The Value of Demonstrations in Class

As with seemingly every topic that relates to teaching style and curriculum, there is a lot of controversy inside the training community over how important shooting demonstrations are. I see enough videos, articles, and Facebook posts about it that I think it is worth offering my opinion as a trainer.

Demonstrations are an important part of the learning process. That statement is not just my opinion, it’s a scientific fact and is described in the academic community as “observational learning”. One of the ways human beings learn is by watching other people do things. Ever since we were small children, we have been watching other humans do things and then mimicking those movements until we could do it ourselves. It doesn’t matter whether we are learning how to shoot or how to skip rope; a teacher demonstrating the skill for us can be a key factor in learning that skill. When we observe other humans doing things, it activates what are called “mirror neurons”, which create new neural pathways in our brains that mirror what we just observed and help us to learn how to do the task ourselves. The best way I’ve heard it described in layman terms is that when we watch someone do something, we do a mental rep of it which we can then translate more easily into a physical rep because a rough trail has already been blazed in our minds that we can then follow with our bodies. I don’t think there is any real disagreement in the training community on the value of demonstrations in the learning process. I think where the controversy exists is around what ought to be demonstrated, why, and how.

While demonstrations are important and ought to be part of any instructor’s style; they aren’t the only way to teach a skill and they aren’t always necessary or helpful, and can even be detrimental. A lot of fundamental shooting skills can be taught more efficiently through the clear and concise use of the right language. When that is possible, demonstrations would do little more than waste class time and cheat the students out of the opportunity to do some critical thinking on their own. If your whole curriculum revolves around “monkey see, monkey do”, you’re not going to be letting the student work through problems, which is detrimental to their skill development. Sometimes the best thing to do is have the student go the board and work the problem while you talk them through it as needed, and not having the ability to do that makes you an incomplete instructor. While it might be easier to just show them how to do it, that’s not always the most effective or efficient method. An instructor ought to demonstrate when they need to, but know when it’s not necessary or possibly detrimental; and be able to coach well with words in those instances.

When demonstration is necessary, the movements you are doing are the important part as it relates to learning and mirror neurons. I will often do a demo with a marker in my hand or a SIRT pistol or blue gun so that the students can see the physical skill I want them to learn, regardless of the holes I make in the target.

If I need the gun to cycle to demo a reload or something like that, then I’ll shoot a real gun, but not at anything precise or potentially “wow factor” inducing. When I demonstrate this way, the students are looking at me instead of the target and they are internalizing my movements instead of if I center-punched the triangle in the head or not. I can already read the comments of “you only do that because you suck.” Believe that if you want to (you won’t hurt my feelings), but the scientific reason for doing a physical demonstration isn’t to exhibit your skills, it’s to develop the student’s. Sometimes I do suck, but it’s not about me. This also shows the students what they ought to be doing when they are coaching others. The focus ought to be on what the shooter is doing that makes the hole appear where it does in the target, and you can’t diagnose that by staring downrange.

I’ve never been to a class where the instructor demonstrated every single movement or every single drill, and I’ve never been to a class where the instructor demonstrated nothing. I have however been to classes where the instructor had more of a lecture style or more of a demonstration style. Typically, instructors who shoot for a living (usually competitive shooters) will want to do more demos in class and guys who are more into the academics and science will spend more time lecturing. I don’t have a problem with instructors who are demo heavy and I don’t have a problem with those that are lecture heavy. If they give me sufficient opportunity to get in as many reps as possible instead of talking/performing the whole time, it’s usually a good class. That said, some of the demo heavy guys I’ve trained with spend way too much time behind the gun instead of coaching, and some of the lecture heavy guys spend too much time running their mouth in between drills as I zone out from the words I don’t understand. I think a happy balance is the right place to be as a trainer for maximum student engagement and benefit.

Now that we’ve covered why demos are important and how I think they ought to be used, here’s why I believe demos are really talked about so much in the training industry: ego and marketing. There is a class of instructors who regard arbitrary target shooting standards as criteria for instructor qualification. They will tell you that if you aren’t classified at some level in a sanctioned shooting sport or if you can’t shoot XYZ standards drill and score X, then you shouldn’t be teaching. For them, instructor development is more about learning how to perform than it is about learning how to teach/coach. They think you need to be Peyton Manning skill-wise or close to it before you could ever coach the next Peyton Manning. If you believe that mantra and want to be in that club, then you’re going to need to demonstrate your shooting ability to join. Then if you do join that club and want to sell classes to students who want to train with members of that club, you’re going to have to show off on the interwebz and in class to be cool.

How well you can shoot the preferred drills becomes very important. If that’s what you want to do then go for it, but that doesn’t have anything to do with the learning process. It’s just a barrier to entry into the cool guy club and getting more likes on social media. Doing so may lead to getting more students, but it won’t make you a better coach or teacher, and it won’t make your students better. Some of the guys in that class of instructors are great teachers, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not because of their individual shooting ability, despite what they may believe.

The truth of the matter is this: if what I am telling you to do as a coach will make you better, it does not matter how well I can do it. I’ve personally watched as a QB coach who can’t throw a 60-yard spiral runs the QB through drills that will help him to do so regardless of what the coach can do. Either the drill is valid for skill development or it isn’t. Where the difference lies is that everyone I’ve met who is teaching defensive shooting ostensibly carries a gun themselves and practices with it, while not all coaches in sports aspire to become athletes and practice throwing footballs. Therefore, if you are teaching a curriculum and you don’t use it for your own personal development as a concealed carrier, that may not make you a bad coach; but it does make you a fraud. That’s an individual integrity issue though, not a curriculum issue.

In summary: demonstrations are an important part of the learning process. I think you ought to demonstrate things that need to be demonstrated and not demonstrate things that don’t need to be demonstrated. Don’t spend the whole time behind the gun while your students watch and don’t run your mouth for too long while students listen. You need to be able to find a balance in demonstration, lecture, and student application to run a solid class. However, how well you can perform on XYZ drill doesn’t have any bearing on the student’s skill development, it just demonstrates your skills or lack thereof. If you want to make videos about how fast you can skin a cat, I’ll be impressed, but it doesn’t mean you can make me a better cat-skinner.

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