Janet and I entered our room at the Danubius Hotel in St. John’s Wood, London and opened the curtain to a view of the Olympic archery practice range. The first thing I noticed was the wide range of colors: all the individuals in their team uniforms, the white spires on the tent-like resting areas and the lush green grass. Of course, I’m always in awe of the distance they shoot: 70 meters on this range.
All day groups shot and then took the long walk to the targets to pull their arrows and walk back to the shooting line. Some walked alone, head down, likely lost in thought about how they were shooting. Others walked in twos and threes, probably talking about the short time left before they had to shoot for real or, maybe, how someone else was shooting.
In many sports, teams or individuals warm-up separately. Football, hockey, soccer and basketball teams drill on opposite ends of the field. Baseball teams take turns taking infield and batting practice, and golfers warm up with an assortment of shots. Tennis players hit balls to each other, an array of familiar, ritualistic warm-up shots.
A major part of warm-up rituals is the mental game. Some teams actually try to mislead their opponents about who’s active, who’ll play and some teams show an odd formation or two. All players — no matter the sport — flex, strut, and do all they can to intimidate. Aggressive players even throw a few well-chosen words around and some practice the modern art of trash-talking.
In archery, there appears to be no pre-match rituals except that everyone shoots from the same line. Archers spend their warm-up time WITH their competitors; in fact, within a few feet of their opponents. Yet despite the close proximity of all archers, I didn’t see one flex, point, laugh, dramatically pull their bow in a show of strength or even appear to talk. When it came time to retrieve arrows, no one sprinted up to the targets in a show of speed or even ran or jogged to demonstrate confidence. Rather, they all walked at varying speeds, consumed by their thoughts.
Not one archer acknowledged the other archers around them. I believe a few stole a sideways glance at someone else, while pretending to adjust their sight or examine an arrow. This ritual made perfect sense. It doesn’t matter if you have massive muscles or can sprint at world-class speed. It’s about where you shoot your arrows. Putting all of them inside the yellow 10 ring IS intimidating, regardless of whether you’re 5 or 7 feet tall, weigh 100 or 350 pounds, or have tattooed biceps the size of melons.
I thought about some of the greatest athletes in our sporting world – Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, any Hall of Fame baseball player or any Hall of Fame NFL player. They’d wilt if — every minute they were on their field of competition — they HAD to be on their game. In archery, you can’t miss the target and say, “I was getting my back warmed up.” Or spray your arrows all over the target and try to sell the idea that you were “aiming” at all those spots. There’s only one bulls eye and it’s marked with a tiny X.
As Olympic archery competition begins, I’m becoming a proud advocate of archers. These athletes have the mental tenacity, self-awareness and discipline to draw their bows and be judged on the outcome of every arrow released.