One of the most prevalent challenges for those involved in firearms education and training is addressing flinching among students — especially new shooters. Defining what a “flinch” is (and is not) can be equally challenging. An instructor has to have a solid definition of the term to know what causes it and what to do to eliminate it as a roadblock to a student’s progress.

Flinch: A Self-Protection Response

Flinch is an involuntary protective movement of the body when danger is perceived. It is a response generated without conscious thought, such as when you jerk your hand away after touching a hot surface, when you duck your head when you hear an unexpected and uncomfortably loud noise, or when you move away when an object comes close to your eyes or face.

The amygdala is a part of the brain that could be referred to as the “crisis-control center” or perhaps the “danger-detection department.” It needs no conscious recognition of danger or a perceived threat to one’s actual existence to take action. The amygdala operates at the subconscious level, which means that changes in its perceptions of surrounding events must come through the conscious mind before the changes are accepted and implemented.

When a new shooter fires his or her first shot, the amygdala has no reference to formulate a response to the noise or movement of the gun. That is the reason why a first-time shooter executing acceptable mechanics hits the target with his or her first shot on almost every occasion. Once that first shot is fired though, the amygdala perceives that shooting a gun is dangerous to one’s personal safety because it creates a loud noise and causes the movement of a fire-breathing metal object toward the eyes and face.

On subsequent shots, the amygdala elicits a response of self-protection known as a “flinch.” This results in clenching the muscles to prepare for a physical attack, lowering the center of gravity (making it easier to escape from the perceived danger) and closing the eyes to preserve the means of finding safety after the initial attack.

In essence, the shooter closes his or her eyes and preempts the rearward movement of the gun prior to discharge by pushing it away from the body, which moves the muzzle off target. This results in a miss without the student knowing why, when in fact it was because his or her eyes are shut.

Without correction, this flinch response is repeated with each shot. A bad habit is subsequently formed that is not easy to overcome because it is ingrained into the subconscious mind. In order to address this detrimental habit, a gun owner must understand how the cognitive, conscious mind processes information and how that information can be downloaded to the subconscious mind to create or suppress automatic responses of the amygdala to selected stimuli.

When it comes to the Adult Learning Theory, it is generally accepted that under ideal circumstances, the cognitive brain of the average human can process five to seven bits of information simultaneously. As the amount of information increases, the ability to process the information decreases. So does the retention of the information.

Additionally, if stress, self-induced or otherwise — the stress of mastering new skills, following safety rules or self-imposed “performance anxiety” — is introduced into the equation, the bits of information that the cognitive brain can process are reduced significantly. Therefore, when it comes to firearms training, the amount of information cognitively processed by a student can be cut in half as opposed to when he or she is learning in a stress-free environment.

In learning the basics of conventional firearms skills, stance, grip, breathing, sight alignment, sight picture, trigger control and overall safety, the cognitive mind is saturated with information to the point that it doesn’t have the ability to process what the gun sounds like when it discharges nor the realization of how much the gun moves in the hands during recoil.

What this means is the amygdala is left to respond to the discharging firearm in the best way it knows how in order to maintain physical integrity of the body. As mentioned, it leads to muscles tensing up and lowering the center of gravity — which moves the muzzle off the target — and the shooter’s eyes closing, making it impossible to actually see the shot. Collectively, this culminates in frustration, lack of success, and a dislike of firearms and related subjects.

Rectifying Your Flinch

The good news is that this negative conditioning of the amygdala can be reversed and essentially eliminated. The student needs to know why he or she is exhibiting the behavior that is causing him or her to perform in a less-than-satisfactory manner. He or she should be assured that it is common behavior for many shooters to varying degrees. Also, the student needs to understand that the behavior is a natural response to the discharge of a firearm and is easily correctable. For this information to be accepted by the student, the explanation needs to be factual and must make perfect sense.

The inoculation process can be implemented by using one of several methods. The basis of the methodology is to eliminate as much unnecessary sensory input to the brain as possible while keeping safety in mind and maximizing focus on the noise of the firearm discharge (with ear protection) and the movement of the gun in the hands.

A method of inoculation may involve students gathering close to the instructor in a safe location, having them close their eyes and focusing on listening to each “pop” of the gun as the instructor fires slowly. The idea is to receive audible information that can be downloaded to the subconscious mind, which classifies that noise and noises similar in nature as having no consequence to one’s personal safety.

Once this is complete, the instructor should demonstrate shooting the gun with a light grip or with one hand only so the students can focus on the movement of the gun. This will make it reasonable for a student to believe that when he or she has two hands on the gun, it will be controlled sufficiently so as to not be a threat to his or her personal safety.

In an extreme case, where individual attention is necessary, a student with appropriate eye and ear protection can shoot several shots into a safe backstop under the supervision of the instructor, firing a single shot with his or her eyes closed to maximize comprehension and acceptance of the non-threatening audible input to the brain.

Once this condition is satisfied, it is easy to transition to recognizing the range of movement of the gun as it rises off of the target and settles back to its original location. By initially looking at the side of the gun and then the rear of the gun for a few shots, a shooter can confirm to the amygdala that the movement of the gun when firing is of no consequence to his or her vision or personal safety.

Once the crisis-control center — the amygdala — is satisfied that the noise and the movement of the gun during discharge are of no consequence to the safety of the shooter, it will see no need to take the protective action of involuntary movement and closing the eyes.

An Easy Fix

The flinch is one of the greatest roadblocks to shooting excellence. Fortunately, by understanding what causes it (and with the proper guidance of an instructor), it is easy to overcome.