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Thinking Beyond the Drill, or the “Teaching to the Test” Fallacy

More than one time, John Simpson mentioned to me that you don’t prepare for the test by practicing the test. It’s a bit of a call out against shooters who think that the path to improvement is merely about faster times on their drill of preference. My observation is that a shooter’s preferred “game” usually dictates what drills they care about. Bill Drills, classifiers, 1-5, dot torture, and many more track against defensive, competition, handgun, long gun, and other disciplines. These shooters then post their scores and compete against other enthusiasts to see who is the “best.”

There’s a rub, though. Being good at a particular drill does not automatically translate to being particularly good at all the related skills. It’s merely a point-in-time indication to compare yourself against. Take the Bill Drill, for example. The entire drill consists of starting from the draw and firing six shots as quickly as possible at an IPSC target placed at 7 yards. It’s a sort of “maximum effort” test.

I take issue with the idea that the drill teaches anything in particular. Six shots isn’t enough to teach anything. Using strength lifting as an example, nearly everyone understands that you don’t prepare for a one rep maximum test by only training at maximum weights for one rep at a time. I saw the same kind of thing in the military where some guys would “prepare” for their upcoming PT test by doing it once or twice every week leading up to the actual test.

You must identify and target weak points, build volume of practice addressing those weak points- often at weights far less than the maximum. With time and effort, your ability to display maximum strength improves.

Another Example

A significant portion of my day job involves developing technical certifications. Another huge part of it is developing the training programs teaching the knowledge and skills required to pass those certifications.

When we develop a certification exam, it’s a all a process of compromises. We bring in a team of industry subject matter experts and have them work through a process of documenting the skills and knowledge required to be successful at the level of the test we’re creating. This list usually ends up being dozens of items long, with each item having several sub components to it. We then go through another process to prioritize which items are more important than others. By the time we’re done, we have a ranked order of skills and knowledge.

If the test is only 60 items long, but the team wrote 70 objectives, there isn’t enough space to evaluate everything. Even at a 1:1 match, that would mean that there could only be one question per objective. One single metric is far from enough to comprehensively evaluate what someone knows. That usually means that we have to select the top 20 or so objectives deemed “most important.” After that, we still probably won’t evenly distribute the questions. The top five objectives might get 5 questions each, while the least important ones might get one or two. Keep in mind that the “least important” were still in the top 20 out of 60 to 70 objectives.

In the end, you end up with a certification that provides an objective standard to compare against, but it’s far from a complete picture of someone’s knowledge and capabilities.

Preparing for the Tests

Most people are lazy. When someone asks for help with passing the exam, they almost never want to know what skills and variations they should practice to improve- they want to know the questions ahead of time so they can study the answers. Much like how I prepared for my amateur radio technician exam (and scored a 100%)- it was less about the underlying knowledge and more about just knowing the answer.

But that’s not how it’s supposed to work.

The test exists only to show you an objective point-in-time metric of where you stand on that test.

It says nothing about all of the other things that it didn’t measure. In the earlier example, consider all of the other important skills and objectives that there wasn’t space to measure. The Bill Drill is only 6 shots at 7 yards from the draw, and says nothing about what your accuracy would be a 15 yards from a low ready, or from a different position. You’re only left to extrapolate it from the results as a best guess.

When you complete a test, you get a score. Ideally, you’d then break down your score to figure out where your weak links are. In my certification exams, we provide you a section-by-section score so you see which groupings of objectives you did well or poorly at. In shooting, we have split times and accuracy standards.

If you see your time to first shot was slow, then you have a problem on the draw. Have fast split times from shot to shot but poor accuracy? Then you have a sight tracking issue. Accuracy is good but split times are slow? You need to work on your recoil management.

After spending time practicing these weak links, you run the test again to see if you’ve improved.

Addressing Weak Links

The first step to improving your score is to isolate the weak link. Your goal is removing as many other variables as possible so you can focus only on the one thing. As Coach Dan John put it, if you try to chase two rabbits at the same time you’ll end up catching neither. In other words, if you run something like the Bill Drill, my Martial Marksman drills, or anything else, and you decide that you suck at everything (and many of us will), then pick only one thing at a time to improve.

Let’s say that you’ve got a slow draw, mediocre accuracy, and slow split times. You’re better off picking one of these to work on rather than all three. Which one doesn’t matter right now. Improving any of them helps your overall score.

The next step is finding a way to objectively measure progress on that one component. In shooting, that almost always means a shot timer and/or targets with scoring rings. After you’ve decided on a metric, you’ve got to put in the practice.

Improving Practice

I’ll use strength training as an example, again. When you’re working to become stronger, you spend most of your time working in the 70% to 90% effort range. Chasing the raggedy limit most of the time causes too much stress and burnout. Doing that too much results in either no progress or actually getting worse.

With weights, we estimate what that means by taking a percentage of what you could do for one all-out repetition. Let’s say that you can do that for a squat at 315 lbs. That means the bulk of your strength practice for the squat should happen between 220 lbs and 285 lbs. Consistent, and progressively more challenging, practice builds the correct motor patterns while also accumulating stress on the body and driving strength adaptations.

I’ll emphasize two things there: consistent and progressive. You need to show up regularly. Whether that’s 2, 3, 4, or more times per week doesn’t matter. But you must show up. You also need to make it progressively more difficult, within the targeted range, over time.

Applying it to Shooting

Let’s translate that to shooting. Let’s say you determine that your “raggedy edge” of performance on the draw is 1.5 seconds. We don’t always want to practice at 1.5 seconds. Instead, let’s pick a range that’s 70% to 90% as fast, and build consistent repetitions. Set a par timer for 1.95 seconds (30% slower than 1.5 seconds) and perform 10 perfect repetitions. Do not try and beat the timer. Your goal is drawing and breaking the shot exactly at 1.95 seconds or as close to it as you can get without going over.

Do this for several strings. Always make every repetition perfect. Always train fresh and focused. If you feel like you’re having a bad training day, then walk away. Don’t reinforce poor performance by repeating it.

Over the course of strings and sessions, reduce the par time five hundredths to one tenth of a second at a time. Repeat, getting progressively more challenging. At any point, if you feel like the par time is pushing you to the limit of what you can do, then stop there. Back it down again, or just walk away until the next session.

By the time you get to the 90% to 95% speed, which is 1.65 to 1.57 seconds, I bet your draw feels smoother and less frantic.

Once you’ve gone through that process, it’s time to test yourself again to find the raggedy edge of performance. Don’t be surprised if it’s come down to 1.2 seconds or faster. Use this as a new baseline and repeat the whole cycle again until you’re satisfied that the draw is no longer the weak link in the process.

The same principle applies to any other shooting skill, fitness pursuit, and even practicing music. Select an objective metric, isolate it, and work up your performance against it using consistent and progressively more challenging conditions.

Tying it All Together

To bring it back to the beginning, practicing the specific test over and over again is not the best way to improve your abilities. Drills and shooting tests are not all-encompassing, and only evaluate a small subset of skills at a particular point in time. At best, repeatedly doing the same test only reinforces a few of those skills. At worst, you’re neglecting an entire array of important skills and concepts- which means you’re not actually going to get any better.

The best way to approach your training and development is to pick a single focus area at a time, find a way to measure your progress, and then show up consistently. Practice sessions should not always be at the limit of your performance. Instead, they should represent 70% to 90% efforts the vast majority of the time.

As with weight training, it’s easy to get lost in the ego of things. In the end, the drill and method you use to train doesn’t matter. Don’t attach your identity to having a better time or score on whatever drill than everyone else. The only person you should compete against is yourself. With that in mind, never be satisfied. You should always work to improve some aspect of your capabilities.

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Matt is the primary author and owner of The Everyday Marksman. He's a former military officer turned professional tech sector trainer. He's a lifelong learner, passionate outdoorsman, and steadfast supporter of firearms culture.

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