(this diary was originally four separate posts, they are now condensed into this single one)
So me, The Colonel and Yowza blast up the M1 on a beautiful spring day to the depths of the Black Country. We are here to attend Archery GB’s Personal Performance course at Lilleshall in Shropshire, a boot camp in archery that has been running in one form or another since the 1950s. Anyone is welcome, of any standard, as long as you are an Archery GB member and have been shooting for at least six months. There are two flavours of course a few times a year; some a week long. This is the weekender, three days spread over four, and our fee includes accommodation and breakfast, lunch and dinner each day.
Lilleshall Hall itself is the former seat of the Duke Of Sutherland, a 19th century Tudor Gothic pile surrounded by formal gardens, acres of hunting, stables and all the glorious trappings of the Georgian era. Shortly after WW2 it was purchased with South African money and bequeathed to the nation as a national sports centre. Long associated with football – its finest hour was as the training base for the 1966 England World Cup squad – the FA finally packed up and left at the end of the 1990s and it is now the home of Archery GB, the national governing body, and the associated Performance Unit to train international and Olympic archers. It shares the place along with Gymnastics GB, junior rugby squads, medical facilities, a rehabilitation centre for injured soldiers, conferences, weddings, and God knows what else. The management of the place was offloaded to Serco a few years ago, which has resulted in a canteen that wouldn’t be out of place in a Travelodge sporting a formal fireplace with two entwined ‘S’s, the Duke’s signature. The hall and gateway guarded by lions are now surrounded by buildings of varying hideousness, although our rooms in the newly refurbished Queen’s Hall are actually rather good for the money.
It’s a good place for getting some work done – it’s almost impossible to get a mobile phone signal anywhere on the site, which is now extremely rare in Britain. I, to my shame, have picked up 3G three-quarters of the way up Pike O’Stickle in the remote, glacially carved Langdale valley in the Lake District. Here, I can’t even send a text over breakfast, although there is patchy wifi.
We are early, and wander out and look at the elite facilities including the 90m outdoor range on a former artificial football pitch, bought off the FA. The long Sutherland Hall you can see in the background, where we will spend most of our time, once permitted 90m shooting indoors, but now has a gym at one end and only allows 70m.
After dinner, we have our first meeting. There is no shooting this evening. We are issued nametags making liberal use of Comic Sans. There are twenty of us; two compounds, two longbows (husband and wife) and sixteen sighted recurves. The first night lays out what to expect in the next few days, and introduces the curious mix of boot camp and school sports day. All the staff are volunteers, their advice was almost uniformly excellent, and they were friendly, genial and entirely approachable at all times. I have some criticisms of the course which I will explain over the next few days, but none are aimed personally at all. So I am going to refer to all six coaches as just Staff, which does a disservice to a wide range of personalities. It seems the only fair way to go about things.
“Coaching starts at 8.30 each day and goes on till 8.30 at night with breaks for meals. This is not a holiday camp (you ‘orrible little lot) this is a place for training. Breakfast is at 7.30, you should be in line by 7.15. Archers are not late for breakfast. You shoot recurve, compound, longbow? Doesn’t matter. The course is the same whatever.” This is all fine by me. I’m here to learn. But I’m still thinking of Sergeant Hartman’s monologue in Full Metal Jacket, delivered in a soft Black Country accent.
Most importantly, “We are using the Korean coaching system.” Over this pretty corner of the Midlands, built at a time when England ruled the world, hangs the long shadow of Korea, the most successful and feared recurve archery nation for decades. Over thirty nations round the world use South Korean coaches for their elite archery squads (Team GB used to, but no longer) and the biomechanical approach has been adopted around the world. “The Korean coaching system” also has resonances of simplicity, brutal training regimes, and a level of physical punishment long unacceptable in the non-Asian West . One exported Korean coach, probably the most famous in the world, got into serious trouble for slapping a junior archer when his parents threatened to sue. One of the Staff relates a tale of another senior Korean archer who was deaf in one ear from being cuffed round the head by a coach. The philosophies, the techniques, the slides and even some of the handouts are Korean – although interestingly, they may have taken some of them from both American and British pioneers in the 1960s and 70s, and added the biomechanical approach that has revolutionised archery teaching.
All of us are roughly a similar standard, mostly shooting between six months and a few years. A few stand out as better. But we are all keen. And we are all ready. Staff will take care of us.
I get to breakfast at 7.35. That’s one rule broken already. Breakfast here every day is an entirely standard service-station buffet job; average sausage, worse bacon, beans, eggs, tomato and slightly underdone toast, plus porridge and fruit. There is juice, and passable coffee from a machine. We go and get our bows and wander down the steps towards Sutherland Hall, crunching through the rose tunnel, past the formal gardens with the songbirds going full pelt and the sunlight glinting off the gables. It really is very pretty in the morning.
We set up, warm up, and begin indoor shooting, untrained and uncoached. What we brung. Bosses up at 10, 30, 40 and 50 metres. One by one, we are called up to one end of the hall where three blank bosses have been arranged at three points of the compass, with a video camera at the fourth. Shirts off for boys, girls are spared. All feeling rather vulnerable, we shoot two arrows at each boss so the video camera records each of us from the back, the front and the rear, while Staff take notes. After half a morning, we’ve all had our close-up, and troop into the seminar room where the video is played back and our errors (don’t say faults) are examined in gruesome detail. All of us, watching everybody else shoot, one by one. The system includes some handy tools to examine video; a tool to measure the angle of your rear elbow, a grid to divine how far off the vertical your torso or spine might be leaning, amongst others. It takes nearly twenty minutes to examine, in excruciating detail, the first victim, and the second not much less. One by one, we are all dissected, in a brutally matter-of-fact way.
It’s long after lunch before they get to me, and already I pretty much know what they are going to say. My front (left) shoulder is way too high, my torso is leaning backwards, my head is just plain wrong, my release looks floppy and weak, the string is contacting my chest (changing the bow tiller), and there’s no back tension to speak of. I look awful, and I feel worse – although I am cheered by the fact that pretty much everybody else is suffering from a similar range of faul… sorry, errors. The most endemic problems among us include poor stance (not wide enough), leaning away from the bow, shoulders rising, and bad shoes. Yes, shoes. There’s a LOT of chat about shoes.
Ultimately, most of the problems with novice archers are postural. In Korea, kids who want to learn archery don’t pick up a bow for six months. The first lessons are with sticks and stretch bands, teaching how to stand and draw, where the muscles should and shouldn’t be, draw force triangles, the first principles, the raw mechanical meat of putting the body under load. Here, we start shooting and carry on, mostly. There is archery training, but no basic training, and it is immensely easy for the body to follow the path of least resistance, when it is vital to impose discipline on it from the start. The laws of physics do not change, but your scapula movement can.
Everyone is a bit exhausted from the video carnage, but we pick up our bows and get to work, shooting at blank bosses sideways across the hall from about seven metres, as we will do for most of the rest of the weekend. And here the magic begins. In pairs, we gradually, slowly carefully begin to work on everything we have learnt, as Staff wander among us and give advice. Me and Yowza alternately watch each other shoot eight arrows keeping an eye on specific things each time. Your shoulder is moving. Your hips are leaning forward on the later arrows. You are canting the bow. Gradually fixing things. A lot of things, in my case. I am changing everything, starting with a simpler step in the cycle; not really a pre-draw, just a little outward push to try and settle the shoulder in its socket before raising into position. Simpler, easier.
I am concentrating incredibly hard on trying to position my body in the correct position at the start of the shot cycle, weight forward on the feet, spine vertical, shoulders relaxed and forward, no hollow in the back, core slightly engaged but relaxed, arse in, knees unlocked… the list is endless. My stance has changed too; am eliminating all variations of open I’ve tried and going with classical Korean closed. To automate all of this is going to take a lot of effort. But we watch each other, and we all chat, and we shoot, and you can feel the mood improving in the room. Fixing it. Fixing it all. We carry on shooting until I notice that everyone has left for dinner. Flowing.
There are other diversions. Staff makes a bowstring right in front of us in what seems like seconds. In one of the glorious fusions between the archaic and the modern that makes archery so enjoyable, he uses a Flemish weave (a technique hundreds, possibly thousands of years old) on a string constructed from Dyneema in yarn form, a ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene. Coated in beeswax. There is advice on the importance of making your own strings, which I appreciate, but I fear the length of time involved to become competent at this kind of ropework.
The day’s work ends with a discussion on the importance of blank-boss shooting; shooting without a target and ultimately, without your eyes. Focusing on a particular part or step of the shot cycle each time, with intensity. There is a lengthy handout, plus more Korean chat. “Korean women are better than the men because they listen” and the deathless “If the Koreans don’t do it, you don’t do it.” We hit the bar and talk about what we have achieved. We test out some iPad software and think of plans to bring back to our clubs. Feeling pretty good. As they say in Korea, 좋은 하루 되세요.
Breakfast. Coffee. Shooting. Improving. The cycle goes on. The morning session is mostly about bow tuning. A4 targets go up at 20 yards, bows hit the back of chairs, the tools come out, and a lot of squinting starts going on.
I haven’t rechecked ‘my‘ bow for a while, to my shame. The long rod appears pretty straight with the arrow-down-the-riser test, and the limbs are in line. However the tiller is completely out, by an embarrassing degree, which I now realise accounts for the weird weight reading last time I was in the archery shop. They recommend five mill difference. I go for two. Set the button, but the bareshaft test reveals that the ACC arrows are performing way too stiff, so I swap out my low-weight SF ‘form’ limbs for the 38# Uukhas and recheck. The arrows come back into the group when I start winding them all the way in, but 38# plus whatever I can screw out of the Hoyt Matrix is at the limit of what I can handle and keep form. I wind them back out again and go and check the weight on the scary-looking meat scale hanging up in the video shed at the bottom of the hall, and they are bang on 35#. I’ll work with that for now, with slightly stiff arrows, and hope to crank up the poundage over the summer to get more distance, or cast, as I learn it should be known.
I learn a few more things. Paper tuning is not for recurves, apparently (the compounders get busy though). Spin wings might actually be complete bunk and no better than normal vanes; according to some work done in (where else?) Korea. Apparently there is a complex ballistics issue – lighter objects like arrows need to spin at thousands of rpm to be fully stabilised in flight, rather than the three or so spins you might get before an arrow strikes at 70m. There is another string making demonstration, too. I get even more nervous about trying it. Later, there is an extensive seminar about elite-level equipment practices. Turns out the one critical piece of archery gear none of us yet own is a set of micro-measuring scales. Amongst much else, we find out that different colour plastics (nocks, vanes and the like) to the same design and from the same manufacturer weigh significantly different amounts and flex differently.
We sneak out for a look at the outdoor field, where a field of compounds are doing trials for squad, shooting at 50m. Impressively, Andrea Gales and Danielle Brown, two of the top compounders in Britain, are shooting with them (in the foreground above). Danielle, twice a gold medal Paralympian for Team GB, has a groovy Union Jack scooter for getting back and forth to the target, which strangely reminds me of the days of Cool Britannia. Something of the Gallaghers about it.
We all go to lunch. There’s two techniques for not having to queue for your food here; either turn up ten minutes early, or go half an hour after service has started. The worst scenario possible is arriving just seconds after the Leeds Rhinos junior rugby squad. Today is roast pork, probably the best dinner of the weekend. There’s even crackling. After lunch there is a seminar on mental techniques, which contains a lot of complicated, useful information about subconscious training, visualisation, goal setting, affirmations, and even NLP and the like, all boiled down to an hour’s PowerPoint. Lots and lots of good material, some of which I am familiar with, but unfortunately covered much too quickly. You could work on all of those for days each. Perhaps the week-long course attendees get a bit more on this stuff.
Back to shooting work. Despite the “blank” boss (not one of us raises a bow towards an actual target face all weekend) I cannot resist shooting at the lines between the Danage squares, and I now seem to be able to find them at seven metres. Push slightly in on the pre-draw – not much, just enough to push the shoulder in, then bring the whole shebang up. Don’t puff up your chest military style, imagine a rope pulling up from the back of your neck… all in order that you don’t pull the string into the chest, but slightly past it. As relaxed as possible. Right arm fully relaxed. The hinge. Oh, it never bloody stops. So much to work on and assimilate. But there’s another magic hour or two, sharing ideas, a sense of improvement, attention, focus, flow… time just breezed by. I try shooting eyes-closed at a blank boss, but found it difficult and a bit worrying. That needs a bit of work, definitely. But the week’s shooting is starting to take its toll on my body. My finger has started developing a blood blister behind the callous. Yeurgh. Back hurts, too. Ow. A long, extremely hot bath helps.
After dinner, there’s a slightly slow seminar about shooting in extreme conditions. Should have stayed in the bar and watched the football. Last day tomorrow. As they say in Korea, 하나님을 감사 합니다…
Last day. I wake up creaking and knackered even after eight and a half hours sleep, in contrast to the hordes of bright young Team GB squad gymnasts at breakfast. I am nursing a twitching lower back, a still gruesome looking finger, and aching shoulders and wrist, and end up going to training half an hour late. There isn’t much structure for today; we get down to the hall and get on with supervised shooting as each of us is recalled, one by one, for further video analysis. To me it certainly seems like my shooting is improving hugely. Everything critical seems to be heading in the right direction – stance, back, that forward roll of the ribcage, hand position on bow, string clearance from chest, release (perhaps the biggest improvement of the weekend), and even a semblance of follow through and proper back tension and scapula movement (areas that are still very much work in progress.) The Colonel and Yowza are showing similar improvements and solidity. Plus my bow is working and sounding and shooting great.
In between ends, I wander out to the Performance Unit field. All seems quiet compared to yesterday, but there is a target up at 70m. The door is open, and I wander through to see where the Olympic-level magic happens. Guess what: it’s a big shed full of tools and targets. On the other side, Lloyd Brown and Michael Peart are coaching a young, shaved-headed recurve archer and a wheelchair shooter. As yesterday with the compound archers, the PA system is on, tuned to Absolute 80s radio – presumably, as yesterday, to add a audible distraction to be overcome. So the coaching of whoever this bright young chap is on this spring morning is done to the sound of Wishing I Had a Photograph Of You and Wuthering Heights. I’m guessing they don’t do this in you-know-where. It did occur that if you want to simulate the distractions of a crowd, why not play back crowd noise on the range? Surely that’d be more realistic than trying to shut out Hungry Like The Wolf for the third time that morning?
I am also a bit surprised to find out that the elite-of-the-elite of GB recurve, some of whom will be representing their country in Rio, record their golds in a row and the like on a wallchart next to their first names with a little gold star. Just like school. Junior school. You’ve done well this week, so you can have a Mars bar. I well appreciate the purpose of having this public display but the associations seem a bit, well, junior – maybe even juvenile. Do they do that in Korea? Dunno. Hey, maybe they do.
Back out on the field later, all is quiet again. The afternoon is overcast. A few birds twit. A sign off the end of the range creaks in the wind like a hangman’s gibbet, adding to the deserted feel. Creak, squirr. The little thud of an arrow fired from inside the shed hitting a Danage boss set up metres outside it. I don’t know who is shooting. Danielle Brown still? The creaking sign. Creepy. Another tiny, scary little thud. Darkening sky. I watch Lloyd Brown slowly drag himself up the stairs to the field like a boy creeping unwillingly to school. This is weird. Welcome to Team GB. Then I remember; the reality for elite level sports – all of them – is getting outside whatever the weather, day after day, year after year, and always, always, putting in the work.
I shoot some more, and finally get my turn for a second video analysis, and am thoroughly annoyed to come into the darkened seminar room to find out that the most glaring problem from the first video session is still there; my front shoulder, poking up out of line an inch above its correct position from the back like some kind of deltoid molehill. The little bastard. Now, however, instead of leaning away from the target I am leaning slightly towards it. Overcompensating. The lean, according to Staff, is actually causing the shoulder rise. This is deflating and annoying, because it’s something I thought I had fixed, or almost fixed. Turns out, as I started getting some other plates spinning, a couple of earlier ones fell off. But the overall impression of the video, I liked. It looked like I was making a shot. I looked like an archer. Back muscles were starting to move. A lot of it looked… good, dammit. Staff will post me a DVD of my video analysis for a fiver. I decide to pass.
The day ends late and chaotically. More handouts, including a slightly terrifying page about weight training from a Korean archery manual. Feedback forms, thanks and goodbyes, and we hit the road back to London. Everyone seems a bit exhausted, and reeling from the amount of information processed. There’s a great deal to absorb in just a few days. But I feel elated at being on the right path at last. I feel like I’ve wandered out of a dark room.
I have a few niggles. My main criticism of the course is that slightly too much time was wasted in the seminar room. Sometimes things moved at a fairly ponderous pace, and way too much time was spent on questions and interruptions. A couple of aspects of the material were geared to elite-level archery; while most things were interesting, I suspect an even more rigorous focus on getting the basics right would be better. When shooting we used a common shooting line which stretched fifty metres down the hall; this caused lengthy delays in collecting while people were being coached and the usual whistle rule wasn’t always observed – I should stress that I didn’t see anything even approaching ‘dangerous’ happening, but I think the hand fell off the tiller a bit. I would have liked a little more time spent on the second video analysis session – I was seen almost last, and only got a couple of minutes with Staff as time was running so short. (If you are doing this course, get in the queue to be filmed first). Lastly, the food was upmarket school dinners with a few bright spots. I think a full week of it would have really grated on me – your mileage may vary. The rooms we stayed in, the setting and the company was, however, a delight.
But if you need your archery fixed, it works. I should also mention the fairly extraordinary aftercare: free remote follow-on coaching, as you need it. Free, gratis, and for nothing. There were a few really inspiring collective moments over the weekend. The best bits were worth it.
Thanks especially to The Colonel and Yowza, and everybody else I met and enjoyed their company. As they say in Korea,다음에 또 봐요.