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Instant Replay: Diagnosing Shooting Problems Through Video Analysis

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“Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” – Vince Lombardi

 

I received my practical instruction on the M1911 pistol during my training as a combat medic in the United States Army. Our instructor was merciless. He had a voice that invoked an immediate cringe when it spoke your name. He demanded that we know everything there was to know about that pistol, especially how to clean it. As a medic, I hoped I would never have to use my 1911.

In addition to the care and feeding of the M1911, we had long hours of range practice with it. If only I knew then what I know now: The easiest way to fix your mistakes while shooting is to see your mistakes while shooting. While there is no substitute for a screaming military firearms instructor explaining your specific failure of intellect and general lack of self-worth, a suitable replacement for this coaching can still be achieved. It simply requires a small investment in time and equipment.

View the Replay

“Video self-modeling” is a concept many academics in education use to improve student performance on physical and cognitive tasks. Students in practical education often cannot master the series of steps necessary to perform tasks up to minimum standards. For example, a nursing student might have difficulty executing all the tasks associated with starting an intravenous line. When this happens, academics use video self-modeling to help the student overcome a lack of self-confidence and perceived inability to master the tasks. The process is fairly simple.

The instructor shoots segments of video while a student is engaged in performing the discrete elements of the complex task. He or she shoots video segments of every single task, often out of order, paying attention to the student getting the task right. After filming every task being done correctly, the instructor then edits the segments to create a single video that shows the student at issue performing every step perfectly and in the proper sequence. In many cases, this improves performance by helping the student see that the complex task is within his or her ability.1 It also becomes a study aid.

 

After filming every task being done correctly, the instructor then edits the segments to create a single video that shows the student at issue performing every step perfectly and in the proper sequence.

 

A similar technique is useful for shooters who are having difficulty with specific shooting tasks, such as drawing from concealment. A good example might be grip issues. One problem I frequently have while shooting (and that I did not recognize I had) is that my grip often starts out fine but becomes problematic on follow-up shots: The first shot drills the 10-ring on the target, but the shots that follow go left. Why this occurred was a mystery to me until I set up my own video and analyzed what I was doing. I call this process “video self-critical analysis,” and it works well to identify bad habits and measure improvement in shooting techniques.

Modern Advances in Video

I acquired my very first video camera when Ronald Reagan was still president. It was a behemoth, weighing in at about 5 pounds and requiring a tripod or professional weightlifter for anything longer than a five-minute shot. Through the years, the size of video cameras has come down greatly, and the electronics in these devices have become far more complex. Gone are videotapes and standard-sized VHS cartridges.

Now, hours of video can be recorded on a 32-gigabyte SD card. Using a standard video camera, a tripod and a remote control, it is possible to film yourself shooting drills and then learn from what you see. But standard video cameras often do not work well in dusty environments or may overheat in bright sunlight, and older models with built-in disk drives are prone to disruption from the shock of some firearms.

For these reasons, a regular video camera is probably the least useful tool for video analysis of your shooting. The user has to make sure it is charged and that the remote control is at hand. Even then, the user will likely record a large number of video frames he or she doesn’t really need and that have to be edited out. Depending on the frame rate and video format, actions associated with shooting may not be captured clearly.

One Solution is Right in Your Pocket

I have found that a smartphone camera can do a decent job of shooting video at the range with the right device to hold it in place as you shoot. The user can position the phone in front of himself or herself, with the forward-facing camera (the one used with FaceTime and other video conferencing applications) activated, and then press the button to start the video. It is important to remember that the video camera has to be able to see the problem area in order to be useful to you, so make sure your stance or grip is clearly in-frame. To position the camera in the manner suggested, a user will need a movable stand that he or she can position in various ways and at various angles.

Consider a GoPro

Based on my experience, the best tool for video analysis is an action-type camera, such as a GoPro. I have several of these cameras that are no longer even supported by the company but that still provide good service. Newer GoPro cameras and some GoPro clones offer voice control, meaning that once positioned, you can simply say, “GoPro, start recording,” and the camera will respond by recording what follows.

Using a GoPro Session camera, which is a smaller, lightweight version of the standard GoPro, and the GoPro iPhone app, I can both preview what my video camera sees and start and stop it remotely from the phone. If so inclined, I can review the film directly or wait until I get home and review the video on my computer.

Let’s Get to the Bottom of This

To solve the “what’s wrong with my grip?” problem, I set up the GoPro on the target computer at The Firing Pin Shooting Sports in Opelika, Alabama. I positioned it on my left side at about head level and turned the angle down to catch my shooting stance. I then filmed about seven drills where I shot three rounds, dropped the magazine, reloaded and shot two more. At the time, I was primarily interested in how long it was taking me to reload and hoping to get some ideas about how I could speed that up. I was not aware of the problems I discovered with my grip except as they were reflected in my bullet placement.

JUMPING SHIP In one video, the author’s support hand is revealed to completely break contact with the gun during recoil.

When I took the camera home and downloaded the videos to my computer, I was horrified to see how badly my grip had deteriorated since that instructor instilled it years ago. Like all bad habits, this one had developed slowly, and I was unaware of it. I had been shooting in league and doing OK, but I wasn’t doing as well as I expected. When I saw the photos, I saw why.

Instead of my two thumbs pointing forward, one was pointing down, and the other was pointing at the trigger. This was a surprise to me, and it was definitely not a good look. Worse yet, it was clearly affecting my accuracy.

As I reviewed the videos further, I saw even more concerning images. The video showed that my left hand was coming almost completely off the pistol during recoil so I was really only managing recoil with one hand, explaining my longer-than-average split times on follow-up shots. I also noticed that when I used shooting gloves, the added texture meant my left hand never left the pistol during recoil at all.

I never would have known any of this without the videos, and it seems unlikely even an experienced instructor would have been able to catch it all, even in a one-on-one session.

DIRTY SECRET In another video, the author’s thumbs are pointing everywhere but where he’d like them to be, which was news to him.

Affordable Accountability

Amazon has off-brand action cameras for between $29 and $149. Amazon also has the GoPro Hero7 for $199, and it features voice control that allows you to start recording just by talking to the camera. All of these cameras are small, which allows you to mount them in a variety of different ways at the range. Amazon sells an accessory kit that includes several innovative mounting solutions for these cameras, including a chest mount, hat mount and head mount. A hat-mounted action camera can give good feedback when shooting at contact distance and at two or more targets. Mounted on the hat, the action camera becomes somewhat forgettable, and you may find you’ve shot several minutes of video without thinking about it.

Many lower-priced action cameras use the same mounting brackets and devices as the brand-name GoPro and are low-cost alternatives. Not only is using video a good way to improve your shooting, it also makes shooting video nearly as much fun as shooting targets.

 

I never would have known any of this without the videos, and it seems unlikely even an experienced instructor would have been able to catch it all, even in a one-on-one session.

 

21st Century Distance Coaching

Another benefit of video-assisted training is, if you have a shooting coach or shooting instructor, you can send him or her the movies via email or file-sharing websites for assessment. He or she can then help you by spotting things that your untrained eye might not pick up. This is especially true when you’re working multiple targets or moving and shooting and perhaps not paying as close attention to your stance as you would when standing still at an indoor range.

Cameras can’t correct your problems for you, but they can help you spot them, and that may be the best help you can get when trying to rectify bad shooting habits.

Endnotes

(1) M.A. Prater, N. Carter, C. Hitchcock and P. Dowrick, “Video Self-Modeling to Improve Academic Performance: A Literature Review,” Psychology in the Schools 49, no. 1 (January 2012): 71-81. 


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