“You just need to find what works for you.” How many times have you either heard or said THAT in a firearms training environment?
Let’s start out here by making one thing absolutely clear. There is more than one way to skin the cat. Anybody who is selling their techniques or their system as the “only” way probably has a cart full of tap water in fancy bottles and some beachfront property in Arizona on the market too.
Fundamentally, there is almost always more than one way to do something “right.” That said, “You need to find what works for you” can be one of the most devastatingly detrimental phrases an instructor can ever say to a beginner level student in the firearms training realm.
But, you might be thinking, aren’t those two concepts contradictory? No, actually they aren’t. Let’s look at why.
For the purposes of this discussion, we’re going to use a few commonly known handgun grip techniques as an example, but the concepts can apply to any number of different techniques or subject matter. To keep the information manageable, let’s limit this to the popular “competitive” or “combat” grip with support wrist and thumb rotated forward, usually applied from an isoscoles type stance; the age-old high thumb Weaver grip, immortalized by the likes of Jeff Cooper and Chuck Taylor; and the crossed thumb “crush” grip still favored by a few special operations and law enforcement trainers.
I can almost hear every reader already squaring off into their own respective corners on this.
Here’s a little secret: They all work. A lot of people have won gunfights with each technique. There are advantages to each, and disadvantages as well – as the proponents of each competing technique will be quick to point out.
We could talk about that, and probably have quite the entertaining and informative social media debate too—but it’s outside the purpose of this article. What we do want to talk about is what happens when you, as a trainer, show a couple of different techniques and then tell a student to “pick what works for them,” as is still a common practice in our industry.
One of the things that happens when you show and then have the student try the different techniques, is that you create interfering neural networks within the same neural space in short-term memory.
In Building Shooters, we go through the scientific research documenting the brain’s function and the concept of interference in some detail, we explain it with less scientific language and demonstrate how to apply it in Mentoring Shooters. For the purposes of this article, however, we’ll keep it simple. The generally accepted basic model of human memory involves three memory systems: Short-term memory, long-term declarative memory (conscious recall) and long-term procedural memory (unconscious recall). In our basic model, everything “new” that comes into the brain has to pass through short-term memory first, before it can go to one of the long-term, relatively permanent storage spaces.
It is important to note that this process of transferring information from the short-term memory system to one of the two long-term memory systems is not instantaneous. In fact, it takes at least twenty-four hours for this to occur, beginning after the information becomes stable in the short-term memory space.
For our discussion here, it’s also important to understand some additional information about short-term memory. First, it’s a small space. And it doesn’t expand—at least not during the space of a single training session. This means that the total volume of what can go into this space (through which virtually all new information introduced to the brain must pass) cannot be larger than the volume of the space itself. If more is pushed in, something must first be pushed out.
If we think of the brain like a computer, short-term memory is a lot like random access memory (RAM). It’s relatively small (just a few gigabytes, using our computer analogy) and it doesn’t retain anything permanently. Before something is actually stored, it must be saved to one of the two hard drives (long-term memory systems)—a process which, again, takes at least twenty-four hours.
There is an additional wrinkle as well. The short-term memory space is compartmentalized. It doesn’t have the ability to store its full volume full of a single type of data. Looking back at the computer analogy, it’s as if a small storage space (say one gigabyte) was broken into different folders, each of which could only store its own assigned type of file. For example, maybe 500 megabytes are assigned to video files and another 100 megabytes to audio files. This would mean you could only put 100 megabytes worth of audio into that entire storage space, even though the overall volume of the space is capable of storing 1 gigabyte (1000 megabytes) worth of information.
This is how short-term memory works—and this functionality significantly impacts how new information is received and processed by students.
While short-term memory may be capable of storing 13-15 or so discrete pieces of information at a time, not all of this information can be of the same type. For example, a person’s short-term memory may be capable of retaining a complex hand-tool skill (such as gripping a handgun), a complex foot pattern skill, and several pieces of acute knowledge (such as firearms safety rules) long enough for this information to be transferred into long-term memory. (Let’s assume each of these pieces of information is the same “size.”) However, that same person’s memory system may not be able to contain two complex hand-tool skills at the same time, even if no other information is put in.
So, functionally, when you teach a student three different ways to do the same thing—all in a single day—what you’re really doing is trying to pack more information into the short-term memory system than it is capable of holding.
When we’re talking specifically about firearms skills, varying techniques—while individually different—are similar enough in performance, relate to the same tool, and are performed in the same contexts and in response to the same stimuli. Therefore, the information not only attempts to occupy the same short-term neural space as the competing skills, it also over-writes the competing information in such a way that the end result can be thought of like a corrupted data file on a computer. You can see what the file is about, but it’s full of errors.
Most firearms skills (especially grip) are dependent on some very specific parameters in order to work effectively. Yes, there is more than one way to address the problem of controlling a handgun. However, each of those techniques has to deal with the physics involved in handgun operation and control and therefore must be performed correctly in order to work right. A corrupted, hybrid type grip isn’t going to produce good results.
You can realistically expect to teach most students any of these gripping techniques and, if you teach the technique right, produce a superb shooter, capable of performing to virtually any operational level required for self-defense (competition may be somewhat different because of the incredible levels of technical skill performance required). However, if you try to teach all three techniques, and leave the technique selection up to the individual, the actual act of teaching and trying multiple techniques that occupy the same neural space in short-term memory actually prohibits the student from being able to effectively learn any of the individual techniques—and corrupts the data file in the student’s brain that corresponds to gripping a handgun.
After twenty-four hours, this corrupted data file can become more or less permanent, thereby limiting the student’s long-term performance potential, or at least making the path to high level performance far longer and more complicated than it could have been.
Put another way, teaching multiple techniques, letting the student try them, and then allowing them to pick one on their own actually causes what is, in effect, permanent, performance limiting, neurological damage to the student.
To produce optimal results, and avoid causing performance limiting interference in students, a far better approach for an instructor is to evaluate the student’s needs and then teach them to excel in performing a single technique that meets those needs.
This is especially important for “critical” skills—skills that will be operationally performed under stress—and that therefore must be performed from procedural memory. (The brain cannot access the other memory systems reliably when the sympathetic nervous system is in play).
Similarly, instructors who receive students with a pre-existing skillset that may include skills that are different than what they themselves teach, should think long and hard about attempting to change what technique a student uses, if the technique, performed well, can meet the student’s operational needs.
In conclusion, instructors should work to become versed in the intricacies of more than a single method of skill performance, not for the purposes of teaching multiple methods to individual students, but for the purposes of improving the skillset of a student who may use a different technique than the instructor’s chosen, primary method.
Instructors should also take the time to learn the requirements, and limitations, (for example, injuries that preclude performance of some physical skills) of individual students in order to be able to provide them with the optimal instruction to meet their individual needs.