Say you are driving down a residential street. You are sober, driving attentively, and a car backs out of a driveway a couple of houses down. You stop and avoid the collision by a few feet. There was just enough time.
It is the application of the brakes I want to talk about. Because we all do it and we don’t think about it. Something happens in front of us and without thought, we hit the brakes. It’s a reflexive action. The thinking part of the driver processes the danger, but the move to the brake pedal just happens.
When we first sat behind the wheel of a car and drove slowly around a parking lot, it was all conscious thinking. We drove jerkily, over-correcting and when we did take our foot off the gas and move it over to push the brake, it was all done by thinking about it. And we all sucked at driving at that point. In the scenario I described at the beginning, we would have all hit the other car while we were still thinking about stopping.
Thousands and thousands of repetitions later, we all put the act of applying the brakes into muscle memory. Now we can drive along, listen to the radio, carry on a conversation, and when the conscious decision to stop is made, we smoothly, reflexively, apply the brakes.
I don’t think there is any way to shortcut this process, it is the repetitive practice that makes the response automatic. Practicing martial arts, competitive shooting, sports at every level, all require intensive investments of time. Think of football, for example. They break down the game to basic elements and then practice them over and over. Football practice is drills and more drills.
I starting thinking about this a couple of weeks ago. Yesterday, after the pistol match, where I managed to take my usual middling effort down a notch to mediocre, I was talking about this with a friend. We always joke that when the buzzer goes off, our brains fall out. It explains missed targets, fumbled magazine changes, all the results of a little adrenaline and time pressure that culminates in the difference between 1st and 31st place on the scoresheets.
What I realized was that the best shooters are shooting the way we all apply the brakes. Reflexively. Yes, they see the target, make the turns, have a plan for the stage, but when the buzzer goes off, they are shooting out of thousands of hours of practice and muscle memory. Draw, mag changes, front sight and trigger. In essence, their brains might fall out too, but they aren’t using them anyway. This insight is going to change how and how much I practice. It may not make any difference in the match results, but I will benefit.
To return to the original example, what if we took the brake pedal away? Put a button on the steering wheel to actuate the brakes. It certainly could be done. Everyone would get a refresher course, some practice, and then go back to driving. We would get used to using it fairly quickly in normal driving, but in that sudden panic stop, I think we would all plow into the back of the other car, our foot pressed firmly on the floor where the brake pedal used to be.
People who write about spring training not being necessary have never tried to throw a baseball.