One of the things that I love most about martial arts and combat sports is that they act as platform where we can try and solve complex problems under pressure, and where there are immediate consequences for actions in the problem-solving process.
And much like any other human endeavour, art, and skill, the higher the level, the more subtle the facets and problems we try to solve.
So why does writing help so much?
Before we answer that question, let’s look at another key element of high performance. Improvement in skill and understanding skyrockets when we critically reflect on our performance on a regular basis.
When we think about what we did well, what worked, what didn’t, and within what context, then we can start thinking about how to address those problems. This also means that when we next go to a training session, we can focus our training to work on specific things rather than just going through the motions.
For example, you may go into a sparring session focusing on how to land or set up a particular shot; you may focus on a particular movement pattern; you may focus on a particular defence; you may focus on escaping a particular position, applying a specific submission, etc.
This focus is a theme with practically every high-level martial artist (and athlete, for that matter), and every student whom I’ve ever coached who has done this has progressed twice as quickly as ones who haven’t. Simply put, when you go into training with a goal and focus in mind, you get more out every minute on the mats.
With that in mind, we want to reflect on our performance – without emotion or ego – and figure out what we need to work on next. And writing can be a real catalyst for doing this better. Writing as a form of critical reflection is something that nearly every high performer in every field I have ever worked in has used.
But why is that?
Firstly, it forces us to slow down to the speed of our writing. In other words, when we write we can only really think as fast as we can write. This gives us the ability to slow down, pause and think, as opposed to when we might just do this over video or in our thoughts. When we slow down or pause, we engage more of our problem solving, conscious, rational thinking (what Nobel Prize Winner Dan Khaneman refers to as ‘system 2 thinking’). This also helps us be less emotional about our performance and look at it more objectively.
Secondly, when we write we must articulate whatever it is we are reflecting on, and that process of articulation forces us to try and explain what we did or didn’t do in a few different ways until we arrive at the right way to say it in a way that makes sense to us. That means we don’t just reflect once; as part of the writing process, we often reflect on the same thing a few times and in different ways. This helps improve our understanding.
Thirdly, when we write we have to visualise the movements and situations we were reflecting on. Visualisation is a powerful tool for improving performance, and acts as extra ‘good reps’ for correcting behaviour and performance, and helps us fire and wire the right neural pathways.
So, hopefully at this point you are happy to jump on the reflection writing train.
But how do you write good reflections?
A great format for this is called the DIEP format, which stands for Describe, Interpret, Evaluate, Plan. Interesting sidenote – this is actually a very similar process to the famous OODA loop (Observe, Orient, Decide, Act), but on slow motion.
So let’s break this down:
- Describe: describe the realisation or insight you got, as well as the context or totality of circumstances.
For example, I was trying to get in on a tall, long opponent, to land body shots, but he/she managed to hit me with hard jabs every time I started closing distance.
- Interpret: What do the things you described mean?
For example, the failure to implement my tactics got to me, and I became frustrated and tentative. This manifested as my internal voice that was questioning what I was doing or expressing frustration. Once that happened, it became even harder to close distance as I had to overcome my frustration, on top of the challenge of closing the distance.
- Evaluate: What is the value of the above? How does it benefit you?
For example, a benefit of the above is that I realised that once I get frustrated, I lose the initiative and get too defensive, and that I learned to recognise the signs of frustration, so I can catch them early on. I also realised that the reason I was getting hit when closing the distance was because I did not effectively utilise my jab and fakes to distract and disguise my movement.
- Plan: What are you going to change and how?
For example, next time I’m going to focus on utilising my jab and fakes to disguise my movement to close the distance. I’m also going to remain aware of my internal dialogue, and if I see the signs that I’m getting frustrated I’ll take a deep breathe and remind myself to stay focused.
I tried to give an example that will cover both a physical experience and an emotional/psychological one, but you can structure this in any way you want!
My challenge to you: try doing this consistently after every training session for one month, and track how your performance improves in the area you are reflecting on! And if you need help – just get in touch with me!
Stay safe, stay tuned.