A Cursory Review Over Four Years of IDPA

Having tracked four years of IDPA match results have shed some light on my pistol proficiency journey which has been filled with breakthroughs, stagnation, and everything in between. The journey isn’t done, but a retrospective is in order.

Shortly after finishing the final draft of the last blog post, I started updating a nifty spreadsheet that contains the match results of every IDPA match I attend and plots those results in a line graph that illustrates my match result trends over time. As I was updating the spreadsheet I realized that I have now been shooting IDPA matches for four years and the graph has sufficient data where I can draw some interesting correlations to where I was in terms of skill development. In other words, it tells my story and creates an opportunity for me to reflect while sharing some of the lessons that I’ve learned with the hope that those reading can benefit from it.

Let’s begin with the line chart which spans from February of 2019 to March of 2023. The dark blue line at the top represents the final match score which is composed as sum of the raw stage times, the time between the start signal and the last shot fired measured in seconds, plus the sum of penalties. The raw time is the lighter blue line second from the top. Penalties, for those unfamiliar with IDPA, come in various forms. The most common one is “points down”, represented by the orange line which is the third line from the top. Points down are lack of accuracy penalties which are awarded for placing hits outside of the vitally important parts of the target called the A-zone. One point is given for hits in the C-zone area that is found just outside the A-zone. Three points are given for impacts in the D-zone which surrounds the C-zone and extends to the edge of the target. Five points are awarded for a miss. Beyond points down 3 point penalties are awarded for procedural errors and 5 points are awarded for impacts on non-threat targets. There are 10 and 20 second penalties that can happen, but those are rare and require flagrant behaviors that yield an unfair competitive advantage. The lines for all the other penalties are stacked on top of each other at the bottom of the chart.

While my first year began half way into February of 2019, I’m going to refer to 2019 as my first year of IDPA competition and continue to refer to years as calendar years rather than twelve month spans that begin in the middle of February. I suspect this will make it easier to write about and probably easier for readers to follow.

While the average match total of the 13 matches I participated in 2019 was about 192, the scores were all over the place ranging from 150 on the low end up to 232. Raw times were all over the place too and so were points down. Even though I was often listed near the bottom of the match results listings, it was a fun year where I took my first steps into developing my handgun proficiency which was mostly driven from an interest in defensive carry and local matches provided a opportunity to challenge my skills and practice things that were simply not possible at the local static ranges I had access to. That year I received 12 hours of professional instruction, but four of those hours consisted of carbine instruction. My practice sessions were unstructured and made up entirely of live fire practice which was sparse in comparison to how often I’m at the range today. I had heard of dry fire, but I was not a practitioner. I’m not entirely sure why that was. I knew there were benefits, but I suppose I saw the match result improvements as a good indicator that I was getting better with what I was doing. The overall match scores support that, but looking back on it I can say that the improvement was organic and not deliberate.

Interestingly enough, there seems to be a correlation between raw time and points down that I didn’t notice back in 2019. That correlation is that matches with high points down (poor accuracy) tended to have low raw times and vice versa. I recall internalizing the advice from other competitors that it was all about finding the right balance between speed and accuracy. This advice was often presented as, “too many points down suggests one if going too fast and should pump the brakes” or “having no points down or very few means you are going too slow and should speed up”. The data seems to support the advice I received. However, there are some flaws with advice that I’ve identified over the years. The first one is, as John Daub frequently reminds me, that the advice places the focus on the outcome, the match result, and not the process, the shooting of each stage. The second problem is that it only provides one dial of adjustment (speed) when in reality there are quite a few dials and switches we can adjust. The advice also consumes most of our cognitive functions by thinking about the previous stage or match in order to determine the speed that will be used to attack the next stage. I can’t deny the existence of a relationship between speed and accuracy, but I’ve found it doesn’t do much good to dwell on those while preparing for a stage or analyzing the results and it is not something we should be thinking about while shooting a stage. What we should be thinking about before, during, and after a stage is beyond the scope of this post and something I am still learning about. However, those of you who want to dig deeper into this topic may find Brian Enos’ Practical Shooting book to be a good place to start.

IDPA Match – June 24, 2019

The last thing I want to touch on during 2019 that may have contributed to the wide range of results was that I competed with four different guns. They were a Springfield XDM, a Sig Sauer P226 MK-25, a Sig Sauer P229 Legion, and Sig Sauer 1911 Emperor Scorpion. The first three were used in the Standard Service Pistol (SSP) division and the 1911 was used in the Custom Defensive Pistol (CDP) division. During that time, I was also trying out various holsters. There was a lot of exploration going on as I was figuring out what would work well for me for a defensive carry pistol and at that time a lot of it was based on the pistols I thought were cool rather than searching for a pistol that fit me well and worked well in my day to day life. Frankly, I was competing with pistols that I rarely carried concealed. Again, there was a lot of organic learning going on.

The second year was very different. I only participated in three matches at the beginning of the year before the lockdowns started. Even when matches started back up later in the year, I didn’t participate because I thought it would be prudent to ration the ammo I had on hand given the lack of availability and surge in prices that followed. The results of those three matches were better and less erratic than the previous year with an average of 159 and a range from 151 to 165. This could have been a data anomaly, but I like to attribute it to the mindset change that took place after I attended the late Sean Hoffman’s Tactical Pistol/Rifle course near the end of 2019. That class was also the catalyst that got me carrying and competing with a VP9 after having learned a bit about gun fit. Furthermore, this was the point in time where I started incorporating dry fire into my practice routines which ended up making up the vast majority of my practice time during 2020. Practice became more regular than it did the previous year, but it was still relatively sparse compared to today.

I also shot my first classifier during the last match of 2020, which took place on February 22, where I earned a Novice (NV) classification in SSP. I took a moment to reread the blog post about that classifier and realize now that I believed I was a better shooter than what the classifier results suggested. In that post, I listed a number of what I believed to be contributing factors as well, but I failed to accept the results and recognize that I was less skilled than I believed myself to be. I think this probably contributed to the strict ammunition rationing that I put in place for the remainder of the year.

IDPA Match – February 17, 2020

Thankfully my ego wasn’t so large in 2020 that it kept me from seeking additional instruction. In fact the ammunition rationing I was doing with the 9mm stash was to make sure I had enough for the 40 hours of professional instruction I had booked in 2020 which started of the Rangemaster Combative Pistol course, followed by KR Training’s Red Dot Pistol Essentials, and wrapped up with Gabe White’s Pistol Shooting Solutions. This year was also the year I transitioned to using a red dot on a defensive carry pistol which was using the aforementioned courses, but it wouldn’t be until later in 2021 when I would start competing with it. Perhaps the best thing that happened this year was failing to pass the Old West Test in the Rangemaster class and coming up short on a pin achievement in Gabe White’s class which finally made me admit that I was far less skilled than I thought I was and was more determined to improve.

Even though I was more determined than ever before to get better going into 2021, things started off in part due to the cost and availability of ammunition, but also because I was also devoting quite a bit of time to hunting and rifle related activities. As such, participation in IDPA matches didn’t start back up until June and even then my match participation was limited to five matches. The results were only slightly better than the results from early 2020 with an average score of 148 and a range from 121 to 163. The fact of the matter was that even though I had the desire to get better I wasn’t dedicating sufficient time with enough frequency to make significant gains. At least not under match pressure.

While match performance improvement was minimal and I hadn’t really altered my practice routines, I continued seeking professional instruction and racked up another 17 training hours at KR Training which focused on defensive pistol skill development. The courses included: Defensive Pistol Skills 1, Defensive Pistol Skills 2, Defensive Pistol Skills 3, and Low Light Shooting 1. The most noticeable change that I recall from this year was my growing interest in measurable performance. Yes, I had been tracking match scores on a spreadsheet this entire time. However, I had done this mostly out of curiosity and I had yet to develop a desire to perform competitively in matches. I was having fun and getting better. That was good enough. Near the end of year, something had started to change and I wanted to measure everything. I wanted a shooting test at the end of every class. Measurement had become important and achieving new personal records on repeatable drills was something I sought after.

IDPA Match – October 22, 2022

Everything changed in 2022. The ammunition market conditions had improved and with that I had the opportunity to participate in more matches, attend more classes, and allowed me establish a practice regimen that had a much better live fire and dry fire balance that was far more consistent and more frequent. I shot 11 IDPA matches this year with an average score of 124 and a range of 94 to 168. While that was two less matches than my first year, I also started shooting USPSA and Steel Challenge matches. The correlations between the data points also changed. The variance between raw time and match total steadily decreased as the year progressed. At the same time, the fast raw time to high points down correlation began to disappear. There are a number of reasons for these changes, but the two that I believe are most prevalent is that the changes to the practice regimen contributed to improved automaticity (a concept I was introduced to by Karl Rehn in a Skill Builder class I attended). Additionally, I was no longer thinking about how fast or slow I need to attack a stage for the best result. Instead, I took more time coming up with a stage plan and executing it while allowing the developed automaticity to do its thing by keeping my mind focused on, as Gabe White said in his Pistol Shooting Solutions course, seeing what I need to see and feeling what I need to feel.

This year was filled with a whole lot of training as well where I managed to accumulate another 68 hours of professional pistol instruction. Sixteen of those hours were specific to competitive shooting with Ben Stoeger. All of that instruction expanded my knowledge base and had a tremendous impact on the mental game that evolved during this year. Although I took a bunch of classes and shot a lot of matches, the biggest contributing factor to match performance improvement was without a doubt doing the work. That means regular, almost daily, dry fire practice that was intentionally focused on improving specific skills in addition to more frequent live fire practice. I suspect the strong start of 2023 match scores, which are essentially stacked on the trend line, supports the notion that the more frequent and focused the practice regimen is the better the results. Further evidence of this includes, passing the Old West Test twice, earning a light pin from Gabe White, and achieving Marksman (MM) classification in the IDPA Carry Optics (CO) division in March of 2022 and then a Sharpshooter (SS) classification in Feb 2023.

I’m certainly proud of my progress so far, but I’ve still got a long way to go as I’m no longer content with middle of the pack results. I want to win. Having written all of this out, I’m debating whether or not to publish this post since it’s giving me a “yay me” vibe. However, there are enough lessons learned here that I believe can benefit the reader. One is that it is easy to develop a false sense of confidence with regards to one’s skill. Measurement in terms of both time and accuracy can go a long way to provide objective evidence of where one’s skill level actually is. Professional instruction is of tremendous value as it will create awareness of techniques that need improvement or correction. However, knowing is only part of the battle. Without doing the work, there will be little to no improvement. Fundamental mechanics such as a good grip, adequate sight picture, and proper trigger control are absolutely necessary, but they are only the basics and there is a lot more beyond that. Find a mentor if possible. At the very least, make friends with folks who share this interest and push you to improve. And keep doing the work. It’s a fun and worthwhile journey.

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