At six o’clock in the morning on a lazy Sunday, after a night of restless tossing and turning and an hour of surfing a sluggish Facebook feed, I made a impromptu decision. I was going to shoot a pistol match. The IDPA classifier, to be specific. I rolled over in bed and started poking my snoring husband, “Hey, honey? What sort of Glock 19-sized gun of yours can I borrow? I want to go to the IDPA match, today.”

“Why not just take your Glock 19?”

“Cause the magazine release is set up for a lefty right now and I’m too lazy to switch it.”

He sighed, “Why not take your SIG?”

“I don’t have a hip, OWB holster for it.”

Another sigh. “You can take my G17.”

“Can I take your P30?”

“I guess.”

…And that, my friends, is how I ended up with an HK P30 with an LEM trigger strapped in an OWB holster behind my hip, driving to the pistol club for the first and only match I’ve shot in the last 13 months.

I honestly don’t know why I wanted the P30. I don’t shoot it. I haven’t shot it. Not for at least a couple of years. I don’t practice with it. I don’t even really touch it.

Seeing as how I would be drawing from a position I don’t normally carry in before I left the house I spent at least five minutes drawing in front of a mirror and practicing disengaging the thumb safety–a device I haven’t had on any of my personally owned pistols in at least six years.

It didn’t quite hit me until I was pulling in the parking lot that this might actually be a fool’s errand.

I was showing up with an unfamiliar gun carried in a holster and position I don’t shoot from, to shoot a competition I haven’t participated in for well over a year, with nothing but three boxes of ammo, a baseball cap, some earplugs, and eye pro that I threw on my passenger seat before leaving.

The nerves were real.

Especially after I drove in and every other participant looked at me like I’d sprouted a big toe from the center of my forehead.

Now, according to the interwebs there should have been no way I could successfully complete this match. After all, stress degrades fine motor skills. Under stress we are supposedly incapable of working unfamiliar equipment. Different trigger styles are impossible to shoot well if you haven’t practiced them extensively. And what about that magazine release? How would I go from a button to a paddle release without completely screwing my reloads? A different set of sights I’ve never shot with before. I would suddenly revert to attempting to draw from the AIWB position I usually carry in once the timer went off, right? And what about that slide release? I hit the slide release on my Glock to do emergency reloads. I couldn’t do that on this HK. Wouldn’t I waste time searching for a button vs racking the slide? All this while having to concentrate on the course of fire laid out before me.

I might as well have packed up and gone home. But I didn’t.

What happened? I classified as a Sharpshooter and took 3rd place overall out of the group of shooters who had also motivated themselves to go out and compete that Sunday.

Not bad. Not perfect. But not bad.

I experienced none of the difficulties the internet had told me I would as far as drawing, shooting, reloading, following stage designs, the match rules or the fundamental tenants of acceptable handgun manipulation. I did not accidentally forget to deactivate my safety at any point, nor did I fumble with racking the slide instead of attempting for a slide release that wasn’t as accessible to my hand geometry as I would have liked. I received no procedural penalties or counseling from the Range Safety Officers. In other words, I performed just fine. How is that possible?

Recency

“The last time you used a skill generally determines how accessible it is to you under stress.”

That’s a direct quote from John Hearne’s lecture, Performance Under Fire, that I attended at the 2015 Rangemaster Tactical Conference. This not only goes for skill but for also switching from one form of that skill to another.

While I didn’t get to go out and shoot the borrowed gun before going to the match, I was able to do a few minutes of draw and dry-fire practice. Those few minutes were exceptionally helpful in getting me ready to use the unfamiliar platform. I’d also been able to do both live fire and dry-fire drills with other firearms at least eight times in the last two months (I know because I have kept record). That’s not a lot of practice (not as much as I should be doing) but it’s far more than some people are afforded.

In his lecture, Hearne discusses several different practice regimens and their effects on the brain’s ability to recall that information. There’s strong evidence that skill starts to degrade quickly if not practiced at least on a monthly basis.

The importance of recency and dry-practice can not be overstated for those who are forced to switch carry positions or guns on a more frequent basis. A few dry repetitions awakens the brain to what it is most likely to be called to do under stress. That, and it’s practice! Valuable, valuable practice.

Visualization

One of the opening lines in a Psychology Today article by AJ Adams, MAPP, on the power of visualization states that

“Mental practice can get you closer to where you want to be in life, and it can prepare you for success!”

Visualization is a phenomenal performance enhancer. The more detailed the visualization, the better. With matches it can be more easily done than in scenarios, but visualization can be used for both (or a host of other areas of your life as well). Mentally rehearsing every step of a drill or stage–including the small details like how you grip the gun in the holster, when you disengage the safety and how, when your finger goes on the trigger, etc–can significantly enhance your performance and help calm nerves.

Overlearned Skills

“Overlearned” almost sounds like a bad thing until you understand how vital it is in our ability to perform any number of skills, particularly under stress.

Overlearned skills are those which we do not have to consciously think about to perform. To borrow a description from Benjamin Hardy:

“Overtraining is about continuously practicing something you’ve already learned inside and out. Once you’ve over-learned a skill, you no longer need a script but can perform or even teach that skill in different ways and in different contexts.”

There are a few things about shooting that once overlearned can help free our cognitive processing power for other, more complex tasks: the trigger press, sight alignment, the draw stroke, trigger-finger and muzzle discipline, grip, follow-through, magazine changes, and malfunction clearances. Once those skills are overlearned we can adapt them to new and changing situations. Guns that are unfamiliar can be ran to a high degree with only the most minor of adjustments.

Understanding Performance Under Stress

If there are two people I could sit and listen to for hours on end it would be John Hearne and William Aprill. Their work has been important to me because it’s some of the only work in the current industry that I am aware of that really attempts to understand the effects of stress on the brain and emotions and how that stress affects our performance in life and death situations.

As simply as it can be put, trained and/or skilled people who expose themselves to stressful situations perform better under stress than people who are only skilled. And they perform significantly better than people who are untrained and do not expose themselves to stressful situations.

The wonderfully-horrible thing about the mind is that it really can’t tell “fake” stress from “real” stress, nor is it really good at differentiating between the types of stressful situations you are in. It only knows it’s being stressed and wondering if your rational thinking mind (the neocortex) can handle the situation or if it needs to panic (the limbic system).

People who expose themselves to stressful situations wherein they must maintain cognitive reasoning are better prepared for other stressful situations. Emergency medicine, challenging classes, participation in competition, skydiving, rock climbing, motorcycle racing, parenthood, and even physically stressful workouts can all help you maintain emotional control and perform well while stressed–even in life or death situations.

Also, if you can get to John Hearne’s lecture on Performance Under Fire or any of William Aprill’s classes, you’ll far better understand performance in stressful situations.

If we are put into a detrimental situation, either by fate, or by choice, it becomes incredibly important to be able to adapt to our environment and the circumstances we find ourselves in. Through not only overlearned skills, but also visualization, it becomes possible to function at an incredibly high level in stressful situations, especially compared to the individual who has not overlearned a skill or utilized any visualization techniques. By keeping our cognitive process focused on taking in incoming information and acting on it accordingly, as opposed to needing it to perform skills/tasks, we are able to adapt to many different things, and do well.