How to Practice
By Seth Haselhuhn
There are several different approaches to training which should be considered when designing training programs and shooting is no different. Whether you’re training for combat, self-defense, competition, or hobby, if you’re looking for improvement here are a few different approaches you can use to maximize your training and make the most of your range days.
Practice makes perfect, wait – no, perfect practice makes perfect, or is it just practice makes permanent? We know that practice works and if you’ve looked into the shooting world at all it doesn’t take long to see there’s no such thing as a perfect anything. That leaves the old “muscle memory” saying that we never rise to the occasion – only fall to the level of our training, which seems to make the practice and permanent connection. That leaves us with little hope of learning how to get better.
However, with a little insight from the motor learning research and some application of their theories we can consider three different practice approaches which can guide us in pursuit of our training goals. I’ll break down what scientists call blocked, random, and varied practice and discuss how you can use them in your training.
...if you’ve looked into the shooting world at all it doesn’t take long to see there’s no such thing as a perfect anything.
Blocked practice is what we all think about when we think about practicing fundamentals. When you think about fundamentals, do you think about repeated repetitions with careful consideration for doing each rep exactly the same as the last? The essence of blocked practice is exactly that, repeated repetitions with no change or variance in the conditions in which each rep is completed.
It may sound basic but it works. It works so well in fact that entire training programs for sport, military, and businesses have been built on it for years. The question shouldn’t be whether or not it works – the question should be whether or not it works for what you want to do with it.
If you are learning a new skill, then blocked practice is a good approach to start with. Set the conditions considering the most basic, or fundamental application of the skill or movement and repeat it until you have it down. If needed break a more complicated skill down into logical parts practice them in a blocked schedule then combine the parts, practice them together, and continue this process until the skill is learned.
For example, if you were to learn the draw stroke from a holster, you could break the skill down into four parts. Part one is touch point and holster retention defeat, part two is clearing the muzzle from the holster and directing it at your target, part three is when your support hand meets your firing hand, and part four is full presentation, or extension of your arms.
If you were to block this skill out, you could start by isolating part one and focus on finding your touch point and defeating your holster retention. Repeat it until your hand starts to go to the same touch point each time and your retention is defeated cleanly. Do the same with each part, then combine the parts. Combine part 1 and 2 to make step one, then combine part 3 and 4 to make step two. Then, finally, combine steps one and two to make a full draw.
That’s blocked practice – it works well but its faults are found in situations with conditions different from which the skill was practiced. In other words, if you encounter a situation which dictates you can’t draw your pistol in the same manner in which you practiced it, the skill you’ve taught yourself wont’ transfer and you won’t be as good at it as you were in the blocked practice condition.
The question shouldn’t be whether or not it works – the question should be whether or not it works for what you want to do with it.
To vary your practice all you have to do is vary one condition of the skill you’re training. Set it up like you would blocked practice but plan to vary either speed, distance, direction, or position to execute the skill you’re training. The goal with varied practice is to add some cognitive interference into our blocked practice. In short, cognitive interference means you’ll have to think about how to do the skill whereas in blocked practice you only had to do the skill.
A few examples will make it clearer, so I’ll continue with the draw. Recall the draw steps I outlined earlier. I’m sure most of you have spent countless live reps on the range or dry reps in your house with your hands up like you’re getting robbed, holding your rifle, or down at your side as you would in most competition settings. If you’ve only practiced one of those positions, you’re doing blocked practice, if you’re doing all three, welcome to varied practice.
Other ways to add some variance in your blocked practice are to change your orientation to the target when you draw, instead of just standing square to the target the whole time, do one draw square, one draw with the target to your right, then one while turning to face a target. You could also do it from different positions such as one draw kneeling on your right knee, one kneeling on your left, one kneeling on both, one from urban prone, and one from lying on your back.
The key here is to vary the practice per rep and to make your variations relevant to your training goal. Training in this manner refines motor skill acquisition by making it more generalized and therefore the skill is retained longer and there’s better skill transfer. In other words your practice is more effective and the skill you’re training is more useable.
Other ways to add some variance in your blocked practice are to change your orientation to the target when you draw...
Once you’ve developed a few skills through blocked and varied practice you can really start focusing on learning to apply them. The process is referred to as random practice, not because there’s no plan but because the practiced skills are not repeated consecutively. In this schedule, your results will likely not be as good as they were in a blocked practice schedule however there is a large research base suggesting that in the long term, skills practiced in a random schedule are retained longer and over time, the overall performance is better.
I’ll use the draw again to outline an example of random practice. It will seem to be a lot like varied practice with only one skill involved. The difference is the order in which the skills are set and when mixed with several skills, you can clearly see the difference.
Start with a typical, stationary draw and holster, then mix in a draw moving forward, then moving backward, then moving to the left, then to the right, then while backpedaling. All of these are applications of how the skill can be used in the situation(s) that meet your training goal.
A more common random practice schedule would be to set up a practice situation where you have to perform various skills consecutively without doing the same one twice. When you consider the skills of shooting stationary at various ranges, performing both slide lock and tac mag reloads, drawing from different positions, transferring hands, shooting one handed with both dominate and non dominate hands and shooting from various alternate positions, your only really limited by your imagination.
Random practice schedules are also good sources of building stress shoots. Typical stress shoots are more a test of physical fitness than they are of shooting skills. If you want to test shooting skills, pick the ones you want to practice and set up a training situation in which you’ll have to choose and execute skills to solve the problem presented in the stress shoot.
Random practice schedules are also good sources of building stress shoots.
Make the Schedule
To review, I’ve outlined three practice schedules; blocked, varied, and random. Use blocked when learning a new skill, use varied when you’ve established some ability, and use random to master your skill sets. Most of the literature suggests that we can get better long term results by using random practice and better short term results by using block.
There are no real, set in stone rules here, but a little planning goes a long way to reaching your goals. Take the time to design practice situations to meet your training goals before you go to the range, doing so will help you focus your efforts and attune your mindset to get the most out of your time and ammunition.
There are no real, set in stone rules here, but a little planning goes a long way to reaching your goals.