I’ve been writing about archery for five years now, but recently, not doing very much of it at all. I wrote a while ago about trying to improve, before I got reminded of my status at the Lausanne Archery Classic. That’s all changed in 2017. I’ve caught the bug again.
I know most of you out there are archers of one stripe or another, and if you are, you’ve probably run through the same gamut of emotions that everybody else has had. Incredible urges to go out and shoot, to get better, to master it. Getting home from a bad shooting session in a foul mood and throwing your bow into a cupboard for several weeks, or months – or even years. Sessions where you surprised yourself with inner strength and confidence. Sessions where you couldn’t hit a barn door if they stood it up in front of you. Fun sessions. Boring sessions. And everything in-between.
I spent 2015 and 2016 doing scrappy, occasional hobby shooting at my club. Stick-flinging, in the British parlance, capped by a disastrous short metric competition at our local rivals last summer where I abandoned the last few ends rather than put any more arrows in the green.
I realised that I needed to start from scratch. It was pointless to continue as I was without coaching, without structure – which raised another problem. I live in London, which is great for many things in life but isn’t the focus of archery in the UK, which is centred (roughly) on the Midlands.
Greater London boasts at least twelve archery clubs, but not a single archery shop. The slim margins and the need for a large range space preclude it, despite the fact that the demand to learn archery in London, since the post Hunger Games / London 2012 boom, has long outstripped the supply – the beginner’s courses at our club were booked up for two years in advance at one point. There are just a tiny handful of qualified coaches in the city, and most of them are busy or available only sporadically.
Indeed, getting to higher levels in archery is something of a postcode lottery in Britain. You need to be lucky enough to be near a coach or a club with a deep tradition of coaching and someone with the time and energy to take you on. Good luck. Ultimately, the majority of archers after completing a beginner’s course are left to fend for themselves with a mix of the odd half-coaching session and ad-hoc advice sourced from club members, books and videos, and the internet. A handful each year go to the open residential courses at Lilleshall. Imagine if you had completed a six-week beginner’s judo course, graduated, and were sent on your way with a: “Great. Now go and make it to black belt on your own.” That’s the reality of archery tuition for most of the UK.
Luckily, someone finally realised the pent-up demand for archery in the capital and opened, in 2015, the wonderful Archery Fit in Greenwich, on the river east of the city centre. It is the first and so far the only dedicated commercial indoor range in the country where you can book a slot any time they are open, and they provide something else which is almost unique in the UK: bookable coaching, usually in small groups of just two or three.
Roman and Kate, the transplanted Russians who built and run Archery Fit, aren’t keen on stick-flinging. Everyone who comes to the club gets taken under their wing, but it’s very clear this is not the casual, pinging-away pastime atmosphere of many UK clubs. It’s a place to learn how to be an archer. In a gleaming, modern basement with plenty of light and space, they have built a club with atmosphere and style. There is an emphasis on formal, well-trained shooting with full warmups, but they’ve managed to keep a sense of humour about the place too.
By accident or design, there’s a lot of recurve barebows around, although beginners are encouraged to try all bowstyles. It’s seen a few luminaries since it’s been open: Vic Wunderle, whose shirt now hangs on the wall, and Natalia Avdeeva have made appearances. There’s a strong community spirit, and all levels at the place made a successful trip to the indoor nationals last year. I love my club and I’ll be there forever, but I feel like I’m part of this place now too.
I have a coach. It feels odd just saying it. Kate Zalyubovskaya is a former Russian national champion. There is no doubt about what needs to be done. She saw what I had brought, and shook her head. Since December, she has rebuilt my recurve shot from a hotpotch of inherited ideas and oh-maybe-I’ll try-this into a formal, strong, upright delivery. There’s no hiding place. She spots everything; the tucking in of the head, a push out of the chest, even the tiniest pop of the fingers on release. Nothing is missed. I’m getting used to the wry smiles, and the cries of “elbow… head… focus…hold it!”.
Better than that, with regular coaching I’m starting to figuring out what could be wrong before the arrow has left the bow; coming down and resetting rather than just letting it fly. The more garbage shots you can leave on the line, the better.
There’s some way to go, but I no longer feel like I’m struggling with the bow, like it’s something I can’t control. The draw is starting to feel like I’m charging something with magic. The fourth or fifth arrow in a training end is still clumsy, but the first three are starting to fly confidently, with a snap. There are few things more satisfying than a consistent strong draw, releasing with confidence and hitting something like the mark, and the cyclical building of confidence that comes with that.
More than that: I want to go and shoot now. I want to be there. I see it coming closer now. Being an archer, without that sense of feeling like an imposter. I know I’m not Tokyo 2020 material, but there’s some other goals that could be set. I’m not even scoring yet – coach says that’s further down the line – but I’m kind of itching to start. It’s part of me again, and you can take the confidence away with you. It’s something even more special that I remembered.