Practice Strategies

By Rob Elliott

One of the most challenging things about the sport of IPSC shooting is getting better at it. The learning curve tends to take place in a vacuum (more or less) and so it tends to be a very individual experience. This presents a problem of course because it becomes an almost overwhelming obstacle for entry-level shooters to make steady, predictable advancement up through the classification ranks. Many of these shooters tend to drop out of the game after only a couple of years since they're not seeing any real improvement, and the effort involved in individually re-inventing the wheel seems too great for the benefit derived.

The information is definitely out there to be had, but the bad news is that IPSC is not a quick learn no matter how you look at it. The skills we use in this sport are many and complex. Much like the skills acquired in a martial art; even with a full time teacher it can take years to become proficient in this game. The trouble is, there are no full time teachers and the skills that work in competition are constantly evolving as equipment technologies advance and athletes strive to improve. It's hard to keep up, and the sport is very unforgiving. The timer doesn't lie and the difference between first and fifth place can be a fraction of a second.

The good news for those who are truly hooked is that there are some strategies that can seriously shorten the earning curve. I've seen dedicated people advance from zero to "A" class or better in a year or two, so it is definitely possible.

Here then are a few ideas that can help you improve more rapidly: Ask questions. "What was your thinking there?" or, "How did you do that?" and the always helpful, "How are you going to solve this and why?" are questions that will gain you a lot of mileage. And these questions are not just for the top ranking shooters. You can learn from anyone, and the more information you have ? the more points of view you can analyze - the greater your overall understanding. I've often seen "C" or even "D" class shooters make stage decisions that I would not have considered that turn out to be very good solutions. I immediately steal these ideas and put them in my mental stage bank.

Video tape yourself and everyone you think has any skill set that you could adapt to your own needs. On your VCR, analyze the tape in the slow and stop motion functions. You're looking for chances to clean up paths of action, define and reduce movements to the bare minimum needed to do the job, and tidy up your form. Make note of what works well and what doesn't, and why. Keep a notebook. This notebook will contain every piece of valid information you acquire. There is no way you will remember every thing you see so it's best to write it down. Also, all of your practice drill times and scores should be recorded and analyzed. Come to know what your par (average cold) times are for any given shooting skill at any given distance.

Practice pre-timing out your stages and practice drills in minute detail. That is: write down before you shoot how much time you think it will take you to shoot a stage and break it down shot to shot. Total up all of your splits for an overall stage estimate. Now shoot the stage and see how close you came on your estimate. If you can, (You can do it in practice but not a match) run through the splits on the timer and write them down in a column next to your estimate. You now have a valuable comparison tool that you can use to dissect your performance in minute detail. Eventually, you will be able to dope out to within a second or so how long a stage will take you to shoot within your pars. Knowing this going into a stage is a great confidence builder since all of the guesswork and uncertainty is gone. You can just shoot, unfettered by non-productive emotional turmoil and second-guessing. You'll find that confidence really calms the nerves.

Experiment. Be creative, and check your results. Know for example what is the fastest way for you personally to engage a bank of targets. Is it left to right or right to left? Are there exceptions? How fast can you reload? How about reloading while crouching to a low port? How long to cover five yards and set up on a barricade target? Check everything and know your pars.

Practice the hard stuff. The stuff you don't like to do is the stuff that will bite you on the butt in a match if you can't do it on demand. Try to eliminate, minimize, or work around your weaknesses.

Learn to draw smoothly. Forget about speed for now, just work on technique. Don't rush. Remember that the whole stage is keyed to the draw. If you fumble the draw chances are you'll spend the rest of the stage trying to make up the lost time and accumulating errors on top of errors. Learn to draw from any position too, since you know that there will be awkward starting positions in the matches.

Always include shooting a couple of groups for accuracy in your practice sessions. Shoot all the way out to fifty yards if you can get the range. If not, use smaller targets to simulate distance. Accuracy counts and you can't miss fast enough to win. Also, don't allow yourself to over practice. Set a realistic practice goal for yourself on any given day and stick to your plan. Limit your round count. Once you start making too many mistakes or losing your focus you're just wasting ammunition and practicing errors. These errors are what your sub-conscious mind will remember if they're the last things you practice. I suggest you try to quit on a high note, always wanting more. Stay hungry as they say.

Dry fire like crazy! It's cheap and believe it or not, IPSC is not mostly about shooting; it's about moving. A typical thirty round stage shot in say, twenty seconds may involve five or six seconds of actual shooting. The rest of the time is spent getting to the shooting. Moving should be practiced mostly exclusive of ammunition and merely confirmed at the range in practice. You can set up drills and stages in your basement and practice them just as you would with live ammo. Always work against the timer though or you'll learn very little of value. You might as well just watch TV.

Try and get a hold of any video instructional tapes or books/articles and study them. Barnhart's tape are excellent resources, as is Brian Enos's book, "Practical Shooting: Beyond fundamentals". Even books on other sports like golf or martial arts can teach a lot about the mental game and physical awareness. Bruce Lee's " The Tao of Jeet Kune Do" comes to mind.

If possible, look for some formal class instruction. The IPSC Gods in the U.S. often offer courses and if you've got the bucks they can teach you a lot. Some of the top shooters here in Canada/Ontario also offer instruction. The price is better and the material covered is generally the same. Mike Auger and Pat Harrison have both been offering courses of late that I understand have gone quite well, and I will also likely run a course or two if demand is sufficient. I have done so in the past. You might find that the slightly higher hourly cost of one-on-one coaching gets you farther on a cost-benefit basis, since class instruction tends default to the lowest skill set in the group. Also, since classes tend to cover huge blocks of information in a short period of time it's difficult to really retain more than about ten or fifteen percent of what you learn. But it's up to the individual to pick the best approach. Keep in mind also that most top shooters will be happy to offer a few tips gratis at the range if you ask nicely. Just remember that they are also there to compete or practice so their focus may be fairly narrow. Feel free to ask but try not to be intrusive. No hitting, slapping or biting to get attention either.

There's a lot more that I could include here but I think Bud would likely kill me if I did since the Sit-Rep will end up costing ten bucks each to mail out.

The most important thing is to stay with it and be patient. The time will pass anyway so acquire your skills one at a time if you must and eventually you'll know everything. Ha! Remember that it's a game and it's supposed to be fun.

See you at the matches.

Rob Elliott

IPSC Ontario