A good firearms instructor is many things; a teacher, coach, mentor, leader, problem solver and a perpetual student. By teaching the right things, in the right way a good instructor can bring out the best in their students and ensure their continued development.
But not all methods of firearms instruction are helpful and, unfortunately, there are several methods that will ultimately stifle performance. This article will outline some of the most common characteristics of poor instruction.
The firearms training community is rife with throwaway lines, myths and legends. Some have their basis in fact but over time their original meaning and intent has been watered down so the real message is lost. Some sound good at face value but don’t stand up to logical examination and practical experience. Some are very helpful when teaching beginners but, past a certain point, will quickly limit performance.
A notable example of the latter is the axiom “Smooth is fast.” Every firearms instructor has heard this saying and most have probably used it at one time or another. It can be useful when training beginners because it discourages rushing, while the student is learning the basic movement patterns they will need to master. Past that point, it limits performance because it only addresses half the issue.
When we talk about “smoothness” what we are really referring to is economy of motion. Economy of motion can be defined as the most efficient way of undertaking an action through the elimination of unnecessary movement. So, once we have eliminated all unnecessary movement, it is obvious that if we are relying solely on economy of motion for speed, then we have reached our limit once our technique is correct. But speed doesn’t’ end with economy of motion. Contrary to widespread belief, speed won’t come through repetition alone, it only comes through focussed effort on speed development. To get faster it becomes necessary to combine economy of motion with quicker movements and this can only be achieved by pushing. From a tactical perspective, this is important to understand because as noted by Dr Bill Lewinski of the Force Science Centre “we develop and use psychomotor skills at the speed we practice them.” If your students only ever work at ‘training speed’, they are always going to underperform in real life encounters.
This trait is the hallmark of underqualified or inexperienced instructors. To best explain what we mean, here are a couple of (unfortunately) real life examples.
A good friend is an Infantry Company Sergeant Major (CSM). He was observing a fire and movement activity that was being conducted at the sub-unit level within a non-arms corps unit. Obviously, there are many critical features that can be debriefed following any tactical training. In this case the instructor could have covered manoeuvre, situational awareness, team work, communication, controlled aggression, target indications, use of cover etc but instead, the key debrief point was “Your basic pouch is undone”.
Another friend who is an experienced and very capable law enforcement firearms instructor in his own right was a student on a train the trainer course that would certify him to run his departments new active shooter curriculum. After one lengthy training evolution, he was being debriefed on his performance. Again, as with the above example, there were plenty of pertinent debrief points, but again the instructor had only one. “Your position Sul is wrong because your spacer hand is at the wrong angle.”
So why does this occur? In short, it occurs because it takes a high degree of skill, knowledge and experience to provide meaningful feedback on tactics due to the sheer number of variables involved. It is far simpler to hone in on a simple mechanical issue that doesn’t look quite like it is supposed to look in the instructor’s minds eye. Focussing on mechanics when you should be focusing on application results in students who are sub-par at both. It causes students to misplace their focus so that they spend valuable training time worrying about something less important in the hierarchy of what they are learning. A student who spends the entire length of an active shooter course, worrying about the angle of their hand, may inadvertently become competent at position Sul by course completion but isn’t going to know the first thing about responding to an active shooter.
Now it is not our intent to argue the merits of ensuring a basic pouch is secure or about optimal muzzle direction when using position Sul. But there is a time and a place to focus on mechanics and a time and place to focus on application. If student is genuinely struggling with mechanics, they should be given additional coaching on mechanics in isolation.
Complexity is closely linked to minutiae but has a different emphasis. There is an old joke that says, “If golf instructors taught sex education it would be the end of the human race,” and this joke could equally apply to many firearms instructors. For those who don’t get jokes, what it is saying is that it is commonplace to over complicate relatively simple subject matter.
This is nothing new. In the seventeenth century, famed swordsman Miyamoto Musashi was critical of this very phenomenon writing “Both those teaching and those learning the way are concerned with colouring and showing off their technique, trying to hasten the bloom of the flower. They speak of “This Dojo” and “That Dojo”. They are looking for profit.” He also wrote “The spirit of my school is to win through the wisdom of strategy, paying no attention to trifles.”
This tendency to overcomplicate what is in essence very simple subject matter is a common problem today as instructors seek to stand out in a very competitive industry. It may help the instructor gain students but ultimately it does little to benefit those students. Remember the goal of firearms training isn’t for the instructor to impress the student with how much they know. The goal is to impart the information necessary to enhance student performance.
Some instructors believe (and would have you believe) that very minor technical changes are what turns a poor shooter into an exceptional one, but this is not the case. Shooting mechanics are no different to any other skill, there is nothing mystical about performance and there is no magic technique that will take you to the next level. If we look at football for example, juniors learn how to pass, kick and tackle. The basic techniques don’t change as they move up the ranks. Even at the professional level, the techniques being used aren’t far removed from what they did as juniors, they just do them more efficiently.
You may ask, if it is all so simple, what is the point of a firearms instructor outside of learning the initial techniques? Well it depends on the instructor. If the instructor is just going to run you through some drills without much fore thought, you will probably learn more by spending the money on ammunition and getting yourself to the range. But a good instructor, just like any good sports coach, will be able to identify weaknesses, inefficiencies in technique and most importantly, a plan for improvement. To put it another way, there is very little ground-breaking material out there. What separates a great instructor from an average one is how they teach the material.
Some great instructors have covered off on range theatrics over the last few years, so we won’t seek to regurgitate what has been said, but there are a couple of points worthy of discussion. As with minutiae, theatrical training and overemphasis on stylistic elements takes the students attention away from what is actually important. Taken to extremes, focussing on style can also result in instructors completely losing sight of what is important as demonstrated in another (unfortunately) true story. An instructor was observing a brand-new student undertaking their first ever live fire session. As the student returned their pistol to the holster, the instructor jumped on the student for not doing a theatrical, token, flat range scan. The student had not even hit the target. It is painfully obvious that doing a scan of questionable value is going to be irrelevant for an officer or soldier that can’t hit what they are shooting at because they are unlikely to survive an encounter to begin with.
The other major issue with theatrics is that, in this era of social media and enter’train’ment, instructors and students lose the ability to differentiate fantasy from reality. Training does not have to be flashy to be effective and stylish training can lack substance.
This list is not exhaustive but outlines some of the more prevalent, unhelpful training practices. The way to counter these practices is by keeping an open mind, undertaking continuous improvement and thinking critically about anything you intend to teach. Most importantly, teach what you know, not what you have heard.