30 November 2012

It's the Biggest Presentation of Your Life

I recently attended a seminar on effective business communication techniques and realized halfway through that the same strategies that make for a good presentation to the Board of Directors are the ones that can prepare you for your best possible shooting performance. Whether you shoot competitively or for self-defense, the same principles are helpful.

One of the keys to effective presentation, whether oral or written, is to simplify. Be concise. For communication, that means using the least words possible to convey a complete picture. For shooting, that generally means paring down excess movement and other distractions. Moving more efficiently is smoother and ultimately faster, plus you'll give yourself less rope to hang yourself with when you confuse yourself with a more complex than necessary manipulations. Just this week in dry-fire, I found that my left hand was making nearly two feet of extra movement in the surrender draw. I'd already been in the habit of making sure that my right hand was on the same vertical plane as my gun, so that it only needed to drop down to meet the grip, but my left hand was coming down nearly to waist level then coming back up to my upper right chest just like my standard draw. By moving my left hand from surrender directly to my upper right chest, it's now waiting to meet the gun and leading to a more sure support hand grip sooner in the draw stroke. And I can't get it caught up in extra clothes I might have on, especially now that it is colder outside.

That little tweak to my technique only came about because I've been practicing - another key for communications success. Remember that while visualization is important, getting out and doing the real thing is also important for your gun handling skills. Practicing with your actual gear is also how you find out whether or not your gear works. Just like making sure that your projector works for that important PowerPoint presentation and that you know how to use that nifty new wireless remote you got, you want to make sure your gun functions properly before the performance that matters. I know some people who are very glad that they brought their carry guns to a recent BUG-friendly IDPA match at my home club. Not only did they get to practice with what the set up they intend to use in real life, but they may have found out that their guns weren't as reliable as they thought. It's hard to know things like that unless you practice. Like finding out your elevator pitch is five minutes long instead of 30 seconds when you finally speak it out loud after writing it out, you won't know until you try it.

When putting together a presentation, it can also be helpful to evaluate your work with fresh eyes whenever possible. If you have a mentor or coach, ask them to watch and give feedback. Or you can use video to critically examine your technique. Finally, just taking a break after working out a new skill and trying it again later can help you spot holes, just like putting aside written work product for a little while makes for a stronger edit later. One of the constant mantras in both shooting sports and self-defense training is that shooting is a perishable skill that will decline if not used regularly. That can be a good thing for training purposes because taking a break accomplishes two things: First, a long practice session spent learning a new skill can result in increased speed and polish beyond our "cold" abilities before nosediving into fatigue and sloppiness. Going back to that skill can help you determine where you really stand in mastering it, and control for both physical and mental fatigue. Second, you may find when you return to working on a skill that you aren't doing it in the best way possible for you, based on changes between when you originally learned it and now. Perhaps you're wearing different clothing, or you've learned a new technique in the meantime that doesn't integrate with your old way of doing things.

Effective communication skills transfer well from the business/academic world to shooting. Whether you consider your important shooting "presentation" to be your next match or your response to a dangerous situation, you can use the same skills you use to pitch a deal to new clients or write a memo to your boss. And as a bonus, you're developing and practicing skills that will help you at work, no matter what you do.

21 November 2012

Now Do It Again. And Again. And Again.

Last weekend, I did something I like to do once or twice a year to measure my progress: shoot an IDPA classifier. Standardized courses of fire can be a great way to exercise a variety of skill sets and confirm how you're doing against an objective standard. During the regular shooting season, I often pick a few people to compare my performance against, but that method relies on seeing the same people regularly and assuming a certain amount of consistency in their shooting. It can also be difficult to use those people as a yardstick if they are improving at a different rate than you are or if you are trying to compare results across different types of matches (whether that means match directors with varying stage design styles or different gun sports entirely). However, classifiers and qualifiers are a way that you can actually shoot against yourself, since the course of fire will be exactly the same every time.

I'm pleased to report that my speed and accuracy have continued to improve every time I've shot this particular classifier. I'm not nearly so pleased to report that while my raw times and penalty points for Stages 1 and 2 have dropped significantly from my last attempt this past spring, my Stage 3 returned to one of the worst overall scores I've posted in nearly two years. It was a lot faster, but that means little in a game where every miss adds 2.5 seconds to your final time. In the spirit of my last post, I'm concentrating on the high point of shooting my best Stages 1 and 2 ever, but I'm also reflecting on one of the biggest problems I'm facing right now: consistency.

Part of the challenge in getting consistent results is how difficult it is to keep all of your skills growing at the same rate. This is perhaps most obvious in how easy it is for many of us to learn how to shoot well at close targets, while hitting a wall when engaging at further distances. There are many elements to being a "good shooter", whatever your discipline, and it's hard work to remember all of them and execute on all of them. Think back to the first time you fired a gun or the last time you brought out a new shooter: stance, grip, sight alignment, sight picture, trigger press....all that, in addition to just knowing how to run the gun. Then think about all of the things you might add to that, depending on the particular gun game you are playing: breathing and breath control, recoil management, follow-through, follow-ups, target transitions, multiple shooting positions [pdf], trigger prep, optic use including holdovers/holdunders, stage management... It's a lot! Individually, many of these skills aren't hard to master, but doing them all together is something else entirely, especially as you are trying to improve on each one in turn. It takes practice to learn how to run when you are still mastering walking and chewing gum at the same time.

So back to classifiers. Because they are generally intended to test a wide range of skills, they require the shooter to be able to perform at a consistent level across multiple areas. Getting good at one thing and doing it one time isn't enough. We have to bring up our abilities across the board and maintain those levels of performance consistently in order to really show meaningful improvement.

11 November 2012

You've Come a Long Way, Baby

When I last posted, I was getting ready for an IDPA sanctioned match. I had a lot of fun there, and the match director and hosting club did a great job not just with running a smooth match, but in making the shooters and the staff comfortable and welcome. It's not their fault I didn't get my act together and shoot the match I had envisioned. Between that and the fact that November is the start of a slower couple months of shooting in my world, I've had a lot on my mind as I reflected on the 2012 season. 

After every match, but especially after disappointing matches, and even after practice sessions, I'm finding it more and more helpful to take some time to look back at how I performed. While analyzing successes and failures on the spot is necessary for immediate feedback and adjustment, sometimes I need to take a couple days to put that performance into perspective, especially if I managed a late-game crash and burn. It's normal to remember the bad and let it overshadow what you did well. But fortunately, it's also possible to retrain your memories. After I've had some time to think about and remember the high points, I try to use them to reframe my perception of what didn't work out so well for me. For instance, instead of dwelling on how I bombed a stage, I try to think about how I nailed that difficult mover halfway through. (Some of you will remember this as a tip I give for shooting your own match.) I also think it's incredibly important to put current performance in context. You might not be happy that you only shot an 8-inch group in practice, but don't forget that maybe it was only 6 months ago that you couldn't even keep all your shots on paper. And maybe you came in last place, Again. But only by a few points or seconds, and not by the insurmountable-looking margin you came in last place last month...I've totally been there. The mantra in my house is to beat that back is that a bad day on the range now is still better than a good day used to be. Chances are pretty good you'll find the same if you look at the big picture of your shooting experience.

At the same time, I want to keep improving. So winter is when I try to get back to the basics and improve my foundation so that next season, I can have more successes to mentally wipe out the bobbles and mistakes. An instructor once told me that good shooting is just the basics done smoothly and quickly. That means shooting boring drills like groups, and buckling down for dryfire practice, to really ingrain fundamentals into my muscle memory. It can also mean changing things up to make you really think about what you're doing. Try it: shoot a revolver instead of a semi-auto, or put some time into your rifle instead of your pistol. Go out and shoot a discipline you've never tried before. It can help break you out of a rut, concentrate on skills you've started to take for granted, or focus your practice on a new area. I know that for me, going back to my double-action only guns forces me to work harder on consistent trigger press than I ever will shooting my striker-fired or single action guns. And as much as I struggle with shooting flying clays, time spent behind a shotgun always shows in more comfort with moving pistol and rifle targets. More importantly, playing in new areas reminds me that at the end of the day, much of what we do on the range is for fun. Even when training for self-defense or similar, range time should be enjoyable. 

This winter, I'll still be shooting the matches that run year-round (including the one I help run!), but I'm planning on spending some time teaching, on reinforcing my fundamentals, and on rediscovering the joy of shooting. I hope you'll join me.