Over the past few months, I placed a lot of emphasis on improving my mechanical pistol shooting skills and abilities. I’ve taken courses, attended matches, and have dedicated time to daily practice. All of this has taken place while I’ve maintained an emphasis on shooting better and also keeping two goals in mind. At the same time, I’ve come across some blog and social media posts that have made the old gray matter dedicate some thinking cycles to how I’m approaching my improvement plan and that’s given me some things to consider.
The first signal that I want to mention is this blog post published on John Daub’s blog. In this post, John mentions an “outcome versus process goals” discussion he was a part of in a podcast and then continues to share some accomplishments which he attributes to process focus. What really caught my eye is that both accomplishments he mentions are very similar to the specific goals I’ve had in mind. My first goal is successfully completing the Rangemaster Instructor development course which I’m scheduled to attend in a couple of weeks. Granted it’s not the Master Instructor course John completed, but it’s an instructor course from Rangemaster nevertheless. My second goal is earning a Light Pin from Gabe White later this year. In of itself, reading the blog post didn’t really get the gears turning in my head. However, I made a mental note mostly because of the similarities between my current goals and John’s accomplishments.
Literally a day later, I came across a short video Scott “Jedi” Jedlinski posted on the Modern Samurai Project’s Instagram profile. In this video, Jedi mentions two voices that battle for space in our head when we are trying to shoot our best. One voice urges us to “go faster” while the other reminds us “you suck”. These voices get louder as pressure increases and distract us from the job at hand – shooting. So once again, I was reminded that focusing on the task at hand, or more specifically the process of performing the task at hand, allows us to tune out the distractions and execute our best work. Listening to the video got my head nodding in agreement and, once again, I made a mental note of the post. However, the brain cycles remained idle.
It wasn’t until last week when I had my “aha moment” on process focus. This happened while I was rereading parts of Ben Stoeger’s Practical Pistol Reloaded book. There is a section in the book titled “Training Your Focus”. In this section, Ben describes the importance of developing the ability to shift our attention from one task in order to complete that task well before quickly shifting our attention to the next task. The sequencing of the tasks is what constitutes a process. In a later section in the book, he tackles the concept of “stage preprogramming” which allows us to prepare the sequence of tasks which our attention will focus on individually. One of the benefits of preprogramming is that it reduces the time needed to direct our attention from one task to the next because we do not need to spend time figuring out which task is next since we already know the sequence of tasks. While these sections cover these concepts in the context of shooting a stage at a competitive match, the concepts can be applied to practice and skill development as well – that was my “aha moment”. I understand this is still pretty vague, but bear with me just a bit longer as I attempt to paint a better picture.
One of the takeaways from the most recent class I attended, KR Training’s Advanced Handgun course, was the recognition that there were some drills I shot where everything felt right and I knew I could push myself to go faster and achieve a better score. This is very different from dealing with the distracting urge to go faster described by Jedi. Rather it was what John would describe as a moment of zen where the process was going just right and I was in it. It wasn’t that every shot was perfect, but I was shrouded by confidence knowing and feeling that the vast majority of trigger presses were sending projectiles where they needed to go. As a result, my focus was never pulled away from the process and towards a less than perfect shot which would give an opportunity for the “you suck” notion to occupy my mind allowing me to make additional mistakes that would give the “go faster” urge to manifest and allow for even more mistakes.
I believe those zen moments can also be attributed to automaticity. That is because the moments that stood out the most were drills where my focus flowed from one task to the next without conscious effort. It was more feeling than thinking. There were other drills that went well, but weren’t nearly as smooth and didn’t quite yield the same feeling of zen. In those drills, I was actively thinking of each task and remained focused on executing a plan. The drill that didn’t go well had elements of “you suck” and “go faster” in some form or another which started with one mistake and additional mistakes followed one after another like the chain reaction of a line of dominos falling over.
What does this have to do with focus and preprogramming? And how does that apply to practice and skill development?
We can take a drill we are about to practice, breakdown the sequence of tasks needed to perform the drill, and establish a plan to execute it. This is a form of preprogramming. We can also look at each task and break down the sequence of sub tasks needed to complete that task. This process can be repeated to make the plan as fine grained as we want or need to do this. This also allows us to identify or discover smaller more focused drills that can be practiced in order to improve our ability to execute specific tasks which need to come together to perform the target drill better.
For example, let’s consider the Failure to Stop drill which is one of the four drills required to earn a pin in Gabe White’s Pistol Shooting Solutions course. The drill consists of drawing a pistol from a start signal, placing two shots to the body, and placing one shot to the head. A high level plan would look like this:
- Wait for the signal
- Body shot
- Body shot
- Head shot
That is a plan, but it can be broken down further and we can be more precise about where our attention will focus. For example, drawing the pistol has a process of its own which might look like this:
- Clear the concealment garment
- Grip the pistol
- Pull the pistol
- Level the pistol
- Establish two handed grip
- Present the gun to the target
The draw is an example of a sub-process task that can be practiced with a separate drill. In fact, it can be broken down into smaller sub-processes that can be practiced individually.
Each shot can be broken down into a sub-process as well that might look like:
- Visually focus at a specific point to shoot
- Bring the gun to that point
- Apply the appropriate aiming method
- Press the trigger
However, depending on one’s own ability the head shot might require a different aiming method which alters the things that our attention focuses on.
Bringing these processes together, a plan to execute this drill that emphasizes where to focus might look like this:
- Focus on listening for the start signal
- Focus on establishing a good firing hand grip
- Focus on establishing a good two hand grip
- Focus on the spot on the target where the body shots will go
- While maintaining visual focus on the target, focus on quickly pressing the trigger as soon as the dot or front sight appears over the spot you want to shoot
- While maintaining the same visual focus on the target, focus on quickly pressing the trigger as soon as the dot or front sight appears again over the stop you want to shoot
- Focus on spot on the target where the head shot will go
- While maintaining visual focus on the target, focus on carefully pressing the trigger after the dot or front sight settles on the spot you want to shoot
If one isn’t getting the results from the drill that we want during practice, then one might to add additional focus tasks to try. This will likely slow down the execution of the drill since it will require more conscious thought to execute, but should result in better shot placement. One might also want to practice some drills that support the development of the sub-process that were identified. If one is getting consistently good results, then one might try combining some focus steps into one or removing a step all together. This should result in executing the drill faster, but might result in a loss of precision which may or may not be acceptable.
The general idea is to put enough conscious thought into a process enough times until parts of or the entire process become second nature which improves consistency and thereby allows us to maintain flow or zen under varying degrees of pressure. In other words, we can use process focus in practice to help us become better shooters that can maintain process focus in stressful conditions.