Enhance your Combat Performance by Mastering the Basics

Enhance your Combat Performance by Mastering the Basics

In combat, the unexpected is inevitable. In the U.S. military, unexpected bad luck is sometimes referred to as “Murphy.”  (A personification of "Murphy's Law" - Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.)

When a poorly-trained unit is engaged in combat and Murphy shows up, it can only devote 10 percent of its attention to Murphy because the remaining 90 percent is consumed by focusing on the performance of basic tasks like how to change magazines, how to select covered and concealed firing positions and how to call for indirect fire. Essentially, in a high-stress situation, a poorly-trained unit immediately becomes inwardly focused on process instead of outwardly focused on the problem and the enemy. Such a unit won’t last long against an elite opponent and may be lucky to survive, let alone win.

The main thing that sets an elite unit apart is the fact that it can focus almost all of its attention on the enemy and Murphy because the basics are mastered and are taking care of themselves. An elite unit has mastered the basics to the point that they are automatic and second nature. This allows for outward focus on the enemy and any additional problems that arise. It also allows for learning and improvement in the higher-level combat arts. Developing “game-sense” and the capacity for pattern recognition first requires that the soldier is able to see the pattern. If a soldier spends every battle focused on fumbling through magazine changes and other basic skills, he/she is missing the learning opportunity for how to maneuver and fight.

Many scholars have conducted studies showing that achieving this level of skill or “expertise” requires something approaching 20 years of experience. This is simply not true. The fact is that all of us achieve expertise in various skills in a far shorter time. Most of us, for example, are experts in driving a car. If a deer jumps in front of us on the highway our foot goes to the brake and/or our hands manipulate the wheel before we even know what we are doing. If the deer jumps from the right, we turn the wheel left. If the deer jumps from the left, we turn the wheel right. Thus, our action is not just a spontaneous conditioned response that happens the same way every time. Rather, it is a spontaneous creative action that can be different every time depending on the situation. Without this spontaneous creative action, we have to first consciously think about what we are doing - and we will hit the deer.

Noel Burch’s Four Stages of Learning

When we are learning new skills we pass through four stages: 1) unconscious incompetence2) conscious incompetence, 3) conscious competence and 4) unconscious competence.  Just like individuals, military units also pass through the same stages on the road to mastery.

To illustrate the four stage learning process, we'll use the easily relatable process of learning to drive. 

First is unconscious incompetence, where we don’t even know what we don’t know. To use our learning to drive analogy, this stage compares to the young child who is certain he/she could drive a car if only given the chance. Understandably, this stage is the most dangerous and can result in the most surprising and unpleasant doses of harsh reality.

The second stage is conscious incompetence. This is where we know, or at least have some better grasp, of what we still don't know. This is the stage where we've been given some instruction and still clumsily jerked the vehicle around in a field or parking lot with our parents, unable to make the vehicle do what we wanted it to.

However, after much continued practice, our parents eventually agreed we had finally reached a level of competence and, for the first time, they allowed us to drive into town by ourselves. Our hearts raced as we walked out to the car. Then we carefully drove into town, having to maintain unbroken, focused concentration on the task at hand. This is conscious competence.

Finally, many of us today can drive while talking on the phone, fiddling with the radio, eating or doing any other number of things. If a deer jumps in front of our car while we are changing the station, we will still react spontaneously and unconsciously. This unconscious competence is just another word for spontaneous creative action.

Spontaneous Creative Action vs. Conditioned Response

The distinction between these two concepts is absolutely critical for effective training. Once again, what sets spontaneous creative action apart from just simple conditioned response is that it can adapt to changing circumstances.

A pianist can train to play the same song, the same way every time with no conscious thought. However, if asked to change the song in certain places, the pianist will certainly have difficulty since he/she will always instinctively revert back to playing the piece in the rehearsed way. Training for conditioned response means an action or task will be performed exactly the same way every time.

On countless occasions, conditioned response has proven extremely dangerous. On one such occasion, a police officer and martial arts practitioner swiftly grabbed a gun from an assailant... and then gave it right back. Luckily, the officer’s partner arrived in time to resolve the situation. Why did the officer give the gun back to the assailant? Because that’s how he had practiced the movement in the dojo countless times, giving the gun back to his opponent after each repetition.  

Given this example, we can see that conditioned response is obviously not the goal. However, how do we teach ourselves to adapt and act creatively faster than we can think? While it is possible to achieve mastery of a simple skill such as driving a car merely by driving every day, mastering more complex combat skills with more variables requires a slightly more refined process. In truth, drivers actually go through this process when learning to drive without even realizing it.

The Path to Mastery

The path to mastery proceeds through three steps: 1) repetitive drill, 2) variable patterns and 3) competitive scenarios. If trainees skip any one of these steps or fail to achieve mastery in one phase before proceeding to the next, they will most likely fail in combat.

The first phase, repetitive drill, allows the trainee to encode certain movements or processes in the brain so they become instinctive or second nature.

In order for drills to be useful, they first must be the right size. Drills that are too big restrict adaptability. Drills that are too small reduce speed.

For example, some of the U.S. Army’s battle drills are likely too big because they apply a rigid formula to a rather complex action, such as engaging an enemy force and maneuvering for a flank assault. To better understand this concept, consider an analogy. A house-builder goes to a lumberyard and asks for materials to build a house. The lumber merchant offers the builder a variety of pre-fabricated house parts such as an exterior wall that is 30-feet by 10-feet. The builder says these pre-fabricated parts do not necessarily match his vision for the house. What if he wants his wall to be 20-feet by 8-feet? He asks the lumber merchant for materials that offer more flexibility. The merchant turns and points to the forest outside, assuring the builder that he can cut the trees in any size he wants to build whatever he wants. The builder is still frustrated, asking if there isn’t some “happy medium” that allows for flexible design without the burden of chopping down trees. In fact, the kind of lumber typically sold in stores fits this description exactly. Over the years, people realized that there were certain cuts of lumber like 2x4s and 4x4s that could be pre-fabricated but then combined and arranged in infinite combinations. These cuts of wood are not too big and not too small. They are just right to allow for maximum convenience (speed) while providing complete flexibility. A drill must fit this same description.

A good rule of thumb for determining the size of a drill is that it should be something that always needs to be done the same way. For example, barring debilitating physical injury, we always change our magazine in the same way. There is no creative way to change magazines and there would certainly be no benefit to doing it different ways each time. In small-unit tactics, while a complex battle drill involving multiple maneuvering elements is too big, a simple immediate action drill is just the right size. In such a drill, a small unit will seek cover, return fire, come on-line and report the "3D's" (distance, direction and description) of the enemy contact. This is a drill that can be performed the same way every time and must happen so fast that there will be no benefit to variation.

Whether a drill is for an individual or for a unit, the method of drill training remains the same. The key is maximum number of repetitions.

If a unit only practices a drill one hundred times, it will have little hope of instinctively executing the drill in a high-stress combat situation. While some scholars suggest there is some magic number to achieve mastery, the better solution is simply to continue repetition and test for mastery. It will usually take several thousand repetitions over the course of many sleep cycles because the brain's motor cortex encodes motor programs during sleep. It is easier to conceptualize this drill mastery process if we follow the following steps…
1. Perform the drill slowly, focusing on details and ensuring that form is correct and that there are no mistakes.

2. After the basic mechanics are developed, increase speed and use a time standard (stopwatch) to push for faster and faster times - while ensuring the form remains correct and there are no mistakes. If mistakes are made, reduce speed to the level needed to eliminate mistakes and progress from there.

3. Incorporate distraction in the form of a blindfold, darkness or noise etc. and continue practicing until the drill can be performed with distraction almost as fast as it can be performed without distraction.

4. Test for internalization by forcing trainees to execute the drill without warning or while the conscious mind is occupied with something else. Any hesitation or stuttering means mastery has not been achieved. The trainee must be able to react instantaneously and seamlessly.
Once a drill is mastered it can sometimes be useful to move on to other drills that overlap or interfere with the encoded behavior.

A good trainer has generally developed a sequence of drills that the student will practice in sequence. Very often it is useful to ensure a student fully masters one drill before proceeding to the next. This maximizes the interference effect caused by learning the next drill if the two drills overlap at certain points. This would be akin to telling a piano player to learn to play a song flawlessly, then changing certain parts of the song and challenging the player to be able to instantly transition between both versions. This helps break down rigid, conditioned response and foster a more flexible spontaneous creative action.
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