When it comes to self-defense, practicing regularly is critical. We have all heard the term “muscle memory” as a way to convey the idea that our actions become intuitive. We react without conscious thought. But what really happens with consistent practice, whether shooting a pistol or kicking a field goal, is that we develop new neural pathways in our brain so that when things actually do go crazy, our reactions will be virtually automatic.

Without getting into the arcane language of psycho-motor science, just be assured that research has identified some basic parameters when it comes to practicing a skill (such as drawing and effectively deploying a handgun). We have learned that, in general, it takes about 300 repetitions of the same series of movements to begin the process of forming new neural connections in the brain (think of it as writing software for your mind).

Then, after about 3,000 repetitions, the neural connections are complex and sophisticated enough to become relatively permanent. After that, you need only regular maintenance sessions. However, if you fail to continue practicing on a regular basis, your performance will gradually decay, which is why it is called a perishable skill. Hence the expression, “Use it or lose it.”

True, if you have practiced regularly for a number of years and then slack off for six months or even a year or so, you will still be able to perform better than the person who never got to your level in the first place. But you will not be as fast and accurate as you would have been had you continued practicing all along.

It’s the same with top performers in sports. Take a racecar driver. Let’s assume he is the best of the best in his profession. But suppose he were to take a year or two off and never even get behind the wheel. Sure, he will still be able to drive rings around you and me, but he would not be anywhere near the top of his game the first time he returned to the track.

This is why we always encourage those who carry firearms for self-defense to practice regularly. We also encourage you to regularly get training from someone who understands the differences between target shooting (or hunting) and preparing for defensive scenarios. And then, make sure your practice precisely mimics the moves you will use during a violent encounter. Why? Because the unfortunate reality is that regularly practicing bad habits will embed them into your brain just as surely as practicing good habits. Most of us have seen a police shooting report in which an officer did things such as cock a revolver before each shot or run around picking up his empty brass casings immediately following a shooting.

So, get trained — the right way. Then, make every effort to practice properly. We also strongly encourage practicing certain skills at home, things such as drawing from concealment, dry-firing, clearing malfunctions and so on. And remember, when practicing reloading an auto-pistol, let the empty mag drop free; that’s what you should do in real life. If you’re worried about dinging your mags, do it over a carpet or old rug.

Finally, when practicing any technique, start slowly, working first on achieving perfect form, but then increase the speed until your movements are both precise and fast. Regular, disciplined practice will prepare you for that day we all hope never comes.