YOU HOLD THE BOW with your left hand, draw the bowstring with your right, aim, release the arrow and thwiiip: Another bull's eye. Robin Hood would have been proud.

"Robin Hood wouldn't recognize the sport," says John Jones of the Greenbelt Sports Center. Bows and arrows today are high-tech, with NASA-developed materials, power- multiplying pulleys and arrowheads with razor- sharp snap-in blades.

There are perhaps a dozen target ranges, leagues and clubs in the area where families can let fly arrows. If you turn out to be a whiz, there are dozens of local, state and national competitions within driving distance.

"The beginners really frustrate the experienced shooters," says Jones, who runs handicap leagues similar to bowling. "They improve so much faster that it really makes their scores jump."

Other experts agree -- the first 90 percent of archery comes quickly, but the last tenth is a killer. That makes archery a good choice for children and athletes who are beyond their football or baseball days, says Gilbert Frey of the National Crossbowmen.

The simple longbow, Robin Hood's weapon, seldom is seen in competition; area leagues generally favor recurve or compound bows, or the crossbow. The recurve is the style used in Olympics competition. "If anyone had told me in the beginning that I would wind up in the Olympics, I never would have believed them," says Ruth Rowe, a Virginia archer who came in second in the 1983 World Championships and shot in the 1984 Olympics.

The compound bow is used for field archery, shot on a range set up like a golf course. Also generally used by hunters, the compound stores energy through the action of eccentrically mounted pulleys, so that less strength is needed to draw and hold it. An archer reduced to quivering helplessness by a 60-pound recurve bow might find a 60-pound compound to be a comparative piece of cake.

Easiest of all to shoot is the crossbow, held and fired like a rifle. "I got bursitis in my shoulder a few years back and took up the crossbow as a substitute for the compound," says Frey. "Then I got hooked." With a medical certificate, he can hunt with a crossbow in Maryland, and likes to compete locally against people like Carol Pelosi, a former world champion who's held the national crossbow title for the last 20 years.

Most archers stick with either the recurve or compound bows, with the latter probably dominating by ten to one.

But Rowe, who shoots strictly recurve, thinks her bow makes for "more of an intellectual sport. Field archers tend to be hunters, shooting for a specific purpose, but Olympic- type shooting is done just for the pleasure of shooting. It's more like golf," she says.

And unless you plan to teach your children to hunt with the bow, she strongly advises parents to "at least start them on the recurve, so they can have a chance at the international competitions."

One way to do that is to either contact Rowe through the Fairfax Target Archers or Vincent Price at Potomac Archers, both involved in the Junior Olympic Archery Development Program. "This has a merit system, so the kids are rewarded at each stage of progress," Price says.

Compound bow competitions are sponsored by the Maryland and Virginia Archery Associations. Those chapters tend to be family-type organizations made up of people who like the outdoors. Many, like the Eutaw Forest Archers in Waldorf, have clubhouses and campgrounds; some also have facilities for other sports like fishing or rifle shooting.

Most competitions are from March to September, with winter months given over to indoor shooting. There are three indoor ranges: Greenbelt, Bull Run Regional Park and the Brentsville Chapter of the Izaak Walton League. The first two rent equipment, and Greenbelt offers free instruction: "I can teach anyone to shoot in 15 minutes," says Jones. "Then it just takes practice to get better."

Hold your bow in your left hand, pull the string with the right, aim, release the arrow, and thwiiip. Robin Hood would be amazed.

WHERE TO SHOOT

EUTAW FOREST ARCHERS -- Waldorf, Maryland. 301/843-3855. Affiliated with Maryland Archery Association and National Field Archery Association. The 33 acres include two target ranges, clubhouse, campground. Generally compound bow. Memberships $50 per family, $40 individual; must also join NFAA and MAA. Hosts one large shoot in June.

FAIRFAX TARGET ARCHERS -- 893-4724. Group just getting organized. Recurve bow. Will have Junior Olympic Archery Development Program for youngsters.

GREENBELT SPORTS CENTER -- 474-5772. Six automatic targets, up to 20 yards, $3 for two hours; equipment rental, 55 cents; free instruction; minimum age, 10. Compound bow. Handicap leagues meet Tuesday, Thursday and Friday nights; $4 per night.

IZAAK WALTON LEAGUE -- Centreville, Virginia. 703/979-3164. A conservation organization, the league has about 125 acres including a clubhouse, skeet and trap shoots, rifle range, target range, picnic pavilion and field houses. Membership $50 per year plus one-time $45 initiation fee. Mostly compound bows.

MARYLAND ARCHERY ASSOCIATION -- Call Janice Wallace, 301/972-1611, for literature on local chapters.

NORTHERN VIRGINIA ARCHERS -- Fairfax. 491-6786. The club has 31 acres near Fountainhead Park, including a clubhouse and a 28-target range. Membership is $40 per year plus a one-time $40 initiation fee. Mostly compound bows.

POTOMAC ARCHERS -- Hearst Recreation Center, 37th and Tilden streets NW. Washington. 291-5293. Established 1878. Recurve bow, plus some crossbow competition. Three categories of young members, plus Junior Olympic Archery Development Program. Dues $5 adult, $3 under 17. Hosts five shoots a year in Olympic years, fewer otherwise.

PRINCE WILLIAM ARCHERS -- Part of the Izaak Walton League in Brentsville, Virginia. 703/368-3376. Group has 24 acres, including an indoor and an outdoor archery range, campground, indoor pistol range, outdoor rifle and pistol range, field house and access to Lake Jackson. Indoor archery shoots every Saturday in winter. Mostly compound bow. Membership $60 per year, plus one-time $15 initiation fee.

BULL RUN PUBLIC SHOOTING CENTER -- Bull Run Regional Park. 830-2344. Indoor, 20-yard target range with 10 stalls. Fees: $3 per hour; rental fee, $2 per hour. Open 2 to 9:30 Monday-Friday, 9 to 6 weekends. Some small bows for rent; children welcome.