Fixing Problem Shooters: Part 5

“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 final article in our five-part series covering remedial training concepts. The concepts from (and links to) the first four articles are below.

Concept 1: Do no harm.

Concept 2: Effective training doesn’t need to be high resource.

Concept 3: Change your avenue of approach.

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

In this last article we’ll talk about something that is easy to say, yet far more difficult to do in practice—that is making a new skillset the dominant one.

Concept 5: Build the new skillset first; then make it the DOMINANT procedural response.

We’ve mentioned this in the other articles, but this is the crux of what you’re trying to do for effective remediation (as opposed to enhancement—where you’re modifying a neural network that already exists in long-term memory).  Our working theory is that a remedial shooter, in most modern institutional settings, is remedial because they are failing a test that is (more or less) designed so that it can’t be failed by a physiologically healthy person.

Does this mean that the person failing it is physiologically unhealthy?

Well, if it walks like a duck…

In essence, yes, that’s the problem. This is why you most likely can’t simply tweak what they are doing a little and produce valid, long-term results. You’re actually dealing with something that legitimately can be considered a form of physiological damage. And, in most cases, this damage is something they sustained during the training they received from the institution itself.

Now let’s be crystal clear.  This doesn’t mean that the remedial student is useless, shouldn’t be at work, broken beyond repair, disabled, or worthless and should be either given up on as a lost cause or summarily tossed to the door.  Those things may be true; however, they also very well may not be.

There is a significant difference between failure to perform and inability to perform. While this might seem like nuance at first glance, it’s not and it’s actually a big deal because we get them wrong all the time in this industry, to the detriment of everybody involved.

For example, if a student has a severe spinal injury and is paralyzed from the middle of the back down, shooting from a wheelchair, it may be a statement of fact that they cannot assume an effective “isosceles” shooting position.  Why?  It’s possible they don’t have control of many of the major muscle groups upon which that shooting technique depends. When it comes to a specific shooting technique, a student with a permanent disability may, in fact, have a true inability to perform.

That’s not the same thing as a barely qualifying student who is standing in some sort of half-cocked Weaver stance using a teacup grip when left to their own devices. (Please note that this is not intended to be commentary on or criticism/endorsement of shooting stances or techniques.)

If this student fires 50 rounds from something that more closely resembles an isosceles shooting position after having been just shown it by an instructor a few minutes prior and fails to qualify—turning in a disastrous performance—there’s no question that the student has failed to perform. However, this doesn’t mean that they don’t have the organic ability.

In fact, it’s incredibly unlikely that this student doesn’t possess the basic physical capacity necessary to excel at performing whatever shooting skills are being taught.  However, on the neurological side, the student has most likely previously received “damage” from poorly designed, poorly structured, poorly delivered training that has impacted their current performance potential.

It’s not that the student necessarily can’t learn to perform, he or she just needs the right training program and instructional method to get there—which is where you come in.

Our efforts to drive change in this industry are almost entirely based on how disassociated most of the training tools we use today are with what modern scientific research demonstrates about human cognitive architecture and function. Put simply, we don’t teach or train how the brain learns.  And due to that fact, we actually hurt a lot of people’s skill performance potential, especially during entry-level training.

We covered this in-depth in a previous article but, when you look at it this way, approaching remedial training starts making a little more sense. What you’re actually doing isn’t adjusting or improving an existing skill. You’re really performing what is basically a form of therapy to help the student overcome literal physiological damage.

 This means that what you’re doing is a lot harder than starting from scratch.

In our 2016 book Building Shooters we outline what is currently understood about the cognitive architecture of the human brain as it relates to learning and applying these types of skillsets. We also propose a modeling tool for developing training based on this architecture and outline the relevant factors necessary, neurologically, for success.

While it’s a slightly different application than training entry-level shooters, teaching remedial shooters depends upon the same basic parameters—the brain’s parameters.  This means that we need to build the skills we want and place them into the student’s procedural memory, much the same way we would do it for an entry level shooter. The difference?  It may take longer.  (See the previous article about context for some more information about this).

For the purposes of this article, let’s assume you’ve done that.   The student has developed a new skillset.  They can perform it when you ask them to.  Maybe they can even crush a qualification course with it.  Does this mean you are done now?  Good to go—student remediated?

Probably not.

Here’s the thing. There are now TWO competing skillsets sitting in the long-term memory system, both of which are associated with the same set of stimuli and contexts operationally.

Have you ever seen somebody (perhaps on the street or in reality-based training) who has a solid skill level on the range but completely regresses to something that is best described as gawdawful in a high-stress practical setting? Maybe you’ve even been there yourself? (This author’s hand is going up—guilty.)

Afterwards you hang your head in shame and wonder…Where the heck did that come from?

If we look at the very simple model of cognitive structure that we lay out in Building Shooters, it’s pretty easy to see where it came from.  It came from the procedural memory system.

Here’s a greatly over simplified example to help illustrate the concept for our purposes here:

Think of procedural memory like a hard drive in a computer system.  Inside that drive, there are folders associated with different context and stimuli.  For example, maybe there’s a folder for “somebody drawing a gun and pointing it at me.”

When this folder is accessed—because the brain receives that stimulus—the brain opens the folder, looks at the files inside, then “clicks” on the file that it selects based on its own evaluation criteria—not yours. 

Why does the brain use its own criteria?  Because of the memory system you’re using. Keep in mind that when we’re talking about procedural memory (accessed under stress or when the brain is otherwise occupied)—this happens unconsciously. It’s automatic; no intent or cognitive input is involved.

So, what parameters does the brain use to pick its file? 

There are probably many, but one of the most important is actually pretty simple. The brain is lazy. (Or, more accurately subject to the laws of physics). It’s going to pick the one that requires the least amount of energy.

Note that we’re talking about actual energy here, in the form of electrical energy.  If you greatly simply the model, the operational part of the brain is basically a bunch of electrical circuits, where everything that happens can more or less be distilled to understanding the flow of electricity between different neurons. 

And, from that perspective, it’s just not that complicated. 

Just like anything else involving circuits, electricity is going to follow the path of least resistance. Whichever of the “files” in that “file folder” within procedural memory has a lower value for electrical resistance is probably going to be the one that gets used if the student can’t consciously make a choice—because they are unconsciously pulling the response from procedural memory.

So, basically, if you want something to happen under stress, you need to make it the “file” with the lowest resistivity in the procedural memory “folder” that the brain accesses in that given situation.

Simple in theory right?  Now, how do we facilitate this as trainers?

The really basic model above gives us two avenues we can use to attack this problem. The first is what “folder” (or folders) the new skill is located in (and what else is in there).  The second is the actual electrical resistivity of the “file” in the brain.

If you really want to solve the problem, operationally, for remedial shooters, both are needed. You need to locate the new, correct “file” in a folder that the brain will access at the right time. You also need to make sure that electricity can more easily flow through that file’s circuits than those of any other file in that folder.

Let’s talk about how to do this.

First, use applied context. Connect, at a neurological level, the new “correct” skill performance with the operational environment it will be performed in and with the relevant stimuli that should initiate its performance in the field. We won’t reiterate our previous article on context here. However, you should expand on the concepts explained there and begin applying the new skill to the actual operational environment and settings.

Second, use interleaved, or chaotic, training methods that involve the full spectrum of neurological tasks that are required for skill application in the real world.

There’s nothing wrong with isolated skills training. It’s good, and it’s an important component of building a high level of operational shooting skill. By itself, however, it won’t get you there. This is especially true with remedial shooters. To really be effective you have to make the brain change its operational response too.

There are three basic principles that govern neuroplasticity—or the ability of the brain to change itself. The first is that the neurons which fire together, wire together, or connect with each other. 

The second is the opposite—neurons which fire apart, wire apart.  This means that if you only practice a skill in a sterile environment, that skill never becomes connected to the rest of the brain. In fact, if you practice a whole lot, that skill can actually be precluded from connecting with the rest of the brain’s functions—more so than if it weren’t as well practiced.

About 10 years ago, after I knew I was onto something with respect to training design based on what I saw with student performance, but before I understood much about the brain and why what I was doing worked, I almost exclusively used isolated skill training during what I called my “Level 1” training program.  Most of the program was dedicated to very technical, isolated skill development in very sterile settings.

At the end of the program, I introduced very basic force-on-force scenarios using airsoft.  This was partly as a “teaser” for the second “Level 2” course and partly to give the students exposure to decision-making and scenario-based training, should this be the only program they took.

During these training programs, one of the things that repeatedly shocked me was that I would consistently see students who were highly proficient at shooting and gunhandling in both live fire and dry fire settings, completely lose their performance ability during their first exposure to integrating those polished physical skills into a larger process with dynamic stimuli.

It’s important to note that this didn’t start with actual “force on force.”  The first exercise was literally a walk-through of an attacker closing with a knife where the student was told exactly what to do and when to do it.  Even so, many still disconnected completely from their trained shooting skills and required repeated attempts with the same exercise in order to finally connect with the physical skills they had spent the past several weeks building.

This puzzled me. How could somebody do thousands of repetitions of weapon presentation, delivered in distributed, highly effective training sessions, perform extremely well in live-fire testing, and then be completely unable to access these skills during the simplest of practical applications?

While a little counterintuitive at first, the answer of “why” is actually fairly obvious once you understand the basics of how neuroplasticity works.  When you conduct thousands of repetitions of a skill, that skill becomes very polished, and it’s probably consolidated effectively into the procedural memory system.

However, as we now know, even that’s not enough.  The skill also has to be in the right “folder.”  In other words, it has to be accessible.

When a skill is polished and proceduralized, this means that the electrical circuits that comprise this skill have been well insulated inside the brain. And, it’s literal insulation. You may have heard of myelination before…that’s what this is. 

Myelin is an actual substance that coats the outside of the axons, providing insulative value to protect the electrical signal from interference. This prevents the leakage of electrical energy out of the circuit when it’s fired and gives it very low resistance values. In other words, the circuit is easy to fire, the signal is strong, there’s no interference, and therefore the skill is easy to perform.

This is great—right up until it’s not. The thing is, insulation works both ways.

If electrical energy can’t get out of that proceduralized neural circuit, that means energy from outside the circuit (ie. signals and messages from other brain functions) can’t get in either.  In effect, while highly efficient for performance of that specific skill, the circuit itself is effectively isolated from the rest of the brain’s functions. They can’t connect to it.

This doesn’t matter in a sterile training setting where the same stimuli are provided every time the skill needs to be performed. However, it matters A LOT in the real world where stimuli are unknown, everything is unpredictable, everything is moving, and a whole of brain functions like visual processing, audio processing, contextual association, decision-making, mobility, communications, and the performance of other skills are all functioning in a rapidly firing and unpredictable feedback loop.

So, back to remedial shooters.  How do we prevent this from happening in training?  How do we both lower the resistance of this new “right skill performance” circuit and also make it accessible to the rest of the relevant brain functions?

The answer is actually simple. We connect it to the rest of the relevant brain functions—virtually every time we use it.  This is what well designed, well run interleaved training does.  You’re building the neurological machine required for operational performance. Quite literally, you’re wiring the circuits.

Finally, do a lot of repetitions—using the full spectrum of relevant neural circuitry each time. Again, it’s really all about working within parameters of the human brain.  If you want to make complex circuits function well together with reduced electrical resistance, there’s really only one consistent way to do that—and that’s to use them together, repeatedly, over time. And, at the risk of doing too much repetition of what we’ve said in previous articles, don’t think that you need a ton of resources to make this happen. You don’t.

This concludes our series on remedial training for institutional trainers.  If you’ve read all of them, hopefully it’s given you a new perspective on not only remedial shooters and what causes them, but also on how you, as an instructor, can REALLY help them. 

We aren’t talking about working some calming voodoo magic every time they come to the range, just to bring their qual score up a few points to “barely making it” on a test that is really designed so nobody should realistically ever fail it.  We’re talking about providing what are, in effect, therapy level interventions and building a functional armed skillset that works in the field.

Institutional training can be a thankless, frustrating job and, as the trainer, an awful lot of decisions are often not up to you. We know that—because we’ve been there—and it’s our focus in this industry to drive change for the better in these areas.  We want better training systems that actually work, the right resources and policies to facilitate effective learning, and more efficient and effective use of the resources that are available—all combining to produce better results, possibly even at a reduced overall cost.

If you’re an institutional trainer, hopefully these (and other) articles, and the information and training design processes in our books can help you improve what you do in a positive, scientifically supported direction. If you need help, have an idea, have a question, or even a pointed critique, don’t hesitate to reach out. 

Thanks for doing what you do. We’ll do what we can to help…

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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