We’ve probably all heard the idea that ‘practice makes perfect’. And it’s true that to get really good at something, you’ll likely need to do it a lot. There is an idea out there that it takes a minimum of ten years of intense practice to reach the elite levels of a sport or other activity. A 1993 paper written by a University of Colorado professor, Anders Ericsson, is where this idea seemed to start. (Interestingly enough, between nine and ten years of practice is when most students earn a third degree black belt in To-Shin Do and are awarded a warrior name, a symbol that they’ve grown in the martial arts to something bigger than they were before). But how you practice is far more important than how much you practice. Long hours of drilling some martial arts skill over and over again just to log in repetitions isn’t enough to make you a master.
Many might be familiar with another statement from coaching legend Vince Lombardi, “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.” This gets us much closer to what, I think, we are looking for in our To-Shin Do training, and closer to the ‘deliberate practice’ Ericsson believes to be important. You need quality instruction, a clear goal, and a clear and aware focus on that goal as you train. Performing ten thousand punches into a target is better than zero punches. You’ll probably learn some things. First off you’ll learn quickly to be sure to have your wrist in the correct alignment, because it hurts if you don’t. But it’s hard to get better, to really excel, without a qualified instructor saying ‘work on this’ and taking some time to really work on that.
I saw this in action in a different context a few weeks ago. I watched some kids playing basketball. I’ve known these kids for a while, and I’ve watched them trying to just ‘shoot’ or ‘play’ to get better. Then I watched someone who used to play college basketball give these kids something specific to work on in terms of the mechanics of shooting. They grew more in five minutes (so much that it was clear to me, a guy with very little working knowledge other than the ball is supposed to go into the hoop) then they had in months of practice. It drove home something I’ve always believed. That I could get more out of throwing ten punches while concentrating on some specific feedback from my teacher, than I (or someone else) could out of a hundred punches just for the sake of doing a hundred punches. For me at least, aware training, fully engaged training, and most importantly me, training with a specific focus, is far more important than repetition.
Of course, that word ‘perfect’, doesn’t really work either, does it? Over three decades of martial arts training and I’m still trying to get better at punching. Not perfect yet. Perhaps more specifically, my idea of what perfect is changes as I grow, and so I’m always striving to reach a goal that is constantly moving farther away. But I like that. It inspires me. And that is something that more recent studies have suggested might be even more important than the amount of practice you get. Your desire to practice. How much do you enjoy what you’re doing? If you really enjoy it, and desire to excel in it, you’ll focus more attention to your practice. So perhaps another way to say my take on practice is, “Enjoy finding perfect reasons to practice. Then you’ll never want to stop.”