Don’t get hung up on the rifle in this discussion. The rifle is just a tool. The mind is the critical component to develop. Tools can be broken, lost, compromised, and acquired with relative ease. If the mind is broken, lost, or compromised, it is not likely to be restored. If the mind is under-developed, the ability to effectively and fully use tools is weak.
What do I mean by “problem solving”? I’m talking specifically about making high stakes decisions and acting on them under stress and time constraints. Let’s define high stakes as in relation to a situation in which survival could be affected, not necessarily life and death in and of itself (but possibly), but more likely a contributing factor to someone’s survival.
Here are the reasons I think problem solving is not given its due. It’s not easy in normal life to develop. More significantly, it can’t be marketed in a week long class or as something that can be sold. Buying stuff is the core of the modern shooting culture. Problem solving, much like marksmanship, cannot be purchased.
To learn effective problem solving requires a.) a significant amount of trial and error, which takes time, b.) someone to evaluate the decision making process, c.) to place the “student” in a position in which they make the decisions. This sounds a lot like leadership development. Those requirements could probably be accomplished by a devoted student on his own, but it would also be helpful to have a model of behavior as a frame of reference. This implies an “apprenticeship” situation, which would be ideal.
A necessary component in solving a problem situation is to have an idea how to best solve it. This is the easy part, because it’s taking place on an intellectual level. This can be accomplished through book learning, visualization (what-iffing), discussion, or trial and error (which would provide feedback). This type of work is crucial to speed up your processing time under stress (when thinking isn't too easy). Monday morning quarterback types seldom veer out of this zone.
Another component is the ability to implement the solution under stress. Consider the problem of “buck fever”. This is essentially a state of over-stimulation. The novice hunter is overwhelmed with stress hormones. His pulse rate is at a nice prestissimo and the heart feels like it’s going to beat its way out of the body. His hands tremble. He has difficulty forming thoughts that translate to speech. His visual focus is extremely tight, with virtually zero peripheral vision (a condition commonly known as tunnel vision). He may not hear what is going on around him. He is essentially useless when it comes to solving the problem (taking a quick and accurate shot). This is known as “Condition Black”. Controlling his level of arousal will enable him to stay out of condition black and take in new information as it becomes available and to act on it.
I've noticed the tendency with inexperienced people to waffle in their decision making. In a high stakes situation, it's normal to NOT WANT TO MESS UP! It's also easy to hung up on thinking that there must be one optimal solution that would be obvious if you could just figure it out, like in the movies. In real life there are often situations that don't have a set procedure to solve. Often, each person would come up with something slightly different, yet equally effective. The important thing in decision making is to just make a decision and act on it. You may turn out to be wrong, but at least you stuck your neck out there and tried. If you get a next time, which you probably will, you will have learned, whereas if you only waffled, you'll have failed without learning much. Learning is a good thing, huh? Experience is what it takes to become experienced.
Particularly relevant to a discussion of decision making under stress is Boyd’s Cycle, aka the OODA loop. The cycle describes the act of making and implementing decisions. Boyd was a fighter pilot and military strategist, so the context is particularly applicable to the type of decision making I’m talking about.
OODA is an acronym that stands for Observe, Orient, Decide, Act.
Example 1: You Observe movement in the trees across a clearing. You Orient to the fact that the movement is a big buck and legal to shoot. You Decide to shoot it. You Act, and shoot it. The loop resets, and you Observe whether or not the buck went down, etc., etc, etc…
Example 2: You Observe your front door being rapidly opened, the sound of a loud crash, and wood shards erupting from the frame. You Orient to the fact that 2 burly looking dudes that you don’t know are rapidly crossing the threshold, one holding a machete and the other a baseball bat. You Decide to stop them. You Act, and draw your pistol, shooting them until they are no longer a threat.
The OODA Loop is a helpful way to examine decision making because it breaks up the components for diagnosis and exercise. Ideally the cycle can be completed almost instantaneously. If it is not, you need to figure out what the holdup is and work it until it's no longer a problem.
Watching a beginner in any field making decision is like watching the Plinko game from the Price is Right. The ball gets diverted left, right, and meanders around for a seemingly endless amount of time until it finally clears the pegs and falls into a slot. Watching an expert is like Plinko with no pegs- Bam! Done.
The OODA loop is usually discussed in terms of handling an adversary. The tactic is to get your opponent caught in the phases of the OODA loop preceding the Act phase. The method is to induce continuous changes to the situation, which cause him to have to constantly re-orient, and revise the previous decision. This method induces a short circuit in the adversary’s decision making process, like a needle on a scratched record.
Let’s modify example 2 to illustrate this: You Observe your front door being rapidly opened, the sound of a loud crash, and wood shards erupting from the frame. You Orient to the fact that 2 burly looking dudes that you don’t know are rapidly crossing the threshold, one holding a machete and the other a baseball bat. You Decide to stop them. As you begin to execute your draw stroke, you Observe the sound of your sliding glass back door shattering behind you, and you Orient to the fact that someone’s entry is imminent.
See how your OODA loop was disrupted? It’s easier to disrupt an inexperienced person who doesn’t have the ability to control his level of psychological and physiological arousal. It could be something as simple as another big buck entering the clearing. As the level of arousal increases, this puts him in a downward spiral. The key to avoiding this downward spiral is to obtain experience and learn to work under stress. It’s also easier to disrupt the OODA loop of a person who hasn’t encountered, or at the very least visualized, this scenario.
Continuing with the example, you Decide that the goons at the front door are a more imminent threat, and you Act, firing two rounds center of mass each, because you’ve done that in training so much that it didn’t take any thought or significant effort, and took less than a second. You then Orient to a single intruder rapidly approaching a few feet from your right, Decide to check him with your support hand, and Act, which you Observe holds him at contact distance. You Orient to the fact that you have room to fire from a braced position, and Act, firing rounds into his abdomen and pelvic girdle until he ceases assaulting you. The whole encounter took maybe 5-7 seconds, yet you ran through the loop 4 times. If you hadn’t prepared mentally for this encounter, you would not have completed one cycle before going down, but you probably would have evacuated bladder and bowels.
How does this apply to rifle shooting? It applies to any activity in which split second decisions must be made under stress.
Figure out what to do ahead of time. Learn to operate under stress and control your level of arousal. That is all for now.