Frank Garcia's Universal Shooting Academy
In January of 2000 I had the pleasure of taking a five day practical pistol instructor course at Frank Garcia's Universal Shooting Academy in Florida. You may not know about Frank as he doesn't seem to get much attention from the shooting press, despite having been a top shooter since the mid 1980s (e.g. Second Place in Standard Division at the last two IPSC World Shoots). In the week I spent with him I found him to be a fairly unassuming individual, with a very professional manner and an extremely sharp focus on what it takes to rank among the best in practical shooting.
The Universal Shooting Academy is located outside of the town of Frostproof, about an hour south of Disney World in Central Florida. He has 15 ranges, each of about 30m by 30m, backing onto an Air Force bombing range and surrounded by a designated hunting preserve. His main training ranges replicate the Bianchi Cup ranges with the other dozen being IPSC ranges with various permanent props. This is one facility that won't have to worry about a subdivision being built next door! I was there in the first week of January and weather conditions were perfect for spending extended time on the range.
Unlike most other big name instructors, Frank keeps his class sizes very small, just four students. For the instructor courses, he will only take one student so you get the benefit, and challenge, of being under a microscope for five full days. The instructor course is very similar to his other courses with the addition of covering how to pass along to others the techniques he teaches. Frank's philosophy is that besides having a sound understanding of the theory you also need to be able to execute the skills yourself. This one-on-one instruction lists at just $300 per day, plus about 1000 rounds of ammunition a day. Having attended lots of conferences/training events where you are one of hundreds of participants paying that sort of per diem, this individual attention from a truly world class competitor and instructor struck me as an amazing value.
Anyone looking for the secrets of the Grand Masters is going to be disappointed with Frank's instruction because he is adamant that there are no secrets to world class performance. What separates the people at the top of the action shooting sports from the rest of us is perfect fundamentals. Those fundamentals are:
The vast bulk of the course's five days were spent on the first five of these fundamentals. As my frame of reference with respect to IPSC performance is largely limited to competing in Ontario and Quebec (Canada), one of the enlightening elements was Frank's sharing what were world class performance levels to strive towards in the various fundamentals.
Frank sees the shooter who is attempting to master practical shooting as having five phases of skill development to pass through on the way to Grand Master performance. These phases are:
Frank maintains that there is basically one way to perform each of the fundamental skills. His goal is to show you the correct way to execute a particular skill and then have you attempt perfect execution of the skill. With enough repetition you will execute the skill perfectly at least a few times, and the memory of those perfect executions is what you will take away to guide your progress along the path to world class performance. And it does take massive repetition to drill into you what perfect fundamentals feel like.
The first thing Frank does on the range is check your equipment positioning to ensure that your gun is perfectly placed. I bought one of his amazingly adjustable Pro Series Holsters to replace my aging Ernie Hill Jet II. I haven't used the latest generation of holsters from the competition so I cannot make comparisons to other products, but this holster is extremely adjustable, fast and secure. After positioning the gun Frank has you fire a few groups at black dots painted on a target. This indicates to him what degree of work needs to be done on your accuracy. He then has you do a few draws. From watching you shoot a few groups and watching you draw several times, Frank can determine at what level your fundamentals are (and what class you are).
The rest of the first day was spent working on the draw. I arrived at the Universal Shooting Academy with 17 ten round magazines, and this was the first time I felt that I don't have enough magazines. Frank is a big fan of using stationery plates in his practice drills because of the instant feedback without have to pause for patching or resetting targets. After lots of dry firing to work on the movement of the draw and perfecting the grip, I finally got to start shooting with draw and fire two rounds at a 10" plate 10 yards away. Frank watches you like a hawk throughout all of your shooting and provides plenty of feedback. After 85 repetitions of this first exercise it was time to reload magazines and return to the firing line for another 170 rounds of the same thing. By the time I was loading all 17 magazines for the third time, I was starting to realize that this week was going to be work.
Frank feels that anyone, virtually regardless of physical attributes or "natural" ability, can develop a world class draw in one year: providing they know what a perfect draw consists of and they practice it by dry-firing 5-10 minutes every morning and evening and go to the range at least three times a week for a 300 round practice. To have a world class draw is to hit that 10" plate every time in .92-.99 seconds. What separates the Grand Masters who win major matches from everyone else is that they never mess up on the fundamentals. As with much of what Frank teaches, he shows you the path to world class performance; how far you choose to go down that path is up to you.
One of the great things about IPSC is that you can start one weekend and decide to shoot in a major match against the World Champion the following weekend. I enjoy hacking around on a tennis court and even took lessons. Hell, I even competed in a couple of tournaments at work. Will I be going to the US Open or Wimbledon? Not in this lifetime. With IPSC competition the weekend hacker can shoot with the best in the world. Spending a week with Frank really brought home that there are true professionals in this game. The 'disclaimer' at the beginning of shooting videos that these professionals have practiced the techniques shown tens of thousands of times with an empty gun is not just there for liability reasons - they really do practice that much! You can have a lot of fun shooting IPSC matches at whatever your skill level is, with however little practice you choose to put in; just don't expect to win anything beyond a club level match. The shooters at the top of this game are there because of a lot of hard work and discipline.
I'm not going to go through the last four days in the level of detail above, but I will relay some of Frank's philosophy on accuracy. Misses are not acceptable. There that was easy. To truly make you understand that misses are not acceptable Frank has a number of exercises where you engage difficult, or to use his terms, "danger" targets. Danger targets are those that are difficult enough that the shooter cannot take hits for granted. The key to dealing with danger targets is to recognize them and take all of the time that is necessary to ensure that you hit them. I also learned that misses are not what appear on the score sheet but what fails to appear on the target. Realizing you missed a target and successfully re-engaging the target is just a lesser sin than missing a target and not making up the shot. After hundreds of rounds fired in drills that required me to do things like engage three B zones with six shots each at 25m before moving on to the next drill, I realized that my greatest strength (accuracy) was not as strong as I had always thought. The odd flyer is there because of a loss of focus or mental discipline; therefore it can be prevented.
Frank finds that the reason those below Grand Master make mistakes is that they don't always recognize the degree of difficulty of a target and therefore don't speed up or slow down as appropriate. The exercises he uses help you recognize the different types of targets for what they are, learn what your capabilities are and gradually improve those capabilities.
If you look at the Frank's course outline, you will not be impressed. On paper it looked a lot like the Black Badge IPSC Course I have been teaching in Canada for the past 10 years. You cannot really "borrow" his approach as the true substance of his courses cannot be captured on paper; it takes massive repetition with continuous feedback from targets and more importantly from Frank. I went through about 4000 rounds over the five days I was there and it took that many rounds to make many of the lessons sink in. While I was picking up brass (and 4000 is a lot of brass!) I reflected on how I used to think picking up brass was the work part of shooting. No, the work is forcing the mental discipline upon yourself to accept nothing less than perfect fundamentals with every shot you fire.
At the end of the course Frank sits down with you and gives an assessment of your strengths and weaknesses and lays out a training plan that will help you minimize those weaknesses. His approach is very business-like. He's not there to be your buddy, he's there to pass along as much knowledge as he can in five days. This course from beginning to end doesn't have much room for ego. If you cannot take constant objective feedback and analysis, this is going to be a very long week for you. Frank says that whether it's a new D shooter or a GM who has never won a major match, his approach is basically the same: observe the fundamentals and work on perfecting them.
So did taking that five day course pay off? I have to say it's like entering the stock market - don't jump in expecting immediate payback. Frank's experience is that anyone who learns the fundamentals and works on them diligently can be a Grand Master in three years. I haven't put in the level of practice that I know is required. Between all of the dry firing and shooting in those five days, I developed tendinitis in a couple of fingers, a condition that took two months to clear up. If you are thinking of taking a course at the Universal Shooting Academy, do exercises to strengthen your grip and shoulders for a few months beforehand. By day three I kept waking up at night with my hands cramped into the position of my grip!
Returning to Canada in mid-January (which for you Southerners, is like putting a fan in your deep freeze and climbing in with it), where I only have an outdoor range to train on, also isn't conducive to putting in quality range time. After having about 8" of snow fall on the day of our March and April club matches, I'm starting to think of IPSC as a possibility for the Winter Olympics. The dry firing I have been doing has been paying a modest dividend, but I need to put in lots of work.
As a Master Instructor for Canada's two day Black Badge Course, there has been a huge benefit. I'm now teaching state of the art instead of circa 1990 techniques and I spend much more time on the fundamentals. I've always had very good reviews as an instructor, but now I feel I'm giving my students a glimpse of the path Frank showed me and getting them started down that path. As with myself, how far they choose to go down that path is an individual matter, but at least the direction is clear.
Update: Applying the principles outlined above, I won Production Division in both the 2001 and 2002 Ontario and Quebec Provincial IPSC Championships and was second in the 2002 American Handgunner Postal Match.