Fixing Problem Shooters: Part 4

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

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

Welcome to the fourth article in our series about remedial training. We are intentionally steering clear of specific training plans and drills. That’s stuff we typically prefer not to discuss “open source.”  Instead we’re looking at a series of concepts that can help guide professional instructors in developing and delivering effective remedial training programs – focused on institutional applications.

The first article is about avoiding the infliction of unintentional harm to students’ operational performance ability.  The second article looks at the common assumption that high resource levels are a requirement for effective training and argues that applying distributed, brain-based learning structures in low-resource settings is a far more effective (and cost effective) way to produce results.

The third article shifts gears a little and looks at the instructor’s approach to the students. In our experience remedial shooters tend to be treated as if they don’t belong in the organization at all. While this may or may not be true, depending on the circumstances, it’s a certainty that applying a different psychological framework and method of approaching these students has far more potential for producing successful outcomes during remedial training.

In this fourth article we’ll look at the training design aspect of remedial shooting.  We’ll discuss, from a bit of a different perspective, why it’s so difficult for these students improve and how, as trainers, we may be able to help them overcome these difficulties. Specifically, we’ll look at a concept stemming from some of the current theories within brain-science literature—the use of context to isolate the development of new skill performance.

Concept 4: Help the student create a new context for skill performance development.

In the last article we discussed at some length the difference between what is sometimes called enhancement (altering an existing skill in long-term memory) and the acquisition of a completely new skill. We also pointed out that remedial shooters in the institutional sense probably don’t need enhancement of their skillset. They need a new skillset altogether.

For a variety of reasons, many of which stem from our industry standard methods of skill performance training and how we typically measure a student’s performance ability with respect to fundamental shooting skill, we tend to think of individual shooting skills as isolated, somewhat “siloed” networks in the brain. If you’ve read Building Shooters you may have had this idea reinforced by the way our graphical modeling tool for brain-based training design displays information for specific skills during initial acquisition.

Unfortunately, while it’s a very helpful assumption to use for the purposes of modeling entry-level training design, it’s not entirely accurate.

If you’ve read either of our books, you should be familiar with one of the basic governing principles of connectionist learning theory and neuroplasticity which is called Hebb’s Law. It states, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.”  The applications of this for fundamental skill development are fairly intuitive and form the basis for our training design methodology. It’s also important to understand, however, that in practice this principle extends beyond the formation of motor skills.

Have you ever been in a situation where you’ve been away for a while from a setting in which you routinely performed relatively complex and detailed tasks? Perhaps it was a work setting, perhaps it was a personal one, such as a sports setting. Did you ever notice that when you re-enter the same setting, suddenly habits, actions, verbiage, and even bits of knowledge that you probably couldn’t have remembered if you tried a few days earlier all of a sudden come back, almost effortlessly?

If you dive into the scientific literature, you’ll see that the current line of thinking is that the brain forms what are sometimes called brain-maps, encompassing far more than a few isolated neural networks for skill performance. Individual skills or bits of knowledge are interwoven, at a neurological level, with a larger tapestry of brain functions, including recognition of stimuli and other environmental and contextual information.

The effects of these brain maps can be extremely powerful.

I used to work with a Marine combat veteran who was virtually never seen (at least at work) without some long-cut in his bottom lip, a habit he picked up in the Marine Corps. He claimed that, when back in the US and away from a combat-arms-related work setting, he never even had a craving—and went immediately cold turkey. However, as soon as he put on body armor and picked up a rifle, he immediately started fiending again. According to him, his nicotine addiction was entirely dependent on the context of the environment in which he was located.

While this story is anecdotal, the source is highly trustworthy and had no reason at all to embellish during the discussion where this information was relayed. So, for the purposes of this discussion, let’s assume it to be factually true.

Consider for a moment what this story means with respect to the true potential power of association and context within the human brain.

While everyone is impacted differently by various substances, every reader of this article knows that nicotine addiction is no small thing.  How much potential power must the changing of a person’s environment and context—functionally activating a totally different brain map—have to allow a person to successfully overcome a chemical addiction, virtually instantaneously, upon changing to a different context and environment?

Now, let’s consider what this means with respect to remedial training.

Your remedial students, the ones with the horrifically bad skillsets, inconsistent (or non-existent) grip, uncontrollable trigger slap, cringeworthy flinch etc., they all learned that skillset somewhere. The training they received, the environment(s) they received it in, the instructors who trained them, the environment(s) they have practiced and applied those skills in, the tools they have used to apply those skills—all of that contextual, environmental, and associative information is, at a neurological level, actually a part of the skillset itself. It is all, literally, physically connected in the student’s brain.

If the current theories of brain function are correct, this is a big part of why it’s so hard for remedial students to improve on many of the things they need to change in their skill performance. You’re typically not changing anything with respect to the context when you try to help them get better—you’re keeping everything the same.  That means that you’re trying to make big neurological changes to a small part of a huge brain-map—a map which functionally acts to reinforce the things that you want to change.

If you’re following along with the full extent of what we’re saying here, you wouldn’t be wrong to be a little discouraged. However, don’t give up on remedial shooters just yet.

It turns out there’s also an opposite (and equally important) component of Hebb’s Law. It states, “The neurons that fire apart, wire apart.”

This means that, at least in theory, it should be MUCH easier to start from scratch and create a brand-new skill, even a similar one, as long as it’s associated with different contextual cues and environments. If we use all different neurons—we shouldn’t have too much of a problem creating a new skill.

Once the new skill is developed and proceduralized, it’s then a matter of making that new skill the dominant response to the related operational stimuli—a challenge in itself—but at least the “correct” skillset now exists in the brain. (More on this in the next article). The idea is that by using a new, different context for the remedial training you’d be more or less creating a completely new brain map rather than just trying to get a new, competing, skill into the old, pre-existent, brain map.

That’s the theory.  As usually happens, application probably isn’t going to be quite as simple or clean.

**Authors’ Note—The basic training design and delivery methodology that is contained in our books and that we frequently write about in other articles is both field proven (by us) and is something we have done a lot of research on, leading to the 2016 publication of  Building Shooters. Given our intent to provide the most accurate, un-biased, and useful information possible to the industry we feel it’s important to disclose that most of the concepts we are about to discuss have not, to our knowledge, been field-tested for these applications. We certainly have not done so. They result in-part from some recent reading and relatively cursory research originally related to another project we are working on. However, we believe there is a lot of merit behind them based on our training experiences and general understanding of the brain’s function as an information system. We present them here for your consideration and discussion.**

Most institutional trainers don’t have a whole lot of leeway in what they do.  It’s unlikely you’re going to be able to, for example, take a student to a different range facility for training, switch their duty weapon to something else, change their uniforms, change their holster, start having them shoot a different qualification course, and change the context of deadly force application to dancing in meadows with kittens or something less absurd but equally distant from the real-world operational environment.  Maybe a couple of those things could happen, but most of them probably aren’t very realistic.

That said, there may be some things that can be done which may help you – help the student – frame the development of a new skillset within a new context.

First, you might try simply telling them that’s what they need to do.  The human brain is pretty amazing. It has the capability to do all kinds of things without the need for a lot of outside input.  Simply understanding that the intent of the initial phase of a remedial training program is to ignore an old skill and build a new one completely from scratch—within a new contextual framework—might go a long way towards accomplishing that objective, at least with some students.

Second, follow our earlier recommendations (made previously for other reasons) to switch the bulk of the remedial training to a low-resource setting. It’s a virtual certainty that remedial shooters in institutional settings don’t spend a lot of time dry firing (or any other low-resource training). Therefore, assisting them with creating a new context for the desired skill development may be an added benefit of making a shift to these types of training environments.

Third, you can try making what changes you can safely make to the environment and context around the students within the policy limitations you face.  For example, maybe you can change targets.  If you always shoot at B26s, get something else for the remedial training. Or, just put up blank paper and draw on it if you’re really on a budget. You likely can’t qualify on different targets, but that’s fine. Give them a completely new skillset and make it dominant before you stick them back in qual mode.

Fourth, try changing the skill initiation stimulus/stimuli.  The good news here is that if you’re dealing with truly remedial shooters, you’re probably not using some sort of super high-speed targetry system as a standard qualification and training tool.  You might have turners but probably nothing too much more advanced. This means that, at least for a significant part of remedial training, you might have some options that are pretty low cost. 

The “best” case would be if you’re using an audible stimulus to initiate skill performance in training now. We’ve written about this earlier, but it’s likely we all can agree that audible stimuli are probably not the ones that will be determinative for deadly force decision-making and skill application. Therefore, connecting the skill performance to the audio input and processing systems makes a lot less sense than connecting it to the visual input and processing systems. So, if you’re normally initiating audibly, initiating visually instead is going to use totally different neurological machinery in the student’s brain.

This doesn’t need to be expensive or complicated either. If you’re on an indoor range, you can initiate with something as simple as a tactical flashlight by shining it on the target. Outdoors, something as simple as tossing a rag, ball, or other disposable item downrange could work. Not for this specific application, but I’ve tossed stuffed animals around during training before and found that to be quite a useful method of skill activation (and for practice at discrimination and decision-making by visual ID). Remember, the concept here is to make a new brain map that starts using completely different machinery (neurological machinery) than the student is used to using.

Fifth, along those same basic lines, you might consider trying some applied chromotherapy—changing the light color the student’s brain is processing with either tinted glasses or tinted bulbs on an indoor range. Please note that we haven’t tried this and can’t recommend it as a successful course of action; however, we recently came across some references to it being used successfully for some aspects of cognitive re-training.

Staying out of the salt crystals and incense realm…the basic premise (which actually is strongly supported by some vision system research we’ve been doing for another project) is that light reception and related visual processing is in many cases structure specific based on things like light color and motion direction. In other words, using blue light (for example) versus white light might be literally using different receptor cells, input “wiring” and processing centers in the brain—making it (at least in theory) a totally different brain map than the exact same thing being seen/conducted with another color of light. (For the physics majors – yes, white light is multi-spectrum.)

The bottom line is that remedial skills training, for truly remedial shooters, is probably never going to be something that happens overnight. Unfortunately, that’s just not how the brain functions. However, understanding the basic principles of how the brain works, including how it receives and processes new information, can go a long way towards helping instructors achieve successful outcomes—especially in difficult training environments, with difficult students.

When you’re designing a remedial training program or working with these types of students, remember: context matters.

Subscribe to our Newsletter

Share this post with your friends

"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