My primary focus for shooting is helping people learn the skills they need to survive lethal force encounters. Whether it's law enforcement, military, concealed carry or home defense, I want you to be prepared mentally, physically and technically to succeed when second place isn't an option.

One of the best tools for improving your ability to put fast and accurate rounds on target in a lethal force encounter is competition shooting. Now, before you dismiss it as "play" or as something that will teach habits that will get you killed in real life, I want you to read eight reasons why competitive shooting will improve your defensive shooting performance.

During the winter months, many shooters tend to do most of their shooting at indoor ranges. Unfortunately, there are a lot of defensive shooting skills you can't do at most ranges during public shooting times that you probably can do during their competitive shoots. Some of these things are:

  • Engaging multiple targets
  • Shooting tight groups faster than one shot per second
  • Moving and shooting
  • Engaging around cover
  • Shooting moving targets and targets that disappear
  • Shooting from the holster
  • Shooting from concealment

Since most of these skills are almost guaranteed to be used in a gunfight, it might just be a good idea to practice them under gradually increasing levels of stress.

And stress is one of the biggest benefits of competitive shooting. To use football as an analogy, the most stressful game in the sport is usually the Super Bowl. You don't see athletes successfully going directly from playing high school ball to performing at a high level in the Super Bowl.

Instead, over a period of time, they learn to execute the fundamentals under gradually increasing stress levels. During this time, they perfect their form, they get comfortable with stressful situations, and they become able to perform at peak levels in stressful situations.

The most stressful shooting you may ever do will be using a firearm to stop a lethal force threat. It is the Super Bowl of shooting.

If you go straight from slowly and calmly shooting paper (think of this as high school football) to a lethal force encounter (equivalent to the Super Bowl), you're probably not going to perform as well as if you took some intermediate steps.

And that's how I view competition: as an intermediate step between standing and punching holes in paper and a lethal force encounter. It's not as effective as high-quality force-on-force training, but it's a heck of a lot cheaper and easier to find.

There are a few ways that competition induces stress that people don't appreciate until they experience it.

1. You're on the clock

It's safe to say that the beep of a timer instantly drops 12 points from your IQ. More often than not, it will completely wipe out your memory and any plan you thought you had a few seconds earlier. (I didn't come up with that IQ quip — it's from the legendary Pat Rogers, RIP.)

You learn to work through stress and again, these are things that are way better to work through during competition than in a fight for your life.

2. Performance anxiety

Another way competition induces stress is eyeballs. A lot of people fear public speaking and public performance more than death. Being the only person shooting while everyone else watches triggers some of this anxiety.

And that's great because you get to practice safe handling and manipulation of your firearm under stress when no lives are at stake. You get to explore ways to control your stress levels. You get to inoculate yourself to various levels of stress.

3. Brain processing

So, there's a third way that competition induces stress, and it piggybacks on the first two.

When you’re under stress and try to think your way through a situation, it's frustratingly ineffective. As stress levels increase, your ability to consciously process situations and recall declarative long-term memories goes away, similar to cramming for a test and having everything *poof* disappear when the instructor lays the test in front of you.

It might be thinking through something as simple as how to line up your sights, how to reload, how to shoot the targets that need shooting without shooting the targets that don't, how to move through the course, or trying to remember specific instructions for the stage.

If you've practiced skills to where you can execute them subconsciously, you're good to go. If you can self-control your stress response, you're good to go.

This is awesome because it's a small taste of real-life stress with little downside.

4. Practice makes perfect

In the IDPA matches I shoot, we strongly encourage newer shooters or shooters who are new to competition to go S-L-O-W and safe and not worry about time at all initially. If you're new to competition, I'd encourage you to take that approach, regardless of whether the club you're shooting with recommends it.

The first time you compete, your mind will be swimming. It's confusing and it's a little uncomfortable, but when you finish the stage you might have a little post-coital bliss and want a cigarette even if you don't smoke. And you'll probably be hooked even if you completely blew the stage.

The second time will be dramatically easier. The known is always easier than the unknown. Pretty soon, you won't feel any negative effects of the stress anymore and it will just be fun.

5. Safe gun handling

You'll handle your gun more and practice more between matches so that your safe gun handling and manipulation will be automatic subconscious and you won't need to think your way through the process anymore. This is exactly the type of performance you want in a fight for your life.

As you learn to be comfortable moving and shooting under stress, facing the unknown, driving the gun subconsciously, and problem-solving and making decisions on the fly, you'll be practicing many of the very skills you need to win gunfights.

And you'll probably start trying to figure out how to increase the stress level…either with a different kind of competition, moving on to state, national or world competitions, or by doing force-on-force training. Whichever way you go, it will make you more resilient and increase your survivability in a lethal force encounter.

6. Gut check

You've heard the saying, "In a fight for your life, you won't rise to the occasion ... you'll perform half as well as you do in practice." It's incredibly common for great shooters with a decade or more of experience to become a paper commando and have a rude awakening under the relatively minor stress of competition.

Again, problems that show up in competition with no real consequence could be lethal in a fight for your life, so competition is the best place to flush them out and address them.

7. Progress is key

One of the biggest advantages of competition is that it encourages constant forward progress. It's difficult to be disciplined about training for a lethal force encounter that may or may not happen at some point between now and the day you die. It's a lot easier to practice for a few minutes per night this week for a match next weekend.

What about bad habits? There are a hundred things "wrong" with competitive shooting:

  • putting a rifle down before you're out of ammo and transitioning to a pistol in three-gun.
  • tactical reloads on the clock in IDPA
  • dropping mostly full mags in USPSA
  • staying stationary without cover and engaging multiple targets in USPSA
  • unloading and showing clear after completing a stage
  • not scanning for threats
  • shooting a prescribed course of fire instead of shooting until the threat is stopped
  • and more

But do you know what? It's still light years better than just standing and shooting paper. It will encourage you to practice more, safely handle your firearm more often and keep growing and improving as a shooter.

8. Frequent short-term goals

Keep in mind that just because everyone else is shooting a stage in a particular way doesn't mean you need to. I carry a Glock 26 subcompact every day. I shoot it for IDPA, USPSA and three-gun, even when the guys I'm shooting against are running tricked out STI 2011s ($2,000 double-stack 1911s) with red dot sights and 20-plus round mags.

You also don't need to judge yourself based on the other shooters there. Sometimes that's appropriate, but a lot of times you can come up with metrics that are more important and valuable to you.

I set goals for matches/stages before I do them. The five most common goals I have are:

  • Shoot all "bull's-eyes" (also called Down Zero or Alpha).
  • Shoot as fast as possible while getting all bull's-eyes or the first ring (also called Down 1 or Bravo).
  • Shoot the entire stage with headshots and still go faster than shooters making torso shots.
  • On a stage with a reload, have my time from slidelock to reload to subsequent bull's-eye beat a specific time (requires a shot timer or camera).
  • Focus on my beep to concealed draw to headshot time for each stage.

Those are my goals. They work for me. You can steal them or make your own, but the big thing is to make competitions yours. There are some rules/constraints you need to follow, but outside of that, shoot it in a way that will be most helpful to you.