Target Practice: How the U.S. Became an Archery Power

Hint: Think red, white and blue

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Ben Curtis / AP

U.S. Olympic archer Brady Ellison trains at the 2012 Summer Olympics, Saturday, July 21, 2012, in London.

Quick — can you name the top archery nation in the world? Great Britain, perhaps, if you’re thinking of Robin Hood and his merry band of Sherwood Forest shooters. Or China, since they’re good at pretty much everything. (And no, the Hunger Games’ Panem doesn’t count.)

What about the US, and, in close second, South Korea. Yes, that’s right — the United States of America is the leading nation in archery, and has been since 2008, according to the World Archery Federation, which ranks countries based on how athletes finish in international competitions.

How did the US get to the top of the archery heap? While The Hunger Games has certainly helped to boost interest in the sport — participation in junior development clubs in the US jumped by 75% in the past few years, and searches for ‘archery’ continue to surge by as much as 32% in recent months  — the buildup actually began years ago, when Ki Sik Lee was hired as the national head coach. Korean by birth, Lee was recruited from Australia, where he had been lured to refashion the national program Down Under.

American archers have long excelled at shooting, but with a compound bow that’s entirely different from that used in Olympic eligible competition. At the Games, athletes shoot with a recurve bow, which comes without the magnified sites and the weight-distributing system that lightens some of the load on archers as they pull the bow back. (Compound bow hunters compete in 3D shooting events throughout the US for considerable prize money, but recurve competitions aren’t as lucrative.)

With so many talented compound shooters, though, USA Archery began asking why the US couldn’t nurture an Olympic-caliber cadre. Lee was brought on to do just that, and in London, we’ll see the fruits of his unique training program, which has been responsible for grooming US archers for the past six years. Brady Ellison, an early student of Lee’s who switched from compound bows to recurve, is the #1 ranked male recurve archer in the world, and will shoot for gold against South Korean Im Dong Hyun, who competes despite being legally blind. New to the recurve format during the Beijing Games, Ellison says this time, he’s shooting for the right to call himself an Olympic champion. “In the last four years, I’ve shot at every tournament I could think of, and gotten international experience so I’ve learned the bow and my body a lot better,” the Arizona native says. “Every single shot I’ve taken in practice has been toward that gold medal.”

USA Archery is hoping Ellison’s quick rise and performance at the Olympics will get more youngsters eager to shoot like Brady. And thanks to Lee’s strategy, which the federation has now adopted as the National Training System, the sport will be ready for the new entrants.

After training athletes in Korea, where the archery program’s driving philosophy is ‘the more the better’ when it comes to arrows shot, Lee realized that the system wasn’t sustainable, because it caused too many injuries. He came up with a new training program, he says, to reduce the amount of strain on athletes who were shooting as many as 600 or more arrows a day. He consulted with scientists who understood the biomechanics of how the body works, and how muscles, tendons and joints respond to stress, to devise a new method that alleviated the strain on vulnerable muscles and instead exploited the body’s stronger joints. Watch Ellison line up for his shot and you’ll see he pulls the bow back by keeping his elbow in alignment with his target, which creates an angle that provides more stability to the shoulder and allows the shooter to make a cleaner, truer shot at the bullseye. By aligning the relevant moving parts, the archer reduces the chance that a stray movement will pull the arrow off course. “With this holding technique, you have a bigger window to hit your goal comfortably,” says Lee. Essentially, “the shooter can store more energy in his body than when he is shooting by hand.”

The more solid set up also means that US archers can use a bow that is four to five times heavier than the standard 50 or so pound bow that most competitors use. The heft can provide additional stability for shots, further improving US archers’ odds of hitting their mark. “Archery shooting should not be by hand, but should use more of the body, or back tension,” says Lee.

Translated into lay speak, that means a practically unbeatable way of slinging an arrow. “It starts with the way archers stand, the way they hold their posture, with a flatter back so you use stronger muscles to shoot the bow, and use your bone structure to support the shot,” says Teresa Iaconi, marketing director for USA Archery and a certified national training system coach. Iaconi admits that at first, “I was one of the coaches that poo-poo’d [Lee’s] method. “I couldn’t understand it.”

Lee says it wasn’t easy to convince coaches who had been teaching the same archery technique from centuries ago, focusing on shooting from the hand, rather than exploiting the entire body. Shooting techniques, he says, haven’t changed much since the days of Robin Hood, as coaches taught mostly by instinct and experience, rather than an understanding of the science of arrow flight. “Before coach Lee, I hadn’t seen anything that was based in science in teaching archery,” says Iaconi. Which only made Lee’s job harder. “If I wasn’t so convinced about my philosophy,” he says, “I probably would have cried every day. It was really painful at times, arguing with people.”

Doing is better than talking, however, so all it took for coaches like Iaconi was a workshop where Lee explained his biomechanics-based technique, and allowed them to try it for themselves. He had written a book on his theories, but without seeing it executed, it was hard to convince coaches it was worth a try. Before Lee was hired, USA Archery didn’t have a formal technique, but adopted a catch-as-catch-can approach where former competitive archers passed along their experience and strategies to shooting hopefuls. “I said we needed a system, and we needed to develop a coaching system more widely to educate the coaches,” Lee says.

“Now, people are talking about why the Americans are shooting differently. Before they didn’t care what we did, because Americans weren’t at a high level internationally. But now that we are #1, they are looking at why,” he says. And in London, all eyes will indeed be on the US, to see if the new system really hits the target.