Maybe a confusing title, but I think you’ll understand what I mean when I say consistent frequency improves shooter performance by the end of the article. In essence I’m highlighting what we already know. Shooting is a perishable skill. A certain level of shooter performance and proficiency is attainable. That is to say that once you learn how to do some things you won’t forget. So you will never go back to square one. However, how good you are at the skill sets you’ve attained is in flux. This article is about recognizing that skill falloff and some ways to prevent it.
Shooter Performance Degradation
In efforts to improve my own shooting I’ve been doing some reading about the learning process and how our brains work. Then I’m trying to resolve and apply that with what I have seen and experienced in this sport. I’ve noticed at a few large matches I’ve gone to over the years that I would often shoot better as the match progressed. So I got to thinking about why that was the case. I also wondered why I hadn’t experienced the same feeling or skill progression at the first big match I went to.
It occurred to me that being my first big match, the 2012 Sniper’s Hide Cup, I had attended the train-up course. I was also new to the sport and shooting often. So the frequency of my shooting at that time was pretty high. I was also shooting often, consistently. Whereas years later this wasn’t the case. How often and how consistently I shoot has varied over the years. If I wasn’t shooting often, consistently, I saw the skill surge during the match.
Shooter Performance Surges
So where do those little skill surges come from? Repetition. During a train up or a multiple day match you do a lot of shooting. You have almost all of your attention devoted to the task at hand. It’s a ripe environment for building neural pathways and triggering myelination. Without getting crazy with how memory works I’ll talk just a smidge about it. As you perform a task the steps of the task are mapped out in your head. Neural pathways. As you repeat tasks over time and you perform the same steps those pathways get stronger. This is where sayings like, “building muscle memory,” and “practice makes perfect,” come from.
The more repetitions you perform over a greater amount of time the stronger the map of the task becomes. It triggers a process called myelination that increases the speed and reliability of information along the mental map. The reverse is also true. If you don’t reinforce skills and mental maps of how to perform skills they will degrade. That process is called demyelination. The skill map, like an unused road, starts to break down. Travel along the road isn’t as fast or efficient despite the road still being passable.
Shooter Performance in Perspective
So lets bring this all together so it makes sense. There are two concepts I’m trying to bring forth here. The first has to do with practice. Practice is necessary to build a skill map or neural pathway. So we need to shoot! Or do we? The brain builds those skill maps based on how you do it. Not where or when. It’s the skill itself and not the context that needs reinforcement. So dry fire becomes even more important. You can reinforce a skill set like a smooth trigger press without actually going to the range. If you’ve ever heard of elite shooters saying they dry fire more than they shoot, this is why.
Don’t get me wrong, live fire is important. I’m going to give you a way of thinking all of this that I’ve adopted recently. In sports terms think of live fire at the range as the game and dry fire as practice. You want to try and do as much training as possible dry and then confirm the effects of your training with live fire at the range. So the first point of this article is, dry fire your hearts out. There’s huge benefit to it. Not only can you get better at different shooting tasks but you can stay good at what you’ve already learned. Dry fire and keep practicing. That builds the skill maps. Can we maintain them the same way?
Shooter Performance Maintenance
Look, life gets in everyone’s way at different times. All kinds of things come up. We can’t always make it to the range. As we’ve discussed we need to practice and practice often in order to get good and stay good at precision shooting. So we know that in order to perform at our best we need to shoot often. We know that we need to do it consistently. That’s the second point I wanted to convey. It was the reason for the stories about my own perceived performance at different points over the years. The answer is the same. Dry fire and then dry fire more!
By dry firing we can not only build those skill sets but we can maintain them. I’ve come to believe that the maintenance is perhaps even more important than the building of the skill sets in the first place. I’ve been to matches and at the end kicked myself. “Man, if I’d have shot like I did today the first two days of the match I would have made the top 30.” I was lamenting the fact that I’d basically used the entire match to do what I should have done myself to prepare before the match. The problem was I’d set myself up to have my performance peak at the end instead of the beginning!
I hope this article makes sense to you all reading it. From time to time I’ll have concepts for articles and the messages I want to convey floating around in my head. Sometimes they come out great in typewritten form and sometimes I wonder if the essence of the message is lost. So if you have questions about this please ask. Let’s also wish Don some luck as he gets ready for his first step into the competitive world. I’ll see if I can get him to add some of his own thoughts afterwards. Remember guys, we have to perform the task we want to excel at on a regular basis and often. It’s not practical for all of us to get to a range five days a week and burn up hundreds of rounds per month. Dry firing will get you the majority of the benefit without the hassle. Just make sure you do things the same way and don’t get sloppy and build bad habits!