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CHA-LEE

An Answer to "How do I break down a stage?"

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When I am attending matches or presenting training classes I often get asked the question of “How do I break down a stage”. I wish there was a simple answer, but there really isn't. The skills of breaking down a stage and programing the stage plan in a way that fits into your skill set and mental capacity is an important skill that needs to be practiced and cultivated just like any other basic shooting skill. Just like any other skill we leverage in practical shooting, every shooter has a unique ability for being able to perform the stage breakdown skill properly so what you are having challenges with may not be the same as another shooter.

In this article I will tell you my process of breaking down stages but you need to keep in mind that my process and strategies are directly linked to my overall skill set. This means that what works for me, may or may not work for you so you may need to adjust the process to make it work properly for you. I have listed below my basic process for breaking down a stage. See if the below process works for you. I personally like to get to a match early enough to deploy this process for every stage in the match before the match even starts. For a local club match this can usually be done by getting to the range an hour before the start of the match. For a major match with 10+ stages I will usually get to the range the day before I am scheduled to shoot the match as it usually takes several hours to figure out all of the stages. By putting in the effort to perform this pre-match stage break down process I am ready to go during the match regardless of where I end up in the actual shooting order. If you wait to deploy this stage breakdown process until you get to the stage during the match you may get caught off guard and be unprepared if you end up at the top of the shooting order for the stage. Even though you may want to seep in that extra hour on the morning of the match, you will be greatly rewarded by investing that extra time in breaking down the stages for an hour before the match starts verses counting sheep for another hour in bed. You get out of this what you put into it, so don’t expect much if you are not investing much.

Stage Break Down Process

Step 1 - Read the written stage briefing (WSB) to understand the basic start and procedure requirements for the stage. You need to know what is required of you for the stage run and the WSB will give you all of those data points. For example, knowing the round count for the stage before you even look at it will ensure that you are finding and engaging all of the targets within the stage when you actually walk through it. Another thing to look for would be strange start positions, engagement order of targets or mandated gun handling actions. These are all things you are basically forced to do during the stage run and you need to know that up front so you can build your stage plan with those requirements already accounted for.

Step 2 – Walk through the stage and visually inspect the stage to identify the location of every target. Also observe the stage from an aspect of being able to see the same targets from different physical locations within the stage. This will tell me the minimum movement or shooting position requirements needed to engage all of the targets. This is not the point in the stage break down process to perform dry fire runs through the whole stage or even sections of the stage. This is purely a “Discovery” process of observing where things are and where you can be within the stage to see and engage the targets.

Step 3 - Once I know where all of the targets are located and different shooting position options available now it’s time to start building a strategy or plan of attack for the stage. I usually start by figuring out the required shooting positions within the stage to engage all of the targets. Then I will eliminate as many unneeded shooting positions as possible. The primary goal is to create a stage plan that limits your movement to the least amount of required shooting positions as possible. The more shooting positions you eliminate the more time you save because it usually takes at least 2 -3 seconds to get in and out of a single shooting position. The secondary goal in figuring out shooting positions is leveraging strategies or positions that keep your gun running as much as possible and minimizing the non-shooting time as much as possible. If this means that shooting on the move while moving from one position to the next then that is what it takes to keep the gun running. Deciding on shooting on the move or not should be directly linked to your current skill level and confidence in being able to execute those skills. For my skill level and shooting style, I prefer to run aggressively to a shooting position then engage targets from a solid stance as this allows me to shoot and transition between targets very aggressively. Doing this also allows me to launch out of shooting positions more aggressively because I am using the proper stance within the shooting position. An alternate shooting style may choose to engage targets on the move as they enter or exit the shooting position. I really don’t believe that one “style” is better or worse, as it comes down to having the skills to execute the style of shooting properly more than which style you are using. What you don’t want to do is attempt to deploy a strategy or shooting skill that you are currently not confident in executing. A match is not the time to be testing out new or unknown skills as it usually leads to disaster more than success. You need to figure out the limits of your skills in practice, not a match.

Step 4 - When I have minimized the total required shooting positions then I will look for the most efficient foot movement or gun handling strategy I can use while moving between shooting positions. This is the very subjective part that should be closely linked to your skill set. For example, I may eliminate an additional shooting position by choosing to engage a target further away verses running up closer to shoot it. I may also create additional shooting positions to minimize the change of missing a single shooting position that I would have to hit exactly after running hard or moving into from a strange shooting condition or movement scenario. For right handed shooters it’s usually best to pick a stage navigation direction that goes from left to right because it’s not against the grain of your reload. You also need to look at picking the order of navigating through shooting positions in a way that maximizes your ability to start shooting as soon as possible on easier shot difficulty targets. Every stage is different so it’s very difficult to come up with more generalized recommendations than this. But as a general rule of thumb, if I am faced with choosing between a more complex strategy that eliminates a shooting position verses adding an additional shooting position and the strategy becomes vastly easier, I will take the time hit of adding the extra shooting position. The stage time or hit factor risk of blowing a very complex strategy is usually far more than simply eating the extra time to add another shooting position. That and it takes a lot more mental bandwidth and time to program a complex strategy verses an easy strategy. My personal litmus test is asking myself honestly if I could execute the more complex strategy 10 times out of 10 attempts. If the answer is “NO”, then I will dismiss the complex strategy and run with the less complex strategy that may have more built in stage time due to more shooting positions. Usually the shooter winning a stage is doing so by executing their stage plan 100% effectively. Not having a 100% stage plan and executing it 75% effectively.

Step 5 - When I have settled on the proper strategy in defining the shooting positions and navigation order through the positions then I will look for easily identified visual or physical "markers" that I can leverage to assist me in executing my strategy. For example, if I am running hard from one position to the next I will look for a visual marker that I can reference where one of my feet should be when I am standing in the proper location for the next position. This could be a clump of grass, a nail in a fault line, a junction between fault lines, or even foot marks in the shooting area. If none of those are available you can also use the props within the stage as visual markers, such as marks on walls or barrels or even other targets within the stage. The key is in keeping the visual or physical marker simple and easily identified. The easier you make the marker to identify the easier it is to program. Not all shooting positions require a marker as some times it really does not require you to hit a very precise physical location is within the stage to see and engage the targets you need to shoot for the position. For these situations I will not look for a marker to confirm the position as its more import to get into the position aggressively yet smoothly so I will focus on that instead. At my skill level I really don't worry too much about the engagement order of targets while in a shooting position. I basically know that if I put myself into the shooting position properly the targets will get engaged in whatever order or speed they can. My only conscious thought is to simply get the gun on target as soon as possible and if I do that the auto pilot will take over and get the shooting and transitioning done within the shooting position as effectively and efficiently as it can be done. Sometimes a shooting position will require a specific engagement order of targets, but that is usually more of a stage programing task than a visual marker task.

Step 6 - Once I have finalized my strategy and identified my markers, then I will start the process of physically and mentally programing the stage plan. The time it takes to properly program the stage is very dependent upon the complexity of the stage or strategy. A simple stage may only take 3 - 5 mental or physical rehearsals to properly program to the point of subconscious execution. A fairly complex stage will usually take me 10 - 15 mental or physical rehearsals before it’s properly programmed. The quantity of mental/physical rehearsal repetitions is unique for every shooter so you need to continually test this skill to figure out what the minimum quantity of rehearsals is needed to get it programed effectively. Another very important aspect to consider is that the more your mental or physical rehearsal of the stage differs from your actual live fire performance, the less effective the rehearsal is going to be. If you are physically or mentally rehearsing the stage in an abnormally fast time, such as using a 10 second rehearsal for a 20 second live fire stage run, your 10 second rehearsal of the stage isn’t going to be very effective. The closer your mental or physical dry fire rehearsal stage time is to your live fire stage run is, the more effective the rehearsal is going to be. The primary goal in programing the stage is to rehearse the stage run enough times that it becomes a subconsciously executed process when you deploy the stage plan during your live fire stage run. I like to keep my mental program of the stage as "generic" as possible as this allows my subconscious the latitude to get the job done however it wants to do it without me consciously feeling like it is deviating off the intended program or plan. This is another thing that varies with skill level. I have noticed that the better I get in basic shooting and movement skills, the more I can simply rely on them happening on their own and not need to program the execution of the skill in my mental stage plan. For example, a lot of times my mental stage plan will simply be "Go there and shoot, then go over there and put your right foot on the nail in the fault line then shoot, etc......". I rarely have to program every single detailed process or action that needs to be executed during the stage run. I find doing that is usually ineffective because if anything happens that deviates from the very detailed plan it’s very distracting and can lead to the derailment of the rest of the stage plan. The lower your skill level is in basic shooting or movement skills requires more detailed programming of those actions to ensure they will get executed properly during the stage run.

Conclusion - In the end the more refined your practical shooting skills are, the easier this game becomes because you have practiced many of the skills to the level of subconscious execution. If you don't have to "Think" about executing specific tasks then that will free up a lot of mental bandwidth to focus on other things if needed. Or simply not think about specific things and allow the "Auto Pilot" to take over and get the job done however it sees fit. In an optimal situation the vast majority of what needs to be executed during a stage run should be performed subconsciously as that is the fastest and most efficient way of getting things done. Your subconscious mind can process and execute multiple things at the same time which makes it a very effective tool to leverage for getting many things done at once. Your conscious mind can only process and execute one thing at a time so this delays the process of getting things done as you are stuck in a one at a time process of doing things. I only allow myself to have one or two conscious commanded actions for a stage if it’s required for one off actions needing performed. Beyond that I can't execute the stage plan from a subconscious level. I hope this information helps you bring your stage break down skills to the next level. Until next time, have fun, shoot straight and be safe!!!

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Awesome! thanks for sharing this in such detail, gives perspective in where we may be over doing it and under doing our programming based on where we are at in skills

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Wow CHA-LEE, thank you for typing all this out to share with us. A find the greatest satisfaction with my shooting when I come up with a realistic plan for me and execute it perfectly. It when I try to copy the plan of a GM and bomb it I have a bad day.

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Excellent article - while working matches I have seen many people skip step 2 and either fail to engage a target, racking up the mikes and penalties, or be surprised when they see it during their run and then their entire stage plan goes down the toilet. You can't shoot 'em if you don't know where they are!

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On Step 4, "...looking for the most efficient foot movement..." are you consciously looking to reduce the number of steps or pick the fastest route or some combination?

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On Step 4, "...looking for the most efficient foot movement..." are you consciously looking to reduce the number of steps or pick the fastest route or some combination?

I rarely count the number of steps because that can be counter productive if the path of navigation requires direction changes. For example, moving in a straight line using 6 strides takes less time than a zig zag movement that takes 4 strides. So comparing the quantity of steps used only applies if the movement type is the same. Most of the time when you are faced with two different movement options the movement type between the two options isn't the same path or direction of navigation so making an "Apples to Apples" comparison is hard to make using a pure step count methodology.

I instead focus on minimizing movement deviations off of a straight line course, if I do that, then the number of steps it takes to get it done do not matter. Movement path deviations during position to position movement (non-shooting haul ass time) isn't as critical as hitting the proper stance and location in the next shooting position so you can start shooting as soon as possible. For example, I may have a slightly deviated path of navigation from one position to the next which may cost me .20 - .40 second in movement time. But If I miss hitting the next shooting position properly which requires shuffling or moving around to engage the targets, that can cost me several seconds of wasted time. The inefficient placement in the next shooting position is what most shooters screw up. Not so much the navigation from one position to the next.

Edited by CHA-LEE

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Wish you would have posted this before last weekend. It would have saved me 2 Mike FTE. I've learned my lesson though. Thanks for sharing your knowledge with us.

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Thank you so much! Shooting my first match this weekend and I found this most informative!

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I can't wait to see a stage and try this. This seems totally foreign to what I do but my results are poor from my way of doing things so this sounds perfect. I any have to write short notes from your article and bring it with me and read it when I'm at the match.

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I shot a stage few days ago at IPSC US NAts and being a first shooter I completely neglected the written stage description and wasn't listening much at the walkthrough. I was looking at the stage trying to see the best way to shoot it.

After shooting all the poppers on the stage (blue ones and white no shoot ones) and successfully zeroing the stage I know I will be paying more attention to the preparation step Nr1 :)

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Cha-lee what considerations or programming rehearsal do you give or change up for specific target types or distances? Did you ever have to program "patience" into your stage plans for NS or hard cover? I'm finding that I'm being surprised by NS during the stage.

I think it's a fine line between focusing on them too much and worrying about them enough to become a distraction vs not even thinking about them to a point that my being surprised by them is distracting.

Have you or do you program transitions with any thought around the difficulty of the target? Something like.. go to that spot, be aggressive, aggressive, patient, aggressive, then go over there, etc

You say, that where your skills are now you just let the shooting happen and you know it will, but if you closed your eyes right before the buzzer could you tell everyone around you what the target pattern was on every target for HC and NS's?

Everyone agrees visualization is super important I'm just curious what details you feel are the most important to visualize and what should be filtered

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From a target engagement perspective I may program the Left/Right shooting order of targets as I get into the shooting position but most of the time that engagement order is obvious. As for different shot difficulty within the string of targets I really don't program in more or less importance on specific targets. My job is to get the sights on target as soon as possible and the sight picture will dictate the shooting speed. I think the key is having a specific place to aim at on the targets regardless of shot difficulty. I always aim at the upper portion of the A zone in the body of the target. The vast majority of the time that place on the target is available to shoot at regardless of hard cover or no shoots blocking the target. Aiming at this part of the target also greatly reduces the the "where do I aim" decisions needed for most stages. If you are not picking s specific place to aim at and blasting at brown then any time you encounter a partial target it forces you to make a decision on what to aim at to engage the target properly.

The only time I will program the engagement order of specific targets is when the same targets can be engaged from multiple different locations within the stage. This is needed to ensure that I don't double engage targets if I simply let the auto pilot get the shooting done.

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What a great write up for a technical person as myself. This really helps my stage breakdown. Thanks for sharing. Question, when you walk the major stages the day before so you take notes to rehearse the night before. Or just engrain a mental run and call it good? Thanks again for sharing.

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What a great write up for a technical person as myself. This really helps my stage breakdown. Thanks for sharing. Question, when you walk the major stages the day before so you take notes to rehearse the night before. Or just engrain a mental run and call it good? Thanks again for sharing.

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I don't take notes about stages when I walk them the day before. I have tried that and it does not work out well for me because I get lazy on actually remembering what the stage looked like or required to shoot it. I will come up with an 80% solidified stage strategy and use that to mentally rehearse in the evening. The 80% plan allows me to have a solid enough plan that I can finish off the last 20% the day of the match when my squad gets to the stage and I end up being the first shooter. The 80% plan also allows me to change certain portions of my plan and still have time to program and execute it solidly.

The way I see it, if you need to take notes about a stage you are not paying enough attention when you are walking the stage. If you are mentally "there" and paying attention to the details then you can easily memorize the stage without taking notes.

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True. A visual or mental movement and aim cues would be more subconscience commitment to memory and able to do the stage better as well I would imagine. Just guessing as never done a major match. Only local 5 stage club matches at this point.

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taking notes is just a crutch for learning how to visualize and memorize stage layouts. you'll learn quicker without it. practice the same way you will do it at a match. it seems daunting at first but its not really that hard. one thing a lot of people don't get is how much visualization you should do. ask a top shooter and they will tell you that on most stages other then simple stand and shoot they will visalize continually until its their turn to shoot. you'll be amazed how easy it is to memorize a stage after you visualize it 15-20 times in the 15-20 mins before its your turn to shoot ...

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This is a great read. I became more active in pistol shooting this year and have really realized how important the walk through is. Having that plan down and sticking to it is the best advice for a new shooter.

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Thank you. Detailed thought process helps some of us more than others.

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Nice writeup, CHA-LEE. You've summed things up very nicely. Most of what I learned about stage breakdown came from years of walking stages with shooters who are better than me. When doing that, it is important to use their advice with regard to your own skill level (and any equipment differences, of course). I found that the more I properly executed my plans, the more confident I became in making them.

One other piece of advice I was given early on that helped was that if something happens that gets you off your plan, get back on it, even if that means throwing in an extra reload. That came in handy on a few large stages when I hadn't quite gotten the visualization/memorization thing down and I got surprised by a target.

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S#&$ when you are the first shooter though

Any advise ??

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S#&$ when you are the first shooter though

Any advise ??

Did you read the first post? I cover overcoming this issue.

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