For many years I was comfortable with practicing at the range. I was confident in my abilities to handle my firearms simply because I had put in the time to practice them.
My practice didn't just mean I stood there, shot at the paper and after 100 rounds of so, go home. I practiced double taps, drawing from concealment, target acquisition, reloading... plenty of fundamental things other than just shooting at the paper. I was very confident in myself, my guns and my equipment.
This all fell apart when I attended my first match in 2016.
I was a nervous wreck, my front sight post was shaking from my own adrenaline, I was gripping the gun twice as hard as I normally do, my gun jammed, I fumbled reloads... and the best part? I missed the paper a lot. I never miss the paper. ... How in the hell did I miss the paper??? ... It was right in front of me!!! ... Impossible!!
For a moment, I even thought my ammo was defective. Did some Blanks make it in the box by mistake? Did you guys tape over my bullet holes too early?
... And what about my most trusted pistol, a Glock, that one that has been nothing but absolutely infallible at the range ... why did you fail me?? In 3 matches!!! How was that possible? THousands of flawless rounds in the past ... why did you fail TODAY?
It was the day I realize that I'm not as good as I think I am. Suck really bad, actually . I questioned my own ability to defend myself.
I've put thousands of rounds of practice? I put in the time. I put in the money. Why do I suck so bad?
It's a whole different world when our minds and equipment are truly under stress. While shooting matches will probably never duplicate the extreme life-death risk of an actual self-defense scenario, it's the best way to condition our minds, body and equipment to move through the situation in a more natural, fluid way. Between the timer, all the people watching and the course instructions you need to get right, your mind is moving through an entirely different spectrum in a shooting match versus the casual, relaxed atmosphere of our own personal shooting lane, bay or wherever we like to practice.
It's now been about 2 1/2 years since that day I will never forget. That day I swore I would improve upon my skills and never again be this unprepared. I have since practiced exactly 21,232 rounds since that day. I keep detailed logs of every shooting session and match. That's almost triple what I used to do. I went full OCD.
Shooting matches has taught me a few things. I needed to change the way I was practicing, beginning with my perception of practice itself. I liked shooting as a way to actually destress from work and other things in life that come along and cause stress.
What I needed in my practice was to actually to have a little stress, something to challenge me. A way to ensure that I learn to grip the gun right and hold the muzzle steady as I pull the trigger, while under stress. This is where a good Shot Timer comes into play.
It was hard to actually spend over $100 to purchase a Shot Timer (I bought the blue Competition Electronics model). I remember ordering it from Amazon, and forcing myself to hit the "Add to Cart" button. My thought was I could buy a nice set of sights for that, or trigger, or holster, or some delicious upgrade. But the Shot Timer turned out to be my best friend in practice. It provided the stress I needed to learn to do things incrementally faster. It taught me to shoot.
Amazingly, with all the stress a Shot Timer can add, I actually ended practice more relaxed than ever before. That would be my first piece of advise for anyone who identifies with my situation: buy a Shot Timer. Watch some YouTube videos on how some more skilled guys use it for both fast shooting practice and CCW practice (concealment).
With that, I learned to hold my gun steady, grip it right and stay focused on the objective while under pressure. Reload naturally without fumbling around. Soon the shivering front sight post became more and more steady. Groups of fast shooting started to get smaller and smaller. It took time, but the practice was paying off, as the pictures of the targets I took a year ago made me now think, wow, that's a terrible group, lol.
The next thing I learned from matches, was that the more matches I participated in, the better I got. My movements became less awkward and I was actually beginning to enjoy the process, instead of overloading on my own adrenaline or worrying whether I would embarrass myself. I look forward to me turn. My shots land where I want them to (most of the time), I learn to clear any problems with my gun, and I enjoy myself. So this would be the next piece of advise I would like to offer: join some matches ... even if it's just fun matches. Don't worry about winning or what place you get. Just the fact that you're there, participating, is already a win, in and of itself. The reward is the lessons you learned.
Lastly, in matches and match simulation practice, I learned some things about my equipment that I would have never otherwise learned. When you put your gun, ammo and equipment through its paces, its your opportunity to learn how it behaves in your hands when you are under pressure. You learn its limitations, what NOT to do, how to fix a problem and prepare it properly to ensure it will work well when you need it to. In one of my early days of matches, my infallible GLOCK kept jamming, locked back after every few shots. I later realized there was really nothing wrong with the gun. It was my adrenaline that caused me to grip the gun tighter and in a slightly different position that was causing the bottom of my left thumb to press up against the Slide Stop... causing it to lock the slide back after firing. This happened over and over during that match, like a nightmare. It became important for me to be aware, at all times, to ensure my grip is not doing that...
My compact 9mm 1911 with a spare 10rd mag. I bought the best brand mag (Tripp Cobra). Surely that would be reliable especially for CCW .... right? I learned during the early matches that when you jam an extended mag into a 1911 pistol under stress, it bends your ejector and later, it will break off. This doesn't happen in practice, as we casually and carefully insert the mag. It happens under pressure when you slam the mag hard into the pistol during a reload and it over inserts, bending the ejector and jamming that perfectly functioning 1911, like a nightmare. I eventually bought the proper mag bases to prevent any further insertion. Numerous other situations.... I know my guns inside and out now. What to do. What not to do.
I realize all these suggestions for frequently participating in matches may not be for everyone. But even 1 single local "fun match" can teach you a lot. You can learn to prepare and practice well enough to naturalize the motions associated with using your weapon.
What you get back is a greater degree of skill to minimize your risks and confidence to help you overcome your fears.
Hope that helps. Good luck.
PS - One other thing. I use my actual CCW guns in matches. Apart from the obvious benefit of using your actual CCW, it's nice to beat some people (sometimes) with the large fancy guns while using your little 3.5" barrel ... that's my last piece of advise. Use your actual CCW gun. Test your gun and your skills.