Top 10 ways competitive shooting improves defensive performance


As you know, my primary focus for shooting is helping people learn the skills that they need to survive lethal force encounters.

Whether it’s law enforcement, military, concealed carry, or home defense, we want you to be prepared mentally, physically, and technically to succeed when second place isn’t an option.

One of the best tools for improving your ability to put fast and accurate rounds on target in a lethal force encounter is competition shooting.

Now, before you dismiss it as “play” or as something that will teach habits that will get you killed in real life, I want you to read 10+ reasons why competitive shooting will improve your defensive shooting performance.

Many shooters tend to do most of their shooting at indoor ranges or outdoor ranges with a lot of restrictions.  Unfortunately, there are a LOT of defensive shooting skills that you can’t do at most ranges during public shooting times that you probably can do during their competitive shoots.  Some of these things are:

  • Engaging multiple targets
  • Shooting from awkward positions & angles
  • Shooting tight groups faster than 1 shot per second
  • Moving and shooting
  • Engaging around cover
  • Shooting moving targets and targets that disappear
  • Shooting from the holster
  • Shooting from concealment

Since most of these skills are almost guaranteed to be used in a gunfight, it might just be a good idea to practice them under gradually increasing levels of stress.

And that (stress) is one of the biggest benefits of competitive shooting.

To use football as an analogy, the most stressful game in the sport is usually the Super Bowl.  You don’t see very many people successfully go directly from playing catch in the back yard to performing at a high level in the Super Bowl.

Instead, over a period of time, they learn to execute the fundamentals under gradually increasing stress levels in less & less sterile conditions.  During this time, they perfect their form, they get comfortable with stressful situations, and they become able to perform at peak levels in stressful situations.

The most stressful shooting you may ever do will be using a firearm to stop a lethal force threat.  It is the Super Bowl of shooting.

And if you go straight from slowly and calmly shooting paper (think of this as playing catch) to a lethal force encounter (equivalent to the Super Bowl), you’re probably not going to perform as well as if you took some intermediate steps.

And that’s how I view competition…as an intermediate step between standing and punching holes in paper and a lethal force encounter.

It’s not as effective as force on force, but it’s a heck of a lot cheaper and easier to find than high quality force on force training.

There are a few ways that competition induces stress that people don’t appreciate until they experience it.

You’re on the clock, and it’s safe to say that the beep of a timer INSTANTLY drops 12 points from your IQ and, more often than not, will completely wipe out your memory and any plan that you thought you had a few seconds earlier.  (I didn’t come up with that IQ quip…it’s from the legendary Pat Rogers, RIP.)

Your eyes are your speedometer.  One of the beauties of the conflicting forces of shooting fast AND accurately is that it will highlight the parts of your technique that need the most work.  Shooters either learn to smoothly take their time in a hurry…or they get frustrated.  And they learn that they can’t shoot accurately any faster than they can shift focus.  (Which is why our Tactical Vision Training is so critical for shooters)

You learn to work through stress…and again…these are things that are WAY better to learn during competition than in a fight for your life.

Another way that competition induces stress is eyeballs and performance anxiety.  A lot of people fear public speaking and public performance more than death.  Being the only person shooting while everyone else watches triggers some of this anxiety.  And that’s GREAT!

It’s great because you get to practice safe handling and manipulation of your firearm under stress when no lives are at stake.  You get to explore ways to control your stress levels.  You get to inoculate yourself to various levels of stress.

So, there’s a 3rd way that competition induces stress, and it piggybacks on the first two.

When you’re under stress and try to think your way through a situation, it’s frustratingly ineffective.  As stress levels increase, your ability to consciously process situations and recall declarative long term memories goes away, similar to cramming for a test and having everything *poof* disappear when the instructor lays the test in front of you.

It might be thinking through something as simple as how to line up your sights, how to reload, to shoot the targets that need shooting without shooting the targets that don’t, how to move through the course, or trying to remember specific instructions for the stage.

If you’ve practiced skills to where you can execute them subconsciously, you’re good to go.  If you can self-control your stress response, you’re good to go.

This is awesome because it’s a small taste of real life stress with very little downside.

In the IDPA matches I shoot, we STRONGLY encourage newer shooters or shooters who are new to competition to go S L O W and safe and not worry about time at all initially.  If you’re new to competition, I’d encourage you to take that approach, regardless of whether the club you’re shooting with recommends it.

The first time you compete, your mind will be swimming.  It’s confusing, it’s a little uncomfortable, but when you finish the stage you might have a little post-coital bliss and want a cigarette…even if you don’t smoke.  And you’ll probably be hooked…even if you completely blew the stage.

The second time will be dramatically easier…the known is always easier than the unknown…and pretty soon, you won’t feel any negative effects of the stress anymore and it will just be FUN.

You’ll handle your gun more and practice more between matches so that your safe gun handling and manipulation will be automatic…subconscious…and you won’t need to think your way through the process anymore.  This is EXACTLY the type of performance you want in a fight for your life.

As you learn to be comfortable moving and shooting under stress, facing the unknown, driving the gun subconsciously, and problem-solving and making decision making on the fly, you’ll be practicing many of the very skills that you need to win gunfights.

And, you’ll probably start trying to figure out how to increase the stress level…either with a different kind of competition, moving on to state, national, or world competitions, or by doing force on force training.

Whichever way you go, it will make you more resilient and increase your survivability in a lethal force encounter.

Gut check:  You’ve heard the saying, “In a fight for your life, you won’t rise to the occasion…you’ll perform half as well as you do in practice.”   It’s incredibly common for shooters to have been great shooters a decade or more earlier or be a paper commando and have a rude awakening under the relatively minor stress of competition.

Again, problems that show up in competition with no real consequence could be lethal in a fight for your life, so competition is the best place to flush them out and address them.

Frequent short term goals

One of the biggest advantages of competition is that it encourages constant forward progress.

It’s difficult to be disciplined about training for a lethal force encounter that may or may not happen at some point between now and the day you die.

It’s a lot easier to practice for a few minutes per night this week for a match next weekend.

What about bad habits?

There’s a hundred things “wrong” with competitive shooting…

  • putting a rifle down before you’re out of ammo and transitioning to a pistol in 3-gun.
  • Tactical reloads on the clock in IDPA
  • Dropping mostly full mags in USPSA
  • Staying stationary without cover and engaging multiple targets in USPSA
  • Unloading and showing clear after completing a stage
  • Not scanning for threats
  • Shooting a prescribed course of fire instead of shooting until the threat is stopped
  • And more.

But do you know what?  It’s STILL light years better than just standing and shooting paper, it’s cheaper and easier to find than force on force, and it’s fun!  It’ll encourage you to practice more, safely handle your firearm more often, and keep growing and improving as a shooter.

And keep in mind that just because everyone else is shooting a stage in a particular way doesn’t mean you need to.

I carry a Glock 26 subcompact every day.  I shoot it for IDPA, USPSA, and 3-gun, even when the guys I’m shooting against are running tricked out STI 2011s ($2,000 double stack 1911s) with red dot sights and 20+ round mags.

If you’re like me…super competitive…and need to scratch that competitive itch from time to time, shooting a match can be a great outlet like the 2020 Washington State match below:But you don’t need to judge yourself based on the other shooters there.

Sometimes that’s appropriate, but a lot of times you can come up with metrics that are more important and valuable to you.

I set goals for matches/stages before I do them.  The 5 most common goals that I have are:

  1. Shoot all “bulls eyes” (also called Down Zero or Alpha)
  2. Shoot as fast as possible while getting all bulls eyes or the first ring (also called Down 1 or Bravo)
  3. Shoot the entire stage with head shots and still go faster than shooters making torso shots
  4. On a stage with a reload, have my time from slide lock to reload to subsequent bullseye beat a specific time (requires a shot timer or camera).
  5. Focus on my beep to concealed draw to head shot time for each stage.

Those are my goals.  They work for me.  You can steal them or make your own, but the big thing is to make competitions YOURS.  There are some rules/constraints that you need to follow, but outside of that, shoot it in a way that will be most helpful to you.

2 tools that are guaranteed to help you shoot better, regardless of whether it’s for defending your life or competition, are:

  1. 21 Day Alpha Shooter home study course (that comes with our Brain Based Diagnostic Target & Dry Fire Training Cards)
  2. Praxis Dynamic Gunfight Training — which is the ONLY course designed specifically to address the balance, vision, and hand eye coordination components of shooting on the move and at odd angles without compromising speed or accuracy.

They’re both great on their own, but when you combine them, there’s a sweet harmony…maybe even a little symphony of destruction 🙂

Questions?  Comments?  Fire away by commenting below:


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  • Harold G.

    Reply Reply August 14, 2021

    This is the way I’ve been shooting IDPA since I started 3+ years ago. A few matches ago, I shot the entire match strong hand, unsupported. My next “training match” will be support hand, unsupported.

    Before I retired, I was always trying to get my fellow officers to at least try an IDPA match (unfired with limited success. The excuses astounding…)

  • Mike

    Reply Reply October 20, 2017

    This article is spot on! I’ve been shooting IDPA for 3 years now, just this year going to matches more consistently since I introduced a friend and he wants to go. Makes that earlier than usual alarm less easy to ignore.

    I was typically in the bottom third of the stock service pistol division…moved into the top third this month! Scoring well is a game essentially…overall speed has more effect on score than zero down…I was second most accurate last month…but this month I went for speed, had much higher points down, failed to neutralize one target, but moved way up in the finish list.

    As long as you’re aware of the differences between the match and real life, you’ll be fine. Even with the differences I’m 1000 times more proficient than I was when simply occasionally target shooting. And it’s huge fun and you’ll meet some great people!

    And bragging only a little, I finished first in the pump shotgun side match. Slow is smooth and smooth is fast. With my stock shotgun, I went slow and beat the guys with tricked out guns that were constantly jamming and harder to manipulate.

  • DC

    Reply Reply January 6, 2017

    Here is a reference to support your quote on IQ that I just read last night before I read your blog today…From Concealed Carry Magazine….”Legendary instructor Pat Rogers was fond of saying that just putting a gun in someone’s hand lops 10 points off of their IQ, and it’s a known fact that the BEEP! of a PACT timer will trim off at least another dozen.”

    Thanks, as always, for your thoughtful blog entries.

    Happy New Year.

    • Ox

      Reply Reply January 7, 2017

      Awesome! I can’t believe that I forgot it was Pat. Thank you. I just updated the article to reflect that.

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