Skinning the Cat

As a teacher, I often have to sit through various in-service trainings during which I get to hear fellow educators with less experience than me discuss “research-based best practices.”  It has gotten to be such an eye-roll moment for me that whenever I use the instructional techniques they advocate in my classroom, I preface them with the words (mostly for the amusement of myself and my teaching assistant):  “Okay folks, we’re going to do ______ because research suggests this is a best-practice.”  I mock the terminology and, usually, the person delivering the message, but not the techniques themselves.  Truth be told, only a few of the techniques are truly “new”, though they often have “new” names.  Ever heard of the Premack principle?  No?  Have you ever told your kids, “no ice cream until you eat your peas”?  Same thing.

I suppose almost every endeavor has something akin to “research-based best practices”:  industries, arts, athletics, etc.  There are certain things that should always be done, and certain things that are best avoided.  Often, these are almost like unwritten rules, but they exist for valid reasons. 

Two relatively recent happenings in my life reminded me of this.  The first was my son’s interest in baseball.  At age seven and taking after me, he is not currently exhibiting any special athletic talent.  However, he has taken the interest and shown steady improvement, and so I intend to foster this moving forward.  This past spring, starting from scratch, his baseball coach and I started to teach him how to hit the ball using—you guessed it—“research-based best practices”!  Front shoulder in tight, front elbow down, back elbow up, knees bent, back foot down like a nail has been driven through it into the ground, eyes on the ball the whole way in…you get the idea. 

The second event in my life that had me thinking about this was the recent Pistol Video Diagnostics class I took with John “Shrek” McPhee.   As noted in my review, this class was virtually a pure mechanics class focused on stance, grip, and presentation of the handgun.  In essence, John was providing me and the other students with his own version of “research-based best practices” in shooting a handgun.  I have begun using the techniques he taught us in class in both dry practice and live-fire and have already seen improvements in those areas I knew were issues for me going into the class.

There is a lot to be said for mastering the basics.  However, it occurred to me that once the basics are mastered, there is some wiggle room for doing things in a way that works best for you.  Let us consider baseball again.  While there are certain “best practices” in the batting stance, there are also countless “variations on a theme”.  For every Derek Jeter, who used what I would call a relatively classic stance, there might also be a Jeff Bagwell, who used as unorthodox a stance as I have ever seen.  While Jeter will no doubt be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, Bagwell is already in, and though a Gold Glove winner, he was definitely better known for his skills with a bat.

Likewise, look at shooting.  Having now taken over 180 hours of handgun-specific training, I have seen a lot of DIFFERENT techniques described as “basics”, “fundamentals”, “essentials”, etc.  For example, I have had some instructors tell me to have a mostly upright stance (for better “battlefield awareness”), and others tell me to lean forward more.  I have had instructors have me shoot with my elbows locked, and others tell me to have them slightly bent (some bent outwards, and some downwards).  Some favor a more aggressive “fighting stance” with the strong-side leg further back, while others favor the feet to be positioned closer to even with each other.  In short, there are a lot of “variations on a theme” being taught in the shooting world.

I write this article at what I believe might be an interesting transition point for me.  I really believe in what I learned in the aforementioned class with John McPhee, and early indications are that it is working for me.  I am a HUGE proponent of training with as many people as you can and try to use as much of you can.  However, I can also see how some elements of training can work at cross-purposes.  It is impossible for someone to shoot with elbows bent downward AND with elbows locked.  I can see the arguments for both, but there is little denial in my mind that when I do NOT lock my elbows I experience less success.  As outlined in this AAR, Paul Howe softly told me after I had consecutive misses on steel at 40 yards, “Lock, Lock, Front Sight, Press”, and suddenly the steel started ringing!  I am reaching the point where I need to figure out either what works best for me, or perhaps which one allows the most room for growth, and just go with it. 

The point to all this rambling is that the exposure to a variety of instructors can open us up to things that we might not otherwise try.  Eventually, however, I believe that one has to pick what is working the best and then use that as the foundation to build on, even if it looks somewhat different than the ideal of “research-based best practices”.  We are all built differently physically, with different strengths and needs in the areas of physical strength, flexibility, eyesight, hand-eye coordination, etc.  Something that is universally recognized as a “best practice” just may not work for some of us.  Heck, Bill Rapier shoots handguns with his support-hand index finger on the front of the trigger guard, something he admitted to me in this class that he would never teach someone to do, but it works for him. 

I watch guys like Jeff Gonzales, Bill Rapier, and Kyle Defoor shoot with slightly bent elbows from relatively upright stances, Frank Proctor look so relaxed as he shoots that it looks like he could take a nap at any moment, and Paul Howe and John McPhee shoot with their arms fully locked out.  While I suppose there are pros and cons to each of their techniques, in the end what they all have in common is that they can outshoot me any day of the week!  One of my goals in the coming months is to try to figure out which techniques I have learned so far in this journey work best for me, and then try to get as close as possible to mastering every aspect of those techniques.  We shall see how I do…..

As always, thanks for reading.  If you have any advice you would like to add or other thoughts on this topic, please share below or on our Facebook page.

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