With the cost of ammunition right now, it’s amazing anyone can afford to practice without getting some good coaching first to be sure they’re practicing the right things.
According to Schmidt in Motor Learning and Performance, it takes roughly 300 to 500 repetitions to ingrain a motor program to the point you no longer need to slowly think your way through it every time you do it. However, to erase a previously-learned program and replace it with a new one takes 3000 to 5000 reps — literally ten times as much work! Also, the number of required repetitions goes up dramatically when the earlier program has been “overlearned,” that is, when it has been trained to the point of true automaticity. The rule is, the more thoroughly you have learned the first program, the more work you have to do to erase that old program and get yourself up to speed with a new one.
Let me put that in more familiar terms. Think about driving a car: you put your foot on the brake, turn the key in the ignition, work the gear shift, and take your foot off the brake to get the car rolling. This simple sequence of behaviors is a “motor program,” and you’ve literally done it thousands if not hundreds of thousands of times in your life. When you first learned to do it, you had to think your way through it (as anyone who’s ever coached a teenage driver knows). But now? Now you just think, “Time to back out of the driveway,” and your body runs through the skills without much conscious oversight from your brain. You’re probably thinking about what’s going on at the office, or the conversation you had with your kid before you left for work, or whether you should stop for coffee on your way there. That’s automaticity.
Now, if your car is in the shop and you borrow an unfamiliar one, the first time you get behind the wheel, you would check out the location of the gear shift. Is it on the steering column or between the seats? If your own car has a gear shift on the steering column, but the new car has one between the seats, I can guarantee that at some point, you’ll be thinking about other things and will reach for the non-existent gear shift on the column. Why? Because you have a motor program that says that’s where the gear shift is. Even though your conscious mind knows where the new gear shift is, you don’t usually use your conscious mind when you grab the gear shift. You let the motor program handle it.
What does this have to do with shooting? Simple: when we practice using a gun for self-defense, the goal is to ingrain a motor program that lets us run the gun while we think about other things – just as the goal in the driver’s seat is to think about the road ahead of us rather than focusing on how to use the knobs and levers that make the car go. We need that good motor program because if we are ever attacked, we want our minds free to think about solving the criminal problem, and we don’t want to tie up brain cells thinking about the mechanics of making the gun work. This is why practice is important, and why it’s important to practice the right things.
It’s also why I’m amazed to see so many people blowing through ammunition on the range without a plan or a purpose, and without first learning the most efficient ways to do things. If you practice doing things inefficiently, you will build an inefficient motor program. That means you will do those things in that same inefficient way when your life is in danger, even if your conscious mind knows better. That’s just not a good thing at all.
The ideal is this: first learn the most efficient way to do things, and then practice doing things that way until you have ingrained that program to the point of automaticity. Then you will be able to solve your criminal problem much more easily.