Competition Shooting: Potential Pitfalls for the Casual Competitor

competition shooting

Competitions are fun and a great way to improve your mechanical gun-handling skills.
Photo: Lloyd Bailey

I like to participate in shooting competitions, as do many hobbyists who primarily own and carry guns for personal defense. As I’ve written before, I believe that competitions are great ways to meet other shooters and have a good time shooting your gun. They also help you fine-tune your skills and practice different shooting positions and angles that don’t present themselves in normal square-range sessions. They may also afford you the opportunity to do things that your practice range would not otherwise allow.

In addition to shooting matches, I continue to teach Combat Focus Shooting (CFS) courses and structure my defensive handgun practice sessions around the CFS paradigm. Recently, I’ve noticed some potential pitfalls that come with approaching your handgun practice from a defensive perspective while also participating in competitions. I hope my range experiences from doing both and having students who do both will help you avoid some potentially detrimental outcomes if you choose to participate in competitive shooting.

(Disclaimer: If you don’t accept that there is a difference between reality and playing a game, this article will be useless to you. This is only helpful if you understand that training for personal defense and competing are two different, often contradictory, pursuits that can nonetheless be enjoyed simultaneously.)


The seriousness of your potential problems if you choose to compete will be directly related to how seriously you take the competitions. You could very easily go to a match, shoot in the way you have learned in a class like CFS, and lose miserably while racking up astronomical amounts of penalties. If you take this approach, you’ll look ridiculous compared to the other competitors, you’ll be mocked, and nobody will want to shoot with you. You’ll be “that guy,” so to speak.

Also, if you are a highly competitive and athletic person, it is going to frustrate you that you aren’t placing above anyone who isn’t either a total noob or disqualified from the match. While a few people don’t have ego invested when they sign up for a match, most of us don’t want to be “that guy.” Therefore, most of us will start doing things that make it more likely we’ll score higher and get fewer penalties when we practice. In doing that, the things we know we “should” be doing from a defensive perspective will sometimes get neglected if we aren’t careful.

First, you will likely find yourself losing some of your ability to visualize reality. When you shoot a match, you get a stage description and a walk-through of the array of targets and obstacles prior to shooting the stage. In some matches, you even get specific instructions on how you must shoot the stage, such as how many shots each target gets and what level of precision is required for each target, or what order they must be shot in. After a walk-through, it behooves you to develop a specific plan about how to shoot the stage as fast as possible by deciding which targets you will engage in what order, when you will move, where you will move to, where you will do your reloads, where you have room to take make-up shots if you miss, etc. How well you develop and execute your stage plan can make a big difference in how well you score compared to everyone else. If you don’t make a stage plan and just shoot the stage cold, you’re likely not going to score well.


In defensive shooting, there is no stage description or walk-through, and everything you do will be based on your body’s natural reactions, your learned responses to recognized stimuli during the course of the fight (responses you have hopefully developed through realistic training and practice), and improvisation. Since you cannot possibly know in advance the specifics of what a given defensive encounter will look like, you should not artificially ingrain a choreographed approach to surviving those encounters.

shooting drills

A lot of the things you do in competitions are unrealistic and just part of playing the game.
Photo: Lloyd Bailey

For instance, shooting every target twice because a stage description requires it is a lot different from shooting a threat until it stops. Taking a head shot because the stage description requires it is a lot different than the threat and circumstances dictating the best shot you can take is at the head. Reloading between targets 4 and 5 so you save time for targets 8 through 10 is much different than experiencing the stimulus of slide lock and responding by conducting a reload.

In realistic defensive handgun training, you have to be able to suspend disbelief and start thinking about more than just putting holes as fast as you can in the paper you know is in front of you. In a competition, how well those holes in paper score against the timer is your only concern. This can create a big visualization problem that will cross over into your defensive practice if you aren’t careful. One of the biggest issues I run into in class when I have students who cross back and forth from competition to defensive training is getting them to think about more than just how fast they can get good hits on paper.

They often have issues integrating the body’s natural reactions prior to presentation from the holster, moving laterally, focusing on the threat instead of the front sight when precision isn’t required, processing information after shooting a string of fire at the target, etc. Basically, everything except shooting at the paper really fast and getting good hits becomes extraneous to them when in the context of personal defense, although those extra things are actually quite important. This inability to visualize the plausible circumstances of a fight comes from chasing tenths of seconds and zeroing in on speed and mechanics as opposed to the other elements inherent in a fight because those things aren’t present in competitions.


Second, you are likely going to have a resource allocation problem. If you want to compete and do well, you need gear that is designed specifically for competition. I have an entirely different holster, belt, and gun for competition, and they deviate significantly from what I use for concealed carry. The trigger on my competition gun is about three pounds, while my carry gun trigger is five pounds. The holster I wear for competition is an outside-the-waistband strong-side hip rig due to the match rules, while the holster I carry concealed with is an inside-the-waistband appendix-carry rig. Aside from the monetary expense of having the right gear for competition (probably not a real issue for a hobbyist), the transition back and forth has caused me some neurological issues.

One example of this happened when I had shot nothing but matches with my competition rig for two months and then took an Advanced Pistol Handling class with Rob Pincus with my carry gear. Something as simple as the difference in trigger weight on the carry gun I hadn’t shot in a long time gave me fits when trying to achieve precise hits on smaller targets, because my fingers were used to a much lighter trigger with less travel.

As a result of switching between triggers, the sympathetic muscle tension in my fingers was heightened, which caused me to pull the muzzle down when I pressed the heavier trigger that I wasn’t used to. You may not realize how much of a difference little tweaks like that can make when going back and forth between the different gear setups.

defensive shooting practice

Once the gun is in your hand, “shooting is shooting,” but that’s only one piece of the puzzle. Photo: author

Everyone has limited resources, and how you allocate them determines what neural pathways are created and reinforced in your brain. When you shoot a lot of matches and start to forego practicing specifically for personal defense with your personal defense gear due to your limited resources, you can start to have some issues. How often you do competition-specific things in practice compared to how often you practice in the context of personal defense will determine how potentially detrimental they are.

If you allocate a bulk of your training resources to developing skills that will win matches, the tradeoff is going to be that you spend fewer resources on the kind of contextual skills that are important in a fight. At the end of the day, once the gun is in your hand, “shooting is shooting,” but shooting is only one piece of a much bigger puzzle. If you carry a gun for personal defense, be careful not to overlook the other pieces of the puzzle. You have to deliberately keep the context and gear of personal defense a part of your practice sessions. This requires discipline.


All of that said, I don’t believe you are potentially putting your life at risk if you decide to participate in shooting competitions. The “it will get you killed on the streets” cliché is mostly hyperbole. But if you aren’t careful, you will be sacrificing some things that could increase your survivability in order to focus on playing the game better and potentially winning trophies. You could theoretically alleviate all of this to some extent by shooting matches with your concealed carry gear, not coming up with a stage plan, and integrating the byproducts of visualization and context into how you shoot each target. You’ll subsequently rack up a lot of penalties and lose the match as mentioned above. But I doubt many of you will do that. I certainly will not. Therefore, you’re going to have to be careful how you structure your practice sessions if you’re going to do both.

personal defense training

Practicing for personal defense requires simulating context. The body’s natural reactions, lateral movement, intuitive use of your sights, and processing information after shooting are all factors that aren’t present in competition but should be part of your defensive practice. Photo: author

The biggest thing to be careful of is not becoming so obsessed with matches that you start trying to convince yourself they substitute for realistic defensive training and practice. I see a lot of even high-level shooters who make that mistake. Our brains have room for both skill sets, and they do intersect at a lot of places, but you can’t substitute one for the other. If you only practice for personal defense, you’ll lose the match. And if you only practice for matches, you’ll leave out a lot of important contextual elements.


One thing I’m working on doing to guard against these issues is to only practice specifically for matches in the lead-up to bigger regional matches, where prizes and bragging rights are at stake. This is only a couple of times per year. The rest of the time, I do my normal defensive practice in context and throw in a match or two that I don’t care about winning just for fun at the club level. This helps me keep my focus where it needs to be from a personal defense perspective most of the time, while shifting focus to trying to win matches only for short periods of time.

This probably means I won’t be winning a lot of first-place trophies or picking up big sponsorships, but I’ll at least post a modest showing and not feel like I wasted a weekend, as someone who values “making a showing.” If you take competition a lot more seriously than I do, that will be harder for you to do. But keep in mind there’s always a trade-off no matter what you do. At the end of the day, you have to decide what’s most important to you, and you’ll have to make sacrifices somewhere. You must choose, but choose wisely.

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32 Responses to “Competition Shooting: Potential Pitfalls for the Casual Competitor”

    • Customer Service
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  1. Richard Trow
    Richard Trow

    I only have this e-mail address, I need the info on costs and what is involved. Send info along with costs and local available ranges. Thank You.

    • Aaron Israel
      Aaron Israel

      If you’re looking for a class, check out the “training tab” and look for PDN Tour dates. I’m teaching in Dallas area on June 17th.

  2. Irondoor

    You have probably explained this somewhere else, but is the reason you don’t shoot competition with your carry gun only related to trigger pull? I ask because I would think that many people can only afford one good gun and that should be the one they carry and also shoot regularly. Secondly, as you point out in this article, you don’t shoot your carry gun as well as you could because you shoot a 3 lb trigger in competition and a 5 lb trigger on your carry gun. How much practice with your carry gun do you do in terms of rounds fired vs. your competition gun? There is an answer in here somewhere. For me it is shoot competition with my carry gun (or carry my competition gun).

    • Aaron Israel
      Aaron Israel

      I don’t shoot competition with my carry gun because of trigger weight, barrel length, and a host of other things. My competition gun is a performance engineered gun that is heavily modified, unlike my carry gun. As mentioned in the article, going back and forth between the two causes issues. I try to alleviate it by practicing mostly with my carry gun instead of getting too used to a light trigger. But as you suggest, it would be better if I just ran my carry gun in matches.

  3. PaulWVa

    Having been through all of this over the years, I get the issue. Training for IPSC vs Self Defense and Hunting vs Hunter’s Pistol Silhouettes. There are good and bad things about how you practice for each. But I have never been able to get behind using a timer for defense training. There are no timers in the real world. I’ve read stories about LEO getting shot while picking up their brass ….as they were taught to do. On the black board in the Navy fire fighting school ….”You will do, in a panic situation, what you are trained to do” …words to live by.

  4. David Farber
    David Farber

    Well that was pretty negative toward competition shooting. I shoot competitions every two weeks but I do realize it is a game and I am playing the game. I think about what I would do in a real situation and discuss it with other shooters (or actually complain how unrealistic it is). Although it is not real it is better than shooting static targets standing on the firing line. I incorporate defensive shooting in my training sessions, because I can’t afford to take a class every 2 months! I don’t see it as negative as you paint it, it depends on how you train!

    • Aaron Israel
      Aaron Israel

      Hey David, sorry you took it that way. Not my intent.. As you can see from the photos, I shoot matches regularly as well. I’m shooting the IDPA Texas State championship in a couple of weeks actually. I think competitions are great, or I wouldn’t go to them. The point of the article is that if you only compete, you leave out important things. You don’t have to “take a class every 2 months” to practice the things you learn in a class you maybe take once a year. Don’t take it as a knock, just some things to watch for.

  5. Jim

    When shooting under stress, the shooter is only 10% as accurate as he/she is, when shooting at inanimate targets that don’t have the apparent threat to one’s self.
    When target shooting, one should be as accurate as possible. When shooting in a timed competition, the stress makes the shooting all the more realistic. Under stress is where the shooter meets the target.

    • Aaron Israel
      Aaron Israel

      Performance anxiety is not the same as critical incident stress. Pretty big difference between being nervous about your skill application and having a sympathetic nervous system activation in a fight. Competitions are not analogous to fights in the stress area.

      • BenjiMac

        Competition performance anxiety is I think strongly related to critical incident stress. Not so much in the strength of the reaction, but in the skill needed to overcome it. If I get nervous in a match, I know how to relax and fire the shot accurately anyway. Although I have never been involved in a critical incident related to guns, I believe my competition-learned skill would be useful. Much more so than no skill at all from just firing at stationary targets on my own.

  6. Bill

    Yes if you shoot Defensive Pistol competitions you do have to realize that some aspects of chasing a good “time” on stages are counter to actual real life good practice in a real defensive fight. Like charging around corners to beat a “time”. Exa – In a match I am going fast around corners to minimize time, in real life I will not do that – I will stop to “cautiously” “pie” corners, etc.

    However, on the whole, competitions like IDPA “will” make you a much better defensive shooter. Increasing your skill sets in many areas – one hand shooting, using cover, ability to put rounds on target faster, increase accuracy, faster/more solid mag changes, shooting from odd positions, moving threats and non-threats etc , quick malfunction clearing etc.

    Individual training from a Defensive Pro might be better but IDPA is a good “cheap” way to improve you skill sets.

    Plus meet a lot of like minded gun friends in your area.

    • Aaron Israel
      Aaron Israel

      I don’t disagree from the mechanical side of shooting, as I mentioned in the intro to the article.. I just think you are fooling yourself if you totally neglect deliberate defensive practice and start treating your IDPA matches as defensive practice.

  7. scott puckett
    scott puckett

    I completely agree. I shoot IDPA and 3Gun matches. However, I have no interest in “winning”, partly because I am old and slow, but mostly because as a retired LEO, I know that match scenarios, have little if any “real world” reality. In IDPA matches I shoot my carry gun from my IWB carry holster and my carry magazine holder. In 3Gun I shoot from a “duty type” rig using military type magazine carriers and not competition shell caddies and the such. I completely understand those who “compete” and understand that these competitions are a “sport” to them. Since in my retired state I can’t afford to attend many of the “classes” that are beyond what my budget can afford, I shoot these local matches as a way to keep my limited skill level and gun manipulation skills honed.

    • Aaron Israel
      Aaron Israel

      Consider coming out to just one class even if that’s all you can afford. A good class ought to teach you how to practice. Once you go to the class, you can incorporate what you learn into your range sessions. You don’t have to turn into a training junkie and spend a bunch of money. Just get to one and go back to and retake the same class or the next one up if and when you can and practice what you learn in between.

  8. Bill Roach
    Bill Roach

    Thanks for your article. I am a NRA Certified Instructor and train with Chuck Taylor 1-3 weekends a year. It is through his training that I learned exactly what you are describing in your article. I frequently have the conversation of “game” vs. “reality” during our shooting matches which are also a social get together. Once every couple of shoots, I’ll focus more on my defensive shooting than the match rules resulting in being on or toward the bottom of the listings. In addition to going to the range for only defensive practice. Luckily for me the group I shoot with allow me the freedom to take this approach.

    • Aaron Israel
      Aaron Israel

      Good deal. I’m far to competitive to try that approach. I play the game to win if I’m gonna play it. And as such.. I have to be very careful to stay disciplined in my practice when its not major match time.

  9. Ray Long
    Ray Long

    I have visited our range once a week for the past two seasons. M1911A1 9mm, 124 gr. American Eagle. My goal is to shoot competitively, but right now I am focussing on tight position of my shots, slowly. At what point should I consider beginning to shoot competitively? I am a believer of crawl, walk, run.

    • Aaron Israel
      Aaron Israel

      I’m a big believer in Run, Run faster. Just find the next match and get signed up. Most clubs are really good about catering to new shooters. My advice is just go for it!


    Thanks for sharing and giving your opinions and input. It’s very easy to “rob Peter to pay Paul”, so to say. There is a difference between match performance and self defense actions. I agree that at least some matches or at least match stages should be shot with CCW carry, so as not to lose sight of the difference. I carry for self defense and also participate in matches. I have found that specifically using my CCW gear, has given me a better skill set in both environments. I guess you have to give up some things to be viable in both worlds. I choose to be “compromised” on the match level and be more competent in my self defense and CCW level. A choice that I clearly make for myself and my world. As such, in practice, with the exception of having additional magazines for competition, my gear is always in the same place and configuration, which would be very beneficial to me, if it was ever needed in life. Just my “two cents” but, it works well for my needs and personal goals.

  11. Randy Heasley
    Randy Heasley

    I shoot idpa with the same gun I carry. Yeah different holster and position, but same gun and mags.

  12. Graham44

    Likewise, there are two forms of martial arts, competition and the other. The only scenario I have ever been interested in is my survival. I only shoot with family members and close friends, most of them also being serious defensive shooters.

  13. Austin Kellett
    Austin Kellett

    I agree with pretty much all you say. I have forced myself to learn to focus on the target because that increased my speed once mechanics practice got the weapon in the right place. I was always trained to “focus on the front sight” which blurred the target. Ifmy opponent is attacking me, instinctively focus will be on him. Hard to defeat that impulse. Since my emphasis is on defensive shooting, I have learned the “ghost sight picture” (see target clearly, front sight blurred but in view). I compete in both IDPA & USPSA. IDPA requires use of cover, reload only behind cover. Good things; but, too orchestrated and planned. USPSA gives more freedom to figure it out on your on (target sequence, movement, reload on the move); but, ignore cover and other poor defensive habits. I personally use my concealed carry gear for matches to avoid confusion and shoot iron sights production weapons. All weapons have 3.75-4.25 # triggers. All are Springfield XD or XDm. Only difference is barrel length. No manual safety; but, I don’t use appendix carry. Thanks for the article.

  14. Scott Puckett
    Scott Puckett

    I have a somewhat different look at this matter. As a retired police officer and someone who only came into “competition” after retirement, I look at matches as a way to work on things like gun handling, reloading, and such. I only shoot my carry guns. My personally reloaded ammunition is loaded with bullets the same weight as my carry loads and the cartridges are loaded as closely as possible to the chronographed factory carry ammunition. I currently switch between IWB at the 3 O’clock position and AIWB depending on how I’m dressed for concealed carry. I have one IDPAish indoor match which allows AIWB, but Sanctioned IDPA matches, as you know, don’t allow this for safety reasons, so there I carry strong side. I have no interest, and to be honest don’t have the skill level to win matches. My only interest is keeping by skill level at a point so I might have a chance to survive in the only match that matters

  15. David Folsom
    David Folsom

    A couple specific bad habits you are apt to pick up competition shooting:
    1) reloading on the move instead of from behind cover. In real life you don’t know when you have shot the last threat, so stay behind cover.
    2) looking down to see if your foot is over the fault line. Just use cover the best you can, and if your foot is over the line, take the penalty. 3 second penalty is better than a new bad habit. There should eb a 5 second penalty for looking down at your foot.

  16. Bud Halderman
    Bud Halderman

    As a former and early competition shooter, circa 1985 when practical shooting was just taking off in my area I was shooting every weekend at a different course location and shooting at least a 1000 rounds a week practicing. Let me first say practical or defensive shooting it doesn’t matter the biggest thing, to me, is a mental issue. You have to have a mind set and know what you are going to do when the situation arises. I had been shooting a couple of years and considered my self an average shooter, in that, I wasn’t always the fastest or the most accurate. I did practice with a friend several days a week and when we had a competition we usually had a printed scenario to think about and could practice during the week, however one Sunday shoot at a range about 50 miles from me, the shoot was unannounced, no practice time. Sow up and shoot. There were several shooters ahead of me and I watched thinking that I could go a little faster than them. Let me say that at all shoots up until then you never holstered your weapon “hot” (loaded), only after you ran the course did you holster an unloaded weapon. This particular course first stage was to stand in a shooting box, shoot three stop plates, reload, re-holster and run to the next stage. I shot the plates, reloaded and started to step out of the shooting box at which time I remembered that I had to re-holster or be penalized. As I was re-holstering ( did not hit the safety) the tip of my trigger finger hit the top edge of my holster and sent a 200 gr SWC in to my right femur breaking it about 7-8 inches below my belt line. Needless to say I had a mental lapse forgetting about re-holstering. It cost me 42 days in traction in the hospital and another 4 months recovering. I was lucky in that I did not hit any arteries or worse. My right leg is a little shorter than before, but still very lucky, could have been much worse. I have not shot competition since then a I have a lot more respect for my weapons. So, what ever you are shooting you must be mentally ready for whatever comes your way. I just loaded up 2000 rounds for practice, my competition gun is a Colt 45ACP Gold Cup and carry is a Colt light weight Commander. Practice, practice, practice!!!!

  17. DONALD

    I am considering shooting some matches so this was very timely for me. As always, a well written and well reasoned article. I am really enjoying the insight. I appreciate that although these articles are written by “gun guys”, they are written with a hard driving zealot attitude.
    Well done.

  18. BillyBob Martin
    BillyBob Martin

    I shoot IDPA at least once a month. BUT……I use my EDC holster AND my EDC G-45 with Holosun. I am sometimes “that guy” because I really don’t give a dang about the gold or the silver trophy. I am using my EDC gear to get better with drawing, presentation, shooting as quickly and accurately as possible – and get better all the time. I wish the stages were ‘blind’ – so we wouldn’t know when and where the targets were, or how many. THAT would help us a lot. Yes, everyone ‘figures out the stages for reloads, etc. Even so far as dumpling extra rounds in the berm just to be able to reload while on the move…..NOT realistic ….but it’s a helluva lot better’n standing in the bay shooting the paper at 15 yds…..WITHOUT being allowed to even draw….and …it’s fun.

    • Harry Nemec
      Harry Nemec

      Back in the 70s my edc was (now dubbed “Barney Fife”) a 38spl S&W , 5″ barrel, concealed under my suit coat in a shoulder holster. My Training has been relatively consistent, (including a class on active shooter – mass killing) and although never had to revert to acting and relying on my training, my feeling is basic “mind set” … In 1959 basic fire service training mind set was … “assess… equip … act (responsibly)” … in my opinion, that applies to every situation pertaining to self, or loved one’s defense… Properly trained, the “mind set” will over-ride any stress of the immediate situation … afterwards, might(will) be a different circumstance…