Why do people hit performance plateaus?

Caleb Indoor Nats stage 1

In my quick post analyzing my classifier performance at yesterday’s USPSA match, I noted that my shooting hasn’t really gotten any better or worse in the last couple of years. I’ve been aware of this plateau for a while now, and have from time to time batted around ideas for getting off it and improving my shooting. The truth is that I know what I need to do if I really wanted to step my game up past the B/A class level – I’d need to devote significant amounts of time and energy to actually practicing. Madness, I know. But that’s a different post, because today I want to talk about what causes people’s gains to go flat over time. There are quite a few different things that can cause it, and in many cases it’s a combination of factors.

1. Lack of a next goal after achieving the initial goal
I’ll use myself as an example because it’s comfortable: in 2011-2012 I was really focused on making 5-Gun Master in IDPA. Regardless of how you feel about IDPA classifications, it was a clear goal with a clear trajectory to accomplishing it. To get there I shot a lot of IDPA classifiers in practice and a lot of IDPA specific drills. After I got my 5-gun ticket punched, my next goal was to make A-class in USPSA, because I was sponsored at the time, I had to do it in Limited 10. After I accomplished that, I’ve not really had any specific sort of performance goals. Sure, there are things I’d like to do, such as break 1800 at the Cup with an iron sight gun, but I’ve not really invested the time and energy necessary into getting there. There’s a reason for that, and it’s number 2 on our list.

2. Time is a zero-sum game
This should really be the number 1 reason people hit plateaus. As you get better at a thing, whether it’s running, weight-lifting, or shooting, incremental gains require a greater amount of time to reach them. For example: it’s harder to go from a 22:30 5K run to a 21:00 5K than it is to go from a 45 minute 5k down to a 30 minute time. The same applies to shooting as well: it’s harder to go from A-class to GM class than it is to go from C-class to A-class. Because it’s harder, it requires more time invested, which means that people who aren’t deeply invested in improving their performance in that specific activity will frequently invest only the amount of time necessary to keep their skills from falling off.

3. People only want to do something in their free time as long as it’s fun
For most people, shooting/running/eating contests are just a hobby. It’s the thing you do when you’re not at work that you do because you enjoy it. When that thing, whatever it is, becomes like work, it’s very easy to stall out and go do something that’s actually fun. For example: dry fire. I have mentioned how boring and tedious I find dry fire; I would rather pound out miles on the track than dry fire. Running is more fun for me than dry fire (which has had the side benefit of improving my cardio quite a bit lately).

Now that we’ve looked at what causes performance plateaus, tomorrow we can talk about how to address them and get off the flattop.

1 thought on “Why do people hit performance plateaus?”

  1. Strongly refer you to akido-master and president of Esalen Institute George Leonard’s brilliant book MASTERY-THE KEYS TO LONG-TERM SUCCESS AND FULFILLMENT. Leonard (who I was privileged to talk to at length before his death) studied athletes in the context of human learning theory, and his insights on “the dreaded plateau” are invaluable.

    Michael B

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