"Buck fever." Just saying those words sends chills down a hunter's spine.
There are those moments in all sports when mind and body melt together into a dynamic unity of concentration and perfection just unfolds. "The zone" some call it.
When you are in it, things seem to slow down, your concentration is flawless, and you effortlessly execute with precision. Then, there are those other times, that often wind up sounding something like this:
"The buck stepped out from behind the tree. My legs and hands were shaking so much the arrow started rattling against the bow. I started to raise the bow and the arrow fell off the rest and onto the ground. The buck stood there looking at me. I just came unglued. When I finally shot, it was two feet over his back."
We all miss on occasion. Game animals are not stationary targets. Branches do get in the way. But, when "buck fever" strikes, it is as if a demon spirit has possessed us.
If there was no excitement in hunting, then it's probably time to hang up the bow or gun. If all you're looking for is excitement, there's always sky diving or bungee jumping.
From a psychological standpoint, buck fever is performance anxiety. It's target panic with a living target.
Based on some three decades of work in the field of sports psychology, the following are some techniques you can use to help turn buck fever into "hunter's high."
Practice helps build confidence in your skills. Practice does make perfect, but repetition alone is not enough. Perfection is rooted in learning to master the skills involved, and that requires self-awareness and self-control.
World-class athletes will tell you that after you are in physical shape and have the fundamentals down, 90 percent of success can be attributed to those areas from the neck up.
The key to consistent peak performance in all sports is not so much willful bearing down, but more attaining a very focused mental state of where execution arises from a decision that seems to happen without thought.
The following are some techniques that may be useful in strengthening your concentration. They also may be helpful for curing "target panic."
1.) Use visual imagery: Extend your arm and ask a friend to push down and test your muscle strength. Resist as they apply downward pressure. Note your strength. This is your baseline reference point.
Now pick a spot on a wall. Extend your arm and direct your hand at that spot. Imagine that a beam of light is flowing from your arm so it hits directly on the spot.
Now ask your friend to pull down on your arm as you keep the imagery in action. Your muscle strength will dramatically increase, but your muscle tension will not.
Take your visualization technique with you when you pick up your bow or gun.
In practice, take a large sheet of cardboard and make a number of small spots, about the size of a half-dollar, with a magic marker.
Now try practicing by never shooting at the same spot twice in any round. Move around the cardboard in different patterns each time. Make yourself concentrate on a new spot each time. Animals are always moving. Get used to having a new target for each shot.
You can also use mental imagery to rehearse making perfect shots. Mental practice sets a pattern of success that carries over into action.
2.) Choose words to increase focus: Many people miss a deer because they use the whole animal as their target. Picking a spot helps narrow focus and improves concentration. To strengthen that intention, select a word that feels appropriate to what you are doing.
"Bull's-eye," "zone" or "jackpot" work for some people. Repeating that word while shooting will drive away useless mental chatter that decreases your ability to be totally focused on what you are doing.
Excitement is good. But if you know it means that it's leading to buck fever, then people may try to block their excitement.
This builds up a vicious spiral of anxiety creating more anxiety that results in poor performance every time. Fear contracts and tightens muscles. Movements become jerky, and anxiety pulls you away from putting all your intention into what you want to do.
Learning to relax at will helps dispel any hindrance of fear in performance. The key to accurate shooting, whether at a target or at a trophy whitetail, is to manage the excitement much like a surfer rides a wave in control.
1.) Learn to control your breathing: Breathing is a physical act that unites mind and body. The respiratory system directly ties into your nervous system.
Breathing changes according to our level of excitement. Learn to control your breathing and you can control your excitement, as well.
Take your pulse before doing this exercise. Now inhale slowly for a count of 4. Then hold your breath for a count of 4, and exhale slowly for a count of 8.
After doing this controlled breath five times take your pulse again. You will see a drop in heart rate. This is a useful method to steady oneself before competition, and for that matter, in any tense life situation, including when a bull elk steps out of the brush 20 yards away.
Many will want to combine their breathing with shooting. For archers, a common rhythm is to inhale slowly on the draw, hold your breath when you are at full draw, and exhale after you have released the arrow.
Put together you focus, imagery and relaxation and practice. Your shooting should improve. The more you can slip into the zone, the better your performance will be.
2.) Enlist a helpful witness: A couple of years ago, when Tom Hanks won his Oscar, he gave credit to his high school drama teacher, Harley Farnsworth.
Hanks said that whenever he acted, he always thought of Farnsworth sitting over in the corner watching him. The image of a wise coach helped him stay in his zone of concentration.
Most of us carry witnesses along with us, whether we are aware of it or not.
The witness can be positive: a coach that helps you to improve your technique or a role model who inspires you.
Or it can be a negative critic that works against your success.
Finding a good witness is an important part of developing a performance skill.
Your choice of a witness is personal. A great archer like Howard Hill or Fred Bear, could be a good witness. Ted Nugent sings about Fred Bear being a witness to his shooting.
Your witness could be a parent, an archer hero, a Zen master or a legendary figure like Robin Hood.
When you go to the range and shoot, the first few times you shoot, be very conscious of your witness.
As you develop a strong awareness of their presence, you will not need to consciously keep focused on them.
Their guidance should become integrated into your shooting, because it is you shooting the arrows for yourself, not for them. Ultimately, you become your own witness.
Exorcising a guilty conscience
Some outstanding target shooters can't seem to hit the broad side of a barn when they go out hunting. Let's face it, some people miss shots at deer or other game animals because they have guilty feelings about killing.
The guilt divides your attention. It acts like a voice over your shoulder saying, "No, don't do it," when you know you should be aiming.
If this is an issue for you, I suggest reading my book "In Defense of Hunting," which has a section devoted to the honest motivational psychology of hunting. Hunting is about taking responsibility for your place in the food chain. It should make you feel honest; maybe humble.
Many people feel a combination of joy and sadness when they kill an animal. Guilt is something you can exorcise before you hunt by planning how you will honor the animal that you shoot.
Shooting in the zone
"The zone" is a state of mind where time seems to slow down and physical performance seems effortless. It is a blend of excitement and relaxation.
If you get "buck fever" know that you are half way there, because you've got the excitement part down. That adrenaline rush is the raw material from which perfect shots are made.
All you have to do now is apply these techniques to bring that excitement under control, much the same way that rider brings a horse under control.
As this happens, your senses will come more alive. Scenes take on freshness and nature becomes more rich and enjoyable. This is what "hunter's high" is all about.
If buck fever hovers around you as you are about to take your shot at that big buck, monster elk, or humongous tom turkey, I've recently produced a 60-minute instructional video, "Conquering Buck Fever." It covers these and a number of other techniques that can be helpful to any shooting sport. It can be ordered through my website at: http://home.attbi.com/~jamesswan/James/buckfever.htm.
James Swan is the author of the book "In Defense of Hunting."