Firstpost Masterclass: Atanu Das breaks down the craft of recurve archery
Why is an archer's drawing hand more muscular than other? How many arrows does an archer shoot in a day? What is an anchor point, and why is it crucial? India's top recurve archer, Atanu Das, answers all that and more in Firstpost Masterclass
Editor's note: Professional sport is as much a scientific pursuit as it is a recreational wonder. What appears routinely mundane is a result of the hours spent honing the craft and deciphering the body mechanics till it becomes a monotonous muscle memory. In Firstpost Masterclass, our latest weekly series, we look at precisely these aspects that make sport a far more intriguing act than we know.
Eight hundred arrows. That’s the daily cost an archer pays for perfection. It may not seem like too big a deal, but as any archer will tell you, it’s 800 arrows shot under all sorts of weather conditions, with as much as 30kg of force applied to send the arrow across 70 metres. And then there’s the small matter of the arrows hitting the bulls-eye as well.
This is the world Atanu Das inhabits. India’s only male archer to have competed at the Rio Olympics four years ago has set his sights on the now-deferred Tokyo Olympics next year.
In this edition of Firstpost Masterclass, India’s top male recurve archer breaks down his craft. Excerpts from an interview:
What is the most important quality you need to have to be a good recurve archer?
First of all, you need a lot of confidence. You need to be patient, honest, and be a hard worker. You need to have a single-minded focus. These are just the basics for becoming a good archer.
You mentioned self-confidence and other qualities that a good archer needs. But physically too, the sport demands certain qualities, such as upper-body strength. Could you elaborate on those?
General fitness is crucial in archery because the job involves standing for hours every day, shooting arrows from a bow whose poundage is really high. An archer shoots between 600 to 800 arrows a day (in training) to stay at the top level. And the bow is really heavy as well. This makes your core and back muscles very important. This is a long-term gain. A competition goes on for three to four days. You have to maintain the same energy over these days. So you have to keep repeating that action over these many days. All of these factors make the upper body more critical for an archer. Of course, we also need to work on our lower body. We do a lot of cardio exercises so that we can stay at our best till the last arrow. As an archer, we don’t need too many hours in the gym.
Some time back, Olympic Channel featured you in a series where they analysed your anatomy. There, they found out that there was more lean muscle in your right arm than in your left. Could you tell us a little bit about how archery leaves your body slightly disproportionate? And what do archers do to counter that?
Right-handed archers automatically develop a more muscular right hand because you’re just drawing from one hand. That’s why our drawing arms get strong as opposed to the bow arm. We try and work out in the gym to build the other arm up as well as much as possible. But it is impossible for an archer to have as much muscle in the other arm. We train for as many as eight hours a day. All those hours we’re using our right hand. When we are in the gym, we spend a maximum of an hour there. That’s why there will be a difference in the muscles between an archer’s right and their left hand.
You mentioned that on an average training day you release anywhere between 600-800 arrows. Is that the same across all Indian archers in the Indian team?
Over the world, it’s the same. You need to shoot a minimum of 600 arrows each day. Some days you can maybe shoot 400.
Could you speak about the importance of the follow-through in archery?
A follow-through is highly necessary for an archer. It completes a shot. It’s part of the motion of shooting an arrow. Follow-through is a habit. When we release the arrow, that’s when the follow-through ensures that we maintain our body posture. The idea behind having a uniform follow through for every shot we take is to maintain shooting form. If we don’t have the same follow-through after each shot, there is a chance that when we just about to release we could have some imbalance in our body and our shot could miss the target.
A lot of archery coaches keep stressing on the importance of having a good anchor point (the point where the fully-drawn string of the bow and the archer’s finger touches their face when they are about to release). Why is the anchor point so crucial for an archer?
The stronger your anchor point, the more stability you get while releasing and the better supported your bow hand is. Having a good anchor point is crucial to keep shooting accurately at the bulls-eye.
The anchor point comes into play when you’re aiming and releasing the arrow. At that point an archer needs to summon a lot of physical strength. Archers have to pull the equivalent of 30 kilograms when they’re drawing the arrow. When weather conditions are bad, your shooting gets affected, so you need to call on this strength even more. That’s why your hand needs support which will keep it stable.
Different archers across the world have a different style of drawing the arrow and releasing it as well. You’ll also notice that different archers have different anchor points.
In the bow, what’s the importance of the stabiliser (the rod which juts out from a bow in front)?
It’s essentially adds weight to the bow which helps the bow get stability. It’s very important because the recurve bow jerks a lot upon release. So that stability which comes from the stabiliser.
You spoke of the weather being a factor in archery. When you were competing at the Rio Olympics (in the pre-quarter-finals against Lee Seung-Yun) it was raining at the range. How do you simulate training for these kind of conditions, be it too sunny conditions, or low visibility due to cloud cover, or windy conditions?
I believe that this is a mental set-up primarily. If there’s the wind, it’s windy for both archers. If it’s bad weather, it’s bad for both. We just have to accept it and shoot. No one gets an advantage because of conditions, that’s what I believe. How we try and overcome this in training is by shooting 600 arrows each day in training. We build our experience of reacting to weather conditions also. During these sessions, weather conditions keep changing. With things like wind, it can get very fickle: there are times when we’ve figured out that the wind is blowing in a certain direction, and just as we release the arrow, it changes direction or stops blowing. This happens in a fraction of a second, and there’s nothing really that we can do about it.
You mentioned mental strength is really important in archery. In 2016 you had said in an interview that American psychologist Lorenzo Beltram had had a lot of effect on you. Are you still working with him?
I don’t work with him anymore, but Olympic Gold Quest has provided us with an Indian psychologist, who’s really good. And you see the results he has helped us produce, be it the medal at the World Championships last year or the Asian Championships. This psychologist is also helping us with the same things that Beltram was helping us with. He’s been teaching us how to have an ingrained mental toughness and what kind of thought process we need to follow. It benefitted me a lot like the silver medal at the World Championships proves (which also earned the men’s team Tokyo Olympics 2020 quotas).
In the final of the men’s team event at the 2019 World Championships (in Den Bosch), in the first two sets you had shot 8s with all four of your arrows, then suddenly, you changed something and shot a 10, 10 in the third set. What changed? Was it something that was psychological, or something with your equipment, or your technique?
It was a mixture of everything. There was a bit of psychological fine-tuning also involved. But the weather also played a massive role. The weather at the practice ground we were given ahead of the final and the weather at the venue for the final were very different. That’s why the grouping at the start was bad. We’d done very well at the quarters and the semi-finals of that tournament. Our final wasn’t that good, or else we could have won gold as well.
You mentioned that you shoot as many as 800 arrows daily. During the lockdown when people were confined to their houses, a lot of athletes struggled with training. We saw how shooters were focusing on dry triggering by pointing their weapons at a wall. How did you train, because you are always aiming for a target that’s 70 metres away?
Actually, during lockdown, we were training inside the home on a small target that we have at home. I have had a portable target for many months now which I use when training at home. It’s something you can train over 10m, but you cannot replicate a 70m range inside the house anywhere. We used rubber tubes or therabands to mimic the action of drawing and releasing. Somehow we managed. It’s a little difficult when you’re actual distance is 70m but you’re training over 10m. But we were using it to keep ourselves active.
The South Korean archers are the best in the world, at least when it comes to the women’s events (they have won eight consecutive team golds since the team event was introduced at Seoul 1988). Even in the men’s events, they’re a formidable force. What makes South Korean archers so good?
They start at a very young age, some start when they’re just three years of age. Then they also have a lot of academies or schools where they’re given training since they’re kids. They also have a lot of competitive tournaments held in the country. So from a young age, they’re taught the basics very well.
The other thing that separates the South Korean archers is the coaching they get. Their coaches are very knowledgeable. Since they start so young ― as young as three years of age ― and then keep getting consistent training under knowledgeable coaches, imagine how good they will be by the time they’re just 20 years old. Just as an example, if you have three-four good coaches in India, you’ll find 50 good coaches in South Korea. Their pool of quality archers is very deep. If one archer isn’t performing well, they will be replaced by someone else. They also don’t have to face issues like equipment. All of these factors play a role.
They’re also known to train for competition by simulating conditions, like before Rio 2016, they had trained in baseball stadiums with noisy fans.
They try and recreate the entire tournament experience while they’re preparing for it. They keep experimenting with things. They keep putting their fans to use to help them with training.
You mentioned they get a lot of good training from the age of three itself. When they start that young they also use equipment like smaller bows and have their targets placed much closer.
The kids are first taught to enjoy the sport, and then when they’re five or six years of age, the basics of the sport are instilled in them. Their archers don’t focus on education too much. In India, we have to focus first on studies. I started at the age of 14-15. It takes you a minimum of five years as a recurve archer to understand the basics, fine-tune the technique, and become an archer at a certain level. These things make the South Korean archers stand out. But these days if you look at the level of competition in the world, it’s not that the South Koreans are ahead of everyone. Any archer can beat an archer from a different country on a given day.
US archers have been known to train using infrared cameras in the past, which would just capture and help them understand their form. Have Indian archers done a lot of video analysis in the past, or are they doing it currently?
We do video analysis, but it’s not possible everywhere we train. So wherever possible, we do it. That’s why we sometimes travel abroad to train for 15-day or one-month stints. We learn a lot during such stints.
What kind of things have you learned at these stints abroad? Is there something particularly surprising that you’ve learned at these trips?
I had gone to train in South Korea once to train under their legendary ‘Coach Kim’ (Kim Hyung Tak). He has an academy there. It’s one of the best and the oldest academies of archery. There I learned a lot of things: how to analyse your form yourself; how to use video analysis in your training. If you see, I’ve not had a personal coach since 2013. I do my own analysis. From the South Korean stint, I learned which things to focus on, which things to ignore and how to change things when your scores are not good.
Could you elaborate on what things you should not focus on?
When we’re shooting every day before tournaments, our form will have slight variations. We have to ignore those changes and focus instead on the basic skills of archery. Once you allow even a small iota of negativity to creep in, it’ll completely eat you up.
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