Fixing Problem Shooters: Part 3

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

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

This is the third in a series of articles about remedial training, focused primarily on institutional training environments. In the first article we introduced what we think is one of the most important concepts for trainers to embrace—Do No Harm.  It’s way too common for well meaning instructors to do something less than help their students out, and all of us in the industry should endeavor to stay on the right side of that experience. 

Don’t hurt your students.

The second article took a (somewhat lengthy) look at the standard practice of assuming that effective training must occur in “high-resource” environments such as ranges, video simulators and force-on-force settings. To be sure, these are all critically important; however, there’s a ton of valuable, highly impactful training that can be done without them. We would even argue that low-resource settings are better places to conduct significant portions of training.

In this third article, we’re going to look at something other than the student for a moment. Let’s shift gears and instead look at ourselves, the instructors, and how we approach remedial shooters.

Concept 3: Change your avenue of approach.

One of the concepts that we touched on in the last article is that of approaching remedial training as if it’s the development of brand-new skills rather than an adjustment or correction of the already existing (and substandard) skills. 

There’s a balance to be struck here, one that depends on what, why, and how you’re fixing something.

Understand that the distinctions involved are important because, while this may seem subtle and nuanced, it’s really not. Fixing an existing skill and creating a new skill are, neurologically speaking, completely different.  Literally, there’s different brain chemistry, different processes, and different brain structures involved.  They are totally separate things.

In other words, depending on which of these two things you’re trying to do, you’re working with completely different machinery in the student’s brain—each with its own set of parameters.

From a self-improvement perspective for what we’ll call here “elite” level shooters, the first process (working to modify and enhance an existing skill) is usually more appropriate and more functional.  In truth, developing real mastery of skills as dynamic and nuanced as shooting skills are is more aptly described as a state of continuous change than it is the development of a single, rigid skillset.

If you haven’t heard it and have some free time, we’d encourage you to listen to Mike Seeklander’s American Warrior Show podcasts with Rob Leatham and Brian Enos, probably two of the best technical shooters of all time. In the interviews, they each talk about the development and evolution of their skills—as a continuous process—while they pushed the envelope of what was considered possible to achieve better and better results.

If you’re a good shooter in one or more disciplines (and, if you’re a good instructor, chances are good—probably at least as good as this author and very likely better) then you’re already familiar at some level with this process because you use it yourself. You have spent significant portions of your life going to the range and, frequently, realizing that you suck at something.  Sometimes it’s something you haven’t tried before. Sometimes it’s something you used to be good at, but now suddenly aren’t (doesn’t that suck?).

Then, you shake off your ego, figure out why, and you going about fixing it.  You tweak here, you tweak there. You get in front of a mirror. You video yourself. You try it dry. You ask someone to evaluate you. You make micro adjustments to things like grip and trigger manipulation, you make tiny variations in angles of contact, you change the relative speed of performance for subcomponents of complex skills by fractions of a second.  And—you get better—probably learning an awful lot about some very detailed components of things like body mechanics in the process.

Here’s the problem: this probably isn’t what you need to do with a remedial student.

Why? Because technically it’s not remediation; it’s enhancement.

Our intent here isn’t to parse terminology—we find virtually no value in doing that. It’s the concepts that matter.

Regardless of what you want to call it, when you work on improving your “elite” level skills you’re dipping into your long-term memory system and working with an existing brain map in that memory space. Using the brain-based training development modeling concepts from Building Shooters, you’re taking a neural network, making some slight modifications to it, and then letting the brain reconsolidate it back into the same place in long-term memory.

That’s awesome and it helps you get better.  But it’s unlikely to do much good for somebody we would typically consider to be “remedial” in this industry.

Sure, for some training applications you could be working with an “elite” shooter and helping them enhance their skillset—and that’s fine.  Rock on.

In most cases though, especially with institutional training, this isn’t the case.  A remedial shooter at an institution isn’t trying to take a 98-100% qual score up a notch by moving from 95% X-ring shots to 99+% X-ring shots and getting rid of an occasional flyer here and there. Nor is he or she working to get a suddenly appallingly “slow” 1.5s surgical shot from the holster back into the sub-second timeframes by ironing out a hitch in the drawstroke that was picked up somewhere.

A remedial shooter in institutional terms is usually an armed professional who is failing to pass an operationally meaningless test, a test that is designed specifically so that physiologically healthy people really can’t fail it—even if they never practice.

Truly remedial shooters in the armed professions have serious, and dangerous, deficiencies in their job-related skills that place not only themselves and their co-workers, but also the general public at risk.

When somebody can’t pass a test that’s designed so it can’t be failed, they don’t need a skillset adjustment, they need a new skillset.

Please note here that we DO NOT believe that this status is necessarily an indictment of the remedial shooter as an individual, which brings us to the main point of this article.

How do you, as an instructor, approach remedial shooters?  What mental framework do you have in place when you start engaging with students in these situations?

We certainly have our own personal opinions (as likely do you) about people who carry guns for a living yet make no personal effort to maintain an adequate skillset.

However, as instructors, we’re going to suggest that you take a moment to consider looking at this situation through a somewhat different lens.

It is a fact is that many of our institutional training structures and methods are, in a word, horrific.

In April of this year we spoke to the annual FBI Firearms Instructor Conference and over 200 students of the National Academy (full text of our prepared remarks here) where we summed the state of the institutional training industry up like this: “We use a tool that doesn’t work to prepare the wrong machine to achieve a standard that doesn’t mean anything.” Nobody gave any pushback.

If the development of a functional armed skillset is considered a critical, live-saving, job-related skill (and we expect you probably agree with us that it should be), much of what we do systemically with respect to training armed professionals is so bad at producing results that it would not be too much of stretch to categorize it as psychological abuse.

Not only do our training methods often fail to produce functional skills, in many cases they actually preclude a student’s development for the long-term—bringing us the perpetually hopeless remedial shooter.

There may be an element that is “their fault.”  It’s also true, however, that in many, if not most, cases, the institution that trained them deserves much of the blame for their inadequacy. The blame is not only for failing to develop them adequately in those job-related skills and passing them into the workforce without a functional skillset. It’s also for hurting them in the process.

If you’ve read Building Shooters you have seen the science behind this, but basically a lot of what we do in terms of industry standard training methods creates what are, in effect, corrupted data files for critical components of the armed skillset.  These bad files then become a permanent part of the brain map that corresponds with firearms use, thereby preventing the student from ever achieving a functional skillset unless they put in an extraordinary level of personal effort on their own time.

We suggest that you should at least consider the possibility that the entry-level institutional training your remedial student(s) received may have been so bad that it didn’t just fail them as a student, it may have actually injured them neurologically (at least from the perspective of their ability to achieve a functional level of skill).

As an instructor, this realization can be a game-changer.

How do you approach and interact with your remedial students? Do you treat them as lazy, worthless turds who shouldn’t even be there?

Or, do you approach them as you might approach an abuse victim who has developed an acute performance issue based on specific psychological injuries that were inflicted upon them by a negligent or nefarious third party?

We expect that about 75% of the readers of this article just posted up, (I train people for combat. I won’t coddle them!), so let’s dive a little deeper into that thought.

We aren’t saying that your remedial student(s) aren’t worthless, lazy turds who have no business at all being “in the business.” We aren’t saying that they shouldn’t be either drummed out or shuffled off to something that involves a lot of keystrokes and paperclips and zero contact time. All of that might be true. We’ve drummed people out of institutions and yanked weapons quals before and would do so again in a heartbeat given the right circumstances.

We also aren’t saying that your remedial student(s) aren’t suffering from some organic inability to perform—or just aren’t worth the time, effort, and resources that it would take to bring them up to a minimal level. That may be true as well.  This author has taken a weapon out of the hand of a student in an institutional setting who was doing nothing unsafe (during dryfire training) and sent the student off with a “will not ever be trained to use a weapon” notation—and would not hesitate to do so again in similar circumstances.

What we are saying is that our standard institutional training structures and methods suck. 

They not only are generally incapable of developing competence in the “armed” part of the armed professional’s skillset, they also often create brain maps, neural networks, and powerful negative associations that can severely hamper a student’s ability to become a competent shooter—at a neurological level.

We are also saying that 1) this horrible training methodology actually does hurt the students in terms of their performance potential, 2) this “injury” isn’t the students’ fault, and 3) as professional instructors in institutions that employ armed professionals, part of the job description is teaching people who aren’t very good.

Improving the performance of the workforce and correcting deficiencies in skill performance, especially dangerous ones that can potentially lead to the deaths of the student, their co-workers, and members of the general public, is far more important than maintaining some sort of “tough” training or trainer image.

Besides, when it comes to skills performance training, (as differentiated from testing or selection processes) uber high stress levels simply aren’t productive.  In fact, they are counterproductive.

There are times and places for tough, stressful, even brutal, elements of training. However, entry level and remedial skills training are not those times and places.

Allow us to suggest a different approach—for YOU, the instructor.

Don’t mentally frame your approach to your remedial students as if there’s something wrong with them. 

Instead, frame your approach to them like the problem is the old institutional training structure. Consider using a mental framework where you define the root cause of the problem as poor training methodology used by the institution. During the student’s entry level training they received some neurological injuries that are now preventing them from performing well. 

The thing is…it’s probably true.

It’s not your job to make them perform, or to make them make themselves perform.  Instead, it’s your job to take fundamentally sound training methods and use them to create undamaged neurological networks of “armed” skills in their brain. Then, make those skills their dominant procedural response.

There are a lot of factors that can go into what makes a perpetually remedial shooter.

It would be naïve to think that any method, solution, or approach can equate to some sort of “magic bullet” and we make no such claims either here, or anywhere else. Some remedial shooters probably won’t be “fixable”—especially the ones who choose not to care.  However, we submit that that’s a somewhat different problem, with a very different set of solutions than remedial level shooting skills are.

With respect to the remedial shooters who can, in fact, be “fixed,” don’t be the instructor who becomes a part of the students’ ongoing problems. Instead, be part of their solution.

Fixing a problem shooter may require an altogether different approach than the one you’ve been using—and that difference may actually start with you and the psychological framework you use when approaching remedial student engagement.

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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