Besides paintball, as some of you are probably aware, I like to train with real firearms (uh-oh… hope no one was “triggered” by my use of the term firearms). Muscle memory is paramount in shooting. Whether we are practicing the draw from concealment, indexing on our target (sorry – natural point of aim for you in the back), follow through on the trigger, consistent sight picture, our reloads, using a single point or dual point sling, or any other countless mechanical aspects of shooting, it all boils down to muscle memory and constant practice. In order to excel in live fire shooting, whether in a sport environment or, God help us if we ever find ourselves in a defensive shooting scenario, these things must become second nature; our dominant action and tendency.
So then why the topic of live fire shooting? Well, the idea for this month’s blog came to me recently when I was shooting with 4 different friends in a span of a week. I spent a day at the range with 2 friends I have been shooting with for some time now working both rifles and pistols, then another friend 3 days later working rifles, and finally a fourth friend a couple days after that working pistols. Usually when I am with my friends shooting, our conversations run the gamut. The topic came up with the latter two shooters about creating good habits, how to go about doing so, and how that foundation would not only improve performance but possibly save a life.
And then it got me thinking… I’m all about biomechanics in paintball as well as creating efficiencies. How can we apply this or have we already been doing this to an extent?
There was an older psychology article I read a few months back where it talked about how it takes around 3 weeks to develop a bad habit and approximately 2-3 months to break it. I would argue that it would certainly depend on the habit… but let’s not get bogged down on that specific aspect. Instead, it’s the habit of the habits that I want to discuss this month.
If we have a bad habit in paintball, it had to have come from somewhere. Whether it was self-taught or not, doesn’t matter. It has been my experience that in paintball, more often than not, a bad habit began at the “foundation level”. In other words, when a player first began, they developed a bad habit/motor skill. The repetition of that bad habit sunk in and over time, makes eliminating them and ultimately replacing it, even more difficult.
Obviously, the key to forming good habits is to learn them in the first place. Yeah, duh, you’re welcome. I don’t think anyone would argue that lower divisional players who practice proven technique from the get go will no doubt out perform those who did not (I’m sure there are exceptions).
I’ve always looked at it through my interpretations of Bruce Lee’s Tao of Jeet Kune Do. What is the objective and how can we achieve it in its most basic and simple form? The technique needs to come with validation of course as well as an explanation of why it is a benefit. Then, through repetition (with attention to detail!) we eventually learn to commit the action subconsciously. It becomes automatic.
“And when there is an opportunity, I do not hit, ‘it’ hits all by itself.”
‘It’ is when you act with unconscious awareness, you just act. When you throw a punch at me, I intercept it and hit you back, but without thought. ‘It’ just happens. – Bruce Lee
Now, I try to use this concept/philosophy when I coach. The full quote is “When the opponent expands, I contract. When he contracts, I expand…” then the rest of the quote. Especially on layout weekends… that’s another topic entirely. But you get the idea I’m sure.
I’m getting a little ahead of myself here and may be merging topics. My bad. But bear with me as we are about to go off down a rabbit hole…
So – how do we unlearn what we have learned? How do we quickly replace a bad habit in our snap shot, our laning, our run and gun and do it quickly? Unseating a bad habit and replacing it with a good one can be challenging but it doesn’t have to be this long drawn out process. With a little effort and basic understanding, it can be done a lot faster than most think.
Habits are formed in a lot of ways, the most common being the repetition of an act over and over again. You did it this way and continued to do it that way because no one told or taught you different. However, if you learn why you should do it different… in other words you know the purpose and the benefit of the way you should be doing something… that should speed up the process of learning better execution (and ultimately the goal of “It”.
The first step to improved habit formation is to first identify what needs to change and then prioritizing that change. If we understand how they became a habit in the first place, as well as understanding why they need to change then we can develop the best way to enact the change. I suggest keeping it simple. Work on each issue one at a time breaking the technique down into its basic form and working that form (isolation drills – where we work one aspect of a technique). Spend a day on the snap and the next on laning. Do this until you get the desired results. Knowing what works, how it works, and why it works will always make learning something much easier and will always lead to better results in the long run.
Now, I am a huge proponent of video. I use video to drive points home when coaching. It’s right there on the screen, we are all watching it, I saw what you did, can’t deny it, there’s my proof. This can also be used as an additional tool and will most certainly increase speed of learning. Video your snap, you’re run and gun, etc. from different angles several times and look for the good and bad. You can then compare it to a high level player who does these things well. See, visualization of a desired performance almost always aids your brain. It trains the brain on what to look for and reinforces the desired proficiency.
(Now for that rabbit hole I mentioned earlier)
Which leads me to my next point; the physical will come but only when the mental aspect of each physical step is understood. Break each motion/action down not just physically but why we do it. In paintball as in many sports, we are looking for “economy of motion”. This will lead to efficiency which lends itself to speed. Speed can be life in paintball.
Speed is important in physical action sports like paintball. Good comparisons would be fencing or tennis or even baseball. Sports like football or basketball are played in seconds whereas the other sports I mentioned are played in milliseconds. One could argue paintball has both aspects actually. But to the point; returning a tennis serve happens in roughly half a second. Think about that from the time the person serving the ball to the time the person receiving has to recognize the serve and respond on a physical level… a baseball pitch or a fencer’s lunge… these all happen in fractions of a second. These athletes have to rely exclusively on their hardwiring to react quickly enough. Muscle memory plain and simple.
I was reading about Benjamin Libet, a physiology professor out in Cali, he said that, “the professional tennis serve is a special test at the boundary of pre-conscious human skill. It is designed for periods longer than the fastest visual reaction but shorter than the minimum conscious reaction time. The serve forces the returner to act within a set period, before the ball goes by, but it favors those who can wait the longest during this period. And it does all of this so fast that conscious thought is impossible. It is a paradoxical act in that on one hand it is a largely unconscious act, it has to be — on the other hand, it involves a range of sophisticated and creative responses.”
The guy did experiments where he discovered something REALLY cool: a consistent half-second delay between a person’s unconscious reaction to stimulus and their conscious awareness of the stimulus. He found that we don’t become aware of a reaction – even our own reactions – for half a second.
This unconsciousness of our reaction seems to fit perfectly with the idea of “‘It’ hits all by itself.”
The goal would be “Pre-attentive processing”. I just started reading about this in detail. We’re basically talking about reflex but to a whole new level. The brain will skip consciousness altogether and rely strictly on reflexes or automatic behavior. This is a type of decision-making and movement initiation that occurs without any consultation with your conscious brain. Crazy cool!
Think about it – does the baseball player wait for the ball to get to him or a boxer wait to be hit? No, they anticipate. A boxer, well, a good one anyway, will consciously scan his opponent’s footwork and head movements, and look for the set up – his opponent dropped his right shoulder and set his hip… This type of information will allow the good boxer’s “it” to kick in to a well-rehearsed response (muscle memory motor skill – the counter!).
So the question really becomes, is it possible to create good habits out of bad and take them to a level of development of pre-conscious capability. And if so, how can we apply it to our sport. I think it IS possible. We’ve already seen in it several athletes and right here in our own sport of paintball. If we can put in the time dedicate ourselves to purposeful training and not just on layout weekends, you bet it can happen.
I’m kind of all over the map on this one. Feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions and maybe I can clarify what I am getting at. In the meantime –
Be water my friends.