Subconscious Competence and Competition vs Tactics

The debate between competition and tactical shooting continues to rage - but it really shouldn't be a debate at all.

Subconscious Competence and Competition vs Tactics Pistol Drill

As the saying goes, “don’t train until you can get it right – train until you can’t get it wrong.”

This is “subconscious competence.” It’s the ability to consistently execute a skill without thinking about it. The more complex the skill, the harder it is to create subconscious competence. But even difficult skills can become subconscious with enough reps.

Walking, riding a bike, driving a car… all of these are subconscious skills for most of us. We don’t need to actively think about any of them in order to execute the skill. This frees up our mind to accomplish other things – such as reacting to our environment.

Competition and subconscious competence

This is where competition shines as a training tool.

The ability to execute a stage at a top level of performance requires serious subconscious competence. Any brain processing power devoted to thinking about executing a skill takes away from the ability to observe and react to what’s going on.

The more processing power we have to observe and react to the situation, the better we can ultimately perform. Take a look at this USPSA stage I recently shot.

A stage I shot subconsciously and serious time dilation set in

During my stage plan, I had planned on setting up and shooting the two sets of far targets from a planted foot stance, while at most shifting my shoulders forward to prep for the position exit.

I was seriously in the zone on this stage, observing what was going on in great detail, which enabled me to push my shooting on the move more aggressively than I expected. Getting in the zone really pushed my vision and had some serious time dilation set in – everything felt slow but I ended up with the fastest time on the stage by over a second against some really good competitors.

I was able to push my skill beyond what I thought was possible because the skill execution was subconscious and all of my energy was put into simply observing what was going on, which enabled my subconscious skill to execute at my peak performance for almost all of the stage. It wasn’t a perfect run, but I definitely executed a lot of the stage at a higher level than I thought I could before the timer went off.

Competition and tactical shooting overlap

Maximizing observational capabilities, execute at peak performance, and getting in the zone for time dilation certainly has some serious appeal doesn’t it? All three are very important no matter the shooting discipline at hand.

Going into a tactical scenario while having to actively think about sight acquisition, grip, trigger pull, and stance is like going into a scenario with horse blinders and an eye patch on.

Going into a tactical scenario without actively thinking about skill execution while having low levels of skill means skill execution will be horrible and stray rounds will go all over the place – that’s bad.

In case it wasn’t clear – “subconscious competence” is the overlap between competition shooting and tactical scenario based shooting. Subconscious competence in shooting skill is also the most important thing to have for either type of practical shooting.

It is impossible to excel at either type of shooting while having to think about the actions required to take the shot.

And since good shooting competitions maintain competitive equity at the expense of realism, competition shooting is the best place to measure the ability to execute shooting skill.

Sacrificing realism for safety and competitive equity is perfectly fine! I don’t know about you, but I’m not interested in training with real bullets coming my way.

Tactics and competition shooting

The lack of tactics in the competition world is the most common argument against competition shooting.

But guess what – there’s no tactics in 99% of the training I see. Tactics requires an ever changing scenario where active decisions must be made on the fly. That requires multiple people interacting with each other to create unpredictable scenarios and decision making challenges.

In other words… force on force training.

Force on force training is a huge eye opener at the pressures of fast high risk scenarios and really cast a light on skill gaps. I’ve seen people in force on force training make good tactical decisions, but ultimately fail the scenario because they didn’t have enough skill to execute on the tactic.

Subconscious competence in shooting skill is a level of proficiency everyone should strive for – and I believe that competition really is the best way to measure subconscious competence of shooting skill.

The danger of training scars

The other common concern about competition shooting is creating bad habits.

The thing is, most practical pistol shooting competition formats (like USPSA, IPSC, or IDPA) have a total match’s stage time at somewhere between one and two minutes. That’s not very long. Training scars don’t arise from one to two minutes of active shooting time. Training scars come from the hours put into training.

So there’s zero chance of training scars arising from going to a shooting competition because there simply isn’t enough time spent shooting at a match to create a training scar.

Training scars will come from the training you do (or don’t do) between matches.

Train deliberately with sufficient diversity and viola – we’re good to go.

Maximizing subconscious competence

Ok – so subconscious competence of shooting skill is important. How do we get

Train, train, train – and train some more.

We must maximize the quantity and quality of our firearms training to the point where we can execute skills without thinking about them.

Maximize quality of training through deliberate practice and maximize quantity of training through dry fire practice.

Measuring subconscious competence

A simple way to validate the shooting skills learned in training is through established pistol drills and measuring progress. Locked Back’s All Access Training provides the ability to save dry fire and live fire PRs to measure progression.

But the better method of validating subconscious competence is to head on over to and find some local competitions to go compete in. (I highly recommend finding some USPSA matches)

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Written by - always a student, sometimes a teacher.

I don't consider myself a competition shooter - I think of myself as a performance pistol shooter. I am all about performing at as high of a level as possible. Towards that end, I am obsessive about learning how to perform. I spend a lot of my life learning from the best across the entire firearms world and even into other areas of performance and other sports. I am a USPSA Carry Optics Grandmaster, currently working towards my second GM title in the Open division.

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