There is an affliction so feared by elite archers
that many in the sport refuse to even say its name. Archery coaches who
specialize in treating the problem are sworn not to reveal the identities of
archers in its grip, even though they estimate that 90 percent of high-level
competitors will fall victim at least once in their careers.
Target panic, as the condition is known, causes
crack shots to suddenly lose control of their bows and their composure.
Mysteriously, sufferers start releasing the bow the instant they see the
target, sabotaging any chance of a gold-medal shot. Others freeze up and cannot
release at all. Target panic is akin to the yips in baseball and golf, when
accomplished athletes can no longer make a simple throw to first base or stroke
an easy putt.
The results can be mortifying, and archery is
filled with tales of those who have caught the curse, never to shoot again. The
problem has spawned a cottage industry of coaches, books and specialized
accessories that claim to cure target panic.
“It’s devastating,” said Terry Wunderle, a
professional archery coach whose son, Vic, is an archer on this year’s United
States Olympic team.
“For someone who has a good case of target panic, I
could offer them a thousand dollars if they would just pull the bow back and
let the pin float over the bull’s-eye,” Wunderle said, referring to the way
archers let their arrows gently bob as they wait for the perfect shot. “I
guarantee you, I would not lose the thousand dollars. They can’t do it.”
Few admit to being sufferers themselves. “Most
shooters will deny that they have it,” said Len Cardinale, an archery coach who
said he had treated “hundreds and hundreds” of cases of target panic since the
1970s. “It’s more convenient to say they need a new bow, they have to switch
arrows or stand differently.”
Wunderle, who himself admitted to battling target
panic from time to time, would not reveal whether any of the Olympic archers he
coached had faced target panic. “I would not say it if I knew it,” said
Wunderle, who also did not want his son interviewed on the subject with the
Beijing Olympics a week away. “It’s like being an alcoholic. They don’t say
much about it. They don’t fess up to it.”
Although few academic studies have been conducted
on target panic, several sports psychologists said the condition was nearly
identical to the much-analyzed yips in golf and other sports. Ben Hogan and Lee
Trevino were notorious sufferers; so was Chuck Knoblauch, the former Yankees
second baseman who discovered he could no longer throw to first base. Some say
Shaquille O’Neal’s dismal free-throw record is due to a case of the yips.
While nearly everyone agrees that the problem is
primarily psychological, the latest research suggests that, in some cases, the
problem might also be neurological. Sufferers might actually have a disorder
known as focal dystonia, a common affliction of musicians caused when the
neurons that guide a particular movement — be it aiming a bow or sinking a putt
— become worn from overuse.
“It’s like a
hiccup in the wrist,” said Aynsley M. Smith, research director of the Mayo Clinic Sports
Medicine Center, which has conducted three studies on the yips in golf since
2000. Her research, as well as that of a team from New Zealand, has concluded
that there are two types of yips — one that is purely psychological and another
that is primarily neurological. In both cases, two opposing muscle groups
contract at the same time, leading to what Smith and other sport scientists
call a “double pull.”
Even those with a neurological disorder can develop
anxiety that makes the problem worse, said Robert Bell, a sports psychologist
at Ball State University who specializes in golf. “It kind of gets into the
mind that this could happen, and that’s where the anxiety and the stress come
in,” he said.
One of the worst cases of target panic that
Wunderle treated was in 16-year-old Joey Hunt.
Hunt, who has been shooting archery “just about my
whole life,” competes with a compound bow, which uses pulleys and levers to
flex the bow back compared with the recurve bow used in the Olympics.
When Hunt was 9 or 10, he discovered he had lost
his preternatural ability to send arrows thunking into the target’s gold
“I would start to bring the bow down, and as soon
as it got anywhere near the target, I would click it right off, right then and
there,” said Hunt, who lives in Minot, Me. “It just takes over your mind, and
it’s hard to concentrate on other parts of shooting.”
Target panic, also known as gold fever because
sufferers become obsessed with hitting the gold center, is rich in lore, and
online message boards are filled with cautionary testimonials from those who
have had the disease.
draw the bow without the arrow and had no trouble holding on the dot at all,”
wrote a victim on the message board at archerytalk.com, referring to
aiming at the center of the target. “But put an arrow on the string and Satan
himself was holding it off … strange stuff some of us endure to play this
Lanny Bassham, a former Olympic rifle shooter and
mental coach whose clients include the Olympic archer Brady Ellison, said the
archery community had a peculiar obsession with target panic, which he noted
had a horrifying ring.
“The words target panic have induced an unnecessary
amount of severity and concern about this condition among archers,” he said. “I
think if they had a better word for it, they’d have a lot less problem trying
to cure it.”
Many archers and their coaches refuse to say target
panic. Those words are forbidden around the Nichols household, which is home to
the Olympic archer Jennifer Nichols and her younger sister, Amanda, also a world-class
“We try to
stay away from the labels that are put on things by people in the archery
industry because once you feel you’ve got that label, it’s hard to stay away
from it,” said their father, Brent Nichols. “We don’t want to hear those
Theories vary on how to cure target panic. Some
switch their shooting hand, or change their grip slightly — techniques that
have also proved successful in golf. Others use visualization techniques and
Wunderle advises his clients to imagine seeing and
feeling what a good shot is, without focusing on aiming the arrow.
“Do not focus on results,” he said. “When you focus
on results, it builds anxiety. And anxiety is the kiss of death.”
One of the most popular cures is to entirely remove
the target. Sufferers instead practice shooting at a blank target, sometimes
for weeks at a time, to retrain the mind.
“The empty bale restores your confidence in your
subconscious,” said Bernie Pellerite, author of the book “Idiot Proof Archery”
and a self-described expert on target panic. “Nobody flinches or punches or
chokes on an empty bale.”
Hunt spent weeks shooting at blank targets, but he
also purchased a special release for his bow, which helped retrain him when to
“It’s trying to engrave in your head when you
should shoot,” he said. “You just pull it back, let the safety off, and pull it
until it decides to go. Then you get used to every shot being perfect.”
Hunt placed second in his age group at the Junior
Olympic Archery Development national championships in Oklahoma City earlier
this month. His target panic, he said, had been cured.
Thanks to Michael Leach’s daughter for the tip on this article which features in the New York Times.