The Case for Visualization Training

For those that carry a firearm for self-defense, the need for scenario driven practice with supplementary firearm instruction is pretty well universally recognized as the most adequate way to approach the discipline, a notion legally established in the often cited Federal Court cases Popow vs. City of Margate and Zuchel vs. City and County of Denver, Colorado.  These cases reinforce the distinction between firing from a known distance at a large silhouette target that is nice enough not to move and firing at a bobbing and weaving bad guy that has the audacity to shoot back at you.  While nothing can completely prepare you for a deadly force scenario, proper firearms training, along with stress inoculation and the use of visualization techniques can make a positive impact in your odds of surviving such an event as a deadly force encounter.  This article presents a case for shooters to practice visualization—particularly why it’s important.

Visualization techniques are mental rehearsals that allow a shooter to practice without necessarily being on the range. As a training technique visualization has long been incorporated in Olympic level preparation and is a staple of all manner of professional level athletics.  Drills are cost effective and, once developed in conjunction with live fire training and good sense, visualization can better cultivate your ability to make innate and appropriate reactions under stress.  If anything, they will help to increase your confidence.

For visualization to be effective it must be consistently repeated, it must be performed without distraction and, most importantly, it must be realistic.  Visualization drills are not some Walter Mitty daydream where you fantasize about the latest Hollywood action film with you in the starring role.  Visualize things that you may actually have to deal with: What would you do if you hear your home alarm activate at 3am?  What would you do if a panhandler pulled a knife on you, or you were attacked at an ATM?  Instead of picturing yourself up on the silver screen, imagine the filming process and think of yourself both as the actor in the scene and the director standing off camera.  When I visualize a scenario sometimes I have to yell “Cut” as I realize my actions would not be effective.  This is as important as when you get it right and it’s a lot better to have a mental do over in my living room than in real life.  Play out scenarios till conclusion and adapt your thinking as the scenario progresses and you’ll seen that keen attention to your visualization skills can help prevent a bad situation from turning worse.

The case for visualization lies in the natural processes of the brain.  When confronted with a life or death situation the brain searches its filing cabinet’s of past experience for the best response.  Similar situations that you have already been in (i.e. other shootings or life or death situations) are the easiest to find, while “hypothetical” (i.e. you read about this in a book) scenarios are the hardest and slowest to recall.  Repeated realistic situational visualization can trick your mind into filling those responses in your mind’s top drawers, gulling the mind into not distinguishing between a simulation and reality and allowing you to respond much faster.  Basically, if you think about it enough the brain realizes it’s important to you and puts it at the top of the stack.

And honing one’s visualization skills has far more impacting consequences on your ability to react than any one specific scenario.  I run a firearm simulator for a local criminal justice college program, and I am amazed at how bad good shooters do the first time they run a video simulation.  They don’t verbalize, they don’t move to cover, and when they do return fire their patterns reveal shots more sprayed in the general direction then deliberately aimed at the target.  What never fails though is that the more they use the simulator the better they respond; and amazingly this holds true even when it is a new scenario they have never seen before.  Repeated exposure to having to relive any one decision-making process seems to help refine a shooter’s decision-making faculties overall.