Rediscovering the fun and excitement of bows and arrows.
Katniss Everdeen notches an arrow, sets the apple in her sight, and concentrates hard for a moment. The perfect shot will get the Gamemakers’ attention and might even attract her sponsors and life-saving gifts during her time in the Hunger Games arena.
Meanwhile, only a few feet away, Legolas the Elf stetches his brand new bow – a gift he received in the forest city of Lothlórien – in order to test its magical properties. His muscles flex as he draws the string.
While the movie magic exists mostly in their rapt imaginations, the excitement and passion of archery is very real for the kids taking lessons at Saugeen Shafts in Peterborough. The place is packed with kids lined up before targets.
Much to the surprise of teachers, camp leaders, and coaches, archery is all of a sudden cool. “Actually, it’s been steadily taking off for about three years now,” says Saugeen’s owner, Bill Embury. “But there is no doubt about it, kids have caught the archery bug. And then, once they try it, they are hooked.”
Movies a huge influence
The main reason kids have begun flocking to archery is the increased prominence of archers in children and young adult based movies and literature.
Katniss is one of the most empowering – and entertaining – role models for girls and young women in recent history. Other influences are the popular characters Merida from Disney’s Brave and Legolas from the incredibly successful adaptations of J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels.
But while movies and books have brought archery into the mainstream, it is the changes in technology that have made the sport accessible to kids, says archery coach Alex Taylor, owner of Woods North Archery in Oshawa.
“I look at the introduction of the compound bow around 30 years ago as the major turning point in making the sport what it is today,” says Taylor. “Traditional recursive bows – the long bows that you see in movies – take a lot of strength to pull. In fact, archeologists coming across old burial sites can easily spot the archers; their muscle mass was heavier on one side than the other.”
The compound bow, on the other hand, “can be pulled with as little as 12 pounds of pressure,” says Taylor. “That means kids will have both the strength and the stamina to take part from a very early age.”
The introduction of the compound bow has also moved the sport from prdominantly hunting-based to one that is more commonly found at camps, school tournaments, and even birthday parties.
Archery is particularly popular with kids who might not gravitate towards team sports. “It’s a sport that can be pursued by just about anyone,” says Embury. “And that includes kids who don’t enjoy either the pressure or the hectic commitment of baseball or hockey.”
Archery is a big hit at the Camp Tiki Day program run by the Northumberland YMCA in Cobourg. It’s an activity that’s suitable for kids of all ages and skill levels, say Marnie Lammers, Youth Program Coordinator.
“There are many ways that you can modify archery to fit the skill level of the children,” notes Lammers. “All of our campers from age 5-12 participate in archery. The younger ones get small bows and the targets are closer. The older ones have tighter bows and the targets are in a more challenging spot.”
Kids’ excitement, however, needs to be tempered with a bit of calm instruction. Whether at camp or archery class, the first step is getting kids comfortable with bows and instilling a sense of safety and respect.
“Before the kids get to actually shoot the bows we go over all the rules and safety precautions to ensure that no one gets injured,” says Lammers. “They start by practising with just the bows to get a feel for them and to get used to the tension and the placement of their hands.”
Next, says Lammers, “the kids practise pulling and releasing the bow string. Once the kids have proven that they are ready to try with an arrow they will go with the instructor to the shooting range where they will take turns shooting at the targets.”
For Embury, the process starts with making sure that equipment is safely locked away when not in use, and only brought out under supervision. “Adult guidance is important,” he says. “Both at home and in the lanes.”
But on top of that, he continues, “We impart a sense of discipline. Similar to martial arts, teaching archery is also about teaching self-discipline. Kids are quick to recognize that control and respect are integral. And, like so many other things, this goes well beyond the sport.”
An inclusive sport
“This is an activity that anyone can do,” says Kate Bird, Chief Executive Officer of WindReach Farm in Scugog. “Old, young, abled, disabled. There is a pretty even playing field when it comes to archery. It really is one of the most inclusive sports I can think of.”
WindReach Farm, an activity centre that caters to both disabled and able bodied people of all ages, added archery to its program lineup last year. “What excites me is that people with special needs gravitate so easily towards it,” says Bird. “This is a segment of the population that often doesn’t get the same amount of physical activity as others. And in the safe, welcoming environment of an archery class or course, they get their chance to shine.”
Bird says it’s not unusual to see people in wheelchairs outshooting their standing counterparts or people with vision problems successfully hitting the target.
Taylor has also seen firsthand how archery can help people overcome day to day difficulties. “Where you really see a difference is in people with various attention deficit disorders,” says Taylor. “Archery takes a good deal of concentration. And I can tell you that this concentration translates well into other aspects of your child’s life.”
He notes that, “Parents are the first to comment about how their kids will take the patience and concentration from archery practice and have it reflect on their behaviour in the classroom and when doing homework.”
Archery has physical and emotional benefits for everyone. “On top of focus and patience, you see an improvement in hand/eye coordination and upper body strength,” says Zöe Jameson, Manager of Day Camps for the Toronto Area YMCA (which also includes camps across South Central Ontario). “It’s also great exercise, which you sometimes don’t notice because it is so much fun.”
Archery is a tremendous way to build confidence, says Taylor. “Young archers who doubt themselves are rewarded whenever they ‘loose’ a nice shot. And if they do miss, all they have to do is retrieve their arrow and shoot again. It’s amazing how they can go from a bit of doubt to a little dance of celebration. And that confidence carries over to the next time they shoot.
When doubts arise, Taylor whispers in their ears, “You can do it!”
He notes that, “Later on, when they are facing difficulties in school or in life, they continue to whisper it to themselves. Confidence breeds confidence. And archery is a great way to start that pattern.”
Compete or not
While finding a place to take part in archery used to be a difficult task, archery camps and programs are becoming more and more common. “It’s exciting to see the spread of the sport in our area,” says Jameson. “Camps can act as a great introduction for kids. Once introduced, many go on to explore other centres and private coaches.”
For those who get serious about the sport, coaches such as Taylor and Embury can introduce young athletes to more competitive situations. Both offer training for provincial, national, and international level athletes as well as beginners.
“We host tournaments at Saugeen twice a year,” notes Embury. “Athletes go up against other kids of similar skill levels, rather than purely by age – which really levels the playing field.”
But the nice thing about archery is that, “It can be as competitive as you want it to be,” says Embury. “Or not competitive at all.
All and all, it is an absolute bullseye.