This week, I spent an hour or so in the car with my 15-year-old grandson who has his learner’s permit and is learning to drive. As we drove, I explained to Charlie the importance of conditioned response in driving. His mom had an accident shortly after getting her license. Her tires ran off the pavement, and she snatched the wheel, causing the car to veer across the road on the other side. It could have been a life-threatening accident, and she asked me to teach him how to avoid her mistake of snatching the wheel when her tires ran off the pavement. Charlie is fast becoming an effective shooter, and most of our visits involve some pistol training. I explained the process was no different than the training we were doing with his pistol shooting.
Also see: Tap/Rack as a Conditioned Response
In our driving session, I told Charlie to intentionally drive off the edge of the pavement to see how it felt and slowly correct, rather than his reacting with his mom’s involuntary response of jerking the wheel to get back on the road. We repeated the exercise several times to make sure he understood how to correct the problem.
We use the conditioned response every time we drive a car. Without conscious thought, we fasten our seat belt, insert the key, step on the brake and put the car into gear. None of these actions require any conscious thought process because they're all conditioned responses we’ve developed through thousands of repetitions. Conditioned responses have probably saved your life numerous times when you noticed brake lights from the car in front of you or saw an object in the road that would cause an accident. When those incidents occurred, you probably never gave your instant response a second thought, but that conditioned response of reacting without conscious thought prevented an accident.
By definition, a conditioned response is created by repetition or conditioning. You can’t will yourself into performing without conscious thought; you have to condition your mind to take over and perform the task required. By nature, conditioned responses aren’t something we think of, but we perform them constantly throughout our daily lives.
The conditioned response is invaluable in all forms of shooting. Whether it’s a rifle, shotgun, or handgun, effective shooters utilize conditioned responses to get positive results. As occurs with people driving cars, most shooters don’t realize what’s happening, but without conditioned response real performance will never happen.
Some people develop those responses much faster than others. These folks are often seen as people with a natural knack for the activity. Others take much longer. In either case, provided you perform enough cycles, you will develop a series of conditioned responses. Once you develop a series of responses in shooting, firing a shot goes from thinking through a mental checklist to a simple response that requires no conscious thought. The decision is made to make the shot, and the shot just seems to happen.
When effectively shooting a pistol in a defensive training exercise, you establish a grip, you draw the gun, your body conforms to allow firing the shot, and as the gun becomes horizontal, you put your finger on the trigger, and disengage the safety. In a real defensive situation, you might assess the situation to decide if this is truly a deadly force event.
If the threat truly is a deadly force event or if you’re training or shooting a match, the gun comes into your line of sight, you look down the barrel, establish the sight picture, take up the slack, and press the trigger. Eight separate actions occur with one conscious thought. At the beginning of your training, you probably had to mentally think of each of these actions, but they become ingrained through repetition.
For defensive situations, the need for further conditioned response includes clearing a malfunction and executing a reload. While modern ammunition and defensive pistols are remarkably reliable, it’s still possible the gun has come out of battery, failed to function properly, or the round is simply a dud. Because of this, training involving dummy rounds should be part of the serious shooters regimen, so the tap/rack procedure to clear a malfunction is a conditioned response.
Like any other activity that requires performance under stress, developing the correct conditioned response can make the difference between success and failure and the only way to get there is through regular structured practice. Regular training sessions enhance your conditioned responses. Shooting competitions are an even better way to reinforce your ability to perform because of the added level of pressure from the presence of other competitors.
Any event that requires the use of a defensive firearm is an extremely high-stress event. The combination of confidence and correctly executed conditioned response established by practice will help you manage that stress and might mean the difference between success and failure.