These 5 tricks will make a major difference in how fast you’re able to learn something, and how well you’re able to make it stick outside of the practice room.  So don’t just read them and forget them.  Think about them, and apply them to your practice.  These tricks also apply to learning anything, not just self defense/martial arts.

1. Get in the zone before you begin

Many people don’t realize it, but our minds are naturally full of useless chatter.  If you’ve learned or tried to meditate, then you’ll already know what I’m talking about.  If you haven’t, pause right now and try for just 60 seconds to stop thinking.

Did you try it?

If you haven’t practiced removing the chatter and emptying your mind it will be much harder than you think.  You’ll observe yourself thinking about all sorts of different things, including thinking about not thinking!

Being “in the zone”, the optimal state for all action/performance, requires a clear, chatter-free, and focused mind.  Japanese warriors called this state of mind mushin, and high performance athletes and artists everywhere have names or phrases for it.  Not only is being in the zone the best state for performance, but also for learning.  Without disruptive chatter streaming through your mind, you’ll be able to see more clearly, and learn faster.

Although the act of practice can lead to a state of mushin, or put in you in the zone, you can induce this state at the beginning of your practice.  You don’t need to leave it to chance.

At the beginning of each practice, take time to sit or stand in silence, take deep but relaxed breaths, focus on your breathing, and empty your mind.  At first this will take a while.  But as you get better at it, you’ll be able to enter the state with just a few breaths.  Remain in the state of mushin throughout your practice.  If you find yourself falling out or getting frustrated, then stop, relax, and reset.

Make it a habit to get into the state of mushin before every practice.  This will dramatically increase the speed and quality of your learning.  For more on this, check out Effortless Mastery by Kenny Werner.

2. Practice just beyond your ability

Imagine trying to fill a small cup with water when someone is spraying you with a fire hose.  It’s not going to happen.  There’s too much water hitting you, too hard, and too fast.

Imagine taking a pitcher of water and pouring yourself a small cup.  It’s so easy, you don’t have to think about it.  You’ll never get any better at it, because you can already do it perfectly.

If you practice too far beyond your ability you’re learn nothing.  And if you practice within your ability you’ll learn nothing or very little.  To learn as much and as quickly as possible you need to practice right past the edge of your ability.  Practice where you begin to make mistakes, but where you can still see those mistakes clearly.  Work to correct the mistakes, pushing the edge of your ability further.  Repeat, over and over again.  Here is a four step process you can use (from a book called The Talent Code):

  1. Pick a target just beyond your ability.
  2. Reach for it.
  3. Evaluate the gap.  Bridge the gap.
  4. Return to #1.

Making mistakes is the key to learning.  Not only will making mistakes show you what you need to correct in order to bring your ability to the next level, but it will cement lessons into your head.

3. Master one small thing at a time

When you try to learn something just beyond your ability you may notice that there are multiple areas of difficulty, several small things you are doing wrong.  Don’t try to fix them all at once.  Trying to do too many things at once will result in either never learning to do them well, or taking a long time to do so.  Instead, break down a new technique or skill into the smallest possible number of components and work on each component in isolation until you have it down.

For example, if you’re working on a technique that involves footwork, a left hand movement, and a right hand movement, separate those three components out.  Work on the footwork until you have it down.  Work on the left hand technique until you have it down.  Work on the right hand movement until it’s easy.  Then combine only the footwork and the left hand techniques.  Finally, do all three together.  Using this method you’ll find that you can learn complex techniques or skills much faster.

4. Use contextual variations

Training to do one thing in one specific situation is unlikely to produce real skill.  It simply teaches you to memorize and repeat in a singular situation.  If you want to build functional skills that work all the time you need to train the same technique or action in a variety of contexts.

A few examples:

  • Rather than training the boxing jab only while moving forward, train it while moving forward, backward, left, and right.  Train it as an attack, and as a defense.  Train it against your opponent’s jab, cross, and hook.
  • If you’re learning a grammatical construction in a new language, practice it with different words and different contexts.
  • If you’re learning a strumming technique for guitar, practice it using a variety of scales, moving up and down, and intermittently in songs or improvisation.

For more on contextual variation (and the next trick) see this post, The Learning-Performance Distinction and Why Gains in the Practice Room Don’t Always Stick, from Noa Kageyama of The Bulletproof Musician, an excellent blog I subscribe to and highly recommend.

5. Use spaced practice

Training the same technique over and over again in one block will lead to improvements, but those improvements may be short-lived.  You’ll often find that repeating something in isolation will make you better at it, but when you return to it an hour, day, or week later, your skill will have decreased again.  One way to make sure the skill you’re learning will stick is to space out the practice.

If you’re trying to learn A, B, and C, then instead of practicing A-A-A-A-A, B-B-B-B-B, C-C-C-C-C, try something like this: A, B, C, B, C, A, C, B, A, C, A, B.

This may seem to conflict with #3 above, mastering one thing at a time, but if you do it right it won’t.  Mastering one thing at a time is about not trying to simultaneously do more than one thing.  It doesn’t mean you can’t vary context or space singular techniques.

Combining the 5 tricks

Combining all 5 tricks will lead to serious improvements in both the speed and quality of your learning.  Here’s how you can do it:  Start your practice by getting into the zone.  Practice right past the edge of your ability.  Notice what mistakes you are making.  Break any mistake into the smallest component parts.  Take each component and practice it in isolation.  Space the different component parts so you’re not only repeating one for an extended period of time.  Once you begin to feel comfortable with each component, vary the context you train it in.

Give these tricks a try, and let me know how well they work for you.  I’m confident that you’ll see substantial improvements in skill in just one practice session if you use them.

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