Here at ISG, we talk much on the topic of “mindset” and the many various ways that your mindset will affect your outcomes. The topic of today’s article is going to focus on the mindset you maintain during training, and maybe not so much in the vein of the “during training” portion, but instead for the future and the “why” behind how you approach your training.
So, first, let’s talk about training. When people hear that word, especially in todays vastly bloated environment of social media personalities, often the presumption is that the lean of the conversation is towards personal defense or general firearms courses, but the all encompassing concept of “training” applies to anything you do to increase technical skill. Often, along with a desire for general personal betterment, you have another goal, a future end state with your training as well; improved scores/placing during competition, more robust skills in a first responder medical scenario, complete comfort in operating every facet of a piece of machinery in your day to day. All of which are suitable reasons to approach training. The why is often subjective for persons based on individual needs and goals.
Now that we have that winded intro over with, what isn’t subjective though, or should not be, is how you approach training for your desired end state. It is said, often without much thought, “Practice makes perfect.” I have found that this statement while generally true is flawed. If practice made perfect, then any dedication of effort over a course of time to your desired skill would make you a proficient expert. We know this is not the case, it is not enough to simply practice, which is why the substituted word is “train.” Changing the connotation from being present and accounted for during sessions towards your skillset to that of “Perfect practice makes perfect performance,” or simply put, you must be deliberate in your time committed, actions taken, and goals considered when training. Which brings us to the main crux of this article today; How does muscle memory play into my training end goals?
You may have heard the concept of muscle memory discussed before in many different venues of high stress jobs and tasks; firefighters, military personnel, EMTs, police, athletes, etc. It is a common and well-known topic to many persons across a wide array of disciplines, but very rarely is the statement of “Continue training with proper repetitions so that you establish muscle memory” explained or delved into. There is a definitive “why” behind the importance of muscle memory, and it revolves around human beings natural problem-solving cycle; the ever eye-roll causing OODA Loop. But that is getting a bit ahead of ourselves and will be discussed in detail a little further down the page.
Let’s start this discussion on the importance of muscle memory with the example of learning to drive a car, specifically a manual transmission model. If you have ever learned how to drive a manual, think back to when you initially started. Taking an explanation of the vehicle’s operation procedures and then performing, often poorly at the beginning, the required process to simply drive. Your focus was on maintaining proper foot pressure on the clutch (or not), braking, accelerating, constantly peeking at the tachometer & speed, shifting up and down the gear train, and your mind reeling at the dreaded first hill stop & start you would find yourself presented with. If you think back, it was likely taxing on your mind, but as you continued driving the vehicle everything became steadily more natural. Your body established muscle memory to perform the tasks of driving the vehicle, and if you consider the importance towards your end state for driving of why that happened, you’ll realize that having that new found muscle memory left you able to focus on traffic, road hazards, weather changing, erratic drivers, lane changes, navigating unknown roads on a trip, and many other needed items of focus while driving. This is where muscle memories ties into and aids the OODA Loop process.
So, what is this OODA Loop then? If you’ve not heard of it in your time, the “Observe, Orient, Decide, Act” Loop is a basic explanation for the problem-solving process that humans undergo. You naturally observe a given issue or challenge. Orient yourself and your available tools towards the issue or challenge. Decide how best to engage the issue or challenge with yourself and your available tools in order to solve or overcome it. And then logically perform the actions to do so. On paper, that sounds like an arduous time-consuming process, right? In truth you perform the OODA Loop near unconsciously daily. Example: Making pan fried chicken for a great sandwich or salad on the stove, the oil gets too hot and catches fire. In an instant you observe the fire, quickly grab the pan lid from storage or nearby on the counter, decide to turn off the heat and place the lid on the pan, and then do so. And there was no pause in your train of thoughts translated to actions, all of which likely (presuming the lid was nearby) occurred in maybe a maximum of three seconds. The glorious OODA Loop in action, and you didn’t even perceive it as such. Where then does muscle memory play into the OODA Loop? It lies in the second phase of the cycle, “Orient.”
The orient phase, physically presenting yourself and your tools to the problem at hand, is often the longest part of the OODA Loop (see “The Essence of Winning and Losing” 28 JUN 1998. Boys, John R.). Muscle memory, from proper training and perfect practice, can help you compress the orient stage of the cycle, and likely make the entire loop, or your ability to act, either be reached faster or with a much better plan you reached in the decide portion. When he developed it, Colonel Boyd was studying fighter pilots and their performance against like-experience-adversaries. He found that many times, two pilots with the same test scores, same flight hours, same number of combat tours, etc. often did not perform in a draw/tie manner when pitted against one another in the performance of their given profession and skills (aerial dogfighting). Further study showed that one pilot, consistently while all other factors were as close to the same as possible came out on top. And the deduced reasoning was that this top pilot was able to complete his OODA Loop cycle faster than the other; either with more time for a better decision or a faster overall time to action.
In most cases you will not be able to (without taking experience into account, referencing only new challenges and issues) be able to force yourself to decide faster. Observing and Acting time will vary widely based on the new problem you are faced with. So where you can functionally affect your time savings and ability to execute an appropriate action functionally lies in the orient stage, and getting through that portion as swiftly as possible.
How then can muscle memory from effective, efficient, and deliberate training help this? Well that depends on your task at hand, so let’s discuss some variations in example. You’re a firefighter and when arriving on scene, you have trained to the level of proficiency that you’re able to thoughtlessly maneuver around your truck gathering the proper hoses, tools, fittings, and putting them into use while your attention is free to pay heed to your truck crew leaders command calls, which are different for every event. As an EMT or Medic of some sort, you respond to an off-road ATV crash victim who’s been impaled by a limb and has a broken arm, but you are able to assess their other possible injuries and closeness to shock while also communicating with the still conscious in pain victim smoothly because your hands know precisely where the required treatment items are in your response bag. You could be a driver, trucking or not, who knows their vehicle and its nuances so well that when observing another vehicle cutting you off blindly or perhaps a surprise road obstruction, you can quickly assess whether you’re able to stop or must veer around, without having to think about the process. These are just a few examples, which may seem mundane, but if you think about the importance of the end state results in them then you can reach back to the beginning of this article and find the functional connection to practicing perfectly to build effective and refined muscle memory to have the time when needed to conduct a more robust decision making process or reach an action response more swiftly to reach an end state that is suitable and preferred.
We’ll conclude with a few key takeaways from the topic; 1) Consider your end goals for your training and why you’re undergoing it, 2) Be deliberate in how you go about your training regimen (time devoted, actions, repetition), 3) Regularly stress yourself with events or other skilled practitioners of your skill to evaluate your thoughtless proficiency under duress, 4) Muscle memory can decay, so maintain a regular re-up of your skillset so it does not atrophy. My hope is this article, albeit a short read, has assisted you a little in the reasoning behind why certain training mindsets are so important. The argument of “because it helps you do your job better” is not enough of a reason. “Doing so allows you to free up immense amounts of mental capacity for better situational awareness, while still doing your job” is the aim this article was attempting to give reason to. Perhaps it will help you have a personal sit down with yourself and look at your training methods and practices in relation to your future goals, professionally or privately.
John is a 9-year veteran of the USAF and has served as a personal firearms instructor for private citizens, law enforcement, and military. Growing up and during his military career he pursued survival, marksmanship, medical, and self reliance courses out of personal curiosity and professional development. His interests include, but are not limited to; bourbon of various varieties, precision shooting, firearms mechanisms & operation, fitness, wood working, engineering concepts, and cooking.