Combat shooting tips from Larry Bird
Friday, April 28, 2017
Whether you're a basketball fan or not, there are great lessons we can learn from the greatest players in any sport and apply them to our lives.
At some level, big games in professional sports and self-defense are similar. In both cases, you're training to be able to do a complex motor movement in a stressful situation.
There are some obvious differences, but today we're going to focus on how the habits that helped Larry Bird become a Hall of Fame player can improve your chances of survival in a life-or-death shooting situation.
In his day, Larry Bird dominated the courts. He regularly pulled off feats that most people thought were impossible in incredibly stressful situations. They weren't life-or-death situations, but they were situations that would crush most people and make them choke — no matter how good they were in practice.
When you think about the fact that, for some people, performing in front of an audience has the same biological effect as being in a life-or-death situation, there's a lot we can learn and use.
So what made Bird different? And how does a guy wearing green short-shorts and tossing a ball through a hoop have anything to do with life-or-death shooting situations?
In both cases, it's a matter of training to be able to execute precision skills in extremely stressful situations.
First, there's a tendency for shooters to want to skip the basics and "get to the cool stuff." It's the same in every sport. People want to go straight to doing the stuff they see on the highlight reels.
"Practice habits were crucial to my development in basketball," Bird once said. "I didn't play against the toughest competition in high school, but one reason I was able to do well in college was that I mastered the fundamentals. You've got to have them down before you can even think about playing."
Did you get that? He had a lot of low-intensity games in high school that allowed him to take the time needed to master the fundamentals.
One of the best things that happened to Bird is that he wasn't as naturally talented as a lot of the players he played with and against. That fact drove him to practice harder than anyone else, and that foundation allowed him to blossom in college and the pros.
In high school, Bird would shoot 200 free throws every day before school. He would regularly be the first one to start practicing and the last to leave.
By the time he got to the pros, his habit was to show up a few hours early for practice. On game nights, he'd show up at least two hours before tip-off and shoot at least 300 practice shots.
The equivalents in shooting a gun are practicing your drawstroke, practicing one-hole drills, practicing reloads, practicing malfunctions, etc. Fortunately, it doesn't take hours of practice per day with a firearm to become a top-level shooter.
Second, Bird practiced way beyond the point of being able to hit the hoop. He practiced the basics to the point where he couldn't miss. And then he kept practicing — through his college career as well as 10 years in the pros.
This emphasis on the basics — the fundamentals — is what allowed him to make shots from awkward, unorthodox positions while being guarded by highly skilled opponents.
In a typical prepractice and pregame routine, Larry would begin with free throws and start moving back. No matter how good he got, he still worked on the basics every day. Then, he'd step to the side and shoot, practice fadeaways, and increase the pace until he was just shooting reflexively — without conscious thought — and making the majority of his shots.
One time, Micky Mantle showed up at Boston Garden a couple hours before a game and was watching Bird warm up. After a while, Mantle said, "This guy hasn't missed a shot since I got here."
And Bird's focus on the fundamentals also translated into high performance in clutch situations — more than 30 times, he made last-second, game-winning shots, including Conference Finals and other big games.
So, what can you take away from Bird's practice habits that will help you as a defensive shooter?
Focus on the fundamentals. Then, when you have to pull off impossible shots under impossible conditions, you'll have a solid foundation to succeed.
When you have the fundamentals nailed down to the point where you can't miss, then make them more difficult by adding in motion, stress, low light and speed. But always keep an emphasis on the fundamentals.
Do you know what's more fun than shooting fast while you're running and gunning? Hitting fast while you're running and gunning.
As you're making your drills more and more high speed, make sure you're still getting your hits. It's not only more fun and rewarding to have a high hit ratio, but in the long run, it will make you a faster and more accurate shooter.
You want your training to be as close to real life as possible. You train the way you want to fight because you'll fight the way you trained. You want as much of a life-or-death situation to be normal and comfortable as possible.
The more new and novel stuff you've got to deal with, the worse your outcome will be. There are a couple of reasons for this…
First off, in a high-stress situation, you will only be able to do the things that you have stored in your long-term, procedural memory. Facts, figures and head knowledge won't matter. The only stuff that will matter is the stuff that you've done enough times that you can do them without conscious thought.
You can't reliably manufacture ability under stress. You'll execute whatever conditioned responses you've programmed into your mind or you'll freeze — or perform at a very reduced level.
Extreme sports and modern brain science have proven this. What scientists from Red Bull and other extreme sports teams have figured out is that in an extreme stress situation, you can stretch about 4 percent beyond how you practice before you risk having significant reductions in performance.
4 percent isn't very much. If you can consistently draw from concealment and hit center-mass in 1.5 seconds, speeding up by 4 percent would only put you at a 1.44-second drawstroke. Speed up more than that, and you can expect erratic performance.
Some factors are harder to quantify. If you normally shoot paper targets while standing still in full light, then moving and shooting an advancing threat in low light is going to be way beyond a 4 percent change from normal.
This is why you want to practice as many factors as possible that you might face in a self-defense situation — off-balance, moving, low-light, on the ground, out of breath, etc.
If you practice acquiring your sights and holding them steady in awkward situations in practice, it will feel "normal" in a self-defense situation. And the more things that are normal to you in a life-or-death situation, the better decisions you'll make, and the better you'll perform.
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