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Sport vs. Street

The important differences between competition and defense.

Sport vs. Street

Shooting competitions develops critical skills, but it also neglects to address situations that can arise in real life. (Handguns photo)

If you’ve ever participated in an action pistol competition, you’ll probably agree that regardless of how you fared, it was an enjoyable and educational experience. Competing is a great way to gauge your skill level and get used to performing under a bit of pressure. But how relevant is sport shooting to the street?

First, let’s consider the many skills that are transferable from sport shooting to defensive shooting. Perhaps the most obvious and most important consideration is gun handling. Performing well in action pistol shooting requires you to become highly proficient at running your gun.

Competing and training to compete will undoubtedly improve such things as your draw stroke, reloads, malfunction clearing and other skills. Depending on the type of match, you may even be reinforcing such habits as using cover and identifying each target as either “shoot” or “no shoot.”

Obviously, action pistol shooting is an excellent way to improve your marksmanship. And competition shooting is perhaps the best way to measure how fast you can shoot and still hit what you’re aiming at. If you never push yourself to shoot so fast that you miss, you won’t know your limits, which could be devastating in a deadly encounter on the street.

Finally, shooting a match makes you think–something that will surely be required of you in a gunfight. You must remember the course of fire and adhere to the rules of competition. In many cases, you can plan how you will shoot a particular stage, which is engaging your brain to strategize.

Being able to develop and execute an effective plan are part and parcel to defending yourself with a handgun. But in the real world, your gun isn’t the solution to every problem, which leads us to an examination of the many differences between competition and defensive shooting.

Perhaps the most significant difference between shooting a match and defending yourself with a handgun is consequence. Don’t get me wrong; there will be a degree of nervousness while competing. Nobody likes to lose or to be embarrassed. But those consequences are fleeting. You can always redeem yourself on the next stage or at the next match. Unlike sport, there’s no “You’ll get ’em next time” on the street.

In self-defense, you will be afraid. How afraid will vary based on several factors, not the least of which is the degree to which you have prepared for such an event and the subsequent confidence you’ve developed. Although fear is a natural response to imminent danger, unchecked fear can paralyze you.

This phenomenon is represented in the “fight, flight or freeze” model that’s often used to describe the body’s response to a deadly threat. Sport shooting will not sufficiently prepare you to overcome the type of fear you will invariably feel when lives are on the line.

While there is certainly a decision-making component to competition, those decisions aren’t often made on the fly. In a match, you know you will in fact be shooting, and you know what you will  be shooting at. And you know this will all happen at the sound of the buzzer. In other words, you’re ready for what’s about to occur.

Compare this to being suddenly accosted by a group in a dark and desolate parking lot while carrying a bag of groceries to your car. What do they want? Are they armed?

Does the situation justify an armed response? What’s the backdrop if you have to shoot? Competition does little to prepare you for these life-and-death decisions.


Being proficient with your handgun is vital to competition and defensive shooting. The skills you develop training for and participating in shooting competitions are readily transferable. However, decision-making and tactics are where competition shooting and defensive shooting part ways.

For instance, in competition, it may save time to reload while moving from one position to another (although in IDPA, you can’t reload when exposed to targets you haven’t yet engaged). On the street, it would be foolish to leave a position of cover without first reloading your gun.

Another difference is if you could clear a stage more quickly by shooting faster, even with an occasional miss, why wouldn’t you? It makes sense at a match, but if you applied this philosophy to the street, each of those misses would carry a potentially tragic consequence, as innocent lives may be in danger. As if that weren’t enough of a deterrent, you could be held civilly liable or even criminally charged for those errant rounds.

Yes, competition shooting is perhaps the best way to improve your gun handling and your ability to deliver fast, accurate fire, skills that are directly transferable to defensive shooting.

However, not all aspects of competition translate to the street. Certain elements of sport shooting are actually detrimental to the defensive use of the handgun. It’s incumbent upon you to understand which skills from competition will work on the street and which are better left at the range. Sport shooting and defensive shooting shouldn’t be mutually exclusive.

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