Force of Habit: Training and the Power of Routine

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Why is training, specifically in the context of defensive shooting, so important? The answer may surprise you.

Understanding the power of training begins with understanding what happens in an emergency. Although frequently referred to as the “fight-or-flight” response, the human reaction to threats and emergencies might be more accurately described as a fight, flight or freeze response.1 This is because different people react differently to life-threatening situations.

People who had the time to save themselves in maritime and aviation disasters often died because they failed to evacuate while they could. And the national media have highlighted several situations where individuals with concealed carry permits failed to engage threats in spite of having firearms on their persons. The sad fact is that, in emergencies, people often freeze up.

If you force yourself into a situation with no prior training or preparation, you’re setting yourself up for failure. You won’t have eight to 10 seconds to react when faced with a mortal threat, and if you do, you’ll want to take advantage of every last one of them.

If you force yourself into a situation with no prior training or preparation, you’re setting yourself up for failure. You won’t have eight to 10 seconds to react when faced with a mortal threat, and if you do, you’ll want to take advantage of every last one of them.

Cold Comfort

The freeze response is so common that scientific literature now takes note of it, often using it to explain what happens when a driver mistakes the gas for the brake and suddenly accelerates. Instead of reacting by removing his or her foot and repositioning, a driver continues to press harder on what he or she thinks is the brake. The result is often catastrophic.

Training under realistic conditions and introducing physical and emotional stress into that training helps prevent that freeze response. Repetition and the development of good defensive shooting habits are also key to preventing a “lock-up” during a crisis.

Pick Up the Pace

Have you ever wondered why it is that every time you get on an aircraft, even if you’ve flown a thousand times before, you get a safety briefing about that particular plane? It has to do with improving survivability by harnessing habits, thereby improving the brain’s response to stimuli under stress. According to scientists, the brain is “a multi-channel, limited-capacity signal processor”2 with built-in limitations that affect its ability to operate in a real-time emergency.

One limitation is that the brain can only hold so much information at one time. The other is that it can process information only so fast. Under optimal conditions, the human brain can take in and process new information in roughly eight to 10 seconds. But stress hormones slow that response, requiring more time to process new information and lengthening reaction time.

Scientists also tell us that the way our brains process information — starting with perception, then comprehension, then decision-making, then implementation of that decision — requires its own time to complete. During an emergency, things move fast and are unpredictable, leaving little or no time for calm deliberation. The faster a person can respond to new information in an emergency, the greater his or her chances of survival.

In essence, the key to survival in a defensive shooting situation is to rely on habits formed through practice and repetition on the range and at home.

Fortunately, our brains have a way to speed up that processing and reduce the time required for emergency responses. We draw upon habits obtained through practice. Practice converts the steps in a sequence (gripping the weapon, withdrawing it from the holster, moving to high-ready, sighting, pressing the trigger) into a simple “muscle memory” action, reducing the reaction time from eight to 10 seconds down to one to two seconds.

That said, the brain responds only in the way it has been trained to respond. This is one reason why experts advise you to train with the pistol you carry rather than with a variety of different pistols. The movements and sight pictures vary between models. Different holsters and holster positions also complicate the muscle-memory tasks and can detract from your EDC-focused progress. In essence, the key to survival in a defensive shooting situation is to rely on habits formed through practice and repetition on the range and at home.

Prompt Service

The reaction is a routine or a sequence of events that ends with you deciding whether to discharge your firearm and then securing your immediate area.

The reaction is a routine or a sequence of events that ends with you deciding whether to discharge your firearm and then securing your immediate area.

Author Charles Duhigg tells us that a habit arises from a cue.3 That cue might be the presentment of a weapon by an assailant or something else that identifies a life-threatening situation. This is one reason why some combat-focused training includes what amounts to a startle response in the training. At the presentation of a threat, you will be startled; might as well plan for it.

The cue triggers a mental or physical routine (gripping, drawing, etc.), and it’s followed by a reward that reinforces the habit. In practice, the cue might be the buzzer on a shot timer or a friend shouting, “THREAT!” Whatever cue you use in training, your reaction to it should be the same because you’re forming a habit. The reaction is a routine or a sequence of events that ends with you deciding whether to discharge your firearm and then securing your immediate area. The reward is the good feeling of putting all of your shots into the A-zone of a target or not shooting a target that was holding a cellphone instead of a gun.

The reward during training is important to the formulation of the habit. Training should give you a feeling of accomplishment because that also reinforces the value of training. But the reward is not crucial to the implementation of the routine in an emergency situation. In real life, that reward is being able to walk away with your life.

Habits are also often admissible as evidence. Federal Rule of Evidence 406 states: “Evidence of a person’s habit … may be admitted to prove that on a particular occasion the person … acted in accordance with the habit or routine practice.”4 In other words, if during training you routinely engage in a sequence during which you back up from an approaching threat and yell, “Stop, I’m armed!” or words to that effect, you can introduce that into evidence if you are ever placed on trial for a defensive shooting.

Even in those jurisdictions that do not require retreat before employing deadly force, the evidence is powerful with regard to the issue of your intent: You were acting as someone who reluctantly had to defend himself or herself.

You can use your habit of training to withdraw and warn to demonstrate that you actively tried to prevent the shooting in which you were unfortunately involved. Even in those jurisdictions that do not require retreat before employing deadly force, the evidence is powerful with regard to the issue of your intent: You were acting as someone who reluctantly had to defend himself or herself.

Habits developed through training pay other dividends too. They reinforce good behaviors and help you serve as a positive example to those who look up to you. Most importantly, the key to forming positive, useful habits lies in undergoing quality training first and then using techniques acquired from that training to reinforce the skills you require.

Training pays off in the form of habits, and habits pay off when you’re forced to defend yourself or others.

Endnotes

(1) Leach J.; Why People ‘Freeze’ In An Emergency: Temporal And Cognitive Constraints On Survival Responses; Aviat Space Environ Med; 2004: 75, 539-542
(2) Id.
(3) Duhigg, Charles; The Power of Habit; 2012, at 19.
(4) Fed. R. Evid. 406.