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We don't need no education

‘Deliberate practice’ is a term that is currently in vogue.  It arises from the study of elite performers across many fields of endeavour, and its definition seeks to identify how these elite performers work within their fields to achieve mastery and excellence.  Deliberate practice is appropriate for anyone from beginner to elite performer.  It is an approach to learning that completely contradicts the authority structure characteristic of most martial arts and self-defence systems, because it places the focus on the learner and the situations he is being exposed to, not the authority of the teacher.

I first became aware of the term ‘mindfulness in action’ in the early Sixties during my study of Buddhism.  And during the fifty-plus years since then I have attempted to apply this form of metacognition  or self-regulated attention to everything I do, and particularly to the practice of the martial arts.  Deliberate practice is nothing new to me.

Anders Ericsson describes the phenomenon of  deliberate practice as “an activity that’s explicitly intended to improve performance by reaching for objectives just beyond your level of competence while providing objective feedback on results involving high levels of repetition.”  Deliberate practice is not just about being fired up and doing lots of goal-oriented work. How you go about doing the work and why—the ‘deliberate’ part of the practice—is central to its efficacy.

The important thing to remember about deliberate practice is that you are in a metacognitive state whilst focusing on a specific element or aspect of your game, which you are addressing because you have identified it as an actual problem or a potential one.   In deliberate practice,  you identify problem areas in your game,  break them down, and create activities that will allow you to repeatedly  target specific elements or aspects of  these problems.  These activities are performed in ways that will force you to stretch your mental and physical faculties for long periods of time.  You must be working on the boundaries of your abilities to a point where you will make errors.  And of equal importance is the development of your ability to recognize those mistakes you are making and self-correct—this is where metacognition comes in.  You perform the practice and at the same time observe yourself performing, and learn to make corrections.  By  repeating such a process over and over again, in time you will improve upon that particular area of your game and subsequently upon your overall performance.

To give an example if a golfer hits a bucketful of balls as hard as he can into a net on  a driving range, that is not deliberate practice.  Instead, see if you can drive 300 balls from the tee on a par 3 and  land around 80 percent of them within 20 feet of the hole of the green.  If you are doing that or something similarly mentally and physically challenging over and over again for 3-5 hours a day,  5 to 6 days a week, year in and year out, that is deliberate practice as elite performers do it.   And in this way, as a result of  observing, evaluating your performance, and   making experimental  adjustments to your form, you can eventually become consistent at performing at the highest level.    

What 10,000 hours should you do?

Deliberate practice is a very personal approach to improving performance.  It is a form of practice in which you have to keep raising the bar and relentlessly evaluating  your performance.  You must be prepared to ruthlessly modify your approach and unhesitatingly remove those assumptions that are getting in the way and leading you nowhere.  You must create situations that test your responses so that you can identify and remove what doesn’t work and focus on improving what does work.

A threshold of 10,000 hours practice is often used to describe the amount of time and effort you have to put in so as to achieve mastery in any given discipline.  The idea of 10,000 hours practice probably sounds familiar and reassuring to martial arts traditionalists.  Many of them devote thousands upon thousands of hours to their training, year in and year out.  And yet at the end of it all, many of them still can’t fight.  It’s important to understand that there is a great deal more to deliberate practice than simple repetition.  Accurately repeating the same prescribed moves over and over again until you clock up 10,000 hours ain’t going to turn you into anything other than a robot. 

Practice should be about exploring the boundaries of your abilities and looking for new connections between unexpected sources.  All too many martial artists devote their energy to repeatedly going over old territories and stale, rote solutions. 

In fact, no matter what system you practice, there is no guarantee that engaging in 10,000 hours of deliberate practice, working 3 to 5 hours a day on the boundaries of your abilities for years, will enable you to do the business on the streets.  Your competence as a fighter will depend on what deliberate practice you engage in, and why.  For the martial artist, practice must include fighting in all its dimensions, and all of its training aspects must translate directly to fighting. 

Over the past fifty-odd years I’ve clocked up many hours of practice.  But at this point, the number of hours I spend in practice is just a number.  When I’m emotionally and neurally fired up and engaged in practice, I ain’t thinking about time and I’m most certainly not thinking about fulfilling someone else’s criteria as to what I should be doing, when, where, how and why--fuck that.  My personal practice is never fixed.  There is no clearly defined way I go about doing things.  Everything I do is exploratory or experimental, almost like a kid playing with a new toy--even if it’s something I’m already familiar with.  (In fact, I would say that it’s important to be able to look at old ideas from a new perspective.)  And although I have an idea of what I’m going to work on within the practice, I’m not absolutely certain how I’m going to go about it.  

My training is about creating experiences from which I have learnt to extract some valuable information.  That’s why what I do can’t be systemized: it can hardly be described, let alone broken down into a syllabus of neat and tidy bite-sized chunks.  It’s a new experience I’m looking for in the practice, not the religious repeating of an old one or replicating someone’s idea as to what I should  be doing. 

However, one thing that’s for certain is that I’m always one hundred percent attentive to everything I am doing, as well as to the possible consequence of what I’m doing, so as to never miss the lesson that might be hidden within the experience.  I’ve often talked in my classes about being able to watch what you are doing while you are doing it, not in a self-conscious, motor-oriented way, but with what truly becomes a split consciousness.  I used to talk about the conscious mind observing the unconscious in action.  This metacognitive ability is key to deliberate practice.   

The point at which you recognize the mistake and learn to correct it is the cutting edge of the learning process.  That’s where the brain will learn to self-correct and re-orient to its goal, strengthening the relevant neural pathways in the process.  That’s why working on the boundaries of your ability is so important: you need to be challenged to make mistakes.  That’s how you learn.  Your ability to perceive the mistake is equally crucial.  In fighting, it’s usually pretty easy to know when you made a mistake.  A well-constructed play fight or conditional fight will enable you to work in this highly productive zone.  Sometimes a mentor or coach is helpful when it comes to helping you identify the mistake you made, as well as suggesting possible corrections.  But a good fighting coach is rare, and oftentimes the fight itself is a better teacher than any coach.  Even the best coach cannot teach you to fight.  He can only provide support and guidance while you work out the problems for yourself.

Make your own flight simulator

It’s important to focus on learning goals rather than performance goals. Setting performance goals often prevents you from seeing what’s hidden within the experience.  If you are over-focused on completing the task and not learning through repeatedly addressing a particular problem and learning from how you went about doing so, there is a strong possibility that you will miss something unexpected that occurred.  The thing that you overlooked could improve upon your performance, or possibly even lead you in a completely new and exciting direction—but you’ll never know if you’re focused on achieving a performance goal, or worrying about what you look like.  Performance goal-setting has the tendency of tunnelling your vision and  narrowing your experiences to what you want or anticipate they should be.  And it’s rife in the martial arts. 

Fights aren’t neat and tidy affairs.  They’re a mess, an unpredictable interaction of different problems seldom occurring in isolation but rather in random clusters.  Because fight-related problems seldom occur in complete isolation and solutions are seldom conclusive, there is rarely a clear-cut solution in a fight.  You’re continuously making mistakes, and if you’re worried about your self-image, then you won’t be able to accept your imperfections and the fact that making lots of mistakes is inevitable.  If  self-image is overly important to you, then there’s a good chance you’ll choose not to fight rather than risking your image.

Another problem that comes up when people are too concerned with self-image is that, when they do fight, they will block out any mistakes they make and so they’ll miss that fraction-of-a-second realization in which the mistake occurs.  Then the opportunity to learn from the mistake is lost.  It can happen very easily if you’re not metacognitively aware, because in fighting, errors and opportunities can occur in milliseconds.

 Working amidst the chaos of the fight, you need to be able to adjust to cues and cluster patterns continuously and randomly.  You must anticipate how your opponent might counter your moves or react to what you might do.  The better you get at reading these cues/patterns and anticipating counters, and the more you know how to play them within the chaos, the more successful a fighter you will be. The best way to gain this experience is to regularly fight in practice, and most importantly to fight in ways that will challenge and stretch you just beyond your abilities in those areas that  need to be specifically  challenged.   By pushing yourself just a little at a time, just outside of your comfort zone, in those areas of your game that need to be addressed,  you’ll make lots of mistakes, learn to recognize them, and eventually learn to overcome them..  

Provided you are able to view such mistakes as navigation points on a learning curve, you’ll move forward.  However, if you see your mistakes as threatening to your self-image, you won’t take the risks that lead to mistakes.  Instead, you will find a way of playing safe.  All too many martial artists allow themselves to fall into the latter trap.

The lessons to be learned are found within the experiences of functional practice, not in the repetition of some move that is being performed and perfected outside of the context of an actual fight.   

For the teacher, the best way to discover what these experiential lessons might be is to watch lots of fights.  Understanding what the problems and solutions are most  likely to be as well as identifying typical mistakes provides the teacher with a body of information with which to  begin exploration and experimentation.  It’s important to create ways of fighting and drilling that will be competitive and focused on problem-solving.  These methods must place a premium on failing, making mistakes, taking risks, persistence, and innovation.  While retaining relative safety, they must push the participants to a zone where they are not comfortable—this is where they need to be in order to learn.    

Martial arts training programs need to be designed to do essentially the same job that a flight simulator does for a learner pilot.  The simulator allows pilots to spend long periods in intense and deep concentration, struggling for survival, with targeted and unexpected problems (both simple and complex).  It allows them to work on the edge of their capabilities, realize failure (crash), recognize/anticipate their mistakes, self-correct, and eventually by using rapid cognition or reading patterns, to zero in on what’s essential and make sense of the smallest amount of information.  And the simulator allows all of this to happen repeatedly.  We can design similar training programs to train  our  pattern-recognition fast/reactive  response networks under pressure.  We can teach these networks to recognize and respond to cues and patterns like reading familiar words or phrases, rather than trying to make sense of the scattered letters of the fighting alphabet--as many do when they fight.  We can do this in ways that factor in being punished in some way for making the wrong choices (or making the right ones but not fast enough) so that we can learn to rapidly deal with all kinds of problems before we have to do so in the real world.  This can be done.  It’s not child’s play, but it ain’t rocket science, either.

You need to engage in deliberate practice designed for fighting, as described above, rather than allowing yourself to be spoon-fed solutions and skills in some predictable fixed drill.  In my opinion, organized training programs degrade natural intelligence.  They  reward  conformity and suppress those natural tools by which we  learn and adapt our own particular talents to the world about us.

Most of what we learn in life is learned outside of a formal setting and not explicitly taught to us.  We learn much through play.  My own practice includes a form of ‘deliberate play’ as well just goofing around do see what happens.  There is not a big extension from play to deliberate play to deliberate practice.  They are all related because they are experimental.  It’s just a question of the degree of focus being narrower or wider.

Indeed, some more enlightened coaches out there are advocating less structured workouts and drills and more intense player-invented games in the training period.  The less coaching and more competitive play, the better. Intense, concentrated, dynamic play provides exercise, creates a positive emotional outlet, and hones fundamental skills. By getting lost in the play, you get an opportunity to endlessly explore and experiment in a competitive environment with timing, anticipation, spatial awareness, dynamic balance, rapid cognition,  adaptation  and innovation of  new skills.  And above all, play may also be nature’s way of developing our brains 

Nils Middelboe wrote  in the last lines of his book Common Sense About Soccer: ‘To systemize is to sterilize.’ Middelboe was concerned with adults exerting their control over kids to the point where the players were being  told exactly what to do on the playing field.  A better approach would be to allow the players to do with the ball what came naturally, as within  the game of Futsal, for example. 

Avoid authority figures and their organized packages

Well, the same kind of controlling adults that Middelboe referred to are to be found within the martial arts and self-defence industry.  That’s why you’ve got to watch out for those authoritative military types whose manner, specialized vocabulary, military-style drills and detailed and well-articulated principles and concepts can fool you into believing they know exactly what they’re talking about when it comes to fighting and fight training, or your personal protection.

In the main those teaching the martial arts and self-defence over-focus on specific interpretations of a violent encounter.  Their methods may come from their masters’ or their own interpretations of a tradition, or may be based on what the instructor believes a violent confrontation on the streets is, with training methods extrapolated from that belief.  Martial arts and self-defence are all about the instructor imposing their (often rigid) beliefs and (almost always limited) experiences on those they teach.  Little or no attention is paid to creating the types of training environment that will encourage many different combative ideas through exploring and experimenting with different ways of tackling combative problems. 

This type of authoritative and rigid approach to training obviously has appeal, because it is almost universal in the martial arts. Yet it is extremely limited.  I can only surmise that, for non-fighters, the attraction lies in the fact that the training programs are prescribed by authoritative personalities within the martial arts and self-defence; in other words, the instructors display great confidence in their methods and this confidence is transmitted to the student.  The classes are safe and have well-structured syllabuses with all the information presented in accordance to a time scale.  Everything has been broken down into easily-digestible bite-sized chunks.  Courses have clearly defined goals--including such rewards as getting a black belt or becoming an instructor.  Those who place their trust in institutions and authoritative figures (notably ex-military, even ‘Walts’) are often turned on by lots and lots of talking, bullet points, detail, logic, order, routine and predictable outcomes with some kind of reward that will raise their self-esteem.

This type of martial arts reminds me of being back at school.  The teacher is central to the learning process, and there are even time limits (like at college or university) on how long it will take to become a black belt or instructor. This kind of control is how the instructor retains his authority, keeps people in their place, keeps them motivated, and ultimately makes his money.  Just like at school, where the teachers don’t ask questions or try anything they don’t already know the answers to, nor encourage questions that might undermine their authority, martial arts teachers are all about making sure you get it ‘right’ according to them or some traditional bullshit.  You will not be rewarded for exploring, experimenting, taking chances, or making mistakes and learning from them.  You will only be praised if you get it ‘right’--according to them. And if over a period of time you continue to satisfy their criteria for ‘getting it right’, you’ll get your black belt or an instructor’s licence.  These achievements are empty.  There is no such thing as ‘right’ except what works in the fight—and you have to find that out for yourself.

The trouble, is a lot of teachers out there are not even aware of the problems that need to be overcome.  They certainly lack the type of mind required to isolate and find creative ways of addressing these problems in training.  I think one of reasons is that they have not been trained well themselves.  By ‘not trained well’ I mean that they have not been exposed to regularly being in situations where, under pressure in a survival  state of mind, they have been forced to make sense of the smallest amount of information available and be punished if they got it wrong.  You most certainly are not going to develop the problem-solving thinking necessary to fight training by engaging in a highly organized non-fighting  training program, which already has all  the answers and which rewards people for getting things right rather than for experimenting, taking risks, and having to quickly learn from  their mistakes.

 It’s been my observation that adults, like kids, are able much more effectively to strengthen, adapt and refine neural pathways specific to the tasks they will need to perform through some form of play, rather than through repetitive military-type drilling.   

The function of the teacher is to create competitive, playful situations that will call for a needed response and stretch the abilities of those taking part so that the lessons to be learnt are imparted naturally.  Provided that the participants realize failure, remain fired up and persist, the CNS will self-correct and learning will occur.  The more you engage in such practices, the better you get at doing what you need to do.  The teacher does not interfere in the flow of the play, though he might at opportunistic moments provide accurately timed and well-targeted,  brief and very specific critique or observations. These can benefit participants as well as observers.  The teacher’s role is also to try to spot the lessons to be learnt within the play.  What he must never do is freeze the play, target a fault, rehearse how to deal with it, and then return to the play. The lesson is in the flow of the play itself.  The teacher has to learn to back off and play a secondary role to those taking part.

The bottom line is, there is no essential difference between the way children learn to perform skills through interacting with the environment by trial and error, and the way that elite performers in all fields learn to rise to the highest levels.  Deliberate practice can become extremely intense and refined, but it still reflects the way the brain learns naturally—in fact it is a highly concentrated form of trial and error.  Learning through experimentation, pushing past one’s own boundaries, making mistakes, and self-correcting is a process that can’t be conferred by an authority figure. 

Fighting can be learned, but it can’t be taught.

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Upcoming Training: 10 June in London

For more info contact me stevemorris@morrisnoholdsbarred.co.uk or go to http://www.morrisnoholdsbarred.co.uk/fighting_arts_alliance.html


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