By Richard Best
If you have spent any time online reading about firearm ownership, self-defence applications pertaining to guns, or sport shooting you will certainly have seen a lot of emphasis placed on getting proper training initially, and about periodic recurrent training. At the very least you will be encouraged to practice the skills you learnt in training. So what is the difference between training and practice, and why are they important?
A simple way to break this down is to think of training as a time to learn something, and practice as a time to cement that which you have learnt. Many people attend a training session and expect that by the end of it they will be fantastic shooters, but this is seldom the case. Some of those students are trying so hard to shoot better that they are not absorbing the lessons that need to be learned, and others are learning the lessons, but don’t commit to cementing the skills by practicing.
Without getting too technical, let’s dig a little deeper into how we improve skills; I’ll try and be brief.
When we are performing actions, our central nervous system is communicating and coordinating signals to and from different paths in order to get the body to respond. These transmissions happen via something we can refer to as neural pathways. In order to become proficient at a skill, or to become better at the skill, we should aim to speed up these transmissions. Thankfully our bodies have a way of doing so: by layering these neural pathways with a fatty tissue called myelin. Studies have shown that more myelin results in faster and stronger signals, and that the amount of myelination is directly related to the amount of practicing of a skill. What I am talking about here is practice, and as you can see the more of it that you do the more likely you are to improve the skill. Some skills can even be practiced to a point where automaticity is achieved: when actions don’t require conscious thought. This is a vital skill in certain situations, and could be the difference between life and death in a gunfight. Or between 1st and 6th place in a match. At this point it worth remembering that skills are perishable things. Do you remember being able to do something like recalling a phone number better than you can since you started storing them in your mobile phone? Attending a training session will not make you a good shooter on its own, you need to put in the time and effort to practice frequently.
But there is one major consideration that needs to be addressed: repeated practice creates myelin and myelin strengthens neural pathways, so if the technique which you are practicing has poor form, or is just plain incorrect, then you are cementing in bad habits. The more of that kind of practice you do, the harder it becomes to break it and fix any problems you may have later.
The best way to avoid being in a situation where you are practicing the wrong thing is to ensure that you seek proper training early and periodically. By getting guidance from a skilled instructor that understands not only your goals and the skills, but also knows how to diagnose problems and understands the underlying biomechanics, you can ensure that you reduce your repetitions of poor or incorrect form. This may mean that the instructor advises you to use slow and deliberate actions whilst perfecting the skill, not because that the skill can’t be done fast, but rather that at the time of learning the correct form is more important than speed. Don’t get discouraged: with good repetition comes myelination of the neural pathways that we want to improve. During training focus on correctly performing the skills. During training listen carefully to the instructor about your form, things to avoid doing, as well as things to do. Also, note the types of exercises or drills that are suggested and why. These are the most important things you can take away from your training, because you can repeat them during practice even without an instructor present. If you get to the point where you have those things working to a satisfactory standard, then enrol in a more advanced course, or go on a refresher to ensure that you are doing it correctly.
There is training, and there is training: choose wisely. Aside from the desirable characteristics of an instructor that I mentioned earlier, there is also a difference in the practical element to the training that one can do. I have seen instructors rush students through a course with the bare minimum practical experience, only to have them attend training with me and seeing things I consider essential for the first time. Likewise, I have seen students shooting for hours at a target with no understanding of what they are trying to achieve or why they are using a certain technique. Whilst each individual has their strengths when it comes to learning, I have found that a good combination of theory and explanation backed by legitimate knowledge and experience, supported by several hours of actually running skill drills to start this process of myelination, to be the most successful. This does mean that the student may need to commit more time than they had expected to, but the results are worth the effort.
A good shooter needs both training and practice in varying amounts depending on their skill level and their goals, but always remember the role that each of these elements has in your development as a shooter.
Richard works in the firearm dealership industry, is an accredited IFTA firearm instructor, and owns Best Sport & Defence.