The Learning Curve of Elite Competition

By: Stephen Jennison • 2 years ago •


I first picked up a bow at 7 years old – 57 years ago! Back in the late 50s in the UK, every kid had a bow in their hands that their dad had made, because you made your own entertainment.


ike all kids, I start doing all sorts of sports, playing rugby for most of my early life, and did archery for a while. Archery became something to do as part of the school’s program, rather than being performance driven.

In 1973 I immigrated to Australia at age 21. Funnily enough, I’d come 10-12,000 miles and met my wife who was from Scotland! I was playing rugby union & league as well as competition squash while my wife was participating in netball. One day we decided to try to find a sport we could do together and heard about an archery club nearby in Sydney. I’d play touch football on a Sunday morning, rush home to change, then spend the afternoon relaxing at archery as a hobby. But because of the way my wife and I are, we both got a bit competitive about it! 


Back then I was playing rugby league and competition squash while she was doing netball. One day, we decided to try to find a sport we could do together and heard about an archery club nearby in Sydney. I’d play touch football on a Sunday morning, rush home to change, then spend the afternoon relaxing at archery as a hobby. But because of the way my wife and I are, we both got a bit competitive about it!

I had to stop for a while, as I damaged my elbows playing football, but I was very involved and interested in developing skills in other people. I started getting into the coaching accreditation programs to lift my qualification level in 1980. By the end of the 80s, I was involved with the Archery Australia National Sports Programme run at the AIS in Canberra. It was in this environment that I was able to increase my coaching skills under mentor coaches.

Part of my task was to head hunt the best coaches in the world .I approached Korean Head Coach Lee KiSik and subsequently managed to have him relocate to Australia and be appointed as Head Coach. By 1997, with the stress within the role and isolation from being located in Canberra,  away from my young family in Sydney, I decided to resign from the role and focus on coaching locally.



The program continued and we won the gold medal in 2000 and a bronze at the 2004 Athens Olympics. While we had a Paralympic team in Sydney and one Female spot in 2004 we had no representatives in either 2008 or 2012. More recently however Jonathan Milne qualified one spot for Australia in Rio at the Parra World Championships in 2015. I was approached to see if I would be interested in being the Paralympic coach based on my previous experience, and was appointed to that position.

It soon became apparent that we only had the one athlete position at the Paralympics and that Jonathan already had a personal coach. Regardless of experience levels, it seemed to me that the ideal situation, to maximise performance at the Games, would be to have his personal coach continuing to work with him with myself overseeing. I put this proposal to the board who were very responsive, which allowed me to become a coach-mentor to Jonathan’s coach, Richie. It’s probably the best thing we ever did because we can develop both Richie and Jonathan simultaneously.

Richie works with several athletes and is as driven as Jonathan to become the best in his field, as a coach. He’s looking for opportunities and has been considered nationally for development going forward. He’s lucky to be actually employed as a coach, as many of us are volunteers, and is able to schedule his programs around Jonathan.

SJennison5My involvement with Jonathan is around skill acquisition, and working with Richie to enhance his skills in overall coaching management. Working with a local club or national level is one thing, but going to a major international event like the Games is a completely different environment. Because of my experience, I’m able to help ensure both Richie and Jonathan are as prepared as possible. There’s a lot of administrative paperwork that I assist with, especially to allow Richie a clear path to focus. I help him develop a more scientific approach to decision-making, ensuring those decisions are based on real data and evidence rather than just gut feeling. Jonathan is extremely receptive in regards to things that may enhance his performance. It’s not just skill acquisition, but also learning to be more professional in the way we go about tracking performance. It’s a great environment.


Para-archery is a small sector of an already small sport. There are people at different disability levels but very few at the high performance level. Because of this, they all shoot with their able-bodied counterparts, shooting the same distances. There are some considerations in regard to their level of disability and how it affects what they can do. For example, stability on the shooting line is affected, as a lot of athletes have limited or no core stability. In this case, there are rules depending on the athlete’s classification as to how much strapping they are allowed. Also, while they are allowed breaks for lunch and so on, they may be shooting at a tournament for 4-6 hours, with shooting brackets up to an hour long where they have to stay stationary on the shooting line – rain or blistering hot sun.

There are also special recovery considerations which ensure we have good strategies for mental and physical fitness, and protecting them as much as we can. These are things you wouldn’t normally have to do as much with an able-bodied athlete. However, the gear is the same as anybody uses in the world championships, and the performance level isn’t very much different either. Paralympic archers can also compete in the Olympics archery events. There are two bows that are in use for the Paralympics: compound and recurve. In the Olympics, they are only allowed to shoot with the recurve bow, as the compound bow has additional pulleys.

Part of Jonathan’s preparations has been to shoot in every able-bodied competition he can, and his benchmark is against the world’s best. He ranks in the top 4 or 5 in Australia in the able-bodied rankings on any given day. Because Jonathan is 6’9, he draws a long bow with an extremely long draw length. Jonathon and Ricci have recently competed in two World cup events in China and Turkey as part of the Archery Australia Compound Team gaining additional experience and understand what’s involved at that level of competition in preparation for Rio. His performances have been steadily increasing with a PB being shot 4 weeks prior to departure to Rio of 704 out of 720 with the world record standing (able bodied) at  717. Without adding to the pressure of competition by lumping high expectations on him, Jonathon is will represent Australia well and if things go well, is definitely in medal contention.

The APC have been incredible with their level of support – they’re all about how they can help you get maximum performance. In the end, our job is to ensure that when Jonathan goes out to his match at the Paralympics, that he’ll be able to look back and say there’s not one thing he could have done different in his preparation.

Part of my role is also to look ahead to 2020 in Tokyo. Hopefully Jonathan will be one of the mainstays for that program and team.

SJennison3TOP TIP

A coach needs to have aspirations, as an athlete does. They have to be driven to improve their performance, their proficiency and skill sets. You need to devote yourself to try to achieve your goals and be able to have life balance, ensuring that the people around you are involved in the journey as well.


There’s some very competent shooters around, particularly the Germans, English and Americans.

At the end of the day you can get too caught up in how your competitors are performing. You can’t control that. You can only prepare to ensure that you are the best YOU can be.

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