Training is the mantra. All mouths in our community utter it in ritualistic unison.
Whether that be through study, instruction, or drilling — you certainly will not find any among ISG that dissent with the dogma. Each of us who’ve been published here have been, at some point, both teacher and a student alike. Training isn’t just considered part of the ISG ‘thing,’ it’s a cultural requirement.
Unfortunately, classes and materials aren’t plentiful. Especially in the current era, when many traveling teachers are now finally getting their course loads back to prior-pandemic, things can be hard. Doubly so if the course requires you provide your own ammo. We are not short on tough logistical and financial pills to swallow. Ergo, some of us are mostly on our own.
I’m going to focus on self improvement specifically. My goal is to compile the largest lessons I’ve learned as a student and imparted as an instructor over the years. I have taught hundreds of hours of different levels of military medicine. However, most of my lessons on self study actually come from my several years as a guitar instructor.
Skills are skills, be it improving your draw speed or cleanly arpeggiating a chord.2022, Ghandi… or maybe Abe Lincoln
The first step is the most difficult; at least that’s been my experience.
Undergoing any venture, be it familiar or entirely new, creates easy opportunity to judge yourself against the examples of competence that inspired you to take up the skill in the first place. This is a gigantic hurdle — and often where I get hung up. When my old man drove me to the city golf course for a lesson when I was a kid, I got foolishly mad that I wasn’t thwacking the ball a couple hundred yards in my first few goes.
That continued for years, honestly. I would watch the PGA and see them land shots within a dozen feet of the hole on an approach and expect that I was supposed to be doing the same thing. Then, when I would invariably blade the ball with my sand wedge and send it a dozen yards over the green, I would decide on hole four that the remaining five holes weren’t going to be fun at all.
Sometime in my late teens I played with an uncle who saw my temper flaring up. He told me simply that “as long as you’re moving the cart, you’re playing golf.” Which was to say, just as long as I was hitting the ball far enough that it was worth the effort to load the cart, I was doing just fine. For the rest of that day… that was enough.
The lesson was that I wasn’t going to perform at a pro level off only sparse practice as a teenager. Which seems like it should be obvious, but we all fall victim to wanting immediate success. I gave up lockpicking twice before realizing that everyone rakes for minutes on end when they start. It’s easy to pick up on the glitzy media around topics on YouTube or Instagram and think that’s what the norm is. It ain’t.
When you decide you’re going to get serious about something, slow your roll and think about the level you want to be at. Now cut that in half. Now cut THAT in half. Whatever’s left is where your real initial goal should be. Aiming for top results off the bat you may as well be aiming at your foot.
…which brings us to a good segue point on goal setting. The largest mistake I saw among new musicians was a lack of objective goals.
This isn’t just a numbers thing, it’s also defining qualifiable items. There aren’t a lot of statistics in music, but there are a plenty of descriptors. A kid would tell me that he had a goal of playing Thunderstruck by AC/DC, a song that’s not that challenging to play. Until you decide you want to play it very cleanly. Thus, I would offer the modification that he should want to play Thunderstruck without any dead notes.
I’m at the level of playing where I could probably perform that song and hold a conversation. However, if you asked me to play it cleanly I would suddenly have to throw some concentration at the matter.
Shooting skills make this easy. The B8 is a ubiquitous tool for any shooter and a favorite among instructors the world over. It’s the same everywhere you go, which makes it a phenomenal measuring stick. It’s the target I chose when I decided to get serious about shooting pistols. That simple choice accelerated my progress greatly. I had adopted an objective target to practice with, measure my success, and show my work to mentors.
This can be accomplished with many other examples. Another fan favorite is a simple 3”x5” index card. Or perhaps a 1” dot in the middle of an 8.5×11” piece of printer paper. The point is that you’re using a target of a known size from which you can measure yourself consistently.
Once you have the ability to measure yourself, you can start to quantify or qualify where you are, where you want to end up, and prescribe yourself steps in between. A pretty famous drill called “The Test” is regarded as a benchmark for pistol shooters. With a B8 target at 10 yards, fire 10 shots under 10 seconds and add up your score. 100 is a perfect score. All other numbers correspond to the marked areas on the B8.
If your goal is 100 eventually, but you’re consistently shooting in the 60’s, then your desired progress looks rather linear. Your first step should be to score consistently in the 70’s. Then 80’s. Then 90’s and into 100. Once you hit 100 you can go even further by lowering the par time from 10 seconds to 8, or perhaps even entirely in half at 5 if you’re truly mastering the platform.
The whole point is that you’ve created a situation in which you can judge your progress objectively. You can do your thing and at the end have proof of your work to be analyzed and displayed. This can be reps of a workout, or perhaps the time it takes to start a fire, or bypass a padlock. Find a way to make a science out of what you’re doing so you can do what science is all about: applying a method.
Tempo is a very frustrating thing. It is difficult for a beginner to know whether they’re applying a technique correctly or not simply because they’re a beginner. However, one of the worst things you can do is to try and go faster than your capabilities prematurely. Why? Because that’s when you turn a crutch into a habit.
I played my first ten years of guitar without using the pinky on my fretting hand. I didn’t take the time to strengthen that finger enough so that I could play quickly with it. As a result, I found ways to just play without it. That was a bad move.
At the time, I justified it by saying things like “Eric Clapton doesn’t use his pinky!” Which wasn’t really true. He didn’t in his early career, but he fixed that later on. You see this a lot in plenty of other disciplines, where folks who bemoan the sour grapes of skills they didn’t put the time in to develop will convince you that they’re unnecessary; as if competence itself wasn’t a worthwhile venture in life. I’m very glad I grew out of that.
When I decided I wanted to play faster than 9 notes a second so I could start learning the Eric Johnson songs I wanted to, I found that I had a serious, serious handicap. Eric Johnson was simply a great player and he used all his fingers masterfully. If I wanted to play his songs, I was just going to have to increase my abilities. Had I been playing with proper technique from the start, it wouldn’t have been quite the same challenge. Unfortunately, I had to spend a year solidly re-learning to play songs I was already good at, but incorporating my pinky, until it had the dexterity to attempt to progress again.
Shooting instructors run into this often. Someone who’s been a rural range magdumper for years hits a course after deciding to get serious. They arrive to find that their years of doing stuff wrong makes it much harder to actually do stuff right.
In my experience, the culprit here is nearly always speed. People want to do the real thing at game speed right away. As a result, they forgo the underlying techniques that allow that speed with shortcut methods to simulate the speed they think they’re achieving.
“Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.” We’ve all heard this before. Of course, that’s a “useful truth,” as I like to call it. Fast is fast, but smooth technique allows for that speed.
Practicing slowly is done purposely to ingrain muscle memory. When you start off at a snail’s pace, you’re programming your brain to make the motions ‘feel right.’ The more you push neurons across a synapse, the more you build that bridge. The more you build that bridge, the faster the synapse will get. If you’re doing things right, speed will come as a natural consequence of doing something correctly over and over. Speed in technique isn’t something you do, it’s something that happens to you.
If you’ve built that quick synapse bridge doing something wrong, your body will want to unconsciously default to that unless you intently concentrate on doing it differently. Then, when shit hits the fan and you’re not able to concentrate on every last step of a skill, you’ll revert right back to doing things the wrong way. Just like you always had before due to having rushed your development. Womp womp.
Rising to the occasional is a myth. More often, people revert to their training.
I knew a former green beret who was a Physician’s Assistant. Naturally, plenty of folks wanted to know about the cool-guy stuff outside of the pretty clinical medical environment we were in. One person asked if he could teach some ‘advanced technique’ to him with his M9. The doc just replied that, “there are no such things as advanced techniques, just advanced execution of the basics.”
You’re just shooting a handgun. So is Jerry Miculek. The difference isn’t some magic in where on his finger he places the trigger, it’s in just how many times he shot slow so that shooting fast became a consequence of reflex, not concentration.
As you approach the cusp of some new goal you set, resist the temptation to push much beyond it too fast. Keep up with what got you to that next step. That’s what will take you to the next milestone, and then the next, and then the next…
Learning music isn’t all about metronomes and scales. One embarks on that journey to learn to play songs!
One of my favorite practice tools as a guitar teacher was contextual practice. Say a student was learning to bend the guitar strings. I would show them purely how, I would give them a few exercises to practice, and I would give them examples of what ‘right’ looked like.
But when Aunt Edna comes over and wants to see your progress, you wouldn’t want to just run scales and exercises. You’d want to play a song. Thus, whenever I was teaching a technique I would find a song that utilized it and have the student learn that song. Two birds, one stone. They’re learning the pure physical skill, but also in the context of how they will actually apply that skill.
In the fictional ISG mead halls we often discuss the “flat range meta” of gun training. There is a lot of choreography in the sub-second draw from appendix in an environment where someone is poised in front of a target and knows a beep is coming. Under what context do threats square up against you at high noon for a duel? Not many that I know of.
Of course, the context of a gunfight is a hard one to replicate. But it’s not impossible to try and pull elements from it. When you’re running and gunning, you can load a random number of rounds into a magazine. That way, when shooting, you’ll go dry on a gun at times you didn’t expect to. THAT is the time to measure your emergency reloads. Not when you know you have one in the pipe and an empty mag in the gun. You’re practicing for less-than-ideal events, you shouldn’t always to put yourself in ideal situations to practice the skills.
Likewise with lockpicking. I started by practicing comfortably on the couch. How often will a padlock be presented to me in a sitting position with the key-opening facing me at a slightly upward angle for convenience? Likely never. Should I stop practicing it like that? Once I get consistency on the couch, absolutely.
Temper your expectations, set smart goals, take your time, and apply context as needed.
I know, I know, it’s easy for me to type all that out as if it were just that — easy. I know it isn’t. As I said at the top of this whole diatribe, everyone at ISG has been a student and teacher alike. We know how hard it can be to climb that skill ladder.
If you’re having a tough time, my final tip is do not be afraid to seek mentorship. It’s not a hit to the pride to admit you need some expert input. The ‘Integrated’ part of the site’s name isn’t there as some sort of tacticool dude ad-lib. Every expert we have in our little social circle has relied on another for something at some point. “It takes a village…”
Hopefully you pulled something from this article to aid you on your journeys. If not, you’re probably smarter than me. Come write articles. Until then, stay safe and change your socks.
– J. Allen