By Rob Hristov
USPSA Grand Master

Any responsible gun owner needs to put some thought into achieving some level of proficiency with a firearm. Depending on the level of commitment and personal needs and desires, he or she must set a goal to achieve and maintain. Regardless of the personal mission (self-defense or practical competitive shooting) we need to understand that if we desire to improve and progress in a specific skill, we need to create our training plan. Random practice without structure will not bring the desired results and most of the time, will implement so called “bad habits” and even degrade your marksmanship skills.

Handguns are the most difficult firearms to master, because you have just one point of control – the handgrip, while with a rifle, shotgun and etc. you can create at least four points of control – stock, right hand grip, handguard and cheek. That makes the handgun marksmanship a process that requires a relatively good level of kinesthetic awareness. Kinesthetic awareness is the ability of the shooter to feel, control and separate the involvement, tension and stiffness of the different muscle groups and tendons in his body. Once developed, this sensitivity must to be maintained. A quick example is one of the most common mistakes we see with a lot of pistol shooters – many have the problem of isolating the movement of the trigger finger during the trigger pull, without adding additional pressure or other side effect to their grip on the gun.

It is understandable that many gun owners do not have or do not want to invest too much time in training and development of their marksmanship skills and level of proficiency with their firearms, but in order to achieve a satisfactory result, a certain level of commitment and a good understanding of the process of developing a skill are required. Yes, there is a specific and very organized process to develop a skill. There are principles that are equally applicable in every martial art or athletic discipline. Before we start, let’s review the different level of competence:

SUBCONSCIOUS INCOMPETENCE - Can’t do it and doesn’t know why or how.

CONSCIOUS INCOMPETENCE - I know what I should be doing, but I can’t do a damn thing right – yet.

CONSCIOUS COMPETENCE - If I think about it, I can do it, but when I don’t focus on it, it comes and goes.

SUBCONSCIOUS COMPETENCE - I can do it without thinking, but I really am not aware of what I am REALLY doing at any given moment in time. Good performers are here, but it does not automatically make them good trainers.

LEVEL 1 AWARENESS – (Dr. James Loehr – The New Mental Toughness Training for Sports). - I am aware that I am aware of what is happening while I am doing it and I can monitor it without consciously trying to control the processes. (Allows for correction and refinement during the processes).

Level 1 awareness is a complete mastery with full in-depth understanding of the principles, techniques and mental aspects of the desired skill and is not required for everyone. Even the top performers and professional athletes and martial artists will be great with No. 4 – Subconscious competence. That, most of the time, is the desired level of mastery, the ability to perform a certain skill right, without thinking about it.

Conscious competence, No.3, is the minimal level of achievement that somebody can claim he or she has achieved at their skill. The problem is, in order to perform that skill on that level, the shooter needs to rely on the conscious mind to control the process correctly. In situations of high level of stress, the conscious mind can be distracted easily and then the performance degrades. Another problem is that the conscious mind can focus just on one thing at a time and that can cause slower execution or compete loss of track. On the other hand, your subconscious mind is the real multitasker, it can manage hundreds of thousands of processes at the same time. The key to efficiency is to be able to perform precisely several actions at the same time, that will lead to getting the task done sooner, not necessarily faster.

Let’s take an example with the fast first shot from a draw, a skill of significant importance for self-defense situations in a gunfight. Presenting the gun to the identified and confirmed threat must be performed in a rapid fashion but at the same time, the shooter must maintain constant pressure on the grip, while confirming reasonable sight picture, while preparing the trigger, isolating the movement only of the trigger finger, while maintaining reasonable shooting stance that can be mobile according the situation. If we rely, consciously to manage right execution of all that processes while our life is in danger and the adrenalin is at higher levels, can we consider that we will be precise?

Most probably not and the statistic proves that fact. That is the main reason why a relatively competent, qualified shooter cannot hit an easy and close target in dynamic situations and under stress. It’s one thing is to perform a specific shooting drill in a preset “sterile” range environment, but a completely different one to be able to react and perform in unexpected and unpredictable circumstances. That’s why if the skill is engraved in your subconscious mind, it will just happen as it was trained.

So, as we’ve defined our mission and have decided to develop a subconscious skill, let’s look at the actual process of development. In this article, we will focus on handgun shooting skills, but the principles are really universal.

First, we need to have a clear “IMAGE” of the specific skill. We need to know how it looks and feels when it is executed correctly. We need to be familiar with the step by step process of the correct performance. Then we will start to do that specific action with a high level of AWARENESS, CONTROLED by the conscious mind because it is something new for us. We need to do every repetition very slowly first, so we will be able to PROCESS - are we doing it right? We need to stay AWARE that we are doing it right each and every time and if not, we must correct the mistake immediately. We cannot afford the luxury of sloppy repetitions, because at that point, we are training ourselves to be bad performers. Developing a bad habit, because of lack of awareness during training, will take at least three times more effort and time to be corrected later. Practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect!

By controlling each repetition and striving to be close to perfection each and every time, we are starting the process of ACCLIMATION and burning the skill into our subconscious mind. That can take weeks, months and even years and requires patience and consistency. When we start feeling more confident, we will start to connect the specific skill that we are working on with the series to other skills required in order to be successful in our mission. Let’s say if we are training for the draw, we start to incorporate the draw with trigger pull at the end or pivot and draw or draw while moving, etc. Again, we must stay aware that the skill is executed correctly.

Once we’ve built that solid foundation, we need to focus on efficiency. We need to be able to recognize which muscle groups and tendons are involved in the process and use just those. This will lead us to spend less energy and be able to perform the skill with less effort. These actions will form the second level of the skills hierarchy - ISOLATION OF TENSION, CALMNESS ,AND RELAXATION which will lead to efficiency.

Once we figure this out, it’s time for the second to last level of the pyramid of our skills hierarchy and that is ACCURACY AND PRECISION to the result of the performed skill. In shooting, there is a difference between both. Accuracy is to be able to hit the desired target in an acceptable area and precision is the ability to do that each and every time with a predictable result. In other words, precision is the ability to repeat a specific action, performed exactly the same way over and over again. At that point we can claim that we “own” that skill at that level.

Now it’s time for the top, the last level of the hierarchy is called SPEED. How fast we can perform the skill with the desired results? How fast we can draw from the holster and hit the target in the combat effective zone, for example from a distance of 15-yards? An important consideration here is that ACCURACY AND PRECISION doesn’t like to work together with SPEED. They simply hate each other. The only way to make them cooperate is by ISOLATION OF TENSION, CALMNESS AND RELAXATION where efficiency come in play again.

There are many shooters that can perform a certain skill at certain speeds and they can do that in a repetitive manner. Every time when they try to go faster, their performance degrades. They are afraid to make mistakes and perform badly and they go back in their safe speed of performance, their safe zone. They claim that they hit the plateau and many of them get discouraged. They need to understand that in order to progress, they need to push, to get out of their comfort zone of speed. Yes, there will be mistakes. It’s absolutely normal, something will break down at that new speed of performance. That is not a failure if you are able to identify what exactly is breaking down. Failure is when you are not aware and you do not have a clue. That’s the point when you can look for professional help, take a class or ask a professional instructor for advice. If you identify what the problem is, you can then use awareness and concentration to fix the problem on that same new speed. Do not reduce the speed, because you will return back to your comfort zone and you will never progress.

Yes, there will be multiple unsuccessful attempts, then suddenly it will happen right. Then again unsuccessful attempts, then it will happen right twice in arrow. Mistakes will come again, but then you will be able to perform it right more often and more often, until you will be able to repeat that skill ten times in arrow at that new speed. Guess what? Congratulations! That is your new normal, your new comfort zone. Now work on ACCURACY AND PRECISION at your new normal speed until it’s polished to perfection. What is coming next? It’s time for a new challenge, new speed! It is time to repeat the cycle, then again and again. That is how we progress. Ron Avery, the director of training of Tactical Performance Center and my mentor used to say, “Make your mistakes fearlessly. They are your path to progress!”

About the Author: Rossen Hristov is lead instructor and doctrine developer at Tactical Performance Center and a USPSA Grandmaster.