How to Put an Arrow in Your Target Every Time

He is on the back side of 70, with a farm boy's jug ears and a slight stoop from arthritis. But archery coach Terry Wunderle still moves with a natural athlete's confidence, and the penetrating blue eyes miss nothing. From the moment you shake hands with him he is sizing you up to see if you possess the raw material--the hunger, discipline, and composure--from which he can mold a champion. Wunderle is a man of almost ferocious willpower and more than a few contradictions: a redneck with a Zen-like approach to archery, a guy capable of cussing a blue streak right before bowing his head to say grace over lunch.

Wunderle is someone who, above all things, hates to lose. He won one world and four national championships on the IBO circuit back in the 1980s. Frank Thomas, archery coach of the U.S. men's 2004 Olympic team, told me, "I teach mostly recurve. But for compound, Terry's the guy. He has coached more champion compound archers than all the others put together." If that was the case, I asked, how come I'd never heard of him? "Because he doesn't care if you've heard of him or not. He refuses to promote himself. Archers find him."

And so, a plane ride and a three-hour drive later, I arrived at his home in rural Illinois. He no longer needs the money from coaching and accepts only students he thinks he'll enjoy. He doesn't tolerate those who resist his suggestions. More than one pro has driven halfway across the country only to find himself being told to pack up his bow and get the hell out after five minutes when Wunderle didn't like the guy's attitude. He said he took me because when he razzed me on the phone ("Listen, outdoor writers are just too dumb and stubborn to try to coach"), I stayed calm and razzed him right back ("No, that's photographers you're thinking about").

He handed me five arrows and pointed 20 yards downrange to a target hanging in an open closet in the combination rec room, office, trophy room, and archery shop in his house outside Mason City. "I don't care about the walls," Wunderle said. "But you better be fast if you hit one of my deer, because there's going to be a broadhead with your name on it coming after you." He winked when he said this, but he was not altogether kidding. He lives to hunt and only took up competitive archery to become a better hunter. He typically kills several turkeys a year in Illinois with the bow and has taken 39 trophy whitetail bucks, many of which were gazing down at me from the walls. I shot two arrows, which each landed in the second ring of their targets. Wordlessly, Wunderle moved in right behind me, well inside the 18 inches that Western culture designates as "personal space." My hands went clammy and drops of sweat suddenly trickled down my sides.

"Now I'm nervous," I said, as if owning up to it would make it go away.

"Good," he grunted. "Sometimes you shoot better that way. Sharpens the senses."

My next three arrows were duds: wide left, high center, low left. He walked down to the target and pulled all five. "Confession time," he announced. "I don't know what a shooter's problems are until I see them shoot under pressure. I knew you'd react that way."

"What way?" I asked.

"You started to over-aim. Your bow arm started moving around all over the place. You were trying to guide the pin to the target. And there is no surer way to screw up your shot. Here's the dirty little secret: Shooting a bow is the simplest thing in the world. You draw, float the pin until it settles on the target, then pull the bow apart. That's all there is to it. Coaches need to make it complicated so they can feed their egos. But it couldn't be simpler. What we're going to spend the rest of the day doing is getting you to believe that."

"Don't aim," I said, verifying that this was indeed the wisdom for which I flew all the way to Chicago to obtain.

"That's exactly right," he said brightly. "Aiming is way overrated. Don't feel bad. Most target archers--and almost all hunters--make the same mistake. Here's the thing. Aiming, the attempt to guide the pin back to the bull's-eye, doesn't decrease movement. It increases it. Worse, it causes your bow arm to do one of three things: soften, tighten, or collapse. And then your shot is toast, because 95 percent of misses are actually caused by mistakes in the bow arm. That's what drives the shot. If you finish the shot and notice your bow arm going up or down, or off to either side, you're screwed. Because the shot goes where the bow arm directs it. So you want to drive the arm forward. Steady pressure right into the target. Drive that arrow home." This was news to me. I have shot thousands of arrows, and a good many deer, during which time I have paid more attention to National Pickle Week than to my bow arm.

Mind Game

Wunderle made a single adjustment to my grip on the bow, telling me that you keep your wrist "low," as in fully flexed backward, with the bow grip contacting your hand at the heel of your palm, about where your lifeline runs out. There's a bone there that gives you solid contact. Your fingers should be relaxed. If you're holding the bow correctly, at full draw your knuckles will line up at a 45-degree angle. This was about as technical as he would get for the rest of the day. The most important piece of equipment in shooting a bow is the shooter's mind.

If it's such a mental game, what exactly do you focus on while you're busy not aiming? "Three things," he said, holding up as many fingers. Then he ticked them off. "Form, form, and form. If you shoot good form, aiming takes care of itself. It is a self-correcting process. And form is whatever you can do consistently, shot after shot." He pointed out that I changed my stance a little after each shot, and it was already driving him crazy. He told me to line my feet up perpendicular to the target. I started to protest that I'd always been told to shoot from a slightly open stance. "Who the hell taught you that?" he asked. Suddenly I couldn't remember. "If you accept that it's all about consistency, the easiest way to make sure you're standing the same way every time is to line up perpendicularly."

Abruptly, Wunderle took my bow and hefted it. I was shooting a Mathews LX with just the first nodule of a Doinker stabilizer. The other three screw-on nodules that attach to it were still in my case. "I'm surprised you hit the target at all," he murmured. "Here's another little secret. The easiest way to improve your shooting is to add more stabilizer. A heavier bow is a steadier bow. Second easiest way is to shoot a longer bow. My hunting bow is 41 inches." He showed me the stabilizers he had made himself to shoot in competition. Both were short by target standards, just 18 inches, but the one he uses in normal conditions was heavier than most tire irons. And the one he made for wind was heavy enough to club baby seals. I screwed on the remaining parts of the Doinker, and my bow instantly became steadier.

Form and Finish

Most of us strive to aim with the conscious mind and shoot from the subconscious. That is, we focus ferociously on aiming and try to release the shot almost inadvertently so that we won't flinch or punch. Wunderle's approach is the opposite. You all but forget aiming and concentrate every ounce of attention on maintaining good form. (He went so far as to tell me not even to focus on the pin, but on the target.) Good form means steady forward pressure with the bow arm, steady backward pressure with the release arm. At a certain point, the arrow goes off, and your two arms, freed from the bow's tension, follow through briefly in opposite directions. This is known as "finishing the shot." It's simple, but it's not easy. The mind gets in the way. It trusts that little sight pin like a drowning man trusts a life ring.

He handed me the five arrows. "I don't care where they land in the target. I don't want you to care. I want you to shoot form. Think about steady pressure toward the target with the bow arm, steady pressure back on the release arm." He sat in a chair slightly forward and off to one side and watched me. I exhaled, gathered myself, and shot the arrows. "Excellent!" he bellowed. "You had a little brain fart on that last one and started to aim, but for the first time you were engaged in the shot. You started to trust the shot instead of the pin. And four out of five are in the X or 5 ring, right?" I got the arrows, and sure enough, he'd called them right, though he had yet to look downrange.

Wunderle spent the rest of the day alternately building up, then destroying, my confidence. And it worked. Late in the afternoon, we went outside and shot from 40 yards. My first group was one that I could nearly circle with one hand. "Pretty good for a dumbass writer," he said.

TEST YOURSELF

The only meaningful test of a bowhunter is how he shoots under pressure. Before you begin the regimen described on page 58, team up with a buddy and try to intimidate each other as you each shoot five arrows at a 3-inch bull's-eye at 20 yards. The only rule is that you may not physically touch the shooter or interfere with his line of sight to the target. Monetary wagers, standing close, yelling, making choking noises, and singing "neener, neener, neener" are all permitted. If you each get all five in the bull, increase the distance in 5-yard increments until one of you misses.

After you complete Wunderle's training regimen, repeat the test. You should be able to put all five arrows in the bull's-eye at a greater distance. If not, it means that you are still aiming instead of concentrating on form. Go back to the regimen. Resolve that you are going to focus all your willpower on drawing the bow, letting the pin settle and float on the target, and pulling the bow apart. Then repeat the test with your comrade.

CREDENTIALS

THE STUDENT: Bill Heavey AGE: 50 YEARS BOWHUNTING: 10 SELF-DESCRIBED ARCHERY ABILITY: Proficient with a compound bow to 40 yards as long as there are no deer in the vicinity

THE INSTRUCTOR: Terry Wunderle, archery coach and former national and world champion compound archer, International Bowhunting Association; has taken 39 trophy whitetails

BOW

THE MIND It's the most important aspect of shooting. You must deliberately focus on keeping your form perfect, shot after shot. If you think about aiming, accuracy will suffer.

RELEASE ARM Keep steady backward pressure with this arm until the arrow goes off. Think of it as pulling your bow apart.

BOW ARM A weak or tight bow arm causes most misses. You need to apply steady forward pressure here, right into the target.

STABILIZER Adding a stabilizer is the easiest way to steady your bow and improve your shooting. Don't skimp on weight.

STANCE Keep your feet lined up perpendicular to the target, which is the easiest way to keep the same stance for each shot.

RELEASE MOTION

Don't start and stop. Commit to a good follow-through, and the release will occur naturally.

• Keep your wrist "low," as in fully flexed backward, with the bow grip contacting your hand at the heel of your palm. A bone there gives you solid contact. Your fingers should be relaxed. If you're holding the bow correctly, at full draw your knuckles will line up at a 45-degree angle, halfway between 7 and 8 on an imaginary clockface.

If you finish the shot and notice your bow arm going up or down, or off to either side, you're screwed.

THE REGIMEN (30 DAYS TO BETTER BOW SHOOTING)

ALL OF WUNDERLE'S STUDENTS spend endless hours shooting "blank bale," that is, shooting at a target butt with no target face, from 10 to 15 feet. And the world champions are the ones who spend the most time doing it. "I bet most of your readers won't do this," he says. "Just like most target archers won't. 'It's too boring,' they say. And my answer is, 'Fine, then you'll be the same guys who never have to worry about getting bored picking up trophies.'" Here's his suggested routine to get yourself ready for the season: --BILL HEAVEY

DAYS 1-10

Take five or six arrows. Set up your target at a distance of 10 to 15 feet at chest level. For 30 minutes, shoot blank bale exclusively, focusing on form: Draw, and let the pin float and settle. Then pull the bow apart with steady forward pressure from the bow arm and steady rearward pressure. Do not aim. Your goal is consistency. You want each shot to feel like the one before and the one to come. If you can safely shoot with your eyes closed, try it. It helps some guys feel the shot better.

DAYS 11-20

Shoot blank bale for the first 10 minutes. For the next 20 minutes, alternate every other shot between shooting at the blank bale and shooting at a dot or other small target. Talk to yourself, stating your intentions: Draw, float the pin until it settles, then pull it apart. Even when you're shooting the target, do not aim. If you're in good form, the pin will find the target. Judge your success by how good your form is. Strive for awareness of the forward and backward pressure with your two arms.

DAYS 21-30

Continue to shoot blank bale for the first 10 minutes. Spend the remaining 20 shooting at the target. As long as you're shooting smoothly, stay on the target. You should be settling into a rhythm where the time it takes for the arrow to go off once you begin the shot process--that is, once the pin has settled and you've begun to pull the bow apart--is within a second or so each time. If you find yourself aiming, go back and shoot a couple of shots at the blank bale.