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February 16, 2024

Molly Nugent winning the archery mind games with the help of Olympian Judi Adams

Molly Nugent was a good archer. But Molly Nugent wanted to become a great archer, and to fulfil that potential she learned that a strong technique will only carry you so far in a sport where mental strength plays a significant role.

Type into an internet search engine the words ‘mental game’ or ‘mental side’ in association with archery and the page is swiftly filled with videos and blogs and forums all addressing, advising and discussing this crucial side of the sport.

For Nugent, the realization that she needed to improve the mental portion of her game actually materialized during a spell when she was enjoying great form.

“Mentally I did not catch up with the fact that I was shooting really well,” said Nugent. “So, I had that doubt. The doubt came in and I was saying ‘why am I shooting that good? I shouldn’t be shooting that good, like what is going on?’

“And so, because of that, I developed target panic, I developed the doubt, I developed the lack of confidence, and that’s when I started waiting until the clock ran down, letting down all the time, because I had that doubt about everything I was doing.”

Step forward Judi Adams, a member of the USA team at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. She also qualified for the 1980 edition, though ultimately missed out as the USA were among a number of nations to boycott those Games, which were held in Moscow.

Adams said, “I’ve worked with a lot of people with target panic, and I know what it took for me to get through target panic, and I’ll tell you, it’s hard work.

“There isn’t a pill. Everybody hopes there’s a pill or something to make it go away. There isn’t. It’s just a lot of really, really hard – and sometimes terrifying – work to get through.

“The fact that Molly was looking for help, but also that she was willing to put the time in to get through - and it’s really tedious time – is testament to who she is.”

The reasons for target panic are many and varied, including personal expectations or the expectations of others. Confidence is, of course, a factor, and like other individual sports, it can be due to a neurological issue such as the yips in golf.

Target panic can lead to archers physically being unable to let go of the arrow, or even being unable to step to the line for the start of an end.

Nugent teamed up with Adams just prior to Covid lockdown in 2020, and the transformation has been real.

“Anyone who was watching me at the time could tell I was going through target panic,” said Nugent. “It was pretty bad.

“So, to see the improvement from then to now, four years later; I have people coming up to me all the time saying ‘wow, you’re improving a ton. A couple of years ago you wouldn’t be shooting all of your arrows in the first 45 seconds, you’d be waiting on the line’.

“I recognized that was happening but also everyone around also knew that it was happening.”

Having Adams alongside her on this mental journey means having someone who knows exactly what she is going through and the strength it takes to emerge on the other side.

Adams admitted, “I shot a world championship where the scorekeepers were stepping on my arrows. That’s how bad it was for me. And I know exactly when it happened. I know exactly what the trigger was. I know everything that led to my target panic, and that put me on a path of learning to manage it, because it never entirely goes away.”

The 24-year-old Nugent, something of a perfectionist according to Adams, admits the path she has trodden these past four years in a bid to be among the best has helped in other ways.

“I was a different person,” she said. “I was not positive. I’m so much more positive now. I’m positive in everyday life. I look at everything glass half full instead of half empty; it’s definitely changed my entire life.”

And it appears the results bare much of that out. Nugent sits third after the first two stages of the 2024 Olympic Trials Qualification Event, with stages three and four in her home state of Arizona in early April. She has also made the World Cup team for the first time, with Stage 1 being in Shanghai, China from April 23-28.

Far from getting easier, the next few months will arguably be as tough as they have ever been as the race to Paris resumes. This is where Nugent’s meticulous planning comes in handy, down to how many arrows she will shoot each day between now and competition in Arizona, or which mental or physical modules she will be working on.

“It’s a huge mental step (up to the Olympic level),” admitted Adams. “Because there’s so few Olympians. You may make teams, but boy when it comes to the Olympics there’s a really intense focus by the athletes training for it.

“There’s only a few spots, and it really is next level when you start to look at scores of the elite archers, you can see there’s a separation, maybe from five down. So, there is a next level and mental is the difference.”

Nugent first picked up a bow aged seven or eight while on camp with the Girl Scouts but it was not until the age of 12 that she decided to pursue it as a sport, having tried basketball, tennis and golf.

In those early days, at Paseo Vista Club in Chandler, Ariz., Nugent fell under the watchful gaze of Mike Cullumber and Gary Yamaguchi, two vastly experienced and passionate coaches.

“I definitely fell in love with the sport of archery before I got good at it,” said Nugent.

Nugent’s love for the sport brought out her determination and strong work ethic, though it would be seven years on from taking up the sport that a teenage Nugent would win her first (local) tournament. Six months on from that first success and she became a national champion.

It was that swift about-turn in fortunes, from not being very good to winning locally and then nationally which, in Nugent’s own words, ‘freaked out my mind’, triggering an expectation that she had to maintain that level of form.

She added, “The trigger point came because I was just not catching up to the fact that I am good and I know what I’m doing and I can be the best.”

With an experienced guide in Adams by her side, Nugent must now navigate unchartered waters as she looks to pick up where she left off in 2023, knowing that it has been her lifelong dream to represent the United States at the Olympic Games.

She said, “I always knew that I wanted to go to the Olympics, since I was two years old. There’s a video of me dancing around the living room watching the ice skating at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics.

“So, I knew there was a sport out there for me, I just didn’t know what it was.”

You can follow Molly Nugent's journey via Instagram or Facebook.

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