Editor Sophie Ritchie puts down the pen and picks up a bow for a lesson in Paralympian archery at Archery Fit in Greenwich
I love keeping active, but my usual form of fitness involves a yoga mat or a pair of running shoes – not 150cm bows and a quartet of carbon arrows. But a few weeks ago, I swapped the HIIT sessions and running for an afternoon of shooting targets and meeting inspirational Paralympian athletes at Archery Fit in the bustle of Greenwich.
We all know that exercise is good for us – but archery is an entirely different ballgame when it comes to mental health, offering its practitioners the combination of learning advanced technique alongside focusing purely on a target and not the distractions and dilemmas of the external world. And let’s face it, since the fateful arrival of Covid-19, we all could do with aiming at a target or two.
An indoor inner city club, tucked away behind a gated entrance in busy Greenwich, Archery Fit is just a short journey from London Bridge and features two separate archery ranges, each 18m long with one of those being extendable to 30m. It’s ideal for something different to the usual gym session – after all, archery is a fantastic way to simultaneously improve hand-eye coordination skills, upper body strength, core stability, and balance.
I’m visiting the centre to spend the day trying it out for myself – whilst also meeting some of the sport’s most accomplished athletes, including Tokyo Paralympic gold medalist Phoebe Paterson Pine, Tokyo Paralympic bronze medalist Victoria Rumary and Paralympic gold and silver (Beijing and Rio) medallist John Stubbs.
When I pick up my own bow (which is named after the fictional character Mystique, as all of the bows at Archery Fit take their names from Marvel comic heroes) I hardly take to it like a duck to water – but I soon forget about the nerves that had been swamping me and my adrenal system beforehand as there’s so much information to retain. My only mission is to concentrate on the paint-splattered board in front of me, pull my arm back, raise my elbow, close my right eye, move my thumb… (well, you get the gist – there’s some serious skill to nailing a bullseye and it’s pretty tough to squeeze in any other thinking amongst that focus).
“I think of it as a mix between ballet and golf,” my Archery Fit instructor tells the group fondly as we progress onto shooting balloons taped to the targets’ centre. Two sports I am terrible at, but I still find myself scoring surprisingly high when it comes to the arrows gliding across the (highly controlled) room.
For gold medalist Phoebe Paterson Pine, who has spina bifida, archery offered her escapism from a life overwhelmed with brutal school bullying and a consequential struggle with her mental health. A single session of shooting targets at Centre Parks on a family holiday led her to feel like she’d really found ‘something’ – a goal to work towards and something that also made Phoebe ‘immediately cool’ with her peers. But most importantly, archery training offered her something to believe and excel in – in 2021 she already holds an impressive eight national records for the sport.
Now juggling her Paralympian status alongside a Sports Coaching Science degree at Worcester University, Phoebe remains highly proactive about mental health, believing it important to raise a voice about. “There’s so much stigma about mental health,” she tells me after we wrap up the practice session and have a short chat. “Being in therapy doesn’t make you weird. It gives you a chance to talk and process.”
Mental strength is an important (if not crucial) factor in any sport, so how does a professional athlete cope with the immense pressure? I felt myself getting clumsier and clammier the moment I felt someone’s eyes behind me when pulling back the bow string in the practice area. To do that in front of the world at the Tokyo games is a feat in itself.
“I treated it like every other game, like every other tournament. And I found it going surprisingly well. It was my first (competing) Paralympics, I just wanted to see how it went. But it went pretty well! I took it step by step, bit by bit.”
As I pack up my things and get ready to leave the Greenwich facility, I remind myself of how such an approach could be applied in many situations – big and small – in my own life.
I might not be the next Katniss anytime soon, but I can definitely understand the appeal of the ‘one more arrow’ allure that almost everyone at the event mentioned. After all, when facing off against a static target you can always take one more shot, have another go at it, keep on persevering. And it’s important to make it count!
Words by Sophie Ritchie, editor