Where I teach at a university, a physical education credit is required for graduation, and one of my classes in archery will satisfy that requirement. Students inevitably sign up because there is an assumption that flinging some arrows is light work compared to, say, swimming laps, weight-lifting, or volleyball… After all, there’s no running or jumping. You just stand there… As a result I tend to get an influx of the most stereotypically un-athletic young adults on campus. They tend toward introversion and awkwardness, but also intellectualism. They’re quiet, thoughtful, analytical, and not used to moving their bodies. Every semester I see a new group of freshmen and think, Yes! These are perfect archers.
Growing up, I did not think I was an archer, despite being immersed in the world of traditional archery. My father was a bowyer and spent a lot of time dragging my family around to midwest bow shoots in the 80s. When I looked around at the other archers at these events, I didn’t see myself (introverted and awkward, intellectual and un-athletic)… Instead I saw big men pulling heavy bows and drinking (note: this was, perhaps, the archery community my father selected, and not necessarily reflective of the community-at-large at the time. Honestly I don’t know).
But there were also no women who came to these events on their own, just a few wives who seemed to tolerate, versus participate, at the shoots. No people of color. Certainly no queer folk. No one like me. I was too weak, too nerdy for my father to invest a lot of time in teaching me to shoot. I plinged some arrows in the backyard, but the message was clear — I was not really an archer.
It wasn’t until I was an adult with children of my own, living in New York, that I started to think about “family traditions” and archery specifically. When Ithaca Archery opened, it opened up a world of archery that I had never known existed. The range was a welcoming, open place where I felt safe going. I was exposed to archery beyond traditional — to nuances of the sport that actually made me an ideal archer in some ways.
By this time, my father was in poor health and spending less and less time in his shop. He liked that I was learning to shoot, though he didn’t understand my interest in the modern recurves… My feelings toward traditional archery softened. He started a bow for me, but never got to finish it. I still have it in my closet, waiting for the day I have some free time and a little sandpaper and Tru-oil.
What I have learned in my own journey as a human, an archer, and coach, is that the world is much larger than one small rural county in Ohio. Who is an archer is a question that can be answered a thousand different ways.
When my students first shoot an arrow, they are almost always disappointed. It’s a strange thing to do the first time! The arrow flies wonky, they don’t get the string back far enough to anchor. They hit the floor or see it fly over the target and catch the curtain. I imagine they wonder what the hell they signed up for and think, this isn’t for me. I’m not an archer.
Here is what I tell them that I wish someone had told me when I was young:
- Expecting to know intuitively how to shoot a bow (as if some ancestral gene awakens when we hook the string!) is not reasonable.
- You can learn the steps of shooting well, but it takes patience, presence, and thoughtfulness.
- Archery is not a game of pulling the heaviest bow.
- Archery is a game of patience, presence, and thoughtfulness. Those who can best integrate feedback, shot after shot, experience the best outcomes.
- Learning to integrate and embody that feedback makes you an athlete. You will become an athlete through archery.
- Your intellect is an asset. Understanding physics and physiology, for example, will unlock the why for your shot process.
- Beyond the science and math, there really is a spark of something — maybe it’s that deep ancestral connection — when you start to play this game and see progress. If you aren’t having fun, you’re not staying present.
This is the tone I set in my classes and with those I coach. I don’t ever want one of my students to feel weak or worthless because they struggle with the resistance of the bow or their focus on the target (I can adapt that).
I don’t want my athletes to look around the room and feel unwelcome, sensing the disdain of other archers. Who you are when you step to the line is irrelevant to the game and anyone policing that isn’t really there to play.
Last year I drove through a blizzard to attend USA Archery’s Indoor Nationals in Massachusetts. I brought my daughter for company and support. I was absolutely delighted to see the diversity of attendees — archers, staff and spectators. She sat in the bleachers and watched me compete, watched the other folks and youth shoot for two days. It was a well-run event and we had a great time despite the snow.
But more important than a memory of a time she did a thing with mom, is that I know that should she ever pick up a bow in the future, she will be able to see herself as an archer.