Train Like an AthleteAdam Smith
From the time I was a young soldier, I was determined to master my craft — especially shooting. I spent countless hours of my own time shooting, dry-firing, and researching in my quest to get better. And I did get better. I became a good enough shooter to more than hold my own among my peers. But it wasn’t until many years later, when I started competing in shooting sports, that I started to understand what good actually was, and found my skill level increasing exponentially. The reason for my “leveling up” after so many years was that I was now training my shooting less like a soldier and more like an athlete.
I wasn’t satisfied though. So, I started researching again. I trained with as many top competitors as I could, read up on athletic performance and sports psychology, on current research into learning and mastery, and over time pieced together a system of training that gave me steady improvements in shooting skill. There’s only so much improvement an intermediate to advanced shooter can make in a weekend class. But if that same student learns how to structure their own training more effectively, they can continue to improve long after the class is done.
One Thing at a Time
The first component of this system of training is developing skills in isolation. This is best done without distractions. This isn’t the time to put on full kit or do PT-heavy stress shoots. Those types of training exercises can have value as tests of skill, or as gut checks, but they aren’t the best way to develop skill. And before I hear the protests of “train like you fight,” consider something: No football team wears full pads for every drill or does nothing but scrimmage in practice. No UFC fighter’s training consists solely of sparring. Tests of skill aren’t the best way to develop skill.
When people think of isolated skill work for shooting, they often think of weapon manipulations — skills such as draws, reloads, and malfunction clearances. Those are definitely things to be worked on in isolation. But this category also includes much more than just those types of skills. You can use drills to isolate target transitions, movement skills, or any other aspect of performance shooting.
As an example, let’s take a classic shooting drill, the bill drill. The bill drill is typically shot at 7 yards, and is six rounds on a USPSA target from the holster. The gold standard for performance on it is all A zone hits in under two seconds. What exactly are we working on in this drill? The draw is essential for making that standard, both with speed and establishing a proper grip, but there are simpler and less ammo-intensive ways to work on that. When I run bill drills, I focus on one of two things. Using my grip to mitigate recoil or tracking my sights throughout the recoil cycle. And only one of these can be focused on in any particular repetition of the drill. One of the easiest mistakes to make in skill development training is trying to work on more than one thing at a time.
How we execute our repetitions for skill training matters. If we stay in our comfort zone, where success is guaranteed, we inhibit our progress. If we do nothing but push for personal bests, especially with speed, our on-demand consistency suffers. Each rep should be an incremental push beyond your comfort zone. This should be repeated until you find a failure point. That last part is essential. Beyond a certain point, you won’t improve without giving yourself permission to fail. This runs contrary to a lot of military and law enforcement culture, but it’s absolutely essential if you want to reach your true potential as a shooter. You have to set your ego aside and accept that fact if you want to improve. Once you find that failure point, work the issue for several repetitions. This is where you start to correct whatever technical weakness caused the failure. That’s the other essential piece of the puzzle. You have to cultivate the awareness to diagnose where your technique is breaking down and work on improving that weakness.
Once you’ve put some work in and are closing out the drill, there’s one more essential part of this. That “push” you’ve just done to try and break through to a new level of skill is addictive. If you get stuck there mentally, you’ll absolutely damage your on-demand performance. To prevent that, close out the drill with one or two performances at an on-demand pace. Again, these shouldn’t be lazy reps, but instead right at your on-demand best.
It’s important to track the data from these drills. If you have a shot timer, between it and your targets you can collect literally every important data point. You should know with certainty what your times with acceptable accuracy on the targets are for draws, reloads, transitions, and splits for a wide variety of target difficulties and distances. You should have the same familiarity with how long it takes you to move from one shooting position to another. This data drives your improvement on these isolated skills, but it’s also important for your training in other ways that we’ll touch on in a moment.
In the early stages of your training, isolated skill work should be the bulk of your practice. But, as you progress, you’ll need to start training skills in combination as well. Without adding in this category of training, you’ll see a marked degradation in performance and consistency when you test your skills. The more elements of performance we string together, the greater the cognitive load. Think of your brain as a computer. The more programs you have open simultaneously, the slower the computer runs. Training skills in combination builds up your brain’s subconscious ability, the “processor” that allows you to run multiple skills reliably and consistently.
When we work skills in combination, none of the individual skills get pushed like they do in isolation. Instead, they should be performed subconsciously. You should have collected enough data already from your skill isolation practice to know what your current on-demand level of performance on any particular skill is. You should know your baseline performance with acceptable accuracy so that you can compare it to your performance on each element when you combine them into a more complex drill.
Then, the goal is to build up longer and more complex combinations of skills, while maintaining that baseline performance level on each one. This can be done a variety of ways. One of my favorites is to set up several shooting positions and random target arrays, then work them in every combination I can think of. I typically don’t repeat a particular combination more than three times, to avoid getting too comfortable with a particular sequence. Over time you can build up to more and more complex combinations and include increasingly difficult shooting and movement problems. The failure point you’re seeking to find and improve on here is the amount of cognitive load you can maintain before your individual skills break down. The failure point can be missing a shot or forgetting a sequence of fire, but it can also be more subtle. If a skill is markedly slower than when in isolation, or if your accuracy degrades significantly, that’s a failure point as well.
Above: The author’s time in Army Special Forces honed his understanding of shooting as an athletic skill.
When you find a failure point, back off on the complexity and then ramp it back up. Over time, the level of complexity you can reach without failing will increase. Your brain’s “processor” gets more powerful. You’ll find that your consistency on individual skills also increases as a result of this mode of training. Your cold on-demand performance gets closer to your best runs, and your incident rate of error decreases so that mistakes become rarer and less significant.
The third component of training is testing your skill. This is where stress shoots and competitions come into play. This is where you evaluate how well your work on skills in combination has built your ability to perform at your current level of skill, under stress and on-demand. This is also where you identify technical weaknesses that need focus in your skill isolation drills. Competition is an excellent test, whether it’s an action shooting match or an informal competition among SWAT teammates on the range. If you train alone, seek out competition with others.
Without some sort of test under pressure your skills aren’t validated. It’s much easier to put up personal bests when you know you have endless “do-overs” for your mistakes than it is to perform at your level of skill on demand and under pressure. Testing your skills creates an essential feedback loop for your training. Identify your weaknesses, focus on them in isolation, strengthen them in combination, then retest and repeat.
The proportion of time spent on each of these three modes of training varies depending on our skill level, goals, and if we’re training for a specific event. Complete beginners should spend a significant amount of training time working solely on isolated skills. At least until they have a base level of competence at safe weapons handling and movement with a firearm, and understand fundamental marksmanship. As the shooter progresses in skill, they can begin to add in work on skills in combination. The closer the shooter gets to “maxing out” on their isolated skills, the more training time should be spent on combined skills.
Another factor to consider when programming training is peaking for a known event. The closer I get to a major competition, for example, the more time I spend working skills in combination, and the less I spend on skills in isolation. The same theory could be applied when a soldier is ramping up for a deployment, or when a police officer or civilian is preparing for a difficult shooting school.
Above: Competition can be an effective way to pressure-test your training, combining elements of both the athletic and technical aspects of shooting.
The way we combine the training modalities changes as we improve as well. In the early stages of skill development, it’s best to distinctly separate each one. This is known as blocking practice. Blocking practice is working on one aspect, one “block” of skill and then moving on to another. This is the best way for beginners to internalize the rudiments of technique.
As we improve, the concept of interleaving practice can be a way to drastically accelerate our progress. Interleaving practice involves mixing skills and modalities of training throughout a practice session. As an example, in my training, I’ll often throw three to five repetitions of an isolation drill in between sets of a combination drill. Research has shown that once the fundamentals are grasped, interleaving practice is a far more effective way to reach the upper levels of skill.
Go for the Gold
Over time, the training template becomes more flexible and instinctive. The ability to practice effectively is in and of itself a skill, and over time we get better at it. The more data we collect, and the more versed we become with applying that data to our training efforts, the easier it becomes to use these modes of practice to improve. This method gives us a system for organizing and directing our efforts into what performance experts call deliberate practice. Deliberate practice is qualitative and focused, incorporating feedback to adjust future training efforts. It’s the one thing that researchers believe separates top performers from average ones.
Above: Professional instruction from a qualified subject-matter-expert can help expand and refine your individual training.
Employed correctly, this system of training gives the shooter a comprehensive plan for improvement. What’s even better is that as long as the data is collected and analyzed correctly, the plan is self-correcting. Skills are built in isolation, strengthened in combination, and then tested under stress. Weaknesses are identified, then focused on as the cycle starts again. One by one, weaknesses become strengths and strengths get stronger, test and retest, until mastery is achieved. Train like an athlete, and you’ll get better.
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