How many self defense classes have you taken this year? They may be holding you back!

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One of the common recommendations in the training world is to study with as many different people or schools as you can, to get as many different perspectives as possible in order to get a more fully formed opinion of the subject of defensive shooting (or self defense in general.) I think the idea is sound, but the execution is often lacking.

I see a lot of students come through my classes as part of their own effort to get that well-rounded view of defensive shooting. They’re usually on their way from one trainer or school, and after they’re done with me they’re off to another school. “Training junkies”, they’re called in the business.

That’s great, and I applaud anyone who is willing to dedicate the time, effort and money it takes to do that: to travel all over the country and shoot lots of ammo with lots of trainers. The problem, as I usually see it manifested, is that they very often don’t absorb any of the lessons in which they’ve participated.

Notice that I didn’t say “lessons they learned”. That’s because I rarely see any actual learning happening; these students often grasp only the superficialities of what they’ve experienced. They go from class to class and get exposed to a lot of varying approaches, but little of it really sticks; they don’t have a deep understanding of anything, and their performance often shows it.

In order for learning to occur several things need to happen. First you need to be exposed to the material; it needs to be taught to you. This is where you start to understand not just what you’re supposed to do, but also (if the instructor is doing his or her job correctly) why you’re doing it. Ideally you’ll be taught where it comes from, why it looks the way it does, why it’s different from something else and what makes it better/more desirable/more applicable.

Second, you need to be able to practice the material in order to form the neural pathways to memorization. Contrary to popular belief, neuroscientists say we don’t know exactly how much repetition is needed to truly learn a skill because it varies from individual to individual (and also with the nature of the material.) However, it doesn’t happen immediately; it takes some time and effort to build those neural pathways and move the skill from a cognitive act — one which you need to think about — to a non-cognitive act, one which seems to happen automatically or without conscious attention.

Finally, you need a way to evaluate whether or not the skill or knowledge has truly been assimilated, that it is both understood and applied correctly. Evaluation doesn’t necessarily mean some sort of formal graded test, either; what it does mean is a way to compare what you’re doing to what you should be doing. Evaluation is best done by someone, a third party, who understands what it is you need to do and can give you honest feedback. That’s not the only method, of course, but it’s the surest way to get actionable, valuable feedback. The important thing is that feedback has to be ongoing, just like practice: are you staying on track? Are your skills (or your understanding of skill) deteriorating? Are you getting better?

In a quality class of any length you’ll get all three: learning, practice, and evaluation. This doesn’t mean your skill is complete, however, even if you got a good feedback report. Any evaluation is a snapshot of what you could do at that moment, and if you’ve just had a couple of days of practice an evaluation is always going to be better than it will a week or a month or a year after the fact.

This is where the training junkies often fall down.

Any skill takes repetition to learn and repetition to maintain. It’s been said that training is to teach you what and how to practice, and that’s actually a good way of looking at it! You learn things to practice, and you practice so that those skills become part of your ability to respond efficiently. The less you practice, the less automatic — or non-cognitive — those skills will be, if you remember them at all.

The real kicker is that the more different skills you learn, the more you have to practice. The old analogy about putting “tools in your toolbox” is wrong on so many levels; skills are not like wrenches, which can sit in a box for decades or even centuries and still be ready to use the minute they’re needed. Skills, on the other hand, are perishable — they require practice, and occasional evaluation, if they’re to be able to be used when called upon. The more skills that need practice and evaluation, the more practice and evaluation time you have to allot to them if you actually want to use them.

As I’ve said before, no one has unlimited time, energy, or money to prepare. We all have lives to lead, jobs to do, and even if someone is fantastically independently wealthy they still only have so much life on this planet. If you’re always adding skills to your “toolbox”, but can’t find the time/energy/money to maintain them, do you really have them?

What I see far too often is that in their zeal to learn “everything”, the training junkies often don’t actually learn anything really well. Because they’re rapidly adding different approaches and ideas to their body of knowledge they’re often paralyzed about what they should practice — if and when they actually find the time to practice anything. The net result is that their skills are often broad, but not very deep.

I started out this essay by talking about the need to train with as many people as possible to get as many points of view as possible. Now, it seems, I’m making a good case for picking one instructor/school/doctrine and sticking with it, practicing to always get better or to master the doctrine. Where’s the balance? How can you get the strength inherent in both approaches while avoiding the limitations?

I’ve found a very few avid students who really were very good at using a gun defensively, but they were both cognizant of their need to practice and very good about prioritizing their practice. They were students to learn better ways of approaching the skills they’d plausibly need and would very selectively add skills to their practice regimen. They’d actually practice them, too!

Sadly they’re in the minority. Too many others would grab the diploma, the certificate, and off to another class they’d go without even trying to understand or apply any of the lessons they learned in the last one. They weren’t even a Jack-Of-All-Trades because they hadn’t yet developed a base skill set that they could build on.

The key is to first build a solid conceptual base for your further study. Once you have a firm foundation of skills that allow you to efficiently respond to the likely kinds of attacks, then you can take more classes to expand the range of circumstances under which you can use those skills. There really are no “advanced” skills per se, there is only an advanced range of circumstances under which you can apply the skills you have.

When you take classes from an instructor with a differing point of view from that which you’ve already experienced, remember that it’s not either-or; you don’t need to replace your foundation, and in very few cases will any decent instructor try to convince you to do so. What you’re looking for is a more complete understanding of the application of your skills. Sometimes you’ll learn better ways to practice those skills, sometimes you’ll learn a variation that’s easier for you to do (because of physical makeup or equipment limitations, for instance.)

The important thing is that you first have a practice and evaluation routine established. If you don’t have that, stop taking classes until you do; without that, all you’ll do is end up with the pile of unread magazines: oldest stuff on the bottom that you still haven’t read, but you’ll probably never get to because of the mass of new, unread magazines on top!

Only after you’ve done that will you be able to take additional courses from new instructors and to properly integrate what you’ve learned into your skillset. If you don’t have that practice and evaluation component yet, stay tuned — because I may have the answer for you!

— Grant Cunningham

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About the Author:

Grant Cunningham is a renowned author and teacher in the fields of self defense, defensive shooting education and personal safety. He’s written several popular books on handguns and defensive shooting, including "The Book of the Revolver", "Shooter’s Guide To Handguns", "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals", "Defensive Pistol Fundamentals", and "Practice Strategies for Defensive Shooting" (Fall 2015.) Grant has also written articles on shooting, self defense, training and teaching for many magazines and shooting websites, including Concealed Carry Magazine, Gun Digest Magazine, the Association of Defensive Shooting Instructors ADSI) and the popular Personal Defense Network training website. He’s produced a DVD in the National Rifle Association’s Personal Firearm Defense series titled "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals" and teaches defensive shooting and personal safety courses all over the United States.
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