And that brings me to the flip side of the topic. How do you know when you have mastered a technique? There are different types of ‘knowing’. And mastering one ‘type’ of knowledge may not necessarily be enough to say the technique is mastered. Here are a few different types of knowledge that I consider when learning a technique:
1. Repetition-based knowledge: The idea that the more we do something, the better we become at it. But how many? Is it true that in order to internalise a technique you have to repeat it correctly 10,000 times?! Some say so. Others say 5,000. Others say any number from 100 to 20,000. The reality is that research on the topic varies significantly. One thing that is generally agreed on is the process – when you do something over and over, your brain quite literally rebuilds itself to suit what you are doing. Neurons rewire to make pathways faster for something that needs to be done repeatedly and more efficiently, and your body changes – sometimes subtly and sometimes not so – to adapt to what you are doing. Speaking from personal experience, I have seen people do 5,000 repetitions and still not get it right, and people do something once or twice and then perform it perfectly every time thereafter. And even the same person can experience great variance while learning different techniques. Some come easily, some do not. While the number of repetitions needed to internalise something varies form one person to another, and for different techniques, the common thread is how the learning will manifest:
a. Conscious repetition – we focus on the technique and different aspect of it while we perform it. This is the lowest level of learning and requires significant ‘processing power’ from your brain to do correctly.
b. Semi-conscious – enough repetitions have been done so that the technique is performed correctly, but certain things may still not ‘work’. This can include recognising the triggers for using the technique, doing it at full speed, doing it as it flows form other techniques, etc.
c. Subconscious – enough repetition has been done so that the response is subconscious, automated, accurate, etc.
This process is similar to learning how to drive – first you have to understand the mechanics of how to shift gears, etc. Then you start paying more attention to what is going around you. Finally, you are totally relaxed and you adapt to what is happening on the road without thought.
2. Intellectual understanding: This refers more to understanding the underlying principles of the technique. Why does it work? When does it work? How does it work? Where does it work? Who does it work on? But how does one gain this knowledge? Your teacher should impart you with some of it; other ways could be experiential or research-based, for example reading about the mechanics of the human body.
3. Resistance-based knowledge: Techniques should be practiced at 3 levels of resistance – no resistance, some resistance and full resistance. It is imperative to do all three in order to correctly develop technique over just ‘forcing the technique’. Deep knowledge means being able to perform the technique at all 3 levels of resistance, without lowering the ‘success rate’.
4. Flow-based knowledge: Learning a technique as part of a sequence. A good example of this is boxing combinations. A combination is made up of individual techniques that flow from one to the other.
Deep understanding of a technique means also having an understanding of what techniques link to it (and again we look at what, when, where, how, why and who). Can you smoothly integrate the technique into a sequence, and understand the ‘technical timeline’ of application, or do you only know how to do that technique as singular technique?
5. Experiential knowledge: Quite often the most value by students, and the hardest to obtain, this refers to having tried and tested the techniques ‘for real’, outside of the dojo environment. Different types of experience include in self-defence or in competition. The main problem with this is that having to use techniques in real life comes with the downside of consequence. Failing in competition means not only hurt egos (which are often a good thing…) but the risk of serious physical damage; failure in self-defence could mean possible death. Gaining experiential knowledge in competition is relatively easy – train hard, develop skills and eventually compete. Unfortunately, experience in self-defence often means working in a line of work that is considered high-risk – security, corrections, law-enforcement, military, etc. Unfortunately this is not always realistic for many arts! Even with full protective gear and full contact, it is unlikely to have the same experience as a real attack outside of training.
It is important, both as a student and as a teacher, to understand these different types of knowledge and encourage them all. It is natural that some classes focus on certain elements more than others, but in order to have a deep understanding of the art you choose to practice I recommend that you look at all five of these.
I am a ‘spreadsheets and lists’ kind of person, and so I like to keep tabs on what I practice and how, which helps me make sure that I both practice and teach all of these elements. You can find your own way of doing so – mind maps, lists, drawings, checklists, diary, etc. Keep track of what you practice and how, and adjust for what you are missing in order to gain a deep and rounded understanding of every element of your art.
Stay safe, stay tuned.