Getting Better at Practicing

It amazes me how many people parrot and believe the saying “practice makes perfect”. When speaking with folks who buy into that saying, I tend to find that they quickly realize that “practice makes permanent” is a much more accurate description of what practice tends to result in. After all, thousands of repetitions do build muscle memory and establish a habit.

With that in mind, it becomes painfully obvious that practicing the right things correctly builds good habits. For example and in the context of becoming a better shooter, one should be dry practicing often. One of the most critical fundamentals practiced during dry fire practice is trigger control (or manipulation). It should be apparent that the best type of practice for this would consist of consistently perfect trigger presses over and over again in order to establish and reenforce the muscle memory of that perfect trigger press. The problem with this is we often use practice to improve a particular skill. In other words, all of us begin with “practicing” an imperfect skill in order to improve it at the risk of developing the muscle memory of a less than perfect mechanic.

This brings me to my first suggestion to get better at practicing. Practice isn’t simply about “getting the reps” in. It’s also about improving. In order to do this, it’s imperative that we place as much focus as possible on the task at hand with the goal of observing enough detail to self diagnose the mechanics and make improvements. This is much harder to do than it sounds. But a few things one can do to make it easier is to select a location where one can practice without interruptions or distractions.

For example, I try to find time every day where I can safely dry practice for about ten to fifteen minutes. The location tends to be my home office while taking a break from work during business hours when the kids are “in school” and my wife is also preoccupied with a commitment. Anything that can distract me is turned off (the computer and smartphone included). Then I get to work with my practice.

When it comes to live fire, I prefer using a private range alone where I can run live fire drills without being distracted by the sound of other firearms being used. I also make it a point to eliminate all other distractions. When I can’t get time alone on a private range, I make it a point to go to the range when the range I can access isn’t very busy. It doesn’t always work out that way, but that’s life. We have to work with what we can. At any rate, the point is to eliminate as many distractions and interruptions as possible so I can focus better on the drill I am working on.

Minimizing distractions to maximize focus is a good start, but that’s not all that is needed to improve. Improvement requires making small changes and comparing the results to a benchmark in order to determine whether or not the small change actually had a positive impact. There are a few options when it comes to measurement. The first is selecting a target that can be used to score the results. There are a bunch of different targets that work and they don’t need to be fancy. Heck, index cards and paper plates are sufficient in many cases depending on the drills practiced. Another great tool is a shot timer, like the PACT Club Timer III I use and have mentioned in other posts. It’s not absolutely necessary to use a shot timer, but I strongly recommend using one as it makes measurements a lot less subjective.

I’ve mentioned self diagnosis now a few times in this post, but really haven’t explained how to go about it. Self diagnosis begins with self observation. This is a skill that will take time to develop. I’d like to simply say pay attention to every detail, but I’ve found that identifying the details we want to observe before starting practice starts building the specific things that make up “every detail” as one gets better. I’ll make an attempt to describe the process that I go through to self diagnose.

Let us consider a live fire practice session where I will be working with a Bill drill at a given distance. The Bill drill consists of drawing the firearm and firing six rounds into the high thoracic cavity of a target (an 8″ diameter paper plate works well for this) as fast as possible. Before I start the drill, I take a minute to mentally review the drill and make a mental note of actions I want to observe. This might include observing how I clear my garments, how my initial grip feels, noting the position of the pistol relative to my chest when the support hand establishes it’s grip, noting whether or not I started staging the trigger for the first shot prior to full presentation of the firearm, observing the movement of the red dot of pistol as the firearm is fully presented, observing the dot movement between shots (to assist in determining how well I managed the recoil and whether or not I need to tighten my grip), and making sure I got a seventh and final sight picture before starting to re-holster the pistol. The list of things to observe gets long quickly (and I didn’t list everything I could have). The point is there is a lot of detail and making this initial mental list helps me prepare to self observe the drill as I run it.

After running the drill, I go back through the mental list and to note my opinion of how those details played out. Did I have any trouble clearing my garment? Did I feel I got a good initial grip before unholstering the pistol? Was the grip with my support hand good? What was the red dot moving during presentation? The dot move the way I expected it to move? If I happen to note one thing that seem right, then I note the score and time, make that one single adjustment and repeat the process for getting ready to observe, run the drill, and review. If the details from the drill felt good and I can’t identify something to change, then I get ready to run the drill again and push harder for a faster time. Every single time I run the drill, the process is repeated.

For somebody new to shooting, learning to identify the details to observe will take time. The best way to reduce the learning time is to obtain some high quality instruction. A good instructor will do the observing and provide a list of things to improve which will in turn start the list of details to observe while practicing. As always, I highly recommend seeking opportunities to receive high quality instruction whenever possible.

Getting better at practicing isn’t easy and takes time, but it’s essential to becoming a better shooter. Really, it’s essential to get better at anything one wants to get better at.

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