Are Classes The Best Bang For Your Buck?

Photo by DrJimiGlide

Photo by DrJimiGlide

Over the past few years as I delve deeper and deeper into the world of training, I have noticed a pretty obvious trend: attending more classes does not necessarily mean more skill.

Despite this trend I can’t help but to notice how many people seem to hope for the converse. Time and time again I see well-intentioned students of the gun who are in the constant cycle of bouncing from class to class.

On one hand I must applaud these guys for doing what most gun owners don’t have the stones or smarts to do: get training. But on the other hand, I can’t help but to scratch my head when I see these guys fail to improve despite spending thousands on training from top tier instructors.

Classes Does Not Equal Improvement

Quite frankly most trainers can’t make you improve by all that much… at least not in a single day or weekend class. Instead a good class should give you the tools and techniques you need to improve yourself on your own time. Receiving instruction is never a replacement for old fashioned hard work.

When I compare myself to some of these “class junkies,” I can’t help but realize that with only a few classes under my belt, I tend to fare better when it comes to skills. On a good day, I can shoot the F.A.S.T. in 6-7 seconds, and when I shot the IDPA classifier a few weeks ago I was less than 4 seconds outside of SSP Expert (I really bombed stage 3). While neither of those are amazing feats, I find that there are a lot more people who can’t match that performance than there are people that can beat it.

Guess how many classes I went to in order to get to that skill level?

The grand total of my pistol training comes down to several 2 hour blocks taken at a tactical conference a few years ago, several Southnarc Courses (ECQC and VCAST) which contain very little actual shooting time and next to no work on the fundamentals, and the pistol work at the Larry Vickers course I took last year. And quite frankly none of those courses immediately offered huge bumps in improvement at my next range session.

Compare my abilities and quantity of training with some of these guys who go out to Front Sight every year or do multiple shooting classes a year, and you’ll find that the thousands they spend on training doesn’t offer any significant improvement over where I am. So why spend the money?

Money Better Spent On Ammo

Rather than drop $500-1000 a year on classes, spend that money on more ammo. Or even better yet, just dry-fire! Work up a training routine for yourself that includes dry-fire and live-fire, and keep at it. You’ll notice more improvement than you ever would just taking expensive classes.

When you do consider taking a class, keep in mind that a solid class has two purposes. The first is when you have no skill set at all. Learning to safely draw from the holster and learning good technique for running your gun is critical to get your training off to a good start. The second is when you have been at things a while and hit a plateau. If you can’t improve yourself, it’s time to have someone else help you. Let someone else look at your technique and offer alternatives.

Ultimately it takes consistent, focused dedication to the task at hand to improve. There are no easy answers or shortcuts, just effort and time.

What’s the ratio of classes to individual training that you use? Please post a comment!

Varied Instruction: Reducing the Toolbox

Photo by DrJimiGlide

When studying to defend yourself, there is a trade-off to be made between depth and breadth of skills. How much do you specialize in your skills, and how many different skills do you need to be sufficiently prepared? The answer lies somewhere in between the two extremes. You need enough depth to be proficient under pressure with the tools you choose to carry, yet you must also have skills to enable you to defend yourself in a variety of situations.

The real question is how much depth or breadth do you need instruction-wise?

There are a lot of great instructors out there with a lot of knowledge. Is training with a single instructor sufficient, or is there value to be had by training with a variety of instructors?

Unfortunately there is a lot more gray area here between seeking out and training with a single instructor, and training with them all.

When you start training, you have an obligation to yourself to seek out a solid variety of instructors. The goal in the beginning is to find an instructor who knows what he or she is talking about, but can also convey it in a manner that you can absorb.

There is also the matter of finding the material that is best adapted to you and your philosophies. I want to learn skills and techniques suited to my body type, and not all systems will suffice for that.

Once that first real instructor is found, do you continue to seek out other instructors and build that variety of learning experiences?

I think that ultimately depends on your goal. The problem with training with only one instructor is that no one has all the answers. The best gun guy isn’t likely to be the best knife guy, and he probably isn’t the best grappler either.

Training is your own journey and process where you collect what you have learned and take the best of each discipline or teacher and build your own system, much in the spirit of Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do.

The reason to train with a variety of instructors is not because you can build up the size of your skills ‘toolbox’ by constantly adding more techniques. Actually it is quite the contrary. Take the things that work from each instructor, or better yet double your focus on the things that are overlapped by the instructors.

Like the old adage goes: “In the mind of the beginner there are many possibilities, in the mind of the master there are few”.

Multiple instructors ensure you get the best from each, and allow you to throw away the worst from each as well.

How varied is the instruction you seek out?

Why Precision In Training Language Matters

Image by ardelfin

Who uses training language? Teachers and instructors definitely use training language, but so do students. Those who teach or instruct are conducting a transfer of knowledge to their students. Generally this involves some training language whether they know it or not. Students ask questions, help each other, and take notes throughout classes. All of these exchanges on training subject matter will use training language to some degree.

Precision

Precision might not be the first word that comes to mind when you think about communication, but it accurately describes how anyone should converse in a learning environment. As you probably know, precision and accuracy refer to two separate concepts. Accuracy refers to your ability to hit, or closeness to the target. Precision on the other hand refers to how reliably you hit the same spot. You can be precise while not accurate. If I group all my shots far off the target I was not accurate, but I was precise. Accuracy and precision are different concepts, but having precision makes finding accuracy a lot easier.

Learning new concepts is much like marksmanship. In marksmanship we measure our success based on our group size and closeness to the target. When we have a precise group, we can adjust the sights to get accuracy. In our training on the other hand, it is a little harder to adjust. How does a student go from doing something precisely wrong to performance that is both precise and accurate? This is where precision in training language gives us an advantage. Precise language means we are better able to understand exactly what the student is talking about. When you understand where the students mind is going, it is much easier to correct them.

Inherent Meaning and Connotation

Another reason precise training language matters is that in most subjects words are carefully selected for their underlying connotation. Different words with the same meaning can carry different connotations, and ultimately the words we choose can help or hurt what we are trying to teach.

To use a simple marksmanship example, we can talk about slings. When you use a sling to improve your shooting with a rifle you can make the sling “tight” or you can make it “snug.” Both words convey the same basic meaning, but snug implies something different than tight. When someone hears that their sling should be “tight,” they are more likely to take this to an extreme that contorts their position and defeats the purpose of the lesson. “Snug” has a slightly different connotation that often results in more accurate employment of the sling. In this way, choosing one word over the other can make a big difference in the message conveyed.

Training is a complex world where many concepts overlap, and sometimes even contradict each other. When everyone uses precise and consistent language to describe things it helps prevent confusion.

Ease of Communication

If you look at flying, you will notice that a standard language is used: English. Standardization simplifies communication. Imagine putting 20 pilots and air traffic controllers into a room. If they all speak different languages you might get them to understand each other eventually, but it definitely slows down the process.

A similar concept applies in training. If you take only students who already speak English, and have them all use different terminology (training language) for everything, you will certainly slow down the flow of ideas. Where the flow hasn’t slowed, you’ll probably find assumptions and inaccuracies. You see this all the time in many martial arts systems where commands and techniques are always referred to in the language of the system’s origin. In my karate class for example, I always use the Japanese commands and terminology because it is the universal language of the system I teach.

Training language without precision on all sides of the discussion loses its value very quickly. If we aren’t going to refer to things by certain names, and use those names all of the time, we might as well not use names for anything. Precision in training language, on the other hand, accelerates learning. For those that instruct, remember that the words you use matter. Likewise, students should pay careful attention to the language used when receiving instruction, and make sure to implement the same terminology in your discussions with peers.

How do you use training language?

Classes, DVDs, or Books

 Pretty much all knowledge is transferred through one of these methods: classes, DVDs, or books. Each of these methods has its advantages and disadvantages. No single medium is a catch-all solution, instead they all serve a specific purpose in your training.

Classes

Attending a class is a great way to add to your combative skill set. A skilled instructor will have spent an enormous amount of time working to improve the way that they convey knowledge. A simple way to categorize instructors is into two primary groups. You have national or top tier instructors, and you have local or second tier instructors. Pretty much every firearms trainer falls into one of these two groups.

The difference isn’t huge when comparing these two groups. It primarily comes down to cost of the class and recognition. Just like a Coke costs more than a generic brand cola, taking a class from a well known instructor will usually cost more than taking a class on the same subject from a local instructor. The national instructor might or might not be better than the local guy, but he does have more recognition.

You need to decide for yourself if the extra cost is worth it for you. I personally find that the more generic the material, the less likely I need to take it from an instructor with a big name. If I want to learn how to shoot my pistol safely there are a variety of local instructors who can teach me that. If I want to learn how to fight someone in the backseat of my car I should probably seek out an expert on this subject.

There is a third category of classes: recurring classes. Martial arts classes (Karate, Jujitsu, etc) fall into this category. Regular training on the order of several times a week is the best way to learn and retain a complex skill. The advantage in taking any class is the feedback the instructor(s) can give you. A book or DVD will never tell you how you are doing, just what you need to be doing. If you are learning a new subject or have little experience training, this feedback is crucial.

 DVDs

Attending a class is often costly and time consuming. Money and time happen to be two of the most constrained resources for most people, so that is two big strikes right off the bat. While a class is probably a better way to learn for most people, DVDs can help bridge the gap.

A DVD lets you see what the instructor would have shown you at his class. Most of the top tier instructors have DVDs, so this can be a good way to bring the big name to you for a lower cost. Unfortunately you cannot ask the DVD questions (well, at least not if you expect an answer). The DVD cannot show you what you are doing wrong either.

 Where possible a DVD is best left as a supplement. If you are going to spend the time and money studying with a top tier instructor, getting his DVD before the class and getting the overview before attending is a great idea. The DVD can then serve as a reference when you return from training to help reinforce the concepts taught in the class.

 DVDs are also great for filling in the gaps on things you find less critical. If you want to fill gaps in your training inexpensively, a DVD might be the solution for you.

 Books

 Books are the third of these training media. Books have most of the advantages of a DVD with the major difference being that you do not have video. For most people the presence of video aids learning. Most good books might have picture series demonstrating the techniques, but in almost all cases I have seen this still leaves something to be desired. Especially if you have never seen the material before.

 Books, like DVDs, serve as good references with the advantage that you can more easily bring a book with you to the range or dojo. If you have a portable DVD player or laptop you might bring a DVD to where you train, but now you are searching through video when you should be shooting. A book on the other hand allows you to quickly thumb to the page where you can check whatever is in question. Books are especially great because you can keep one or two with you. I have a book that stays in my dojo bag so I can reference all of the Kata (forms) that I am studying and teaching in the event I need to clarify something. Finally, you can keep notes with a book. In fact you can highlight important points or write notes in the margins.

Again, I don’t believe any one of these methods is the ultimate solution. An instructor is probably best, but this is the hardest to keep with you when you need a reference. A book is easy to carry, but can’t quite show you the way an instructor or DVD can. Choose the right combination for yourself and tweak as needed.

 Do you prefer classes, DVDs or books? Post a comment and let us know your preferred media.

How Many Classes Is Too Many?

Last week tgace posted his thoughts about a phenomenon he sees in firearms training. He believes that some civilian shooters are spending too much time getting training. Part of his argument is that the payoff for classes after the first few greatly diminishes. He also argues that individuals should invest more of their time and funds taking classes on other skills, say tactical driving or first aid for example.

I can agree with his arguments to a point. There certainly is a huge need to diversify your skill set. I would agree that before you take your third or fourth shooting class, you should probably try and invest in some training for defensive tactics, knife work, first-aid, driving, or any number of other skills that end up taking the back seat.

I would also agree that the gain from each class can be less than the one before it. If you want the most bang for your buck, you would always be investing in skills you have little or no knowledge of.

I do think he missed several points, however, when it comes to training. Most obviously, different instructors bring different things to the table. Training with different instructors gives us an opportunity to see similar material from different viewpoints, helping us choose what works best for us. I would also like to point out three important reasons why any civilian shooter (or professional for that matter) should regularly take classes on subjects already known and understood.

State of the art

When compared to traditional martial arts systems, the practice of tactical shooting is still in its infancy. New techniques are being developed and refined at a very rapid rate. Any serious shooter should probably take a shooting class every few years to keep abreast of these changes and keep on top of their game.

For the longest time, an overhand manipulation of the slide with the weak hand was the only correct way to handle an emergency reload. More recently many top tier instructors are starting to advocate the use of the slide stop instead in an effort to increase the speed at which the pistol can be reloaded. While this might not be the best change for you, being exposed to it in a class setting is a good way to evaluate these kinds of developments objectively under the watchful eye of an expert.

Testing Ourselves

Pressure testing is an important part of our training. Some classes give us a chance to test what we have been practicing and validate our training techniques. Some would say that competition would be a better way to test our skills, but that can’t always be the best way to test. Some skill sets are not easily testable in a competition setting.

The best example I can give here is Southnarc’s ECQC class, which I have taken twice now. ECQC is an extreme close quarters combat class, focusing on a variety of skills ranging from verbal skills to grappling with guns, and even grappling with guns inside a vehicle (vehicular brazilian jiu-jitsu). No competition I know of will put you inside a vehicle with a Sims gun fighting against someone else with a Sims gun. Sure you can test the components – I could compete in IDPA and MMA and test the pieces – but sometimes testing everything together in a cooperative environment is best.

Get out of the bubble

Most civilians train individually. We may have training partners or even a small group of peers that we train with, but we don’t go to a regular weekly class like we might do to train in something like karate. This means that we as individuals are cut off from regular oversight by an experienced instructor. As a result our training will eventually deviate from what we are taught. Sometimes this can be good, but other times it can cause us to get sloppy.

It is possible to mitigate this by using video or by having a good training partner, but sometimes the watchful eye of an instructor is necessary. If for no other reason, I would argue that regularly having our skills evaluated and corrected by an experienced instructor is worth the cost of attending the occasional class.

So how many is too many?

It should be pretty obvious by now that I’m a strong proponent of regular training with instructors, whoever you are. But how often is enough, and when have we crossed the line into stroking our egos and over-training one skill?

I think this will depend on your goals and resources. If you can afford it, taking a yearly course in every subject you want to be capable in is a great goal. Of course most of us cannot afford that, so we need to find a slightly more attainable goal. I would say if you’ve attended more than two classes in a subject (say combative gun handling and tactics geared toward the pistol) without having taken any training on peripheral matters (say driving, first aid, or unarmed defensive tactics) you are probably getting too deep.

A reasonable goal might be to take one shooting class and one class from these other subject areas every year. Rotate your secondary class every year, but continue to seek instruction on the one topic that really excites you year after year. This should strike a good balance in your training.

How many classes have you taken on one subject? Post a comment and let us know your opinion!

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