Here are a series of ideas about shooting. I should emphasize here that in no way are they a definitive description of how to shoot: they describe the way I shoot. Some of these problems cropped up as I learned to shoot, and some stuff I thought might be helpful. Hopefully most things here will be useful, if only because they make you realize that my way of doing things is completely wrong and your way is better.
When we're starting to coach novices, we have a tendency to overemphasise the importance of the release and follow through, and to neglect the importance of the bow arm. If you think about it, though, the bow arm is clearly vital: if the bow isn't pointing consistently at the target at all stages of the shot, then the arrow isn't going to go in the middle. Common sense really, but less than obvious until it's pointed out to you.
It's common to talk about archers falling into two broad categories: pushers and pullers. The pullers are the ones who focus on the draw, use of the back muscles, smooth release and follow-through, without worrying too much about the bow arm. Pushers do exactly the opposite. This doesn't mean that each only actually pulls or pushes: good archers will do both, but possibly only think about one. It also doesn't mean that you should view one as more important than the other: generally you have to do both properly to shoot well. If you mostly try to concentrate on the draw etc., try focusing on your bow arm for a few sessions, especially if you have never given it any real attention before. It's entirely possible that you will shoot better by concentrating mostly on keeping good form in the bow arm, rather than worrying about the draw etc. Even if you find that you do shoot better with a focus on the draw etc., you still need to get your bow arm doing the right thing.
The first thing to sort out is the type of grip you use, as this is very influential in the set of your entire arm. DON'T GRIP THE BOW. That's the first thing to get straight. You don't have to keep your fingers around the handle of the bow to stop it from falling from your hands, especially at full draw, when the action and pressure of the draw obviously keeps it in your hand. If you're using a sling (as you should be!) then the bow won't fall out of your hands after the shot either. If you do grip the bow then almost inevitably the pressure of your fingers will deflect it by a fraction and it won't be pointing where you think it is: when you let go of the string the bow will start to turn and point in the direction that the pressure of your hand dictates. This should be at the middle of the target, but it won't be if your grip is pushing on the bow. So don't grip it. Equally, don't keep your fingers rigidly straight away from the bow: this can cause just as many problems! If you don't use a sling, try just barely closing the thumb and forefinger so that you don't have to worry about the bow jumping out of your hand, but keep the contact very light.
The second thing to do is to use a 45 degree angled grip on the bow. This means that the knuckles on your bow hand form a 45 degree angle with the bow, and the handle of the bow goes down the side of the ball of the thumb rather than the palm of the hand. In other words, if you extend your bow hand out in front of you with the hand open and the index almost vertical you will see the approximate position you hand should be in. The main point of pressure should be just at the top of the ball of the thumb. This helps keep your fingers out of the way of the bow handle: tuck them into your palm and keep them relaxed. It also helps with the set of the rest of the arm.
Your bow arm should be straight: not rigid (i.e. tense), but definitely straight rather than bent. There are several reasons for this. If you're using a clicker then it will prove immensely difficult to achieve a consistent draw length with a bent arm, partly because you will inevitably bend it different amounts on different shots, and partly because the bent arm is not as strong as the straight one, and will probably start to bend more as you come up to full draw and try to come through the clicker. Getting the forward pressure right is also much easier with a straight arm, and it should ensure a more consistent direction of pressure as well (more on this later).
Lots of people, myself included, have problems or have had problems with elbows sticking out and getting hit by the string when we release. This hurts lots if you aren't wearing an arm guard, and also sends the arrow off in random directions: this can very quickly lead to a discouraged archer, or one who flinches like a person who is "gun-shy". You know, the person that jerks the trigger in anticipation of the sound and recoil expected when the gun discharges. The solution is simple. If you are successfully keeping your arm straight and using the 45 degree angled grip then your elbow should be pointing sideways, so that if you bent it, it would point towards the wall rather than the floor. This means that it won't be sticking out into the path of the string. If you're doing all the above and still have a sticking out elbow then pay extra attention to moving it out of the way by rotating it: most people can do this, even if their elbows stick out a bit. When you're setting up the shot, make sure that the elbow is in the right position, and try to keep it there. Also make sure that you're wearing an arm guard so that you don't develop a flinching reaction in an attempt to avoid hitting your arm.
You should also avoid letting the drawing shoulder creep up towards your ear as the shot progresses and you stand at full draw. This will cause an entirely different set to the muscles involved, and bring a change in the feeling of the shot, as well as altering your draw length. If this is a problem (it's something to watch out for when increasing poundage, changing bow, or starting to shoot again after a bit of a break), then focus on bringing the bow arm shoulder blade down and towards the middle of the back. This should be the correct set of the shoulder blade anyway, but lots of people don't pay much attention to it.
What should your bow arm should look like: what should it be doing? The straight arm should be pressing forward towards the target as you come up to full draw: the term often used is "feeling for the target". This pressure should be maintained throughout the shot, including the time just after the shot. The pressure needed is not huge, but pressure is needed. Pressing towards the target keeps your arm straight and makes sure that the bow does not deviate from the correct line in the moments after you release the string. It is absolutely vital that there is both a push and a pull involved in the shot, otherwise consistency is near impossible. Think of the arm as a single unit, and push with all of it rather than just with the hand or the wrist: imagine it as a solid piece of wood if that helps. You can practice this by putting your palm flat on a wall, keeping the arm straight, and pushing with different parts of the arm: try to push with the whole thing, and remember how it feels.
So in summary:
1. Don't grip the bow with your fingers. Let it rest in your hand.
2. Use the 45 degree angled grip with the fingers off the bow.
3. Keep the arm straight without a bend in the elbow.
4. Keep the elbow pointing sideways, not down. Don't let it stick out into the path of the string.
5. Push forward with the bow arm towards the target. Imagine the arm as a single unit and push with all of it.
Getting this right takes time, especially if you haven't been paying that much attention to the bow arm previously. Spend a few practice sessions focusing primarily on these techniques, possibly without a target on the boss. Don't expect to get it right in ten minutes, but you should find it easier within the space of a session or two.
There are many subtle variations in the way top archers shoot. However, the basic procedure is always the same, and applies whatever you're shooting at, or at whatever distance.
The following quotes are a bit dated but still relevant in their own way.
"The requisite to good archery hardest to acquire is utter concentration of thought and sight upon the object to be shot at -- this more particularly upon the precise point of letting go the arrow." -- Maurice Thompson, The Witchery of Archery, 1879, p.157
"That instant of time in which the sight suddenly concentrates itself upon the target's centre, whilst every other object grows dark and indistinct, is the critical moment of your aim. Loose then, without a second's pause, by gently relaxing the fingers of the right hand." -- George Agar Hansard, The Book of Archery, 1840 [quoted in, The Witchery of Archery, Maurice Thompson, 1879, p.154]
The main point here is that you should do this at all stages of the draw. Don't draw and then aim, as the movement will lack smoothness: aim before you draw, and continue to aim while you draw and at full draw. The act of aiming should be as unconscious as possible. If you concentrate on keeping the sight in the gold, you can be sure that it'll wander all over the place. You'll spend lots of time and effort at full draw trying to get it back into the gold. You'll stay at full draw too long, and eventually your shot will be a poor one. Keep your attention focused on the target, on where you want the sight to be, and focus on good technique: with practice the sight will stay more or less where you want it to be, and aiming won't be a problem. Bear in mind that the sight is bound to move about on the target: don't try to overcorrect for this consciously, subconscious aiming will do it for you. Again, as the sight pin drifts across the bulls-eye, release.
3) The Draw
This is the other fundamental of good archery technique: if you have a good bow arm and a good draw, you're well on the way to shooting your best. There are lots of separate issues involved with the draw, so I'll deal with them differently. I choose to shoot with a certain type of draw, but others may not find this type the best for them. There are lots of different opinions out there: don't be afraid to ask other people what they think about a particular point, and don't be afraid to experiment for a session or so.
4) Grip on the String
There are two ways of doing this, either a deep grip or a fingertip grip. With the deep grip you place the string into the first joint of the fingers and keep it there for the duration of the shot. The advantage of this is that having your string in the joints allows you to relax your drawing fingers a lot, and they may come off the string more smoothly. In the second type you grip the string with the tips of your fingers: this causes more tension in the fingers, potentially leading to a less smooth release, but there is less finger to get out of the way of the string. Personally speaking, I found the deep grip very useful when I tried it, producing far better grouping than the fingertip grip. I have recently gone back to the fingertip grip for various reasons, and have found this much more consistent than I originally did. The deep grip takes some getting used to, but can certainly yield very good results. Try both, and see which you prefer.
5) Use of the Back Muscles
There is usually not a lot of debate over this issue: you should use your back muscles as the main drawing force. What this means is that the arm and shoulder muscles are as relaxed as possible and the back muscles do most of the work: this results in less tension in the drawing arm, especially the forearm, which leads to a smoother release. It also helps with the correct line (more on this later), and is less tiring than using the arm muscles. When drawing the bow, try to move one scapula towards the other. Feel the bone and muscle in the back working to bring the arm, hand and string back towards your face: other muscles should be as relaxed as possible. Practicing this is important, and luckily you can do a lot towards good technique at home. Stand as if on the shooting line, one arm out as if holding the bow, the other as if holding the string. Move the back muscles and shoulder blade to bring the string arm back towards your face and in to where it would normally anchor on your face. Keep the pressure up on the back muscles. Imagine yourself letting go of the string with a smooth motion so that your drawing arm follows through directly backwards and the hand ends up by your rear shoulder. Try to feel the back muscles working, and keep the other muscles relaxed. It's important to keep doing this exercise at home even when you think you've got it and are shooting well. It's the best substitute for actually shooting and is an important exercise in its own right. Doing this for a few minutes a day will improve your technique, and is very helpful when you're away from shooting for a while.
6) The T-Draw
The T-Draw is the classic technique we are taught as beginners. It should work for the majority of people. Having settled the fingers on the string properly, turn to face the target and bring the bow up in front of you. The sight or your mental reference point should be slightly above the gold (bulls eye or whatever you are aiming at) as the action of the draw will bring the bow arm and bow down, dropping the sight onto the gold. Use the back muscles to pull the string towards your face, continuing to use the sight, but concentrating on technique, and then release. Simple! The alternative is to start the draw with the bow pointing at the ground, with the bow arm straight and in position, and to raise the bow as you draw, sighting and aiming at the same time: some people feel that this gives them better back muscle usage, although I can't say it helped me at all when I tried it. Pointing the bow up in the air at a 45 degree angle and doing the draw like this could produce the same effect, but is sensibly against the rules of shooting, so don't try that one. Again. safety first always. Try doing the first part of the draw relatively quickly, perhaps until a couple of inches away from your face, and then slow it down a lot. This gives you a chance to make sure that you will be anchoring in the right place, lets you aim as you draw, and generally helps you do a smooth draw rather than a stop-start one.
"But how shall one become an expert and graceful archer? The answer to this question involves a concise outline of the theory and practice of bow shooting. I may condense all this into two words: intelligent practice. ...
"A good way to train correctly, is to place your target ten feet from you at first, and shoot at it at that distance until you can hit a four-inch ring every shot; then remove it ten feet further and repeat the practice till you keep inside the ring; move again ten feet and so on until you are shooting sixty or one hundred feet. You may then increase the distance daily, say three feet, till you can show good work at sixty or one hundred yards."
-- Maurice Thompson, The Witchery of Archery, 1879, p.152-153
Edwin III, of England, made regular practice a legal obligation. Shooting at the butts was compulsory every Sunday for all able-bodied men between the ages of 14 and 65, in place of handball, football, and other vain plays. -- from Loades
"If you can shoot only one arrow a day, but concentrate with full focus on that one arrow, I believe it will do you more good than shooting 100 arrows. ... Your goal is to develop the feel, mentally and physically, of a perfect shot, to build... the subconscious controls and recognition points."
-- Bryon Ferguson, Become the Arrow, 1994, p.39
Practice is a critical element of good archery technique. Keep in mind however that practice with sloppy technique will result in sloppy performance. The idea is to make good technique automatic so that you don't really have to think about too much. Take the time to incorporate good technique and you will see improvement that will last. Once again, I must stress consistency.