(Part of an occasional series on neural-based training for combative applications)
A friend recently sent me a comment from an experienced and skilled firearms instructor. The instructor discussed, briefly, the difficulty involved in maintaining peripheral vision (and total situational awareness) while focused on a pistol’s front sight or a rifle’s red-dot.
I thought I’d add my two cents worth on the portion that was missed in the initial post — he identified the issue and suggested it might be mitigated through training, but didn’t offer any solutions for the HOW-TO piece of doing the training.
So here’s a take that may be of use from my work in enhancing performance for combat athletes/shooters and applying neural-based training to combative skill sets.
There’s a difference between understanding intellectually the limitations the eye’s structure puts on visual processing while under stress and actually calibrating in a USABLE way the individual constraints of a trainee’s eye-sight, and then integrate that calibration into a training program so the trainee has a baseline and a yardstick to measure progress from.
So first let’s get the baseline, in the same way we’d want to shoot a course of fire cold to establish the true skill baseline of a shooter. Traditional firearms training with intense focus on the front sight creates a physiological state with concomitant muscle tension, which can become a habitual state — even a baseline state.
A useful place to determine what impact training/injury/genetics play on someone’s vision is to first calibrate their normal range of peripheral vision.
Stand behind the student and have them look straight ahead as though they are focused on their front sight. Pin your front to their back, extend your arms full length, and then bring both your hands slowly around to the front, into their peripheral vision. Have them say stop when they see both hands. Have them look to their left and right. Most students at this point will have roughly a 45-degree arc. Some may be narrower.
Then have them consciously relax the neck/shoulder/head grid, especially the traps, neck, eyes. You can test for actual relaxation by having the coach behind the shooter place one finger on the top of the student’s head. When with minimal pressure from the finger the coach can move the trainee’s head easily, the neck muscles are unlocked and the head is free to move. When you’ve demonstrated that they’ve unlocked their muscles (changed their physiological state), then do the same initial exercise in bringing your hands around into their peripheral vision. You will see dramatic increase calibrated by arm/hand position so that both you and the student can see it.
That shows baseline for peripheral vision. Within 2-3 iterations, you can change the baseline to about 180 degrees for peripheral vision.
That’s the student’s peripheral vision baseline. Peripheral vision shows movement, but doesn’t provide precision for exact target discrimination. So let’s further calibrate so as to determine that range.
Have the student again look straight ahead. Start from the relaxed maximal vision place. This time as you move your hands in, hold up two fingers on each hand. Continue moving the hands into the vision field, with the instructions to the student that they call out first when they can distinguish fingers, and then again when they can accurately count fingers on both hands while looking straight ahead and maintaining a fixed forward focus. This defines the vision range in which they can discriminate visually with a measurable standard.
The cognitive process of peripheral target discrimination interacts with peripheral to focused vision in this fashion: SOMETHING’S MOVING to A MAN IS MOVING to A MAN WITH A GUN IS MOVING to A MAN WITH A GUN WHO IS NOT ONE OF MINE IS MOVING. To use the fingers: SOMETHING’S MOVING to FINGERS ARE MOVING to FINGERS WITH AN EXACT COUNT ARE MOVING.
This exercises mirrors the cognitive process (or strategy) of target discrimination on the peripheral range of vision and is easy to duplicate in a safe context.
To train the neurology to expand the range of discrimination to the limit of human function as determined by the individual eye, one exercise might be to have the shooter engaging a target directly to his front. There will be two other targets, one to the left, one to the right, with significant separation from the center target.
Have the shooter engage the center target; number of rounds/placement up to you. Have the coach safely behind the shooter, starting the hands at the range of natural full peripheral. Have them move the hands in with fingers up — when the shooter, while engaging the central target, can count the fingers AND add them AND determine whether the number is ODD or EVEN, then have them engage the ODD (left) target or the EVEN (right) target.
Shooters will find this confusing and challenging (which is the sign of real learning) and with practice discover a concrete experience of what their own baseline is for utilizing enhanced peripheral vision and target discrimination on their flanks. Several iterations will result in a significant improvement that is immediately measurable for feedback to the shooter. Utilizing video also enhances the learning experience with this exercise.
One LEO-SWAT shooter I worked with was able to keep his focus on his sights on a standard sight equipped MP-5 and put 2 rounds in the nose of a bad guy firing a shot gun at him while simultaneously keeping track of his partners to his left and right. I debriefed him immediately after the shooting, and we were clear about the retention of his peripheral vision and ability to target discriminate. That result’s since been duplicated in many police and military shootings by people I’ve worked with in the last 20 years.
Try it out for yourself. See if it works or not. If it doesn’t, bin it. Or ask for help and/or clarification.
Be careful out there!