter a form of exercise that has such a broad spectrum effect on mind and body. So when mist closes in a bit, take up your bow, and find your epic — even better, go and find it with others.

Roger began writing in an effort to distill the essence of his experience out of the clutter of a myriad of memories. He found that using fiction helped tell his own story better, because it enabled him to stand outside his own experience, and tell a bigger story about others as well.

These books, which are the first two in a series of four, enabled his to process an enormous weight that he had been carrying; and he heartily recommends anyone try writing as a means of downloading the hard stuff on their minds.

These novels follow two characters in their journey through life, war, and out of the Army into civilian life; and along the way examine hard themes of ethics, trauma, betrayal, abuse of power, and the journey back home after a life at war. His books are available through the usual online sellers.

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