Do you want to improve?

A few weeks ago there was some hoopla around the use of timers. Two of the articles involved in the mix were Tom Givens’ article on “Metrics vs. Mediocrity” and Grant Cunningham’s on “Meaningless Increments of precision – and why you should avoid them”. There were other statements, especially in comment threads. People took sides, lots of defense of “my chosen doctrine” ensued, and in the end I’m not sure anything useful was accomplished.

From where I sit, I think there’s validity in all raised points.


The first premise we must agree upon is a desire to progress, to improve, to get better. If you don’t care about making progress, then there’s no further discussion. But if you do want to get better, the next thing you have to do is answer the question: what is “better”?

In determining “what is better?”, we must have some scale by which to determime if something is better or worse than something else. This scale depends upon the context. For example, I could determine if I’m getting better at my job because I’m getting promotions, I’m earning more money, I can perform the tasks of my job in less time. I can determine if I’m losing weight because I step on the scale and see a decrease in my weight. I can tell I’m getting stronger because there’s more weight on the bar when I bench press.

In the context of shooting, how can I determine if I’m better than before? First we must identify the qualities of “better shooter”. I think most can agree upon two qualities: speed and accuracy. If you can shoot faster and more accurate, that’s better.

How can we measure accuracy? The use of a good target. Are you “hitting the bullseye”? Are you keeping all your shots within a 6″ circle? a 4″ circle? 3″? A B-27 is not a good target, but it is better than just plinking into a pond. Even a 6″ paper plate can make for a reasonable target. It often comes down to context (more on that below).

How can we measure speed? You could do it by feel, but I’m not sure that’s very accurate or quantifiable. You could “race” against someone else, and while a little better than guessing, it’s still not a stable metric. So what are we left with? A stopwatch or shot timer. Sorry, but there’s no escaping that measuring the amount of time involved matters, because whether you’re playing a game (IPSC, IDPA) or in the context of self-defense, time matters – and getting things done faster helps you win.

But I think there’s more to it than simple targets and timers.

You need some sort of standard of measurement. This is simply a way to ensure you make apples-to-apples comparisons over time. In this context, it would be something like settling on a course of fire such as the “3 Seconds or Less” test or maybe the Rangemaster Core Skills or El Presidente – something that is well-established in terms of the course of fire and thus repeatable, and that measures both speed and accuracy. Then when you track your progress over time, you can see if you are making progress or not. Are you achieving a higher score? Better times?

But how to choose a standard of measurement? And how to know if your progress is meaningful? You need a goal.

This goal could be a specific one (shooting 2″ groups at 15 yards, or a 2 second Bill Drill), or it could be just a general guiding principle. By this I mean, maybe you are trying to get better for competition, or maybe you’re trying to get better for self-defense. It is important to have some sort of guide to help you know what road to go down, and how to value and utilize your metrics. It’s good to collect data, but you need something through which to interpret that data to make it meaningful.

For example, let’s say you have a 1.7 second concealment draw (full carry gear, IWB holster, normal clothing, etc.). In the grand scheme, 1.7 seconds is pretty good. However, many would agree that 1.5 seconds is a better number. Should you chase this 0.2 second improvement? I would say it depends upon your goal. Let’s say you also have a 4.0 second reload; that’s pretty slow. Knowing this, and given you have a finite amount of time and energy to devote to skill improvement, where should you spend your time? One could argue if you were working on improving your shooting in the context of IDPA, getting your reload to 3.0 or even 2.5 seconds would do more to improve your IDPA performance (score) than trying to get that 0.2 seconds on your draw, given the way the game is played and scored. However, if your context was self-defense – a context where reloads almost never happen, but a fast and accurate draw-to-first-shot is critical – it could be argued getting that 1.5 second (or maybe even a 1.25 second) concealment draw could be a much better use of your time.

Metrics Matter

I cannot abide with the “no timer” crowd, nor do I think metrics are meaningless. However, what we must do is use our metrics to guide our focus. If you’ve got a 1.5 second concealment draw, 0.2 second splits, 1.7 second reload, and other such “good” performance, I see nothing wrong with trying to get a 1.3 second, 0.15 second, and 1.4 seconds on those same skills – when has “being faster” and “being more accurate” been a bad thing? And we can only know if we’re getting better in these things through measuring them.

However, we could also take a step back and realize that perhaps we are “good enough” in these areas and it may be time to focus our energies in other areas. The data may show that we should focus on a particular skill (e.g. weak-handed shooting, reloads). Or maybe the general gun skills are good enough, so instead of spending more money on ammo and gun classes, spending that same time and money taking a force-on-force class, or a tactics class. How are your empty-hand skills? Or how about a medical class or a defensive driving class! If you’re a gamer, a class on stage planning and match performance.

But the only way to know for sure is to measure, and to measure with goals to provide guidance. And no, we can’t measure everything via methods as cut-and-dry as a target and timer, but we do need to be honest and as objective as possible in our self-assessments to ensure we actually are getting better (things like timers and targets just force us to be honest and have no delusions).

We have to look at the complete picture. Metrics are good, but they are just a means to the end. We need our goals to guide us. This is how we improve.

2 thoughts on “Do you want to improve?

  1. I do not understand the thinking behind the “no timers” crowd. We have to have a yard stick to gauge improvement or decline. Whether that is a timer or, well a yard stick. Otherwise it’s all guess work or perhaps you do not want to know the sad truth.

    • Some say it’s precisely because of that — they’d rather not know the sad truth. They’d rather believe, instead of know.

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