Of Arrows and Anxiety

At the Vegas Shoot, life lessons about archery, community and the training of butterflies

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

Illustration by Cierra Pedro

There is an armed man standing at the blackjack table. He has arrows in a quiver and a bow in his hand. At this very moment, there is a person on the premises with the following job title: “Director of Shooting.” A few minutes ago, these words rang out from the South Point Arena: “The range is hot.” Do not be alarmed.

I am here because my son is here, and my son is here because, at some point during this, his 14th year on our great green earth, he turned left in the yellow wood, became an archer and left me little choice but to follow. Today he has led me to the Vegas Shoot, where he’s joined about 2,500 other archers of all ages and from many nations. It’s the biggest archery competition in the world. The range is indeed hot.

Common interests create portable communities, bound by no territory. Las Vegas is often the lone homeland for these extended families. This is the place where people meet when they have no place else to meet: gadget lovers, comic book fanatics, vacuum-cleaner dealers. But there is something different about this gathering—the participants are bound not merely by common interest but by common discipline. They are bound by the most fundamental of creative desires: the desire to do something so much that you will suffer for it, delight in the suffering, then do it again. It’s the desire to make something of oneself—in this case, an archer.

The archers at the Vegas Shoot are bound by the shared will to stare down a small black “X” in the middle of a yellow circle, which is in the middle of a red circle, which is in the middle of a blue circle. They are bound by the will to pierce the “X” from 20 yards, and then to do it 29 more times.

Only a handful of people can do this—where there is a will, there is not always a way. But they practice, these arrow-slinging thousands—into their 70s, their 80s. They master stillness. They learn the uses and misuses of anxiety. They understand that a fired arrow should surprise the person who has fired it. The greatest among them, I have been told, have freakishly low heart rates when they fire. At a Vegas Shoot seminar, a legendary coach spoke of the Great Ones: “They’re not even human,” he said. He was speaking to an audience of about 30 competitive archers, each of whom wondered if he or she, too, could someday become inhuman.

During the youth competitions, the hall is murky with radiant stress and flop-sweat and the hot air of parents telling their kids to stop stressing and just have fun. The kids know better: They understand that the stress and the fun cannot be disentangled. You can have the anxiety without the joy, but you can’t really have the joy without the anxiety. Part of that joy is in the edge-of-your-seat wondering if you can do it, then do it again—whether you can “kill a spider,” as they say when you nail the X-ring. Can you be your best self on this day, at this moment, on this shot? The movie’s no damn good without the suspense.

In any case, you can’t make butterflies fly away; you can only train them to sit still and watchfully on the branch. And they’ll only do that when they’ve seen you shoot enough and are sufficiently impressed. Butterflies make a tough audience. When the scoring is complete, kids return to their parents, disappointed that they’ve dropped 15 points from their normal, non-tournament scores. But within 20 minutes, they’re begging to hit the practice range.

In the evening, the top pros take over, the butterfly trainers. The other 2,480 Vegas Shoot participants look on with awe and respect. They know the gods by their first names—Reo and Brady and Erika and Mike. Mike Schloesser recently shot 60 consecutive X’s at a World Cup event in Nimes, France. The announcer introduces him as Mr. Perfect. Mr. Perfect misses the X.  He puts the next arrow on his bow. Every shot is its very own “now.” And then it’s gone.

Greg Blake Miller is the director of Olympian Creative Education.

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