A discussion about practice

I have written before about the idea of having to train and practice a lot in order to improve or martial skills. The 10,000 hours idea has also been brought up a few times.

A group of us have been doing, or I have been attempting to do, the Century Drill. This is doing 100 practice cuts a day for 100 days. So is this sort of practice useful?

The obvious answer is ‘yes’, of cause any form of practice is a good thing right?


I often see people at training or on the pell just going through the motions. This is probably not effective practice. So while thinking about this, a very good article by Noa Kageyama got passed around about better ways to practice. The article itself was aimed at musicians and I am going to shamelessly plagiarise it for the tournament arts.

So, on with Mr Kageyama’s article with some edits…

A Better Way to Practice

When it comes to understanding expertise and expert performance, psychologist Dr. Ericsson is perhaps the world’s leading authority. His research is the basis for the “10,000-hour rule” which suggests that it requires at least ten years and/or 10,000 hours of deliberate practice to achieve an expert level of ability in any given domain – and in the case of medieval martial arts it is, more like 15-25 years in order to attain an elite level. It is interesting to think that it takes about five or so years for many people to gain the level of Knighthood, well shout of the 10,000 hours for true mastery.

Those are some pretty big numbers. So large, that it is easy to most important factor in the equation.

Deliberate practice.

Meaning, that there is a specific type of practice that facilitates the attainment of an elite level of performance. And then there’s the other kind of practice that most of us are more familiar with.

Mindless Practice

Have you ever observed a combatant engage in practice? You’ll notice that most practice resembles one of the following distinct patterns.

1. Broken record method: This is where we simply repeat the same thing over and over. Same pell drill, same weapon form/shield, same winning attack or party shot. From a distance it might look like practice, but much of it is simply mindless repetition.

2. Autopilot method: This is where we activate our autopilot system and coast. Just put on your armour and swing a sword around for a bit.

3. Hybrid method: Then there’s the combined approach. This were you see an new technique or weapon style and try to incorporate that one move into your own game. You keep adding cool moves in over time yet will struggle to use it all as a coherent whole.

Three Problems

Unfortunately, there are three problems with practicing this way.

1. It’s a waste of time: Why? For one, very little productive learning takes place when we practice this way. This is why you can “practice” something for hours, days, or weeks, and still not improve all that much. Even worse, you are actually digging yourself a hole; because what this model of practicing does is strengthen undesirable habits and errors, increasing the likelihood of more consistently inconsistent performances. It also forces you to only repeat what you are ok at now and makes it more difficult to clean up these bad habits as time goes on – so you are essentially adding to the amount of future practice time you will need in order to eliminate these undesirable tendencies.

“Practice doesn’t make perfect, practice makes permanent,” and

“practice does not make perfect, prefect practice makes perfect.”

2. It makes you less confident: In addition, practicing mindlessly lowers your confidence, as a part of you realizes you don’t really know how to produce the results you are looking for. Even if you have a fairly high success rate in local tournaments and pickups, there’s a sense of uncertainty deep down that just won’t go away.

Real tournament confidence comes from (a) being able to deal with any opponent and execute all your techniques properly, (b) knowing that this isn’t a coincidence but that you can do it the correct way on demand, because (c) you know precisely why you nail someone or get hit – i.e. you have identified the key technical or mental factors that are necessary to fight well every time.

3. It is mind-numbingly dull: Practicing mindlessly is a chore. Think about doing an hour of pell work…dull? How about an entire training session just repeating basic drills like the perfect circle? Why measure success in units of practice time? What we need are more specific results-oriented outcome goals – such as, practice the pendulum cut until it lands hard without effort and your feet in the correct position, or practice your footwork until you can judge the measure correctly every time.


Deliberate Practice

So what is the alternative? Deliberate, or mindful practice is a systematic and highly structured activity, that is, for lack of a better word, more scientific. Instead of mindless trial and error, it is an active and thoughtful process of hypothesis testing where we relentlessly seek solutions to clearly defined problems.

Deliberate practice is often slow, and involves repetition of small and very specific sections of a skill instead of just playing through. For example, you might work on just the recovery of a cut to make sure that your body is moving the sword back in the right way and that you are automatically setting up for your next attack.

Deliberate practice also involves monitoring one’s performance – in real-time and via recordings – continually looking for new ways to improve. This means being observant and keenly aware of what happens, so that you can tell yourself exactly what went wrong. For instance, why did that cut not get taken? Where are your feet? Did your body move the right way to provide power? Was there something out with your timing? Did your opponent manage to get a block in the way?

Let’s say that you cannot get good power in a moulinet. Are you getting any power at all? Is the sword striking in the sweet spot and on target? Are you moving in the right direction?

Let’s say you are getting the moulinet to the target. You are hitting in the right spot and squeezing the grip. Your timing is sound and the cut goes in clean.

Now, let’s imagine you recorded each time you make this cut, and could play back to the last attempt. What do you see yourself doing? Maybe there is a lean back rather than into the cut. Maybe your sword side foot steps away from the target, preventing good frame-weight-transfer. How to correct this small but critical issue?

If this sounds like a lot of work, that’s because it is. Which might explain why few take the time to practice this way. To stop, analyse what went wrong, why it happened, and how they can produce different results the next time.


How to Accelerate Skill Development

Here are the five principles to assist you with developing habits of deliberate practice.

1. Focus is everything: 
Keep practice sessions limited to a duration that allows you to stay focused. This may be as short as 10-20 minutes, and as long as 45-60+ minutes.

2. Timing is everything, too: We are best suited to concentrate and learn at different parts of the day. Some people are morning people and other light up in the evening. Know when you are at your best and see if you can practice then. However this is often impossible as we are often tied to when he group training sessions are being held. Think then of how you can get yourself in a good state of mind for practice.

3. Don’t trust your memory: Use a practice notebook. Plan out your practice, and keep track of your practice goals and what you discover during your practice sessions. The key to getting into the groove when practicing is to constantly strive for clarity of intention. Have a crystal clear idea of what you want (e.g. making sure my weapon side foot does not slide away during the moulinet), and be relentless in your search for ever better solutions.

When you stumble onto a new insight or discover a solution to a problem, write it down! As you practice more mindfully, you’ll began making so many micro-discoveries that you will need written reminders to remember them all.

4. Smarter, not harder: When things aren’t working, sometimes we simply have to practice more. And then there are times when it means we have to go in a different direction.

I remember struggling with my movement; I was wadding in and waiting for my opponent to make an error. I was just being an inelegant tank. Effective to a point but not progressing my skills.

Instead of stubbornly persisting with a strategy that only sort of worked, I forced myself to think about how I wanted the fights to develop and look. From this I decided to change the size of my shield in order to make me move and have to respond more directly to the attacks thrown at me. This in turn enabled me to see and capitalise of the opening in my opponents defence and look to strike them by being in the better position rather then just waiting for them to make the mistake.

5. Stay on target with a problem-solving model: 
It’s extraordinarily easy to drift into mindless practice mode. Keep yourself on task using the 6-step problem solving model below.

  • Define the problem. (What result did I just get? What do I want this technique/cut to look like instead?)
  • Analyse the problem. (What is causing it to not work?)
  • Identify potential solutions. (What can I tweak to make it work the way I want?)
  • Test the potential solutions and select the most effective one. (What tweaks seem to work best?)
  • Implement the best solution. (Reinforce these tweaks to make the changes permanent.)
  • Monitor implementation. (Do these changes continue to produce the results I’m looking for?

Make Your Time Count

Life is short. Time is our most valuable commodity. If you’re going to practice, you might as well do it right.