Fixing Problem Shooters – Part 1

“I learned a ton…that will make me a better instructor.”

-SGM (Ret.) Kyle E. Lamb, Author of Green Eyes & Black Rifles

We get a fair amount of correspondence from trainers in both the civilian and armed-professional communities. One of the more common questions that we get, especially on the professional side, is: what about remedial training?

A lot of the focus in our articles and books is on entry-level training programs and, it’s true, this is by far the best time to “do it right.” Any trainer in any type of discipline can tell you that it’s a lot easier to teach somebody right the first time than it is to try to fix them down the road—and most readers probably haven’t learned anything thus far while reading this article either…

That said, the bulk of the work for firearms and tactics instructors, at least in the law enforcement and professional security communities, (it’s usually the opposite in the civilian world) isn’t teaching new shooters. Rather, it occurs during in-service training and qualification, typically on some periodic schedule as required by some combination of state law and institutional policy.

If you haven’t filled an institutional trainer role, or at least been in a position to get intimately familiar with the day-to-day job requirements of in-service trainers, know that it’s largely a thankless job.  

There are never enough resources. There’s never enough time. There’s never enough range access. Most of the job tends to be administrative—counting bullets type stuff. And, the vast majority of the actual training focus, especially for the firearms instructors, is trying to coach a few people who probably shouldn’t even be at the agency (or at least have no business filling a role that involves carrying a firearm) to pass the bare minimum standards—every time their qualification date comes up.

It’s not always a ton of fun, and a lot of trainers (and sometimes their students—the rare underperformers who really do want to improve along with the many decent to excellent performers who would love the opportunity to improve their armed skillsets) often get justifiably frustrated by the entire business. 

There is good news and bad news here.  

First the bad news. There is no “secret sauce.” Or, more precisely, if there is, we haven’t found it and aren’t aware of its existence at the date of this writing. There’s no quick formula, no incantation, no set of standards, no whiz bang drill, and no pill that can zap a student with immediate and lasting improvement in these types of skillsets. The human brain simply doesn’t function that way.

The good news, however, is that there actually is a lot that can be done in these in-service settings, both to conduct effective and lasting remediation for problem shooters and to run highly effective training that can maintain and enhance even the most advanced skillsets. More good news is that most of these things work even in environments where time, ranges, ammunition, and other resources may be limited (and they are for most folks). 

If we take the time to understand just a little bit about how the brain functions, we can use that knowledge to inform ourselves about how to make the impacts we want on our students and workforces. Here, we’ll focus on the remediation aspect.

In this series of articles, we won’t get into the weeds on specific drills, techniques etc. That’s outside of what we prefer to discuss in an “open source” type setting. What we are going to do is talk about some basic concepts that can frame your approach to effectively remediating a problem shooter. In this article, we’ll focus on what we think is probably the most important concept to internalize for an instructor doing remedial training.

Concept 1: Do No Harm

If you’ve read some of our earlier articles, you’ve seen that we are big believers in approaching firearms and tactical training with something of a Hippocratic outlook and the same principle applies here.

First—Do No Harm. 

There are a lot of times where really well-meaning folks don’t do their students any favors and may even end up hurting them as much as, sometimes even more than, they help them. Allow me to provide an anecdotal example from personal experience.

Some years back I was involved in a pre-deployment training and vetting program, as a student. Part of the program involved high-intensity, force-on-force scenarios, designed to test the participants under high-levels of stress. In one of the scenarios, the student was ambushed with a knife attack at close range.

In previous training and practice, some of which occurred decades earlier, I had received substantial exposure to, and practice at, spontaneous knife defense techniques.  

Specifics are not important here. Tactics and techniques can often be like the south end of a northbound donkey—every jackass has one and they all stink and this author certainly makes no claims to be a “knife guy” in any way, shape, or form.

What is important, is that the techniques and methods for responding to a spontaneous knife attack that I had trained in and procedurally consolidated into long-term memory (well before I ever entered the training program) were NOT what the instructors wanted to see. They wanted their preferred techniques used—nothing else was acceptable.

And they lost no time in letting me know that—somewhat enthusiastically as I recall.

Let’s pause for a moment and talk briefly about a term I just used—procedural consolidation—for any who aren’t familiar with it. 

In our book Building Shooters, we lay out a very simple model of the brain as an information system, based on the latest in neuroscience and developmental psychology research. The second book, Mentoring Shooters, applies this, and other research, to informal, entry-level training settings.

In the basic memory model, there are three distinctly separate memory systems contained in the brain: short-term memory (doesn’t permanently store stuff), long-term declarative memory (conscious access), and long-term procedural memory (unconscious access).  

Consolidation is the process of moving information or skills from one part of the brain to another, specifically to a long-term storage system.  Procedural consolidation then is the transfer of skills or information into the long-term procedural memory space.

One of the very interesting things about procedural memory is that it is the only memory space that can be reliably accessed under high stress. Basically, the chemicals that are released into the brain during high stress events (like gun fights, knife fights etc.) act as a kind of switch. They trigger access to the procedural memory system and also preclude, or at least severely limit, access to the rest of the brain.

Back to the example: here’s the rub. Those instructors never put in the time, effort, or resources to create an effective, competing skill-based response in my procedural memory system, much less the effort and resources necessary to make it my dominant response. They just told me that they wanted something different.

But that’s not all. Remember the “enthusiastic” correction to my “improper” technique application?  

Their goal, and the point of their fervor, presumably, was to teach me that I should not use the “wrong” techniques I had previously learned for knife defense. 

Here’s the thing. This they did put into procedural memory.

Unlike complex stuff such as nuanced hand/tool skill performance—which must typically be trained and consolidated over time—the human brain has the capacity to conduct virtually instantaneous associative learning that can, in many cases, be more or less permanent (especially when it occurs under duress). And, of course, this is a survival mechanism. Ever touch a hot stove or an open flame as a young child? Ever need to do it twice?

In this case, the instructors’ passionate correction to my improper technique application had its desired effect. I learned, virtually instantly and quite effectively, that the responses and techniques I had consolidated in procedural memory for a spontaneous knife attack were wrong—and not to do them. 

But, I never procedurally consolidated anything else (remember, unlike associative learning, the brain can’t pull this off instantly—it takes time and process).

What do you think happened the next time I faced a spontaneous knife attack? 

Nothing. That’s what happened. 

I can still recall beginning to access the trained response, then having this massive, negative reaction to it. I can’t do THAT! But, there wasn’t anything else there. 

I was a frozen, stammering idiot. Fortunately for me, this second attack also occurred in a force-on-force setting. Had it occurred with a real attacker and a live blade, there’s a good chance I’d be dead after having been poked full of holes while being a stationary, blithering, moron.

I share this story because this is a potential outcome that all trainers need to be very aware of—and careful to avoid—especially when working with an actively operational unit (or with individual people who are operational). 

For example, if you’re a law enforcement trainer and you (with the best of intentions) temporarily mess up an officer’s ability to perform a skill, such as drawing and firing their handgun, because you’re trying to fundamentally change what they do for the better—hey we’re with you on the intentions. Those are good. 

But what if that officer needs to draw and fire in the line of duty 45 minutes after the training session where you heavily berated them for using the “wrong” technique?  

You probably didn’t help them out much. You might even have killed them. 

So—don’t do that.

Especially in professional, in-service settings, we advocate that you make a concerted effort not to corrupt or otherwise interfere with anybody’s functional skillset, even if it’s a substandard one. 

Your goal is to eventually improve their performance on the street, NOT have them shut down in a fight later today because the most effective thing they have learned is that everything they know how to do is wrong.

Effectively managing this may require something of an “individual” approach to managing interference with people’s existing skills and in the rest of this series of articles, we’ll talk about some concepts that can help instructors manage this.

With respect to avoiding the harm though, we believe that an absolute no, no in this type of in-service setting with actively operational people is allowing any negative reinforcement related to skill performance to show up, even in just words, actions, demeanor, etc. with respect to a student’s current, operational skillet.

Don’t teach somebody who is actively working that the only thing they know how to do is wrong—that may become the only thing they can truly remember in a fight.

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"The clearest, simplest, most well-founded psychomotor training program I have seen for developing shooting skills."
-Dr. Bill Lewinski
Executive Director, Force Science Institute
"Easily one of the more important books of our time when it comes to preparing police, military and armed civilians for armed lethal combat."
-Kenneth Murray
Author, Training at the Speed of Life
Co-Founder of Simunition