Participation isn’t practice: the value of TRAINING across sports ~ by Mason Lane

Participation isn’t practice: the value of TRAINING across sports ~ by Mason Lane

Posted by Mason Lane on Nov 1st 2020

The crux of the issue is unfocused or extraneous variable manipulation

It’s commonly acknowledged that messing around with gear in order to trigger various technique alterations is counterproductive. The rationale behind this is pretty robust. If there is a dimension of your shooting you want to be different, just changing the equipment variable is not going to induce much, if any change. For example, if you want to go faster, switching to an optically sighted division, in and of itself, doesn’t inherently make you shoot faster. If you trade divisions and employ the same techniques you had previously, you will suffer the same shortcomings as in your previous division. Is it true that an optically sighted pistol allows you to do less work with your eyes? Therefore, making transitions and throttle control challenges easier? Yes, absolutely! But you need to know and use those specific technical points or your performance will not change. You probably won’t learn new things from your new division just through osmosis. You must actively seek out new information to vitalize your training quality and improve yourself as a shooter.

Technique alterations are done by producing quality repetitions in training using conscious attention to guide action. When skills are adequately mastered, they can be done without conscious modulation. The skills are then “Subconscious” (Bassham). This is how tasks can be done properly outside of isolation and within match conditions including performance pressure. Training yourself to: Grip the gun better, transition the gun more precisely, call shots more quickly, or playing with focal depth changes are all things that may improve your speed on given shooting challenges. Nothing about using a different sight is going to innately make you shoot more quickly. The lowdown is that if you don’t pay close attention to what is happening in your training and adjust technique as necessary, nothing good will come of your effort.

Match Experimentation

In that same vein, a lot of folks like to mess around in different sports under the pretense that they will acquire specialized skills from participating in different matches. In general, applying your skills in novel match formats is a more rational step toward skill advancement than gear fiddling. However, training skill areas in specific and measurable ways is usually a better way forward than shooting matches. If your shooting goals are rooted in USPSA exclusively, there’s nothing you can’t train within the context of practical shooting training using practical shooting materials.

If you just shoot one or two of these matches and expect to make some kind of miraculous advancement you will be disappointed. If you show up with an open mind, apply your existing skills/strategies as well as you can, take good notes, and adjust training to magnify your observations, it will be almost impossible to not learn something.

The following are some of my observations from competing and training for different shooting sports. These sports listed in descending order by usefulness to USPSA shooting as well as from somewhat obvious down to more niche. I will structure all of these with: hard skill lessons (i.e. transitions, precision shooting, etc.) then software takeaways (i.e. diverse visualization priorities, high pressure performance training, etc.)

Steel Challenge

Hard Skills:

The list of skills necessary to succeed is pretty short, and therefore those areas are critical to success at a meaningful level. The draw and transitions are pretty much all there is to it here.

The draw must be mechanically sound and very quick. Placing your hands in a consistent way is usually helpful to building speed. I also like to remain pretty relaxed. The more tense you are at the signal the harder it is to quickly and precisely get your hands where they need to be. Folks also like to focus a lot on hand speed with wrists above shoulders draws, and I find increasing hand speed usually only reduces reliability. The guys at the top are spending extremely little dead time refining grip at the holster, or refining sights on target, so focus your efforts there instead of pushing your limbs faster. I recommend experimenting with precision vs index based sight confirmation types while still getting the gun presented as quickly as possible irrespective of shot difficulty.

The transitions must be abject greased lightning to be successful at a high level. When training stages I recommend first shooting the strings at a pace where you can’t quite hold all shots on target. From there, use patterns to assess where the wheels tend to fall off. Where are you missing in the target order? Where are your shots going in relation to the missed plate? These things will help you determine what specific part of your transition technique is failing. It is often helpful to mentally separate the eyes from the gun when assessing what is going wrong. Usually, if you’re missing in a consistent way it is not a failure of your vision and gun movement simultaneously. If you’re missing off the latter edge of a given plate, you may not be fully stopping the gun, or more likely are leaving with your eyes before the shot has broken. Are you losing control during a directional change (like the outer plate on smoke and hope?); the gun is probably not making a “discrete stop” (Stoeger) on the target. You may need to be more visually particular when choosing an exact spot to transition to, rather than swinging for white.


This format also has unique ability to apply crazy mental pressure. Since the whole performance is totally shooting based, the margins between in and out of control are razor thin. If you screw up your first string on your least favorite stage, you better have an extremely dependable methodology for centering attention and returning to match pace.

Other Notes:

Because you have to shoot the strings 5 consecutive times, your ability to find your “match mode” (Anderson) will be tested greatly. In training, try performing stage runs at your match pace (MP), then try 5% slower than MP , then try 5% faster than MP. This will help you


Hard skills:

I am not usually an advocate of using matches as training for all the reasons outlined above. However, in my experience IDPA matches are typically dependent on the use of cool props and activated targets to keep the stages interesting. I was able to acquire a pretty deep pool of experience on moving targets by shooting IDPA majors around Area 7. For most moving targets, your ability to visualize realistic target sequences in the dwell time between activation and target appearance is important.

The scoring system in IDPA is also extremely punishing of dropping Charlies. I wouldn’t recommend using IDPA training to cure yourself of shooting loose points. But shooting a scoring system where every stage is approximately a 3 factor does open an interesting constellation of focal points where hitting alphas is non-negotiable, and your level sight confirmation is an ongoing gamble. Paying close attention to shooting challenges when training in the IDPA scoring system will leave you splitting hairs over how many times can I split and transition *X* way before dropping a Charlie (calculating failure probability based on overtrying to various degrees).


In my experience IDPA staffers aren’t as afraid to use unorthodox strategies to maintain match function. It’s not uncommon to have totally different procedures from stage to stage including pasting and resetting, making ready or running a hot range, chances to try activators or props before your run, etc. This may sound like a dig on the sport, and depending on how you feel about that, maybe it is. But in my experience these kinds of diverse expectations force you to use your conscious attention more during the process of shooting stages. Traditionally in USPSA, you ingrain skills until they can be done without conscious management and these subconscious skills are what you use come matchday. For most folks, just paying attention to their sights is the only conscious intervention happening. IDPA matches challenge you to think your way through shooting challenges since your conscious attention may be occupied with 4-5 keynote tasks that are totally unlike anything you’ve done before.

Other Notes:

Your IDPA experience may vary based on the quality of matches you have access to; especially with respect to moving targets as a part of the match composition.

A middle-of-the-road competitor at USPSA matches will be an instant success at IDPA matches, so it’s important to read into your results before you see the number attached to your name. If taken for what its worth, playing in this sport can be fairly productive for your development as a shooter.


Hard Skills:

Firstly, I have not found any techniques or lessons from shooting long guns that translates to a pistol in a beneficial way. The opposite is very much true. Adept practical pistol shooters tend to shoot long guns, and multigun matches at a pretty high level with comparably little specialized training. This is for 3 main reasons: 1. Higher level USPSA shooters know the ins and outs of training for skill gains. 2. Pistol is the hardest gun to master by far, getting good with one takes away what is for most people the most fickle part of the game. 3. Establishing good mental management and match performance skills is a huge interrelated part of all the sports discussed here.


Dependent on the quality of the matches you have access to, multigun can be an interesting way to experiment with new visualization strategies. Because MG stages tend to be much higher in round count and raw time than typical practical shooting challenges, it can be a huge chore to remember the procedure of a stage in a level of detail that feels adequate for a USPSA shooter. There is just no way you can visualize every detail down to intricate visual cue stacking as you would in a typical USPSA match. When I shot my first MG match after a several year hiatus, I found that my strategies for first person stage visualization were insufficient. I could not recall a large enough volume of content with a level of detail I found to be appropriate. After just one or two stages, I figured I had basically one choice: visualize the key items needed for success, and let the shooting happen a little more cerebrally. This meant that I was less mindful of movement techniques, less picky about delivering perfect technique on given shooting challenges, and on more simple shooting arrays I didn’t visualize every transition down to the sight picture.

Other Notes:

Barriers to MG matches are extremely high. I would not recommend trying if you just want to dabble, or think there is something to be gained in your USPSA skills. If you think it’s something you’re passionate about, and/or the high costs just aren’t a deterrent to you, go watch a couple matches, ask questions, and get involved.

In closing

As I said previously, if your goals are within the confines of practical pistol shooting, using those methodologies in a sensible and focused way is the most surefire way toward skill advancement. However, using different sports as a “just for fun” outlet is great way to enjoy shooting in a more casual way. Bringing a student’s mindset to these matches (with appropriate expectations) makes for a situation where learning is inevitable. Training on obvious skill deficiencies in alternate match formats is an easy way to get a lot of juice with just a little squeeze. 

Mason Lane ~ 2020 USPSA Limited National Champion

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