I have been guilty of mindless practice in both archery and rifle shooting at various stages of my big game hunting career. Shooting at a fixed distance from a bench or sled with the rifle, and shooting increments of 5 or 10 yards on flat ground at a block target with my bow. Not that there isn't value in this these types of repetitions. Shooting in a controlled and comfortable environment like this is a great way to practice and repeat proper stance, breathing and form - but it is not likely to truly prepare you for the shot opportunities you will experience on a hunt.
In more recent years, I have rethought my approach to practicing my shooting, and while I still do practice my form in comfortable and controlled situations, I try to spend more time replicating various hunting scenarios.
Practicing for different scenarios
Being that I crave structure in most things in most things that I do, I have become a lot more deliberate in my archery practice over the years, and try to employ a variety of scenarios that I might encounter in the field in a given week of practice. Here is what a work week of practice might look like for me these days:
Day 1 - Shooting between pins
The tempting way to practice is to shoot at all the distances that you have your pins set for - a half dozen arrows at 20, 30, 40 and 50 yards. I have found that animals rarely have the decency to present a shot opportunity at a yardage ending in a nice, round number. I might start at 20 and then shoot my next round at 22 yards, followed by 34 yards, 47 yards, etc. This helps me to get comfortable shooting between pins and not be caught off guard when I range an animal at an odd distance.
Day 2 - Uphill and downhill angles
The next day, I will practice shooting at a variety of angles both uphill and downhill. The odds that you will find both yourself and the animal standing on perfectly flat ground when your opportunity finally comes are pretty slim in western terrain. This forces me to really pay attention to my levels, make sure that my third axis is adjusted properly, and gives me good repetitions with shooting at sometimes uncomfortable angles. I may also throw in a few reps shooting from one knee, both knees, or sitting down for good measure.
Day 3 - Wind
When the wind is gusting up around 40 mph as it often does on the Wyoming high prairie, it can be very tempting to keep my shooting session indoors as I would in the height of the winter months. But the fact is that the wind is likely to be blowing at a pretty good clip any time I am out hunting. I need to know where to hold my bubbles, how to adjust my aim, and how to hold steady in stiff winds. The only way to do this is not to shy away from going and shooting outdoors on the windiest days of the week. I may keep my shooting on fairly flat ground depending how breezy it is, in an effort to avoid too much frustration, but I always try to challenge myself a little bit towards the end of the session and throw in an odd distance, uphill or downhill shot, or slightly obstructed shot in the wind.
Day 4 - Target angles
Another thing that wild animals seem to never want to do is stand at a perfectly broadside angle. If you have little to know experience shooting at targets that are slightly quartered away or quartered towards you, you might find yourself lowering your bow and letting an opportunity slip away on a shot that you may have had no problem making if you had spent the offseason practicing such scenarios. A 3D target helps with this, but you can easily position yourself on these angles with a block target, as well. I will go through different distances with the target quartering towards me, and repeat with the target quartering away.
Day 5 - Long distance
The current maximum range that I would take a shot on any animal is capped at 45 yards. This is the maximum distance that I feel 100% comfortable that I can make a consistent, lethal group in any of the given scenarios listed above. But I always make a point to practice at distances at least twice that range. The simple fact is that when you spend some time shooting out past 75, 80 or 90 yards, when you come back and shoot at 40 yards - you find that you suddenly feel a lot more confidence and control.
Know your limits and make sure you never take a shot in the field that you're not completely comfortable with. However, by stepping outside of your comfort zone when it comes to practice, you can significantly broaden the range of shots that you do feel comfortable with over time and repetition. The practice scenarios that you employ in the offseason can make the difference in confidently taking a shot on an animal that you've worked so hard to close the distance on, or watching him walk away.