Practice Makes Perfect, Part 1 – The Practice Mindset

This is the first in a series of posts about practicing for competition. It is intended to lay out what a competitive shooter (me) can do to build muscle memory and improve pistol shooting. I should say by way of disclaimer that this isn’t a primer on practice for self defense – that will come in a later series. But a lot of the skills we will practice here will be useful for self defense, so this is where I start.


In order to improve, we must have a devotion to practice, to instruction, and to being honest with ourselves. I read once that human skill, be it shooting or brain surgery, is like the tide – it is either coming in or going out, but it never stands still. You can’t rest on your laurels. So, we must practice, or we lose the skills we have built.

The purpose of practice is to develop skills and muscle memory, so our bodies react automatically, rather than forcing us to do them consciously. But, the key here is to perform them correctly – all the practice in the world is of no use, and in fact, is self defeating, if done incorrectly. It’s better not to practice at all than to do so in a sloppy way, or without thought.

Yogi Berra once said that baseball was 90 percent physical, and the other half, mental. Shooting is like that, only more so. Your mind has to be involved in practice, as it is in the stage.

Do what you need to do to focus. If you are easily distracted by noises in the house, wear your ear plugs or muffs. I wear shooting glasses, especially when practicing sight alignment, so they practice is as close to real as I can get.

Here is my practice routine, which I remember by a little acronym: SPAR – Safety, Purpose, Action, Reflection.


The safety preparations for practice depend, obviously, on whether this is dry fire practice or live fire practice. Let’s consider both.

Dry Fire

All dry fire practice in this series will be with an unloaded gun, with all ammunition removed from the are where we are practicing. Any practice with individual pieces of ammunition will be done with snap caps.

I can’t stress that enough.

Every dry fire practice session in this series is to be completed with an unloaded gun. Unload the gun, double check that it is unloaded, and remove all ammunition and loaded magazines from the room.

I even go so far as to remove the barrel from my Glock 17 and replace it with a 5.11 plastic training barrel. This makes my Glock inert. Fifteen dollars buys a lot of peace of mind in this case.

Nothing is so tragic as a negligent shooting, especially one that could be prevented by simply following these rules.

Live Fire

For live fire practice, we follow the normal shooting safety rules, including any rules that are particular to the range where you are shooting.

In any case, never practice an unsafe act, as a means to make the practice “better.” Remember, you will perfect what you practice, and if you practice safety, you will get better at it.


One of Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People is “Begin with the end in mind.” In that vein, know what you are trying to accomplish in each practice session. I’ve found that it’s better, especially for dry fire practice, to have several short practice sessions, say, four sessions of 5 minutes, rather than one long 20 minute session. First, I avoid fatigue (both physical and mental), and second, I find they are easier to find time for, so I don’t put them off.

Verbalize and visualize the practice theme, and the session ahead. Know your goals.


Practice makes perfect, so perform the practice perfectly. That sounds trite, but it’s true. I start out very slowly, and perform each movement perfectly. Then, I increase the speed, only so much as I can maintain perfection. I work up to about 3/4 speed and keep it there, honing muscle memory. Only at the end of the session do I increase to full match speed.

Keep in mind the goal of the drill, and acknowledge yourself when you reach it. Positive reinforcement is a powerful thing.

It’s important to acknowledge where we fall short, too, and improve it by reverting to slow perfection.


At the end of the session, review the goals of the practice, and make notes. I find a practice journal is helpful, as much to keep up with what techniques I’m practicing, as to track improvement. If you find a particular drill cumbersome or not helpful, try to find out why, rather than abandon it. I’ve found that the problem is usually more with me than with the drill.


Next time: Presentation

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  1. Pingback: Practice Makes Perfect, Part 2 – The Presentation « Fill Yer Hands

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