Paulo Coelho, author of The Alchemist
“To become really good at anything, you have to practice and repeat, practice and repeat, until the technique becomes intuitive”.
by Sigung David Moylan
Fu For You Fall 2023
Sifu Anne made a presentation at our most recent monthly Leadership Team class. She drew on her formal education in psychology and teaching to help us improve our approach with students so that they better remember our curriculum. The three main strategies (for the benefit of our LT members) were: 1) chunking; 2) practice; and 3) elaborative rehearsal. She went deeper into all these points, and I want to do so with #2, which is also termed rote rehearsal.
In virtually every class we teach, we encourage students of all age programs to practice. For our younger students, in class I sometimes get them to say the mantra: “practice is repeating”. A major takeaway from Sifu Anne’s presentation is that you shouldn’t just practice a technique or form until you finally get it right, you should instead repeat until you stop getting it wrong. This level of repetition to gain skill can be hard work, which is literally the definition of Kung Fu.
As martial artists, we are called to relish in the journey and not be too hasty in reaching a destination. Practice is the way.
Years ago, one of our students summarized the process of learning Kung Fu for me as follows: first, you are unconsciously unskilled, not having much of an idea of what you are supposed to be doing. Once you have a few classes in, you will start of become consciously unskilled, more aware of what you need to be doing, but not quite able. With a lot of practice, you evolve to consciously skilled, applying significant mental energy correctly execute a technique or move through an entire form. At the final level, after a lot of rehearsal (and likely years of practice) you become unconsciously skilled, able to perform effectively without the intense concentration on the details of a particular move or order of a sequence or form.
Often in classes, our instructors will encourage you to practice enough times that the form, sequence or technique becomes a part of your “muscle memory”. In the interest of learning something new every day, I learned (from the presentation) that the technical term for muscle memory is “automaticity”: the ability to do things without occupying the mind with the low-level details required, allowing it to become an automatic response pattern or habit. As an example, practice follow-step footwork so much that you when you are sparring, it is an unconscious way of moving around the ring and your mind will be freer to focus on something like your striking strategy.
In his classes, Sigung would often reiterate that once we had practiced a form a thousand times, we were starting to know it well. With this advice, do an inventory and calculate how many times you have rehearsed certain techniques and forms. Be patient with yourself and keep repeating!