"Coaching is a process that aims to improve performance and focuses on the ‘here and now’ rather than on the distant past or future. Coaching is unlocking a person’s potential to maximise their own performance. It is helping them to learn rather than teaching them"
– Max Landsberg
Effective coaching is based upon a process and an array of coaching techniques. In this article we will look at the process of coaching combat shooting (CS) and the coaching techniques to get the most out of the shooters. To do this we will use perhaps the oldest known instructional technique: storytelling.
Narrative of a worked example: grip pressure for pistol shooting
Observe for patterns
The coach is observing the shooter’s grip on the pistol during a recoil control exercise. The shooter is adjusting the position of their non-master hand after every shot. Their non-master hand appears to be slipping off the frame of the pistol and rotating backwards. Their hands are coming apart after each shot. The pistol appears to float in the air between shots, instead of snapping back to the original position. The shots on target are widely dispersed and do not appear to display a consistent group. This may be indicative of inconsistent grip pressure with the non-master hand.
Diagnose the performance
It is important for the coach to correctly diagnose the error so that the process of remediation is both relevant and effective. The coach discusses the inconsistent group with the shooter and asks the shooter to explain why the group is widely dispersed on the target area. The shooter may not know why their shots are being displaced. It is important that the coach does not correct the fault until the cause has been verified. The coach uses a diagnostic exercise to ascertain if the wide group is the result of inconsistent grip pressure. The shooter builds their grip and is instructed to fire a five-shot string at a fresh aiming mark. The coach has marked the shooter’s hands with two parallel lines that show how the thumbs of the master and the non-master hands rest together, forming the grip. The lines becoming offset will display any movement in the non-master hand.
The coach has identified that the non-master hand is shifting its position on the frame during the rearward push and muzzle rise as the pistol fires. The coach can observe that the muzzle flip is variable and that the time it takes for the pistol to settle back on the original point of aim is variable. The shooter has a loose grip caused by inconsistent application of grip pressure by their non-master hand. It is important that the coach verifies the cause of the fault. The coach discusses the results of the diagnostic drill with the shooter who can observe the movement in their non-master hand during firing.
Isolate and remediate
Grip pressure must now be isolated from other variables so that the required skills can be developed in the process of remediation. The coach explains the use of the parallel lines marked on the shooter’s hands. The shooter is instructed to apply consistent grip pressure with the non-master hand throughout the sequence of firing a shot and returning to the point of aim for consecutive shots.
The shooter remediates the fault with a graduation drill. Strings of two, three, four and five shots are fired while the shooter applies a consistent grip pressure with their non-master hand. Each time the grip is successfully maintained, another shot is added to the string. Each time the hands shift position, the shooter reverts to the previous string. The goal is to reach five shots without shifting the position of their non-master hand. It is important that the shooter achieves a level of success with the remediation training. The shot group on the aiming mark will reveal the success of the remediation.
The final stage is to progressively integrate the improved performance into the normal training routine. The shooter applies the graduation drill from the holster, firing two, three, four and five-shot strings applying consistent grip pressure with their non-master hand. The coach must be aware of the variables that are introduced so that the newly acquired skills can be successfully integrated into the training routine without the shooter diverting their effort to other skills. Patience is a virtue here, and the quality of the process is initially more important than that of the immediate outcome.
This approach reduces the complexity of CS to its component parts, refines those parts, and then integrates the improvements.
As a coach, you are privileged to be in a position of both authority and responsibility. Shooters will expect that their coach is a skilful educator who is capable of demonstrating skills and drills and is a precise communicator capable of explaining principles and concepts. Instructional skill and precise communication are the coaching qualities that are the most credible from the perspective of the shooter. The credibility that is bestowed upon a coach by their shooters is the source of authority that compels the shooters to commit themselves to the rigours of the training program. As such, a coach has to meet the shooter’s commitment with coaching techniques that will optimise the training program.
Joining the dots going forwards
As coaches, we must understand the primary rule, or principle, that the CS fundamentals are based upon. It is not enough for us to affirm that accuracy, for example, is a fundamental element of CS. Let’s not be the coach that says to a shooter: ‘Be more accurate.’ A coach cannot expect a shooter to join the dots in terms of adopting a new technique or refining an existing technique simply by encouraging the shooter to be accurate. A coach must understand the principles of accuracy and the training framework that underpins those principles. Once this is understood, coaching can be applied to the individual shooter’s needs in terms of adding the new technique or refining their existing technique. This is the essence of effective coaching.
Left of learning
Most often an instructor is concerned with training areas, ammunition, and targets as the essential elements that are required before any training and learning can take place. While these elements are certainly essential, there are many other aspects required to set the conditions for training and learning. Every shooter has their own internal filter that represents their knowledge, skills, attitude, and expectations when it comes to training. This is in effect the lens through which all other training is viewed and compared. An effective coach will prime their shooters for learning to bypass their internal filter.
Good coaches establish rapport by finding common ground, ask questions from a position of genuine curiosity, and actively listen while suspending judgement. Additionally, they present the future lesson material as a summary that is designed to inform and encourage the shooters. The goal is to remove anxiety that is a function of uncertainty by sharing the details of the training progression as a collaboration. This could be as simple as handing out the daily training program or showing a video from a previous training course.
Preparing for combat, equipment set-up, and the preliminary lessons are designed to set the conditions for effective learning. The establishment of a common understanding or shared reality that includes individual and collective responsibilities, words of command, and terminology will create the conditions for effective learning. This process is known as priming and can be summarised as getting left of learning.
A shooter’s skill progression is unlikely to keep pace with the daily lesson schedule. Flexibility in training design is crucial to ensure that the shooter conducts enough quality repetitions of a sequence to establish the necessary neural pathways in their short-term memory. The crawl phase is characterised by deliberate practice, feedback from fellow learners, and consolidation periods that support the transfer of learning into long-term memory.
The walk phase is characterised by revision and consolidation in the forms of ‘teach-backs’ and further peer coaching as the shooter becomes consciously competent. Expert coaching and positive correction are the features of the run phase as the learning is tested in the form of competitions and force-on-force scenarios. The shooter is operating at a level of unconscious competence and can consistently perform complex skills while retaining situational awareness. Each phase of learning is supported by the performance of quality repetitions in a training environment that promotes confidence. The coach is a leader who is responsible for cultivating a professional learning environment that supports quality repetitions and constructive feedback.
What right looks like
A CS coach is expected to teach, coach and mentor. These processes will primarily occur in a live-fire setting. A coach will conduct demonstrations as a means of modelling the desired training outcomes and inspiring the shooters to apply their focus and effort.
"It is essential that instructors provide a near-perfect demonstration to combatants to allow them to visualise the drills they will be required to imitate. When conducting demonstrations, instructors should complete the drills slowly (no faster than 50 per cent speed) and deliberately. Where possible, complex drills should be broken down into three stages – the beginning, the middle and the end."
– LWP-G 7-7-8 Train the Battle Shot
The quality of a shooter’s performance is directly linked to the quality of a coach’s demonstration. This is particularly apparent when the shooter is seeing a skill or exercise for the first time. From the shooter’s perspective, the act of observing the detail of a demonstration activates the same neural pathways in their short-term memory that will be involved in the practical activities that follow the demonstration. Therefore, it is critical that the coach nails the demonstration and the explanation of the key points. Rehearsal is the key enabler to flawless demonstration.
As an alternative to the coach performing the demonstration, a stand-in or in some instances a shooter may be used to illustrate the actions, while the coach gives the explanation. Again, rehearsal is the critical enabler, and the coach must be sure that the stand-in or the shooter is able to demonstrate exactly what right looks like.
Drills vs. exercises
Drill (verb) – to subject someone to military training exercises.
Shooting drills can be a useful medium to string together several handling, firing, and movement skills into an efficient and repeatable activity. Drills can be timed, scored, and progressed or regressed, depending on the outcomes a coach is seeking or the stage of training that the shooter has achieved. Drills are not tactics, even though there may be skill sets within the drill that have a tactical application. Mastering a specific drill in a sanitised training scenario may not equate to a positive training transfer in an ambiguous scenario. The benefit of repeating shooting drills will diminish over time as the shooter’s skills improve.
Equally, the training effect or challenge of completing a drill within a set time or score will also diminish as the shooter becomes more familiar with the drill. The challenge for the coach in selecting a known drill or developing an expedient drill is to match the drill to the skills that the shooter needs to improve their performance. The challenge for the shooter is to strive to perform the drill at an exact standard to get the most out of the exercises embedded within the activity.
Shooting exercises can be a useful medium to isolate and remediate specific skills. Exercises are ideal for training progression in that a coach may link a specific handling technique to the main points of a lesson. In this sense, the handling technique becomes the training exercise. For example, the graduation exercise whereby a shooter shoots two-shot, three-shot and then four-shot and five-shot strings, as an exercise to develop trigger manipulation skills. Similarly, a coach can use the same exercise as a regression when a shooter lapses in their technique or experiences trigger stall that is caused by a failure to allow the trigger to move far enough to reset the mechanism. In either situation, once the skill is acquired or refreshed, the exercise can become part of a training drill.
There certainly is no shortage of ‘great’ shooting drills. Unfortunately, not all of these drills are relevant or useful. The challenge for the coach is to match the drill to the needs of the shooter. The challenge for the shooter is to strive to perform the drill at an exact standard. Once the shooter has refined their skills, it is time for the coach to refine the drill.
The right drill at the right time for the right shooter
Put simply, coach to the needs of the shooters. Acknowledging that training courses include a schedule of lessons as a curriculum and that it is essential to present all of the information as it is intended to be delivered, individual coaching is crucial. Once the initial group instruction is complete, the coach can tailor to the requirements of an individual shooter within a group training activity. In this sense, the coach is coaching to a need as opposed to delivering a schedule of lessons.
Moving on and speeding up
Learning does not always occur in a neat series of periods of instruction and in accordance with a training program. Every coach grapples with identifying the moment when an individual soldier or group is ready to progress to the next stage of training. Coach to a standard, not to a timeline. Easier said than done. We are looking for consistency in performance and completing enough quality repetitions to make the skills sticky.
When a shooter is correctly performing a skill or exercise around 80 per cent of the time, move on in the training. The caveats associated with this include correct performance without prompting and retention of the skills that preceded the new drills. As a coach, we are looking for our shooters to retain the new details without having to be reminded and in the absence of their previous skills degrading. In all likelihood, this is an overnight affair. Drill the skills one day and run the exercises the next. Validate the skill with an exercise and then we move on.
When a shooter is correctly performing a skill or exercise around 80 per cent of the time, speed things up. We are looking for consistency. As previously discussed, being technically correct and retaining other skills are useful markers for a coach to prompt a shooter to focus on speed. There is no magical formula and there is always the option to regress a drill until the consistency is suitable to sustain an increase in speed of movement.
Once again, in all likelihood, this is an overnight affair. Steady, high-quality repetitions one day and speedy repetitions the next. Nonetheless, if all we ever do is be slow and deliberate, that is all we will ever be able to do. If we do not do it in training, we will not be able to do it in combat. We must train going as fast as we physically can, while retaining the correct form, so that we can be fast when we need to be.
Shooters will learn and retain information in different ways; in general, shooters learn better if coaches apply a process to training. Observe for patterns, diagnose the faults, remediate the skills, and finally integrate the improvements into the training program. Other factors also play their part, such as getting left of learning, the right training techniques at the right time and knowing when to move on or speed up. Training needs to be flexible and responsive to circumstance and context, as well as to the needs of the shooter.
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