Perishable Skills

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Whether you are learning how to speak a new language, or play a musical instrument, the more you train the greater your familiarity. The same applies to learning any hard skills such as martial arts, defensive tactics or shooting.

More time with a qualified instructor equates to greater learning and familiarity. However, after a class or a lesson, it’s critical to your skills development that you continue with your training by practicing on your own. In-service, or ongoing personal training over time are what separate novice from seasoned practitioner.

Practice makes permanent so if you’re doing something incorrectly you will burn it in by rote repetition. However, if you’re doing it exactly correct then those same reps will help you burn it in correctly. The very first step to developing any skill is to recognize what is “right” from what is “wrong” in the subject matter.

Using shooting as an example, the best shooters realize that there’s a correct shooting process and an incorrect shooting process. The correct shooting process is to align the muzzle with your target and press the trigger without disturbing that alignment. Anything at all other than that is an incorrect process. It’s a very simple concept and certainly easy to understand mentally, but now go out there on the range and do it physically. Simple to understand yes, but not so easy to do.


Skills development depends on your understanding as a primary step. It’s not possible to ask your body to do something physically that you cannot grasp with your mind. How you know if you followed the shooting process correctly is that at the end of the process you look up and verify that you have in fact hit the target exactly where you intended (right). Anything other than that is a failure of the shooting process (wrong).

Changing shooting process variables such as target distance, movement, time and penalty for missing, changes the degree of difficulty. The more technical the shot, the more difficult it is to achieve success. Most shooters want to be better and to shoot well, but many fail to realize how much time, commitment and discipline (not to mention bullets!) it takes to achieve those desired levels. The amount of practice it takes to get good at any perishable skill is always greater than the practitioner initially envisions.

Knowing what is right and what is wrong are the initial guidelines that help you achieve your interim goals. One of the best kept secrets in the hard skills training world is that it takes more failures than successes to advance to the next level. An adage of antiquity, “The master has failed more times than the novice has tried” applies.

Failure is the best learning tool in training. Nobody wants to fail and not many serious practitioners strive for mediocrity. Most want to be the best they can at their chosen skillset. Those who understand that failure in practice is an absolute necessity, simply embrace the fact that you cannot move up the progress ladder without stepping on the rungs of failure.

With an understanding and recognizing right from wrong under your belt, you’re well on your way to developing a repeatable skillset leading to confidence and competence.

The more you practice the greater those skills are honed. The converse is also true. Once a skill is gained and it is not practiced and there are no more repetitions and no more failures or successes, then you have attenuation of that skill. If you don’t use it, you lose it.


The very first thing to disappear is your timing. At the highest level of any physical skill is that elusive and fine-tuned aspect of perfect timing. Whether it’s a golf swing or a trigger press, timing is what separates the professional from the dilettante.

If left to further attenuation the next aspect of your skills to decay is your mechanical aptitude—what you remember feels right and what feels wrong. Following an even longer period of inactivity (without practice or application) the actual base skill itself deteriorates and leaves you only with the most basic of foundational movements.

The most insidious part of perishability is that your mind, since you clearly understand it mentally, tells you there has been no change in your skills. In other words, your mind is writing checks that your body can no longer cash.

It is easier to relearn something once you’ve learned it, compared to learning it for the very first time, but why allow those hard-earned skills to perish completely when you can salvage them by devoting just a fraction of the time and a little bit of effort needed to keep them from falling apart altogether?

The answer to perishable skills is of course practice and application. Even if you can’t put in the same number of repetitions as before or can’t get to the range as much, you can at least dry fire (which doesn’t cost you any ammunition). Maybe you can’t do it every day the way you used to, but at least once a week or maybe a couple of times a month. The price tag for zero practice is further attenuation.

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