competition failure success
Nick Leghorn for TTAG
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I need to preface this piece by stating that up until two months ago, I had only shot a handful of carbine competitions with my good old friend MC, whose interviews you’ve all seen here on TTAG. Some of these competitions involved the option of transitioning from carbine to pistol during a few of the stages, but this wasn’t mandatory.

After doing this, I decided that my pistol skills needed a lot of work and that I would refrain from doing anything requiring speed until I had a much better grasp of pistol handling and marksmanship. I simply felt that speed was complicating the struggles I was already having and was also concerned about developing bad habits under stress that would come back to haunt me later.

As a dancer, I know how long it can take to unlearn a poorly learned habit, and given that I’m pretty new in my shooting life, I didn’t want to set myself up for later failure out of ignorance. Mastery of the fundamentals is something that my teacher, Jeff Gonzales, emphasizes over and over. In lieu of taking part in matches, I decided to simply show up and watch at the ones he runs at The Range Austin once a month, with a “maybe someday” observing mind.

However, a couple of months ago, Jeff caught me outside a match and asked me bluntly, “Why aren’t you in these matches?” I explained to him that I didn’t think I had enough consistency or speed to do well, and that I was concerned that my incomplete skills would break down under the stress of competition. What he said to me next was very eye-opening and ultimately the thing that changed my perspective:

Elaine, I design these competitions so that even good shooters will fail. It is essential that you fail as part of your training process. People who do not fail don’t learn where they are truly weak or where they need to work the most. These competitions are designed to count accuracy as much as speed and to be challenging for even very experienced shooters. You will fail, and you are supposed to fail.

In these competitions, you either get all the points or none of the points. It’s only under stress that you will learn where your weak points are and understand what you truly need to do in order to address those weak points. The purpose of failure is to teach us to work our way through it and become better. Those who won’t fail won’t improve, and their true skills remain untested.

I went home and thought about that for two months and then signed up for a competition.

The match involved four courses of fire, all requiring a high degree of accuracy as well as speed. Targets ranged from 3 to 20 yards, mostly paper, some 8-inch steel. There were specific instructions for progression through the courses as well as the number of shots fired per target.

In two of the courses, misses would mean that you ran out of ammo to complete the course. Movement with a loaded gun was required, as was one-handed shooting, weak hand shooting, and performance under time pressure.

As an all-or-nothing design, you had to take the time to be accurate even more than to be fast. Speed would not help you if you missed.

Strangely, the thing I learned the most from this experience was that easily 70% of what I struggled with was mental, and it was centered on one thing: a lack of confidence that I could pull off the shots.

I scotched some pretty easy shots during the first two courses of fire from lack of confidence alone, then got my act together for the harder courses and did well on those. As a result, I ended up somewhere in the middle fo the pack – 21st in a roster of 31 shooters – which isn’t bad for my first competition.

It’s obvious where I could have improved that standing. I also saw how over-confidence blew the game for several people by leading them to believe that they could sail through courses that turned out to be surprisingly difficult; the resulting surprise and frustration led them down a bad road.

Confidence is a funny thing. Not enough of it and you lack the aggression you need to properly command your weapon. Too much of it and you will lose your nerve and your strength of mind when things head south.

I thought a lot about something my friend MC says – that there are recreational shooters, competent shooters, and competitive shooters. The recreational shooter never clicks into what he calls “the mind of a predator,” where you become calm, clear, steady, and focused in the midst of a lot going on. The competent shooter finds and loses it. The competitive shooter lives in that space and has practiced and fine-tuned enough that even after a break, those skills will always be there.

After the match, these concepts and experiences are much more clear for me.

I never used to see the value of competitions in defensive training. Now it all makes sense; it’s the mind one is training most of all. And the side benefit is that it turns out to be fun as hell.

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  1. Matches are a great crucible to find out how much you really know. Fun too. Of course, these guys that are afraid to take formal training are probably scared to enter a match also. I think most of them are afraid of embarrassing themselves in front of strangers, or discovering they’re not Clint Eastwood.

    • It’s funny, as you wrote that I’m fondling my very own Model 29 that I just got. I AM Clint Eastwood.

      • Grant, that is funny! I have a couple of 29s. Stainless. Mountain Gun & 6″ 629. Fingering a Kimber Montana in a tree stand as we speak. Gets humid in N. Florida.

  2. Elain, competition in matches can be fun as all get out.
    It can make you be a more competent shooter and more confident with your firearms.
    When I started out, I felt a bit out of my league. But the comradeship among the group quickly gave me confidence.
    Confidence quickly led to better scores. And then I learned that just shooting clean with no mistakes made to better scores.

    Let others make mistakes or errors. Shoot clean and have fun.

  3. Good article. I believe I learn far more from failures than from successes. It’s a matter of being realistic. Wishing you success in your competition journey, Elaine.

  4. Competition pushes you to failure. Failure is where you push the learning envelope.

    Competition lets you do this pretty safely.

  5. I don’t think they teach kids to be competitive anymore. In fact I’m pretty sure competition is a trigger word, and subsequently banned in schools, due to its corresponding to outright offensive terms like “capitalism” and “free market”.

  6. Anyone can shoot fine off the bench in your own time.

    Competition shooting is learning to shoot when you’re not ready. Double again for service rifle or 2/3 gun competitions.

  7. Confidence is an illusion. Confidence is absolutely something one can just “decide” to have regardless of whether one has done anything to acquire it or achieved anything to earn it. In fact that is how most people who have confidence acquired it. If having confidence required spending prohibitive amounts of time, effort and money developing skills within martial or competitive disciplines (or really any skill at all) then almost no one would have it. Most human beings have no relative mastery of any skill or discipline let alone many. Confidence is fundamentally a form of faith and like faith requires a certain detachment from outcome.

    Developing a high degree of proficiency with firearms is an incredibly time consuming, tedious labor ( but not exercise) intensive, expensive and inconvenient goal. It is not a high or even medium impact form of exercise, hence produces little health benefit (except for perhaps stress relief). Shooting does not generally cause pain that must be endured (the way exercise or martial arts does) which is the most effective means of building mental, emotional and physical discipline. It can not be monetized, it is not likely to make you significantly more attractive to a potential mate, it can’t be practically implemented for personal or societal benefit. Hunting requires only basic fundamental marksmanship, the likely hood of shooting someone in self defense is statistically zero rounded down. There is no credible data set that would indicate that high degrees of proficiency matter in the outcome of a civilian and even most law enforcement shootings. Even in military combat ( outside of special operations) individual proficiency with small arms is one of the least determinative factors in survivability and outcome. Some of these arguments also apply to a degree to martial arts, many sports and extreme levels of physical fitness or performance. So my question is: aren’t their a myriad of activities that one would be better off participating in recreationally but especially if one is spending inordinate amounts of time and money in pursuant of mastery?

    • Christ, it’s like TTAG is a magnet for fucking morons who have absolutely ZERO knowledge of what they’re talking about. It’s exhausting.

    • I say sir how dare you attack the sacred cow of target shooting competition correlating with gunfight competency! It’s an outrage! It makes perfect sense that participation in competitions that require 100% accuracy will improve your ability to prevail in a gunfight. One can always be certain your opponent will announce his intent to attack with a BEEP and then wait for you take perfect aim. By golly the next thing I expect to hear is that you think there might be some benefit to learning to shoot without use of the sights. Ridiculous.

  8. Recreational Shooter; are you just plain stupid? Maybe, you need a box of chocolates. You obviously have no concept of shooting. Go to sleep under your bridge, troll. You embarrass yourself.

  9. The key to competing in practical shooting matches when you are a new shooter is to slow down and do everything right. You will still be under stress, believe me! But don’t go faster than you can with proper form and technique.

    For example as a pistol shooter competing in anything but bull’s-eye competition, you should be striving to learn to shoot with both eyes open. Don’t compromise on that when you get to a match.

    More repetition and practice, perhaps dry firing, perhaps going through the motions with a duty sized 22 could help. All good stuff.

  10. I would not trust any advice MC gives.
    Remember, he emerged from a water trap shooting at his buddies. He went on ops while impaired. He is not a role model. He is overly confident, and extremely lucky. In his case, being lucky is indeed better than being good.

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