Travis Haley shooting
Photo by Ellison Keomaka

Travis Haley’s 5-Step Plan to Improving Any Skillset

When I was a Force Recon Marine, the guys in our unit would often get harassed by outsiders with comments like, “You operators think you are so friggin’ special, don’t you?” Our response would be, “Absolutely not, sir! There are no such thing as special Marines, only Marines with special jobs.” Although I considered being an operator normal daily life and nothing special, years later I am truly grateful to have had the honor to have bled, sweat and cried with the most adaptive, smartest and strongest men on the face of the planet.

Intense dedication and focus on the mission is contagious and forms the deepest bonds. Over the years through research and observation, I now realize that no one is born any more special than anyone else — we are all brought into the world with equal potential. But, it is our passion, perseverance and commitment that determine where we end up throughout the journey of life.

A Unique Skillset

We all admire people who do extraordinary things, and we often subscribe to the notion that they must be born with a God-given gift or talent. But the truth is The real reason that most people don’t possess extraordinary physical capabilities isn’t because they don’t have the capacity for them, but rather they are satisfied to live in the comfortable rut of homeostasis and never do the work that is required to get out of it. They live in a world that is ‘good enough’” (excerpt from the book “Peak,” by Anders Ericsson & Robert Pool). Think about it — how are you going to progress and improve yourself if you never leave your comfort zone? Same actions = identical results.  

Focus

Travis giving a class on the range.
Photo by Ellison Keomaka

I often get asked about my skillsets and how they seem to get better with my age. My wife often jokes that she is jealous that I can learn a new sport or hobby and appear to reach expert levels in the shortest amounts of time. Of course, this is not the case with everything. I am horrible at doing laundry, dealing with administrative tasks and many other things my wife can list! But I have a passion for other things where I put my focus and energy — being a husband, father, entrepreneur, professional shooter, tactician, photographer, driving instructor, skydiver, powered and non-powered paraglider, speedflyer, snowboarder, rock and ice climber, diver, archer, road/mountain biker and pretty much anything athletic and adventurous.

By programming the mind first, it is possible to master anything. Is this easy? No way! But is it possible in all of us? Absolutely! Just remember, “Minds are like parachutes, they only function when they are open.” — Thomas Dewar 

The Secret

I’m going to share with you a simple five-step plan — no, not one of those cheesy infomercial five-step plans — but one that is based on tons of research by subject matter experts (SMEs) in neuroscience and sports psychology. The most successful people use these techniques in business, sports and every field you can imagine. So strap in, because if you embark on this training journey, I will warn you that it’s gonna suck, it’s gonna hurt, your brain is gonna smoke and you may potentially want to give up. In the words of Albert Einstein, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.” So, if you want to improve and progress to the point of mastery, you must change what you are currently doing. You MUST leave your comfort zone.

Stop allowing fear and inertia to control you, put your pride aside, and see an opportunity here — one that you can bring your passion along to help you grow into whatever the hell you want! It is time to take the road to self-actualization, a term coined by Abraham Maslow to describe the growth of individuals seeking higher levels of consciousness and wisdom toward fulfillment of their highest needs. This transformational psychology is filled with information and techniques that empower people to improve their lives and fulfill their potential. The bottom line is that your brain is the key to unlocking your full potential. 

Purpose

Admit it, many of you were hoping to read an article outlining the perfect practice strategy. Well, there is no such thing. This idea of a “one-size-fits-all” program is riddled with problems, as it is subjective and typically forced upon us by others’ preconceived systems, patterns and emotional determinations. What works well for others is not necessarily good for you and can create “naïve practice” — purposeless practice with no beneficial outcome. We have all known people who have spent thousands of hours shooting, playing golf, working out, etc. While they may enjoy these activities, they are never improving their skillset or getting stronger. Instead, we want to achieve a purposeful and deliberate practice. Here goes …

Travis Haley's plan

1. Build a plan — “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail.” — Benjamin Franklin

Would you build a house without plans? Well, why should you build your life without one and expect to get anywhere? You have to create a deliberate practice model.  

  • Write down what goal you want to accomplish.
  • If possible, have a SME/coach assist you with this plan. At the very least, have someone on your side holding you accountable.
  • Establish the processes needed to achieve your goal. Immediately after you practice, you must receive feedback from a SME/coach or even yourself, if you think you are capable. Then you can take this information and dissect the 80 percent of excessive or wasted movements and focus on the 20 percent that works. This is based on the Pareto Principle, which states that 20 percent of the invested input is responsible for 80 percent of the results obtained.
  • Continue until you have mastered that specific skillset and then move on to the next. 
  • This work should be challenging and not that much fun. Your brain and body are working hard. 

2. Block out distractions — “The most dangerous distractions are the ones you love, but that don’t love you back.” — Warren Buffett

The human brain is only good at consciously taking in three pieces of information at any given time. You need to preserve this cognitive processing for your training. Turn off the TV, shut off your phone, computer or anything else that may distract you. While you may enjoy the brainless time involved in such activity, you are not improving yourself and energy is being taken away from your goals. Instead, schedule an uninterrupted time at least five days a week to practice your skillset. This is your time, so isolate yourself from anything else; it can wait. We all experience that life is sometimes chaotic and unpredictable, but you must make it a priority to get into the right mindset, to have the necessary self-discipline and self-awareness until it eventually becomes a habit.

3. Deliberate practice — “Over time, grit is what separates fruitful lives from aimlessness.” — John Ortberg

K. Anders Ericcson has spent 30 years studying people who are exceptional at what they do, trying to figure out how they got to be so good. He has concluded that practice matters much more than talent. Ericcson describes deliberate practice as effortful, planned activity designed to optimize improvement. This type of work involves well-defined, specific goals aimed at improving some aspect of the target performance; it is not aimed at some vague overall improvement. This requires a teacher or coach who has demonstrated an ability to help others improve the area of desired expertise and who will provide you with continuous feedback. It isn’t enough to simply follow a coach’s directions — you must engage in full concentration, analysis after feedback and repetitions with refinement.

This practice is hard work and will take you out of your comfort zone. Deliberate practice is deliberate — that is, it requires your full attention and conscious actions and feedback.  Thus it demands near-maximal effort, which, as I said earlier, is generally not enjoyable. It is more important to have a purposeful practice for shorter periods of time than purposeless practice for longer periods of time. Individual differences, even among elite performers, are closely related to the amount of deliberate practice performed.

Surprisingly, some people born with less innate talent surpass those talent-born individuals. Something inside ignites them to deliberately practice at a younger age, achieving skills that only come from this hard work. My wife had a patient who got her first hole in one in golf at age 91! While she joked that it took her long enough, the reality is that it is never too late to improve your skillset — don’t let fear get in your way.

4. Mental visualization — “Your frontal and motor cortex will be very sore tomorrow after your mental training session today,” said no neuroscientist ever; or, “Everyone visualizes whether he knows it or not. Visualizing is the great secret of success.” — Genevieve Behrend

Mental visualization is an essential component that is often overlooked in any type of skillset development. The reason people don’t like to do brain exercises is that, unlike the gym for our body, it is difficult to measure tangible results. However, you have no choice if you want to master your skillset. It is well known that great athletes train their minds as well as their bodies. You have to visualize everything you do before, during and after your training sessions. In one study 144 intermediate and professional basketball athletes were divided in two groups.

Group A physically practiced one-armed free throws, and Group B only mentally practiced them. At the end of the two-week test, both groups showed equivalent improvement.  Always stop and make the time before every action to visualize what you are about to do. Emulate the experts by making this one of your most important skills. Your powerful brain can envision and determine your ability to succeed (or fail).

5. Break homeostasis and then repeat: “Great things never came from comfort zones.” — Raja Dogra; or, “A ship in harbor is safe, but that is not what ships are built for.” — John A. Shedd 

Deliberate practice develops the myelination of neural pathways. You have grey matter and white matter in your brain. The white matter contains axons that are surrounded by a fatty substance, called myelin. This covering prevents energy loss similar to insulation on electrical wires. The greater the deliberate practice, the thicker the myelin sheath grows around the axons which forms a “superhighway of information,” connecting the brain to the muscles — or, what we call neuromuscular connectivity. (Some may erroneously call this “muscle memory.”) The science is important to understand, as we will simply fall back into homeostasis if we do not continue using this model to push ourselves to the next rung on the ladder of excellence. This model is a loop that should never stop, until one day you abandon or retire that specific skillset.   

Take Home Points — “If you think adventure is dangerous, try routine. It’s lethal.” — Paul Coelho

Look at your particular skillset, and find the experts in that field to teach you. There is a reason why there are not that many, but now you have the knowledge to go forth and pursue your deepest desires. Just remember that knowledge is only potential power, and if you want it to work, then you have to execute with a plan of action. To take your skillset to the next level, you must possess self-motivation, consistency, willpower, grit and indefatigable action. 

If you’re a fan of Travis Haley like us, make sure to check him out our podcast Skillset Live. He’s been on the show four times over the past few years! Also, be sure to pick up a subscription at OutdoorGroupStore.com

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