The crucial role of competition in training

By Ron Avery
President, Director of Training
The Practical Shooting Academy, Inc.

    Your heart is pounding rapidly in your chest, your palms are sweaty and cold and your breath is coming in a short, in-and-out rhythm.

    The adrenaline is pounding. You open the door, drawing your weapon as you move. Your eyes sweep the room, and you see, THERE, threat!

    As you shoot two rounds in rapid succession, you glimpse a movement out of the corner of your eye. You turn to see two threats swing out simultaneously from around a corner.

    You fire into each threat as you smoothly transition through the room.

    As you approach another threat area, you make a dynamic reload so that you will have a full magazine. Moving quickly now, you step across a threshold and you now have 3 threats in rapid succession.

    Your finger is pounding on the trigger now as you try to engage them as swiftly as possible.

    You continue to move through the area, scanning for threats, engaging when you first see them. Your gun seems to be kicking all over the place and you don't remember seeing your sights too clearly as you try to go as fast as you can.

    You feel jerky and out of control as you come to the final area that needs to be taken down.

Sound like a nightmare? Not at all.

It's a stage in the finals of a competitive shooting championship and you are going for it, giving it all you have.

Competition is woven into the very fabric of our lives. From a very young age, we are competing for resources, status in our peer group or community, the opposite sex, grades in school, jobs, promotions, and in a lethal force engagement, for your life.

This is completely opposite what is taught in school where they try to treat competition as something unhealthy. The idea that there will be winners and losers in situations and in life is not deemed acceptable. This does not prepare one for the real world where competition is a very real force.

The fact is your whole life is shaped by your competitiveness or the lack thereof. Those who are not willing to compete for what is theirs may lose what they have worked so hard to achieve.

There is something fundamental about the competitive drive. It is also the ultimate test of self. How you fare and how you deal with it can be critically important to the direction of your life. The drive to be the best you can be, to win, to overcome obstacles and achieve your goals is rooted in the competitive drive.

Contrast this with shrinking from challenges that you face. Officers who are afraid to qualify because they are unsure of their ability to do so. A firearms instructor who won't shoot in front of his students because he is afraid of making a mistake. A departmental qualification that is too generous in terms of time and accuracy because those in positions of authority don't want anyone to fail.

Ironically, many of these qualifications are rooted in competitive shooting, such as PPC. The difference is that the target area shot in that type of shooting and the time limits given are for the 10 and X ring and the shots are being fired out to 50 yards. Now, the scoring area for a "good hit" has been increased to a far larger area and the time has not been reduced to represent a more realistic encounter.

You can run from competition but you can't hide from it. As a law enforcement officer, you will deal with it almost every day on the job.

The key is to use competition to bring out the necessary mind-set that it will take to prevail in a situation. While this is linked with your personal survival it is also linked very strongly with the will to win the conflict. You should be able to visualize yourself as the victor, handling the situation, taking control of the conflict and winning. This is linked directly with the competitive drive. Then you must take the next step. You must engage in activities that promote and test your will to win. Armchair visualization will not cut it.

Bringing competition into the training environment will lead to increased performance among the majority of those who participate in it. There will always be those who shrink from it and will make excuses. This is no reason to get rid of competition. On the street, you don't get to pick the competitions you will engage in, they will happen to you. If you are not constantly feeding the drive to win on a regular basis, you will not have the skills, confidence and will of those who compete on a regular basis.

As a professional firearms trainer and researcher, I can verify that skilled competitive shooters are in a class by themselves in terms of performance with arms over their peers in law enforcement, military establishments or the civilian sector.

Having been involved in competitive shooting over 26 years in at a national and world class level, I can honestly say that I would probably never have achieved the levels of speed, precision, mental clarity and calmness under pressure if I had not competed. I would definitely not have understood shooting at the level I do now.

Another fact that is obscured by those who think that competitive shooting is not practical or is "gamey" is that world class competitive shooters have been responsible for the vast majority of shooting technique and training that has gone on for the last 50 years or more.

Since the late 1970's, a small handful of world class shooters have been responsible for nearly all the shooting techniques that are being used today. That's right folks. World class competitive shooters trained nearly everyone. US Navy Seals? Delta Force? Marine Corp? DEA, FBI, US Secret Service, Dept. of Defense? Yep, did 'em all and a lot of others for the last 20 some odd years and continue to do so today. The Weaver Stance and later, the Modern Isosceles and its many variants were all developed and validated in competition and then taught to everyone.

That process continues today, although there are many others out there muddying the waters who have never competed, do not understand the techniques and their proper application and yet feel qualified to teach them.

While you can derive benefits from all kinds of competitive events, you will get the most from competition that is relevant to your job. Martial arts competition, competitive shooting and the like are among the best for law enforcement.

I will focus on competitive shooting and talk about what it can do for you.

Competitive shooting recreates many of the stress responses that are found in high stress or deadly force situations as our shooter found out in the beginning of this article. Learning to deal with the stress of competition and focus on the tasks and mind-set associated with superior performance will serve you well should you ever get into a deadly force situation.

Here are some of the other benefits of properly structured competition.

Develop the will to win - This is one of the single best things that competition shooting will do for you. When you have to go against the best on a regular basis, peak performance becomes a way of life. You have to be ready to take on all comers, to develop the toughness of spirit to risk failure while striving to do your personal best. Learning to walk the tightrope between too fast and not fast enough. You have to be able to do what it takes to do as well as you can without shrinking from the possibility of failure. Feed your will!

Strengthen character

If you learn to conduct yourself in an ethical manner while competing you will become stronger mentally. Performing well in an ethical manner will make you tougher. You won't need "props" to help you win.You will develop a strong sense of self worth, which will help you when the going gets tough. You won't need excuses why you didn't do as well as you can but will instead examine your mistakes and come up with solutions to problems you are facing. Honest feedback will yield true skill.

Superior gun handling and shooting under stress

Having worked with both competitive and non-competing people in our various tactical programs over many years, it is a fact that proficient competitive shooters operate at a far higher level of proficiency than their peers when it comes to shooting under pressure. This translates into superior hit probability. It also translates into superior control, speed, processing, movement skills, and a host of other beneficial skills.

Situational awareness, multi-tasking and task focusing

Being able to observe, orient, decide and act quickly and decisively is what will give you the edge in a lethal force situation. Competitive shooting represents a superb way to increase your mental processing speed and ability to task focus under high stress conditions. Imagine driving a race car around a complex track at speeds varying from 120 to 180 mph. Now imagine how much more awareness and control you will have when you return to more "normal" speeds.

In the sport of International Practical Shooting (IPSC) competitors "race" with guns. Competitors routinely have to multi-task during competition. High speed mental processing and situational awareness while being able to focus on the task of hitting targets precisely and extremely fast is one of the many benefits that can be yours.

This will help you on the street when you are faced with a tough situation that requires mental agility and the ability to focus on tasks under pressure.

Safe gun handling both on and off the range

Competitive shooting practiced under the rules of the International Practical Shooting Confederation are among to safest in the world. Here shooters may perform high speed draws, engage multiple targets, negotiate complex courses of fire, shoot on the move, open doors with gun in hand, grab guns off of tables, load and shoot rapidly, reload extremely fast; all under uncompromising safety standards

This type of shooting ingrains a keen awareness of muzzle control. Finger on or off the trigger at the correct time are rigidly enforced and become ingrained responses. Competitive shooters rarely have to be reminded of safety with firearms.

Stress Acclimatization

One of the biggest benefits of competition comes from developing your skills in dealing with stress. Competition is physically, mentally and emotionally demanding. Putting your ego on the line can be a threatening experience. Overdoing things and making big mistakes by trying too hard is also a common experience.

Through regular participation combined with proper coaching, competition will help you deal with your biggest competition and that is YOU.

I can tell you from personal experience that the stress I dealt with in National and World level events was far greater than the stress I felt when engaged in actual deadly force situations. Other peers and friends who have been in lethal force events as well as engage in competition say much the same thing.

Competitive shooting, where you may anticipate the event over a period of weeks, months or even years, generates its own kind of stress. Prior to and during the event, your perspective of the event will trigger emotions that will in turn release stress hormones that can work either for or against you.

Emotional and mental management is a key component of successful performance. The human body will not be able to distinguish between the hormones released during a competitive event or a lethal force engagement.

Learning new techniques and testing and evaluation of new techniques and equipment - No less of an authority than Jeff Cooper remarked that IPSC was a testing ground where one could evaluate successful technique and equipment of the best shooters. That remains true to this day. While gunfights may vary according to the nature of the fight or the skill of the opponent, competition is structured in a way that pits man against man where the rules are the same. The best will rise to the top.

Competition is not tactical training. It will not replace proper tactics and teamwork. On the other hand, the mental and physical skills you develop will definitely aid you should you need to use those skills to win the day.

The biggest problem with competitive shooting comes with what you bring with you. If it is just a game to you and targets are merely targets and you don't really care how you finish then you won't get a lot from it.

If you treat it as something that is important to you and you know that you might have to use those skills in the real world then good progress can be made.

The ancient test of man vs. man has been going on from the beginning of mankind's existence. Competition represents a means of measuring yourself against others and being able to walk away with a better understanding of yourself and your strengths and weaknesses.

There will always be positives and negatives in any type of training. Force on force training can teach bad habits to; like hiding behind barriers that won't stop a real bullet. Force on force is also very time intensive as well as being expensive to do on a regular basis. Draw upon the positives and recognize the negatives.

A well-rounded program will focus on different aspects of training. Competition belongs in a well rounded program. Nothing can take its place. Whether you compete within your peer group or reach out into the wide world for more, competition will make you stronger and better prepared to focus on the task of winning when it counts.

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