Fixing Problem Shooters: Part 2

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

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

In March we wrote an article about remediation for problem shooters, focused on in-service training settings. The basis of the article was about what we framed as the first concept for remedial training, namely taking a Hippocratic approach to developing and delivering training—First, Do No Harm.

In this article, we’ll look at a second concept for instructors who find themselves in the situation of working with shooters who have an existing, deficient, skillset.

Concept 2: Effective Training Doesn’t Need to be High Resource

In the training side of this industry instructors are often used to working in what we refer to as “high resource” environments. Basically, this means that you need something special before you can train (ranges and ammunition for example). The reason behind this common assumption makes sense at the surface level—after all, you can’t shoot guns just anywhere.

Unfortunately, given what we know today about training, this assumption is mostly based in tradition and (sometimes) outdated institutional policy. It has little to do with actual limitations that impact effective training design and delivery.

The fact is that you don’t need a high-resource environment to provide highly effective and operationally relevant training—and this includes training in remedial skills.  Not everything in the firearms and tactical training realm can be done in a low resource setting, but a huge amount can be. Some, we would argue, even should be.

Highly-skilled shooters have known for decades that dryfire training is one of the most effective methods of skill development, and most world-class shooters have always dedicated a significant amount (if not a majority) of their training time to this type of low-resource training.

In 2018 there is no shortage of resources available to help anyone, be they an individual or a trainer, find methods and drills with which to conduct fundamental skill building in low-resource settings. And, in fact, we would argue that a low-resource, dry fire environment is actually a better setting in which to conduct significant portions of both initial training and remedial training than high-resource, live fire environments are.

This might seem a little bit counterintuitive, so let’s explore it a bit further.

Whenever you’re setting out to accomplish something, it’s a critical first step to understand what exactly it is that you’re trying to do, and to understand the parameters of the system that you’re working in. When we’re talking about working with students, teaching skills, teaching tactics, and producing operational performance, this system is the human brain.

The brain is the control center for everything that a student does and, as instructors, it’s the “terrain” that we fight on every day—putting this in an operational analogy.

This means that if we want to optimize our chances for success, we need to gain at least a basic understanding of how the brain works relative to our objectives and the subject matter, then use this knowledge to manipulate the student’s brain to give us the outcome we want.

It’s important to understand that, unlike new students (a true gift for a good instructor), remedial students show up to the party already carrying a lot of baggage.  This baggage comes in the form of developed neurological networks (patterns of neurons and interconnections with other, related, brain functions that fire and work together in a sequence) that are already present in various parts of the student’s brain.

Without getting into too much detail here (if you want to see the science, it’s in our book Building Shooters) the brain basically has three information storage systems. One is short-term only, two are long-term, and only one of these (the procedural memory system) is reliably accessible under stress.

When working with a brand-new student, you can (more or less) assume the long-term systems to be a blank slate. Then, you use what is currently understood about the parameters of short-term memory and the process of stabilization, consolidation and transfer to long-term memory to develop highly effective skillsets in a very efficient manner. Essentially, you plan out, then code the neural networks and other connections that you want to the part of the brain you want, by design.

When working with a remedial student, these same basic brain structures and principles still apply, but you’re no longer working with a blank slate. Instead, you’re working with what is, in effect, a data storage system that is already filled with corrupted information. It’s like starting with a hard drive full of “bad” data files that you can’t erase.

This is part of what makes remediation really challenging (both for the instructors and the students) and is a big part of why most instructors (especially in institutional settings) end up spending most of their actual teaching time working on the exact same things with the exact same people over, and over, and over again—every qual day. 

The student’s brain is full of corrupted data files already.  You didn’t put them there (or maybe you did, by accident) but either way, they are there and you cannot “get rid of them” per se. You can only work around them and, eventually, supplant them with newer, more powerful memories.

Adding to the challenge, especially in institutional settings where the fundamental shootings skills are (or at least should be) part of a broader operational skillset, is the fact that these corrupted networks (equating to substandard skill performance), are already linked to a lot of other brain functions. Perhaps even worse, they also may have been formed and operationally performed in highly stressful, emotional settings.

The more of the brain that is connected to a specific skill, idea, etc. the more likely the brain is to recognize that information (network) as important.  This gives that network something of a higher precedence when it comes to being used for performance in high-stress settings.

Stress and emotions amount, biologically, to changes in the chemical composition of brain tissue. Because things like learning are, fundamentally, the result of chemical reactions within the brain, these changes in chemical composition can significantly impact things like memory formation, the strength of a specific network and the prioritization that network is given by the brain. 

What this means for us is that skills (whether they are acceptably good skills or not) that have been performed repeatedly under stress or in response to emotionally stimulating events may be even harder to “work around” in a remedial setting than skills that have been learned in less consequential settings.

For the instructors who are reading, hopefully this has painted a little bit of a better picture of what you’re really dealing with when you get a remedial student.  It’s not just a personal problem (though that may, of course, be a significant factor). The remedial student literally has what can almost be considered a form of brain damage that inhibits their ability to improve at a neurological level. 

How they got that way, and how to avoid doing this to future generations of armed professionals during entry-level training is an important topic related to restructuring entry-level training systems (our primary industry focus).  For the purposes of this article though, the objective isn’t to point fingers or wax-on about entry-level training design; it’s to address fixing problem shooters who are out on the street right now.

When you’re working with a corrupted data set in a student for combative applications, your long-term objective is to create a new, competing, data set in the student’s procedural memory system and make this new data set the dominant response to the relevant stimuli (for our purposes here, usually stimuli that require use-of-force skill application).

In other words, when something happens that requires the student to draw and/or fire his or her weapon (or apply some other clinical tactical skill), you want to create the conditions where their brain automatically accesses and performs the “correct” new skill that you’re going to program them with, while ignoring the old “corrupted” data files.

This is where taking advantage of the capabilities and structures of low-resource environments can be so powerful—because this is something that really can’t be accomplished in a single training period or over the course of a day or two. The brain doesn’t work that way.

In Building Shooters we outline and discuss the 12 factors our research to date has identified that are within the control of trainers and training developers and that can impact the development of procedural memories.

Of these, the single most significant is repetition.  If you want a student to be good at something, they need to do it. A lot.  And they need to do it right.

In high resource settings (like ranges and simulators) providing this type of opportunity for measured instruction, the detailed feedback that produces proper technique performance, and (correctly performed) repetition that eventually produces dominant procedural memories can become a real, logistical challenge for a whole variety of reasons.  In low-resource settings, these challenges may be less daunting—especially with respect to gunhandling fundamentals.

A number of years ago I was in an operational setting (and role) and found myself working with a co-worker who wanted to improve his handgun skills. The environment we were working in facilitated live-fire (high-resource) training every week to two weeks with experienced and skilled instructors (from big-name shooting schools), but this individual never seemed to get any better. 

His skills were plateaued at what I’ll charitably describe as a “low mediocre.”  Every week or two on the range he did the same thing, heard the same thing, maybe did a couple of better reps in there somewhere, but he never improved a lick.  He always ended up back in the same place—every week.

Because we were on the same schedule, I offered to help if I could.  We didn’t have access to a range or to training ammunition outside the formal training structure. However, the environment did facilitate conducting dry-fire and weapons handling.

We started from square one, rebuilding the fundamentals from the ground up over a period of about a week to a week and a half (specifics are fuzzy, it was a while ago).  We started slow and covered grip, stance, aiming and related visual skills (don’t forget these—almost nothing is more important in the long-run), trigger manipulation, follow-through. We essentially rebuilt his fundamental shooting skills from scratch, all dry.

When we went back to the range, he was a new man with a handgun.

“You’re getting this! I guess you finally decided it was time to listen to me!” One of the instructors exclaimed, clapping him on the shoulder.  As the instructor swaggered off, the student glanced over at me and just rolled his eyes.

The point here isn’t at all about self-aggrandizement. I wasn’t a “better” instructor. I wasn’t more personally skilled in shooting, and I didn’t have more experience or knowledge about how to shoot well than the instructors who were running the range.

None of those things was a factor in why I was able to achieve some success (with no resources) where some very skilled instructors (with significantly more resources) had been consistently failing.

The reason I succeeded was simply because I delivered the student information in a way that matched how his brain received and retained it (though, at the time, I wasn’t fully aware of the science behind why this approach worked).

With the increasing prevalence of dryfire as an accepted and mainstream training tool, it’s fairly easy to see how this can work for fundamental skills—more repetitions are easier to achieve in low-resource settings and there are fewer administrative requirements (no eyes/ears, no SDZs, no ventilation, no hour drive to get to the training area).

Please note that safety is still the number one priority in these settings. Always ensure a sterile area IS sterile and remember that the two certainties in life beyond death and taxes are that equipment will break and people will make mistakes. Yes, this includes you (and me).

As an instructor, it can be helpful for both you and for the student to look at this as if you’re creating a completely new skill, one that is entirely different from the old, rather than view it as trying to modify the student’s existing skill. 

In other words, you’re not trying to modify and re-consolidate the old, inadequate skill performance (which is actually a different brain process).  Instead, you’re trying to literally build something completely new, from scratch.  Once this completely new skill is built, then you can work on making it the dominant skill for sympathetic performance (more on this in a future article).

Building this new skill will take a duration of time; however, it doesn’t necessarily need to take significant amounts of time over that duration.

Using a duration of time (small increments spread over longer periods) is important neurologically and is a big part of why low-resource can be so valuable here.  It’s much easier to do that when you don’t need anything special logistically to accomplish it.

As the instructor, make sure that you account for the limitations of short-term memory and understand that it’s going to, in some respects, be more difficult (and could possibly take a longer duration) to develop this new, competing, skill than it would be to develop a brand-new skill with a new “blank slate” student.

Accept this fact, and work within it.

If you’re looking to remediate with handgun skills, the sample curriculum in our book Mentoring Shooters provides a good outline of how this should be structured. This sample curriculum is based on the general short-term memory system limitations we have observed with students.

Depending on the individual student’s progression, you may even want to slow it down a touch from what’s presented there and get additional practice with good repetitions and correct skill performance between sessions where you introduce new material.

If you’re using another weapon system besides a handgun (or doing some other type of skill remediation), it should be a fairly simple matter to modify this curriculum to something that is relevant to your student’s specific needs.

We’re going to veer a little off the original topic of remediation here for a moment, but there’s something else that’s important to understand about these types of training settings.

Low-resource environments provide a ton of value for fundamental skills remediation; however, it is a mistake to think that their value stops there.

If you haven’t tried it, you will likely be amazed at how much training and learning value can be obtained from low-resource settings with respect to decision-making, tactics, team coordination, communication, and movement. In fact, a lot of this stuff is really, really difficult to do in high-resource settings and even when it can be done (such as with force-on-force), high repetitions are virtually impossible, stress is always high (yes there’s a time and a place for high stress training, there are also a lot of times where it’s counterproductive), and there’s often a recorded, evaluative aspect to it—because it’s so expensive and time consuming.  Administrators want documented results to show for it. (And this is not unreasonable.)

Unfortunately, practically, this often means that the training either must be so easy that people can’t really screw it up (thus bouncing themselves out of the workforce or adding mountains of miserable and tiresome work to the instructor’s docket). Or, alternatively, the outcomes of the measurements may stop meaning anything (everybody simply gets a participation trophy), thus increasing liability and reducing the value of the training program itself.

In low-resource settings though, the equation changes significantly. When the cost, time, and administrative pressures are relieved, you can construct environments where students can not only try, they can also fail —so they can learn. You also can usually do it pretty effectively for virtually no cost and without all the fanfare.

Without getting too in the weeds, just as an example, consider trying something like the really simple scenario that follows. This is obviously intended for law enforcement or security guards, but it’s just a quick example. Please feel free to modify to meet your needs—or come up with something better. The goal here is to provide a concept for you to work from, nothing more.

Note, the first priority in any exercise or drill in training MUST be safety.  Even something as simple as the scenario outlined below should involve extensive and redundant safety checks to assure a sterile area, as well as detailed safety briefings for students and role players. The following is intended as a quick example to demonstrate a concept. Scenario development, the formatting for scenario-based materials, scenario safety, appropriate methods of debriefing etc. are outside the scope of this article. For anyone running this type of training, we recommend, at the very least, reading Ken Murray’s Training at the Speed of Life as a guide to addressing these issues. Also, while we may be biased, we think it’s also worth your time to read our article about the potential harm that can come from forcing instructor preferred outcomes in scenario-based training.

Example “Low Resource” Scenario

If you have a blue gun for the trainee great. If not, you will not lose much value just telling him or her to “air gun” it (seriously, you’ll see in a moment why).

Grab a few 8 ½ x 11 paper sheets and a magic marker. On your sheets of copy paper write the following in large letters (one phrase for each piece of paper).

-Late 20’s male. Angry. Sweating. Overcoat.

-Late 30’s female. On cellphone.

-Mid-40’s male. Alert.

-Mid-40’s female. Alert.

-Teenage male, using phone to film.

-Teenage female, using phone to film.

You’ll need one role player (anyone will do). If you have role players to hold each paper, great. If not, brief the trainee that each piece of paper with writing on it will indicate a person occupying that same physical space.

Set up the “exercise” area so that the role player has the first paper (Late 20’s male. Angry. Sweating. Overcoat). The area should be arranged so that when the trainee enters the area, the other papers (or paper carrying role players) are directly behind the role player from the trainee’s point of view.

The trainee receives the following brief. “You’ve been asked to respond to a call of a man acting strangely.”

The role player receives the following brief. “Say over and over again in an exasperated voice, ‘Man, I TOLD him not to do it!  Grrrrr. I told him not to do it!’ and rock back and forth in an agitated manner.  Do nothing that could be interpreted as threatening or violent. If spoken to be polite, completely compliant and answer all questions about how your best friend just took your brand new sports car (that you lent to him for a quick drive on the highway) downtown (after you asked him not to) and wrecked it.”

The primary objective of the exercise is terrain analysis and spatial/situational awareness. 

As the trainee enters the area, the agitated role player will be standing between the trainee and the other role players (or pieces of paper on the wall). If the trainee is aware of the environment, he or she should probably adjust their approach so as to facilitate a clear field of fire, in the event that application of force, up to and including deadly force, were to become necessary.  Perhaps some useful barriers (such as a table) could also be placed in the training area to add to the terrain evaluation complexity.

Note that we are not attempting to dictate or define police or security tactics in this article. This is an example of applied low-resource training concepts. All real-world tactical application should be based on the objective, terrain, policy, situation, adversary etc. (In accordance with METT-T for you military types…)

That’s the whole exercise. Once the trainee either has or has not made an approach with a clear field of fire, the exercise is ended. The whole thing should take less than 15 seconds.

Is this high speed?  No.

Is it expensive?  No.

Can there be tremendous value in doing something like this, even with something as goofy and simplistic as written notebook paper props?  Absolutely.

If you don’t believe me, try it. What do you really have to lose? Worst case scenario you can say you were just trying something some moron on the internet recommended…

This type of training doesn’t replace high-resource stuff like force-on-force training, though you’ll find that it will vastly improve aggregate performance during that training.

What it does do is start making people think and process information they otherwise might not be—in a manner that matches what is required for optimal chances of success on the street.

It’s also basically free—and can literally be done anywhere.

One approach we have found effective in institutional settings is selecting one student to be in the “hotbox” for the day.  That student (or small-group of students) run the scenario (usually only a few seconds), then the entire group debriefs what occurred.

If you’re an instructor or institutional operational leader, give this a shot. You may be amazed at what your students/team (and you!) will learn.

Back on topic—and in conclusion—throughout a lot of the industry (especially institutionally) we are often handicapped by the idea that we can only train in a specific environment, with specific resource levels (ie. if I need to work with somebody on their shooting, I need ammo and I need to take them to the range).

The fact of the matter is that not only is this untrue but, while live fire and other high-resource training tools certainly are needed, settings like firing ranges are probably not even the best place for most remedial training to take place, especially during the early phases.

If you want to really make a difference in a remedial shooter’s skillset, try something different. Shift your training focus to low-resource settings and build a brand-new skill from scratch, incrementally—over time.

You may find that they soon stop being remedial…

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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