Mental Rehearsal: Firearms Training Without Gun or Ammo

»IF THE GOVERNMENT cannot forbid an activity by making it a crime, they will tax the hell out of it. Consider alcohol and cigarettes.

So failing to outlaw guns, the government will certainly heap various taxes on guns, licenses and ammunition. They not only punish you for engaging in an activity, they make a profit doing so. In the fullness of time, one can expect to pay through the nose for ammunition to practice your gun-fighting skills.

However, there is one thing that no one can interfere with, and that is thinking — an activity of the brain. With this introduction, allow me to introduce you to a non-secret that athletes and sports psychologists have known for some years: mental rehearsal.1

For the last 30 years, sports psychologists have adopted mental rehearsal as a means of enhancing performance for athletes. This same technique can also be used to perfect shooting skills — especially point shooting, where the body uses only gross motor skills.

The brain has been hard-wired over the years to download the instructions to the body, much as you would download an app on your computer.

Mental rehearsal can be defined as the mental rehearsal of a skill without physical movement. It activates a network of neural programs that would normally entail the actual physiological responses, meaning you are actually strengthening the neural pathways required for that skill. This might be considered as “soft-wiring” the brain. Also, by mentally practicing, you become more familiar with each specific action required to perform a skill.

All of us are familiar with employing mental rehearsal early in life. Consider this: Place a piece of paper in front of you and, in detail, describe the manipulation of hands and fingers necessary for tying a shoelace. Odds are you can’t. The reason is what some refer to as “muscle memory.” The brain has been hard-wired over the years to download the instructions to the body, much as you would download an app on your computer. Just press the GO (or “Enter”) key. It is the same reason why you can drive to work with a companion, all the while carrying on a conversation and listening to music on the radio. The driving part has been placed in memory.

Kenneth Baum writes in his book The Mental Edge2:

“The Soviets were preparing for the 1980 Winter Olympics Games, and their elite athletes were assigned to one of four training programs. The first group consisted of athletes who spent all their time on physical training. A second group devoted 75 percent on physical training and 25 percent on mental training. A third group divided its time equally between physical and mental regimen; and the final group spent 25 percent on physical aspects of training and 75 percent on the mental side.

“The results of the study were astounding. The more time the athletes devoted to mental training, the more they improved! Those who made the greatest strides spent the majority of their time (75 percent) on the mental aspects of sports. The least progress was achieved by the athletes who worked exclusively on physical training.”

Baum continues:

“At Hunter College, 72 players from eight basketball teams participated in a study in which they worked the mental side of shooting free throws. One group began each day with relaxation techniques, followed by visualization or mental rehearsal in which they imagined every detail of the foul shooting: They pictured preparing for the shot at the free-throw line, bouncing the ball a few times, raising their shooting arm with the ball balanced on their palm, bending at the knees and releasing the ball toward the basket. Using this technique, the shooting accuracy improved by 7 percent — a change so significant that coaches reported that the better shooting produced eight additional wins during the season.”

Similar results were found in research at Harvard and Stanford.

How the Brain Works at Mental Rehearsal

Let’s say that you want to improve your catching ability, so you have your son throwing a baseball to you from different angles. Your son throws the ball to you and you reach out your gloved hand and catch it. We must examine exactly what the process was that allowed you to catch the ball.

Your brain (through the retinas of your eyes) received a neural message of the ball traveling toward you and your decision to catch the ball. The brain (cerebral cortex) then analyzes the size, speed of travel and trajectory and determines how your arm and hand should be directed to meet that ball at a certain instant in time and space. At the determined moment, you reach out (the muscles activate) and your gloved hand meets the ball. Now you must imagine that you see your son throw the ball, and you intend to catch it. The brain cannot tell the difference from what your eyes see and what you imagine your eyes see, so it goes through all of the preparation to signal the muscles of your arm and hand to catch the ball. But, instead, you imagine your muscles responding and imagine your hand reaching out and catching the ball. You have just soft-wired the brain to catch that ball. Repeat this mental exercise often enough and your brain develops a neural pathway to activate the muscles.

Lt. Col. Dave Grossman (U.S. Army, retired) describes it as a cow walking through a field of tall grass. As the cow passes along, it flattens the grass, which partially straightens up after the cow’s passage. Now have that cow walk the same path every day and soon the grass lies flat. A pathway has been created and will remain as such as long as that cow uses it. Should the path no longer be used, it will eventually return to normal growth. So it is as we grow up. We learn certain skills (like tying our shoelaces) that are difficult at first, but eventually we master the eye/hand/finger coordination and we no longer even think about the task. The simple intent to tie the laces is enough for the brain to send a signal to the muscles to complete the task. We do not think about it; again, some refer to it as “muscle memory.”

Point Shooting and Mental Rehearsal

Mental rehearsal can best be practiced when alone — sitting or standing — as long as you can relax and concentrate. Close your eyes and take deep breaths and exhale slowly. As you exhale, imagine that stress is leaving your body. Start at your feet. Feel all the stress leave your feet. Then your legs. Then your chest. Then the top of your head. Free your mind of distractions and allow your mind to focus on the relaxation process. Then imagine what you will see just before you begin the task.

A target — a man with a gun — is in front of you, 10 feet away. Relax, visualize and focus on the target before you.

Visualize yourself as an active participant, not a passive observer. To mentally rehearse shooting at an aggressor, you must imagine that you are standing before the subject rather than watching yourself perform.

An additional aid is to cue your performance with a word that will start the practice. Use the same word in the same tone each time.

You crouch and feel your arm and then hand reaching for your gun and grasping the grip. The elbow lifts and the gun clears the holster. You straighten your arm and bring the gun up before the subject, and as he appears in your line of sight, you convulsively squeeze your hand twice.3 The gun kicks as you fire, and two holes appear in the chest of the subject exactly where you were concentrating. You must see the subject fall (positive reinforcement).

Repeat this process several times.

Now you must imagine various situations where you will have to shoot:

  • A man staring at you and reaching for his gun.
  • A man running at you, knife in hand.
  • A man slowly approaching you with an upraised club.

In each imagined situation, you must crouch while bringing your gun up and convulsively squeezing your gun hand twice. Feel the gun kick against your hand, then see the person fall before you. Repeat each situation several times, then several more times each day for a week.

An additional aid is to cue your performance with a word that will start the practice. Use the same word in the same tone each time. Try using the word “go” to kick in the movement. Visualize the scene and as you think “go,” bring up the gun and convulsively squeeze your hand twice.

It will also help to concentrate your vision, not on the whole body of the aggressor but on a small point on his chest. Always concentrate on that point as you shoot.

As a firearms instructor, I have found students fired all over a silhouette target in the black, which is not unusual. I would then reverse a silhouette target so that the white side was facing the shooters. (You can still see the outline of the silhouette, but you can also see your bullets striking the paper.) I would then place an empty beer can on top of a stick embedded in the sand a few inches in front of the target. Although it was difficult to hit the beer can from 25 yards, the students’ misses were only inches from the can and seen clearly. When they started to hit the can, I replaced it with a flashlight battery. Then I turned the silhouette targets and placed a white 2-inch piece of tape in the center of the black, allowing the students to concentrate their aim. Hits were thus much more centered near the tape in the target’s center.

Planning to Defend

Mental rehearsal can be used to perfect the mental and physical response to a lethal threat. Essentially, this incorporates planning by visualizing the threat and the response. Planning one’s actions when faced with a lethal threat should include situations one might anticipate in the routine of daily living, including:

  • An intruder entering your home during the night. Do you have a gun and flashlight easily available? Are there others living in your home? Are young children asleep?
  • Walking on a public sidewalk (with or without a companion).
  • Leaving a business or restaurant (and facing an armed suspect about to enter).
  • Entering your vehicle at night in a parking lot.
  • While in your vehicle stopped in traffic.
  • Observing a crime.

Other situations might come to mind. An important point to consider is that if you are with a female companion, she should know enough to immediately put distance between both of you. You must tell her to run, seek cover and call 911, or whatever the situation demands or allows.

Prepare by imagining as many situations as you can where you might be confronted with a lethal threat and mentally rehearse your response.

Remember, any plan mentally practiced is much better than having no plan or relying on luck. When the amygdala hijack occurs, you might have only three choices: flight, fight or freeze.4 Fleeing is seldom a choice considering the close contact usually experienced in lethal confrontations. Freezing, called hyper vigilance, occurs when the brain “stalls” and you can’t think of a reaction to the threat. It sometimes results in irrational and repetitive actions, such as scratching your leg or repeatedly pulling the trigger of an automatic when the safety is on. Of course, you might also submit — a fourth choice that might not be available.

Prepare by imagining as many situations as you can where you might be confronted with a lethal threat and mentally rehearse your response. When you have the opportunity for live fire, repeat the situations you have rehearsed, and commence the action after exhaling the word “go.” This is pre-planning, well in advance of the need to act, so that when the time comes to act, it will require no cognitive process or decision-making.

Endnotes

(1) Visualization.
(2) Baum, Kenneth,
The Mental Edge, 1999, The Penguin Putnam.
(3) Convulsive: anticipating the body’s reaction to stress and the loss of feeling in your fingers, you must clench your entire hand.
(4) Amygdala highjack refers to the operation of the sympathetic nervous system that takes over body functions.

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