People are busier today than they ever have been, and shooters are no exception.
We’ve got a billion dollar firearms training industry that promises to help shooters get better, faster than they could on their own.
But what if I told you that there is a simple way to accelerate the learning process?
To cut the number of repetitions necessary to have earned confidence that you could defend yourself with a firearm?
And, if interested, to cut the number of years it takes to achieve mastery of fighting with a gun.
Today, I’m going to pull back the curtain and tell you one of the tricks that I use and that you can use to do just this…and it applies to more than just shooting.
I’ve got to warn you that this is an over-simplistic explanation…it’s kind of like saying, “press the long skinny pedal on the right” to move a car instead of going into the details of ideal fuel:air ratios and other minutia. If you have technical comments/corrections, please make them, but realize that the purpose of the article is to help people shoot better…not be neuroscientists.
Shooting is an emotionally charged activity. Depending on the person, their associations with guns and the situation, it causes the release of dopamine, oxytocin, endorphins, adrenaline, and sometimes cortisol.
It’s pretty awesome.
Dopamine, as an example, gets released in greater quantities when something is new or novel.
Endorphins can get released for some people because the body interprets the loud bang and recoil as a threat to safety…or just because of the surprise.
I’m not sure what causes oxytocin to be released when shooting…it’s what’s released by a brand new mother when she starts nursing and during/after orgasm and most people kind of like it.
Adrenaline gets released for fight/flight and sometimes shooting excites the fight or flight response.
All of these are generally thought of as “good” brain/body chemicals. And one of the ways your body prioritizes memories is by the amount of these chemicals that are flowing at a given time. If you have a ton of these chemicals flowing, what you’re doing and just did will be easier to remember. If you have none of these chemicals flowing, it will be harder.
The challenge we run into with shooting is that these chemicals get released because of the simple act of shooting…regardless of how well you shoot.
Put another way, it’s easy to train the brain to associate the release of happy chemicals with the bang and general experience of shooting rather than with the specific performance of the bullets that leave your muzzle.
When you release these chemicals, your brain takes a snapshot of what you’re doing and all of your sensory input immediately prior to the release.
And the problem is that you
release these happy chemicals
every time you shoot…
regardless of whether you shoot well or not.
If you just go out and slap the trigger like a trained monkey & make lots of noise…you’re STILL going to release the happy chemicals and guess what behavior is going to be reinforced?
That’s right…slapping the trigger like a trained monkey and random performance is what gets reinforced.
To add to this, more dopamine is released when an activity is new and novel than when it’s something that the mind considers normal, so the more you shoot, the less dopamine you’ll release…unless you keep doing new and novel things.
Now, if you spent that initial time when a lot of dopamine is released just making things go “bang” and not focusing on fundamentals, then at some point you’re not only going to release less dopamine when you shoot, but you’re also going to release cortisol (the stress hormone) because of a lack of accuracy and consistency.
So, since neural pathways are created faster when you release lots of happy (or sad) chemicals, you want to have no emotion when you mess up and a lot of emotion when you do things right.
How do you do this?
- Dry fire. Dry fire is not as stimulating as live fire, and that’s a great thing. If you can start developing habits and neural pathways (muscle memory) with dry fire before switching to live fire, your live fire will be a much higher quality. Then, when you release happy chemicals after each shot of live fire, you’ll be reinforcing good technique vs. simply releasing happy chemicals because something went “bang” in your hands.This is why it’s so important to do 80-90% of your practice with dry fire. Simply doing more dry fire will mean that you’re setting yourself up to reward good behavior in particular rather than simply rewarding ANY behavior.
- I have a trick that takes advantage of the fact that happy chemicals help build neural pathways faster. It makes me look silly, but I don’t care…it works. In short, if I’m trying something that’s challenging and I accomplish it, I IMMEDIATELY make a big deal of it by pumping my fist, smiling, and yelling a bit. If it was exceptionally good, I might even do a little happy dance. I do this for both live fire and dry fire and I try to do it as soon as possible.
The sooner you do it and the more senses you involve in the process, the better the association will be between the action that you want to reinforce and the release of the happy chemicals. If I screw up, I remain emotionless, assess, plan my next shot, and move on. I never chastise myself…doing so won’t fix what just happened and it will negatively affect my next shot. This little bit of rocket fuel comes from the Insight Deadly Accuracy Home Study Course…it’s a phenomenal course that focuses on the mental dynamics of shooting. Face it, if you’re head’s not in the game and under control, you’re going to throw shots all over the place. Get control of your mind and the bullets will follow.
This is 180 degrees opposite from what most people do. Most shooters try to remain calm and dignified when they do well (like it’s normal) and visibly upset when they mess up (like it’s unusual). I understand it…part of it comes from wanting to appear humble and not a bragger and part of it comes from posturing in front of other guys. Appearing humble and what others think won’t help you shoot better in less time, but manipulating your brain chemistry to build neural pathways faster WILL.
This is a great tool to use for live fire, but it’s especially good for dry fire practice because of how emotionless dry fire can be. When you reward the brain with happy chemicals for good performance, it will burn that neural pathway fast and deep so that it can follow the same path to happy chemicals again in the future.
- Earlier I mentioned that “new and novel” activities release more dopamine than activities that you’re used to. In short, that means that there’s value in new, unique, and fun training methods and targets. Interestingly enough, some scientists think that the optimal time for positive feedback to release the most dopamine is .1-.2 seconds or less and the audible feedback from steel targets (depending on the range) is right in that range. So the next time someone asks why you like shooting steel, you can tell them that they maximize dopamine release.
There’s another angle to this…particularly with newer shooters. If a new shooter shoots a gun that hurts or get bad results early on, their body will release cortisol and they’ll have an aversion to whatever they did to cause the release of the cortisol. This could be because of improper ear protection, excessive recoil, a bad grip on the gun that causes cuts/bruising, or a poor choice of caliber/conditions for the new shooter. This is a bad neural pathway and, if not managed, the brain can associate all firearms as being the start of the path to pain/cortisol. I suggest quiet, small caliber guns and big, close, reactive targets for new shooters. Ideally, a bb gun or even airsoft and big balloons & aluminum cans and then .22 and .223.
If you’re teaching someone, you also want to be careful about yelling. The military uses yelling to see who will crack under stress and as a tool to inoculate recruits to stress. That’s great when you have several weeks with someone who’s essentially captive and when you’re building soldiers, but not great when you’ve got a limited amount of time with a loved one or student and are trying to instill solid fundamentals and create positive associations with shooting. Skip the yelling when teaching. Add it in later on when they are comfortable, they’ve got their technique dialed in, and you’re moving on to stress inoculation.
With that in mind, answer these 3 questions in regards to your current training:
- Are you overly critical (internal dialog or audible) when you make mistakes shooting? If so, do you heap equal praise on yourself when you do well?
- Could you see yourself blunting negative responses in future dry and live fire and increasing your positive feedback when you do well?
- When working with others, do you see opportunities to leverage these hacks to help them get better faster?
Questions? Comments? This is kind of a deep one, so fire away by commenting below.
For more on the science and practical application of the lessons in this article, click here: Insight Deadly Accuracy Home Study Course This is the best product on the market today for mastering the mental dynamics of shooting. It teaches foundational skills that will help you control your emotions in extreme stress situations and shoot like an unflappable grizzled pro with ice running through your veins.