Diagnosing Shooters

12-Dec-08 – 18:18 by ToddG

A major part of teaching is the ability to diagnose and correct shooter errors. While it is certainly wonderful to show others the right way, simply shouting “no, like this!” over and over isn’t going to get students anywhere. The ability to look at what the shooter is doing and figure out where he is making mistakes is therefore critical to being a good instructor.

Unfortunately, this is one area in which many instructors, especially new instructors, struggle. If a teacher does little more than parrot what he’s been taught by others, odds are he doesn’t understand what he’s doing or more importantly why he is doing it. Assume your students are going to ask, “Why?” every time you tell them something … and have a good answer prepared.

While every instructor is different and so is every student, there are a few guidelines that I find help me when I’m teaching. Follow these and you may avoid some of the traps other instructors fall into when they try to fix students’ problems.

  • Watch the student while he shoots, not the target. The bullet hole will still be there after the big loud noise is all gone. You can’t see what the shooter is doing after the fact, though. Trying to diagnose problems solely by watching where bullets land is a fallacy. See Do’s and Don’ts of the Correction Target.
  • Watch the student perform a skill or drill multiple times before jumping to conclusions. Anyone can anticipate a shot once in a while … don’t call the student out for it unless it’s a habit rather than a momentary lapse.
  • Watch the whole student at first. Often an instructor stares at the muzzle or the front sight or the trigger finger looking for classic errors, completely oblivious to bigger problems. One of the most embarrassing things I see is when an instructor gets wrapped up in trying to fix some minor grip issue with a shooter who is closing his eyes and leaning over backwards every time he fires the gun. Also, paying attention to the student as a whole will give you a better idea of when the student is exhausted, losing focus, or otherwise needs a break.
  • When you pick up on multiple errors, fix the easiest ones first. This allows the shooter to see immediate improvement based on your feedback, making him more attentive and motivated.
  • Along the same lines, only fix one problem at a time. Don’t confuse the student and don’t divide his concentration any more than it already is. Find a problem, fix the problem, then move on to the next problem.
  • Learn to let it go. Some shooters just aren’t going to fix some problems during an hour or even a day on the range. Much of this stuff takes practice. The key is to reach a point where the student can recognize the mistake … he can then go and fix it himself over the course of many practice sessions if necessary.
  • Have more than one fix. Plenty of people anticipate recoil, and there are a few very common techniques and drills to overcome that problem. Know all of them. Because while one drill might work for most students, you can be certain that you’ll eventually come across a guy that just doesn’t get it. Have a Plan B.
  • Be prepared for “But that’s the way I was taught to do it!” This gets back to understanding why you teach the techniques you do. Be able to explain that you want him to grip the gun this way, or stand that way, or pull the trigger like so, because of reasons A, B, and C. And if he just does not want to do it your way … see “Learn to let it go,” above.
  • Never lose your patience. You might think you’re giving a brilliant explanation and demonstration, but your student might still be confused as can be. As long as the student is paying attention, don’t blame the student. If you’re having a communication issue, try a different approach. If the student just is not getting it, move on for now and come back to it later.
  • When you have multiple students on the line at once, never get bogged down with one problem child. Diagnose one problem, address it, and move on to the next student. Come back to the problem child as often as you need to, but don’t get hung up watching him and only him to the detriment of your other students. Not only will their learning suffer, they’ll be ticked off.
  • Be positive. Never treat a mistake as the end of the world. More importantly, when the student does well — especially if he takes something you told him and applies it to shoot better — let him know he’s doing it right! If the only comments your student hears from you is “wrong wrong wrong” he’s going to lose motivation fast.

The more effective you are at diagnosing students as individuals rather than just shouting out commands to the firing line, the faster your students will learn and the more fun they’ll have doing it.

Train hard & stay safe! ToddG

  1. 16 Responses to “Diagnosing Shooters”

  2. Thanks Todd. Pedagogy is frequently of more concern to me then domain knowledge. This is a great reminder of the elements of the craft of teaching. On a personal note, you timed it perfectly. I just received my NRA teaching credentials and was getting prepared to approach some experienced teachers to volunteer as a helper to gain some experience. At this point my primary competence in teaching Basic Pistol is my ability to create PowerPoint presentations.

    By HowardCohodas on Dec 12, 2008

  3. HC — Congrats on earning your teaching cred. And never underestimate the power of PowerPoint!

    By ToddG on Dec 13, 2008

  4. Good article Todd and valid points to help in instructor development.

    “Understanding why” is especially important in my view because being able to work through this area the instructor really needs to understand the shooting process beyond what they were taught in a class somewhere.

    To understand the shooting process we need to be shooters, beyond a basic level and that takes dedication, study, and practice. To me, credibility as an instructor is established by mastering the fundamentals to the point the instructor can perform them on demand.

    In my 20 plus years of teaching, to include firearms instructor programs, those that can’t perform on demand probably haven’t learned what they need to learn in order to effectively respond to a why question. This is equally important to our ability to properly assess what the student is doing/not doing during the shooting process. It all falls back to our understanding of the shooting process.

    Become a shooter first, then you will know the answers to the why questions and be more effective at shooter diagnosis.

    Good article!

    By Bryan W on Dec 13, 2008

  5. Another great article; even for us non-instructors!

    By JoeB on Dec 13, 2008

  6. Bryan W — I agree that being an accomplished shooter is part of the equation. There’s a clear demarcation between those who’ve actually learned to diagnose themselves to fix problems and those who still really only understand the “focus on your front sight; press the trigger smoothly” mantra.

    But at the same time, I’ve watched many experienced champion shooters try to teach … and shooting skill clearly is not a sure sign of teaching ability.

    By ToddG on Dec 13, 2008

  7. ToddG – Agree with you there as well.

    Shooting skill alone is no promise of success as an instructor. I’ve seen high end shooters as well that weren’t great teachers.

    There are examples on both sides of the fence, no doubt.

    By Bryan W on Dec 13, 2008

  8. Todd-
    Great write-up. I too have seen good shooters that were less than competant instructors/coaches.

    I have a class that sounds almost identical to this, but if you don’t mind I would like to supplement the class with this info, giving you credit of course. I like to let people know that my classes aren’t “Jack’s path to tactical enlightenment”, but rather the cumulative experience of successful shooters and trainers.

    By Jack L on Dec 15, 2008

  9. Jack L — Any time, dude.

    By ToddG on Dec 15, 2008

  10. Excellent article again Todd. I was recently on a “teach the teacher” course for work and found that a number of the things our instructor brought up transfer over well to teaching people how to shoot. Probably the number one thing I came away with “repeat what you are teaching”, not just a couple times, but 3 or 4 times. Not the same way each time either, but making the same point multiple times with slight variations will make it stick in a students head. Thinking back, I realized you did just that on AFHF up here in Abby.

    By Rob E on Dec 19, 2008

  11. Excellent stuff Todd!

    By Xavier on Dec 28, 2008

  12. X — Thanks. We’re always interested in your thoughts!

    By ToddG on Dec 28, 2008

  13. Todd, I frequent your website from time to time. This is among the best articles and observations you’ve posted.

    As an instructor, I know these are easy mistakes to make, especially when one is not in practice or has infrequent student contact, like me.

    Well done.


    By Timothy Slemp on Dec 29, 2008

  14. Tim — Thanks for the kudos. Teaching is a lot like shooting … you may always remember the basics but to be at your best you need to practice regularly.

    By ToddG on Dec 29, 2008

  15. Hello Todd,

    Great article about which I have a question:

    “Have more than one fix. Plenty of people anticipate recoil, and there are a few very common techniques and drills to overcome that problem.”

    I find myself is this very boat often. I dry fire regularly and have no problems but when shooting I’ll find myself anticipating the recoil frequently. Would you point me to some of the mentioned techniques to help overcome it? Thank you very much for your help.


    By Christian on Jun 14, 2010

  16. Christian — The traditional starting point is the ball & dummy drill. Really, any drill that involves you consciously pulling the trigger and focusing on that without thinking about controlling recoil will help.

    By ToddG on Jun 14, 2010

  17. Thank you Todd! I’ll continue to practice dry firing and the ball and dummy drill. Even with the ball and dummy I find myself anticipating. Mentally I need to work on it.

    Thanks again and great source of information in this site.


    By Christian on Jun 14, 2010

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