Tactics and Shooting Matches

Awhile back I posted this as part of an online discussion about “tactics” and shooting competition.

Those that worry about “tactics” at matches usually haven’t shot enough matches, or gotten good enough at matches, to understand what is going on. The shooters that win at major matches are good at looking at a stage, quickly coming up with a stage plan, visualizing that stage plan to the level that execution becomes automatic when the “go” signal is given, with efficient action and superior marksmanship. You could take someone good at those skills and give them a stage that has whatever “tactics” you like, and they will still do well at it, as long as you give them the rule set they need to follow.

The point was that there’s a skill unique to competition shooting that is separate from the fundamental skills themselves. To use a music analogy, it’s the difference between being good at playing scales and doing a recording session where you get sent a MP3 file of the part of the song you are to play on an hour before the session. You listen to it on the way to the studio, and think about what you are going to play, and you get one take to record the solo. Someone that is only good at playing scales is not going do as well as someone that has practiced that specific skill.

Those that are very good at shooting USPSA, IPSC, and IDPA matches have learned how to “overlearn” something very quickly, using visualization, to the level that their first actual run at it is flawless (or at least executed with minimal errors). You can’t learn that skill just by shooting matches. That skill has to be developed by setting up stages and practicing that part of the process. It’s a level of training separate from simple skill development which is what is taught in most ‘tactical’ handgun courses.

Does the skill of being able to quickly develop a plan, “overlearn” it, and execute it well on the first try matter for self-defense? Some examples where it might:

  1. Home intruder response when you and those you care about are in typical/known locations.
  2. Active shooter response when you are at a frequent or familiar location such as at work or church or school.
  3. An “armed movement in structures” situation where you need to move quickly from location A to location B (for example your bedroom to a child’s bedroom).

The elements of the over-learned plan will be different from a competition course of fire. It will likely involve communication, and shoot/no-shoot decisions that may depend on what you encounter. But in those situations, having more of your plan worked out and over-learned in advance frees up brain cells for paying attention and making decisions in the moment.

The flip side of this issue is that being good at executing pre-programmed sequences of target engagements does not develop the skill of changing your actions based on rapidly evolving situations. Returning to the music analogy: being good at sight reading sheet music you haven’t seen before is not the same as being good at improvising.

In the never-ending, low-information online debates about the value of competition shooting for self-defense training, the focus is always on the details of the preprogrammed actions: when you should reload, use of cover, what order to shoot the targets in, when or if you should drop magazines on the ground, and that sort of minutia. I don’t think those things are as important as understanding the difference between sight reading and improvisation, and the value of each of those skills for self-defense.