Sunday, September 14, 2014

You Haven't Mastered Anything: Practice Makes Proficient, Not Perfect.

“Practice doesn't make perfect.  Practice reduces the imperfection.”
― Toba Beta, Master of Stupidity

In my lifetime I've attempted a great many things that required practice; the first serious one was probably walking.  I didn't decide to start walking, if I did I don’t remember making this decision (you will have to excuse my memory as I was probably 12-15 months old at the time) but after putting in over 30 years at this walking business I still have not perfected it.  You would think that something I did every single day would result in an expert mastery of bipedal movement.  Or maybe you think what a ridiculous idea, this chap is clearly mad…also, why is my inner monologue British?  No, my amount of time walking has not seen me perfect it, but I have a pretty fair mastery of it.  

There’s a difference.

Any skill improves with practice, proper practice. Malcom Gladwell's 10,000 hours theory claims that 10,000 of deliberate practice are required to master a skill.  A Princeton university study disagrees because each skill has different rules.  Someone playing tennis may have a longer road than someone working on chess, or even pole dancing (objectively I would think pole dancing to be more difficult than tennis, but in a different way).  Both Gladwell and Princeton looked at professional skills development in sports and games.  What do sports and games have in common?  Rules.

Rules in sports, in games, in professions account for a stable environment to develop proficiency, the create a controllable world.  A boxer can train within a certain expectation because he knows what his opponents are not allowed to do because of the rules.  A chess player can practice his defense and offense based on how his opponent is allowed to move the pieces on the board.  A pole dancer; well, gravity and friction mainly.  The number of outside variables is small, rule changes are not sudden and surprises are overwhelmingly within the established rules.  Even within a rule based talent or skill, perfection is subjective and variables can be greatly affected in unpredictable ways.  Baseball has well established rules, for pitchers the skill requirement is high and yet David Wells threw a no-hitter hung over and Doc Ellis did the same while high on acid.  From 1901 to 2013, only 282 no hitters have been thrown. Thats 282 times in modern baseball that a pitcher could have been said to have performed perfectly, and at least two men were under the influence of a mind altering substance when they did it.  Why not more? Because they mastered their skill, but outside variables will always prevent them from perfecting it.  Why should a pitcher high on LCD outperform a perfectly sober pitcher on the other team during the same game?  Variables, variables, more variables. 

Well of course no one really expects to be perfect right?  

What about people who expect to be masters of a skill?  Is that unreasonable?  No, but when it comes to firearms, there are some factors that have to be considered.  First, when I talk about accuracy, I mean accuracy on people, not paper.  I don't teach competition fundamentals, I teach self-defense shooting so any time I examine a situation it will be in that light.  Is accuracy less important in self-defense than competition?  I guess that depends on what your acceptable level of failure and/or holes in your body are.  My opinion is that it s far more important and I would encourage you to share that view.  Can we master the gun?  Yes.  Can we master its use?  No.

As much as we want to control the world around us, we cant.  If A shooter masters the fundamentals of the rifle or the handgun standing, does that translate to kneeling or prone?  I would say yes, though allow for maybe a slight learning curve with the change of body position.  Same goes for reloading the weapon or clearing malfunctions; body position is going to aid or hinder movement so performance can be changed and practice in those positions is necessary.  These things occur in a sort of a vacuum.  A training artificiality that does not (and cannot) account for the ultimate need for these skills in the world, a world we have little control over.  The rules of self-defense shooting are only respected by the good guys so depending on a fair fight is like hoping water would stop being wet or Adam Sandler would stop making movies.  Not going to happen.

But you consciously can appropriate this, right? Anyone serious about self-defense shooting knows that 2D paper on a one way range isnt a reflection on the real thing.  We train and practice this way because we dont have a way to do so more realistically.  As we learn to do things in training and work towards mastery in practice, we know that the real thing is going to be different.  Too bad our brain doesn't care what we think.

Not Pictured:  Facts
When we learn, we form neural pathways through Neuroplasticity, a skill that is unfamiliar becomes more and more effective, smoother through practice.  This practice is the creation of neural pathways and a process called Myelination .  Myelination is when the myelin in the brain, a substance that covers and is wrapped around our neurons, grows.  Myelin increases the speed and strength of nerve impulses which is like taking a dirt road and paving it to allow for faster travel.  We build the better pathway through correct practice, which in firearms is usually repetitious in nature.  How many reps does it take to master a skill?  I think that would depend on the application of that skill.    I once read an excerpt from a book called the Gun Digest Book for Personal Defense that apparently had some horrible fact checking.  In the book, Kevin Michalowski states that it takes "7000 repetitions to truly master a skill." No sources or explanation offered, just a definitive statement that is plaintively false.  There was more ridiculousness in that book, but that crap was probably the worst (on, look, I found it here).  

I used to hear the number as 3000-5000, apparently someone thought it should seem more challenging so they upped the number based on zero research.  The book Motor Learning (now in its 5th edition) gave us the 300-500 repetitions needed to learn a new motor function, while saying it too 3000 to 5000 reps to correct a bad one.  Someone felt that 5000 was a better number and ran with it for a reason that I cant possibly comprehend. But is this for all learning?  300-500 reps to stop burning myself on a stove or blocking a thrown punch to the head?  No, because that's ridiculous thinking yet people keep repeating it because on the surface it sounds reasonable until we consider how things happen outside of a vacuum, or closed loop

When we learn a motor skill, it can happen in isolation and we build to proficiency by incorporating it in the world around us or in conjunction with other motor skills to form a skill.  We go from consciously thinking about how to do it, to knowing how to do it and executing it without conscious thought, an open loop (also known as "muscle memory" or more properly as Hebbian plasticity).  We can also learn simply by observation, allowing us to apply already known skills and techniques to something new because similar neural pathways already exist.  It can take us years to master something, or 15 minutes depending on its complexity, familiarity and application to our environment.  Learning to walk a tight rope in your garage probably wouldn't be very difficult; putting that same tight rope over a canyon with cross winds would amplify the difficulty to a level of nope because no matter how well you did in the garage, that canyon wants to kill you. The environment we operate in will determine the mastery of our skill. Unlike tight rope walking, its generally frowned upon to start actual gunfights for educational purposes and the lessons learned can be fatally expensive.  

(this would make it a little more difficult)
If im on the range shooting blue diamonds and red squares, im demonstrating the problem solving ability of a preschooler who is also armed.  This is open loop learning and the performance ceiling is pretty low.  Now step it up to a more human target with time constraints, movement, austere positions and perhaps some other imaginative stress and the environment is pushing back against my performance.  I still have that training artificiality but my brain doesn't know that, at least not in regards to my neural pathways.  Remember when I said our brain doesn't care what we think?  Well this is it.  Mastery of your motor functions in conjunction with your senses means nothing when the performance conditions can literally be anytime, anywhere.  We have to understand that in order to really work towards mastering the gun. Applying the fundamentals, all of them, may simply not be practical to the situation.  

We want to reduce our imperfections which means pushing the performance envelope every chance you get.  If you are comfortable in your skill level, you arent practicing hard enough.  Getting nice, solid hits to the chest at 25 yards?  How about cranial hits from the hip at zero yards?  How about 4 rounds to the chest from concealment while on your back starting with the threat at your head in 3 seconds? How about a support hand only draw, 2 rounds to the head at 5 yards in 5 seconds?  If you try it for the first time and fail to meet the standard, you have not mastered anything and that's okay, thats my point.  The way we learn can only account for so many variables before it seriously hinders our performance.

Dont get comfortable with your performance.  We should always train proficiency with the basics and skirt failure with our practice.

1 comment:

  1. Fantastic article and point of view. Well written and entertaining as well. Thanks for sharing!