On Being a Passionate Beginner

The following was adapted from a post on my old Savvy Technologist blog for the December 2016 newsletter of the Minnesota Association of School Administrators.

I read an article by Microsoft researcher Bill Buxton a few years ago that has stuck with me ever since. In his article entitled How To Keep Innovating, Buxton advocates for staying fresh in your professional calling by pursuing your passions outside of work.

Specifically, he recommends (quoting the article):

  • Always be bad at something that you are passionate about.
  • You can be everything in your life—just not all at once.
  • When you get good at one skill, drop another in which you have achieved competence in order to make room for a new passion at which you are—yet again—bad.
  • Life is too short to waste on bad teachers and inefficient learning.
  • Remember: You can learn from anyone.

Are you comfortable being a beginner? Perhaps, like me, you’ve had the good fortune to have one of your personal passions turn into your career (technology in my case). However you’ve landed in your position as an education leader, chances are good that you feel a certain amount of mastery in your work. It’s all the more important, then, to find something you are passionate about and at which you are still a novice.

My latest adventure with being a novice began approximately 3½ years ago when I took up competitive target archery. My son was a beginning archer then, and it became apparent almost immediately that doing archery is much more fun than watching archery. Since I began my journey as an archer I’ve met amazing people; competed in archery events with some of the best archers in the world; reconnected with the teacher in me by coaching at a local club; utilized my leadership skills to make an impact in a statewide archery organization; and developed new appreciation for goal setting, the pursuit of perfection, the importance of practice, and the connection between achievement and the mind. And to think I got all of that from deciding one day to try something new.

The dictionary definition of novice speaks of being a beginner or learner. That sounds great in theory, but in practice, being a novice is often uncomfortable and frustrating for someone who is accustomed to feeling competent in his or her day job. Breaking out of your cocoon of competence is an act of vulnerability and a great way to build empathy for students and staff. If I begin to feel impatient at work when coaching a staff member who is working on building skill in an area where I have a lot of experience, it helps me to remember the current struggle I’m having with my archery form or that arrow that just barely missed scoring a 10 during my last competition.

This summer I took my department managers for an off-site strategic planning session where, amid the chart paper, smelly markers, and goal setting activities, I spent an hour teaching them archery. There was a lot of laughter and fun to be sure, and there was some good-natured competition too. But there was also plenty of frustration about not being able to hit the center of the target. That experience provided a great jumping off point for a conversation about empathy and supporting teachers and other staff who often don’t know as much about elements of technology as those of us in the technology department.

It’s a lot more comfortable to stick with what you know. We often encourage students to follow their passions and dreams. (It might even be in your school district’s mission statement.) Are we encouraging students to take academic risks, or has GPA pressure squeezed out some of their passion? How about teachers? Have we designed our appraisal systems to encourage teachers to try new techniques and learn new skills?

Leaders, are you following your passions? Are you cultivating interests outside of work that help recharge your batteries and broaden your perspective? If so, take some time to share those interests with your staff and encourage them to share theirs. If not, what are you waiting for?

Making archery events more friendly to newbies

I’m still relatively new to this game, having only picked up archery in March, 2013 not long after my youngest son took an introduction to archery class at our local archery club. Since then I’ve jumped in with both feet and competed in several local, state, and national archery competitions. It’s been great fun, and I’d love to see the sport grow. One of the advantages of being new to something is seeing it with fresh eyes. If you’re organizing an archery event, here are some suggestions from this archer’s perspective that would make your event less intimidating and more likely to draw participants who are new to archery.

Consider the FAQs

This is my number one suggestion. I had a ton of questions before I started attending events and competing myself. Here’s a sample of questions I’ve had (in no particular order). Some of these were answered by asking around or Googling, but others I had to learn the hard way.

  • What equipment do I need to bring (besides my bow, of course)? How many arrows do I need?
  • Will there be food, or do I need to bring my own? Is water available?
  • Approximately how long will the event last? Do all the archers start simultaneously, or is it a staggered start or "continuous line"?
  • What exactly is the format? FITA, Field, and NFAA were all Greek to me when I started.
  • Do I need to be a member of a specific archery organization to participate or have my score count?
  • What distances will we shoot exactly?
  • What should I wear? Is there a dress code?
  • How do I get to the event?
  • What time does registration start?
  • What do I have to know to keep score?
  • What rules do I need to know in advance? Are there unspoken rules of courtesy that I should know?

I’m pretty comfortable being a novice (a passionate beginner at times even), but not everyone is wired that way. Some people will skip the event rather than risk looking dumb. The more questions you can answer in advance the better. Take photos or shoot a video of your event so you can post them online for people to see before next year’s event. Watching a video in advance will help prospective participants know what they’re signing up for.

If you hang around archery for a while you’ll be sure to hear stories about how local and state shoots used to have many more participants. (This may be different for 3D shoots. That's not my game, so I don't have much experience with it.) This doesn’t surprise me based on what I’ve observed. There’s no “secret sauce” here. Make it as easy as possible for new archers to participate, and you'll see more participation.

Watch the acronyms and insider jargon

Check out the results from a shoot at our local archery club from a few years ago. There is no place on that sheet or anywhere else on the club’s web site that explains what those divisions are. They’re just random words as far as I can tell. It says nothing about what a “360 Money Round” or “300 Round” are either. It’s easy to fall into patterns like this. After all, everyone at the shoot probably already knew all of that. But what about the folks who didn’t come out to watch or participate because it didn’t make any sense to them?

You don’t need to provide all of the necessary information on the results sheet (though a key to the various classes would be great). Make a page on the club's web page where you can direct new archers for more information and put a link to that page on all of the event materials.

Explain the format

I mentioned this above, but it bears repeating. Most people don’t know a “300 Round” from a “full FITA.” Yes, Google exists, but why not make it easy? My first event as a competitor was the MN State FITA Championship and Voyageur Cup. Here’s my attempt at explaining the format for the FITA senior compound shooters in a way that could be included on a web page and would have helped me be better prepared for the event. The number of different classes complicates things, of course, but once you create the descriptions they can be reused many times.

A “FITA round” is the name given to an international-style archery competition in which the archers fire 144 arrows, 36 at each of four distances. Men shoot at 90m, 70m, 50m, and 30m. Women shoot at 70m, 60m, 50m, and 30m. The two longer distances use a 122-cm target face in six ends of six arrows each. The shorter distances use an 80-cm target in 12 ends of three arrows each. Each arrows scores 0—10 points, and the winner is determined by the largest cumulative score with a maximum possible score of 1,440 points.

It would be a great idea to show an example score card on the event web site with an explanation of the shared scoring process. The example I cited here is an outdoor FITA event, but you could make exactly the same case for an indoor 300 round.

Use social media

Create a Facebook “event” for your shoot and encourage participants to “check in.” Let everyone know what hashtag to use. Ask participants to post photos to a Flickr group or Instagram. Remind people to check in on Foursquare and Facebook.

Make sure your organization has an actively maintained Facebook page. The secret to spreading the word via Facebook is posting frequently so that posts are shared by others. Create a Twitter account and post announcements and results there too. Maybe you could have a volunteer “live tweet” your events.

Don’t forget traditional media

Local news outlets are usually eager for stories to fill their pages or airwaves. Send a press release 1—2 weeks before the event to local media outlets. Invite a reporter to come and see it firsthand. Offer to send photos if the reporter does a story.

All of these suggestions take time. Growing any sport requires a steady supply of new participants. Let’s make the learning curve as easy possible for newbies to get started.

How to purchase a used compound target bow

At some point in his or her archery career, a person interested in advancing in target archery will almost certainly consider purchasing a bow optimized for target shooting. Most archers begin with bow designed primarily for hunting since those are more commonly found in local archery shops. As with any high performance piece of equipment, however, a bow designed for one purpose won’t be as effective in another type of archery. This article will describe the important differences between bows designed for hunting and those made for competitive target archery and provide some guidance on shopping for a used compound target bow.

Characteristics of a hunting bow

Hunting bows are optimized for speed, stealth, and portability. Their axle-to-axle distances (the straight-line distance between the axles of the bow’s cams) are typically less than 35″; the limbs and cams are designed to generate as much speed as possible; and the brace height (the perpendicular distance between the bow string and the pivot point of the grip) is usually 7″ or less. A hunting bow is usually painted in a camouflage pattern.

Beyond the geometry and basic design of the bows themselves, hunting bows also feature different types of accessories. The arrow rest is usually a simple “whisker biscuit” design or a “drop-away” connected to the bow string or one of the bow limbs. The sight usually features multiple fiber optic pins arranged vertically. Each sight pin can be moved to correspond to a different distance. A stabilizer, if one is present at all, is usually less than 12″ long and intended more to reduce vibration rather than minimize bow movement.

Most hunting bows, especially bows designed for younger archers, offer a greater range of draw weight and draw length adjustments than target bows. Some “youth bows” are so adjustable that the same bow could theoretically fit an archer from elementary school through adulthood. The wide range of adjustments makes it possible for bow manufacturers to produce a limited number of different bow models while ensuring that each bow can be adjusted to fit the vast majority of hunters. Adjustability is a significant advantage for younger archers who are growing quickly, but it comes at the cost of accuracy.

Characteristics of a target bow

Target bow designs favor accuracy above all else. The axle-to-axle distances range from approximately 35–42″ and the brace heights range from 7–8½″. These characteristics combine to increase accuracy and stability at the expense of speed and portability.

Target accessories are different too. The arrows rests are usually drop-away designs or use a thin, stainless steel blade which cushions the arrow during the shot. Target rests are often more adjustable than hunting rests and can be moved vertically and horizontally a few thousands of an inch at a time to fine-tune performance. Target sights usually have a single fiber optic pin or a small dot or circle as the aiming point. Target sights have precise mechanical adjustments that allow minute vertical and horizontal movements for maximum accuracy. Target stabilizers are much longer than hunting stabilizers, up to 36″ on the front of the bow and up to 15″ on the back. The overall weight of a target bow is usually higher too since greater weight helps the archer hold the bow more still.

The draw weight range on a typical target bow is approximately 10–12 pounds. In other words, a bow sold as a 50-pound bow would have a maximum draw weight of 50 pounds and a minimum draw weight of 38–40 pounds. Some target bows are draw length specific, which means that the bow is designed for a single draw length. Changing draw lengths on one of those bows requires changing the bow’s cams or a cam module. Target bows that have adjustable draw lengths are usually adjustable over a much smaller range than on a hunting bow, commonly 1–1½″. So while the reduced adjustability of target bows can present a challenge for growing archers, it’s usually possible to reduce the cost by buying and selling used cams and modules.

Purchasing a used bow

Bow manufacturers are like car companies. They produce new models every year with small changes and more significant redesigns every few years. Like cars, bows from the previous model year can be purchased at a huge discount, often as much as 50% off. A target bow that was top of the line at one time can often be found used for a few hundred dollars 3–5 years later.

If the archer is still growing, it pays to focus on bows that offer some draw length adjustment. Look for a bow that will fit the archer at the shorter end of the its draw length range so there is room to lengthen the draw length as the archer grows. Archery shops will be able to help measure for the proper draw length, but there is no perfect formula. If you're shopping online and don't have the benefit of a local archery shop to help with the draw length measurement, I like to use two different methods and average the results.

Method #1: Wingspan method
Stand with your back to a wall and extend both arms horizontally in a basic “T” shape. Don’t overstretch; just reach comfortably. Measure the maximum horizontal distance from fingertip to fingertip inches. Divide the distance by 2.5 and you will have the first draw length estimate.

Method #2: John Dudley method
Assume your normal archery stance, and make a fist with the hand you would normally use to grip your bow. Extend that hand toward a wall so that the front of your first touches the wall while maintaining your comfortable archery stance. Turn your head and face the wall just as you would if you were shooting your bow and measure the distance from the wall where your fist rests to the corner of your mouth. That distance is your second draw length estimate.

These methods will almost certainly produce slightly different results. The average of the two should be a decent starting point.

Unfortunately, “try before you buy” is difficult since few local archery shops carry used target equipment. The best place to shop for a used target bow is online at an archery forum like ArcheryTalk or on eBay. Buying a bow online isn’t without challenges, but it’s the best way to find a good deal. The keys to a successful online purchase are to do some homework to identify a bow that would be likely to fit well including careful attention to draw weight and draw length. Reviewing the seller’s feedback before you make a bid or offer is always a good idea.

It may be possible to find a used target bow locally if you are connected to an archery club. Many avid archers purchase new equipment often and sell their used bows to club members. Check the bulletin board at the club and ask around to see if anyone at the club has a used bow for sale.

Most bow manufacturers produce target bows, but you will find more bows for sale if you stick with the major brands like Hoyt, Mathews, Bowtech, or PSE. Here’s a list of bow manufacturers with the target bow models they have produced over the last few years.

Bowtech Specialist
Hoyt Alpha Elite
Hoyt Contender Elite
Hoyt Pro Comp Elite
Hoyt Pro Comp Elite XL
Hoyt Pro Elite
Hoyt ProTec
Hoyt Ultra Elite
Hoyt Vantage Elite
Hoyt Vantage Elite Plus
Mathews Conquest Apex 7
Mathews Conquest Apex 8
Mathews Conquest 4
Mathews Conquest Prestige
PSE Dominator
PSE Dominator 3D
PSE Dominator Max
PSE Phenom
PSE Supra
PSE Supra Max
PSE Supra ME

The most important thing to do when researching and purchasing a used bow is to ask a lot of questions. Contact the seller if you are unclear about any aspect of the bow or its configuration. Archers are never short on opinions, and the biggest danger of asking questions is getting multiple, contradicting answers. Find someone you trust to answer your questions, do your research, and you’ll be fine.