Everyone has their own pace of learning. However, there are many strategies that can both help you to make the most of your capacity as well as enable you to learn faster and more effectively. Here are a few useful ideas.
Every advanced technique is made up of several fundamental ones. Many students limit their growth by trying to get to the sexy things without having the “dull” basics in their toolkit. Check your ego early and often. The most advanced practitioners of every skill in the world spend most of their time on basics—you should, too.
Go Back and Fix What’s Broken
If a complex technique is not working it’s usually because a fundamental technique within it is failing. It’s worth taking the time to first isolate and then go back and fix that fundamental technique. It doesn’t need to take all your training time, but it should at least take up a meaningful chunk.
Next time you’re practicing, identify one fundamental skill that you could improve and devote at least fifteen minutes to improving it, then repeat that three times for the next three training sessions.
Up Your Awareness
Many of us know the oft used, and useful phrase, “the definition of insanity is doing the same thing again and again while expecting different results.” If you’re not achieving success with a technique, or against a particular sparring partner, don’t try to do the same thing harder or “better”.
Instead, pause and see if you can increase your perception of what’s going wrong. Zoom in and engage with the problem on a finer level. Go from “I’m not hitting my target”, to “I’m letting my wrist relax and that’s bringing me off target.” This information will be far more valuable for planning your corrective strategy.
Leverage Help Early, Often, and Effectively
Want to get better faster? Get in as much time as possible with those who know more than you. But don’t simply fence with them. Actively seek their advice on getting better. “What can I focus on right now?”, “Where do you see weaknesses in my form?”, and “How do you do that thing you do so well?” are all examples of the types of questions you could ask. As a professional teacher I am there to help my students, and they should be tapping me for tips constantly—don’t miss your chance.
Don’t Limit Yourself: Be Strategic
You’re not too old, too slow, or too stupid. I’ve been soundly trounced by a 65 year old. I know people of all shapes and proportions who are superb fencers. One of the best teachers I know was one of the slowest learners in his class. We all have limits and challenges to overcome physically, mentally and psychologically. A barrier that seems insurmountable has simply not been met with the right strategy. Next time you feel slowed up, acknowledge your reality and genuinely seek an answer.
For instance, you might find yourself saying, “I can’t move my feet very fast. How can I deal with that?” The answer could be to practice footwork drills so you can move your feet more quickly. Or it could be developing a fencing style that doesn’t involve a lot of moving. Alternately, the best strategy might be to change your expectations or goals. An 80-year-old is not going to fight like a 20-year-old. However, they could still become a surprising octogenarian.
Learning can’t be done by playing it safe. You’ve got to mess up. You have to push yourself into uncharted territory and get hit in the head a few times. It doesn’t mean the experience has to suck (at least not all the time).
Make a safe space in yourself and with your training partners to be bad at stuff. Play games and work exercises where the outcomes don’t matter beyond the learning. That said, don’t lower your expectation of being excellent—simply allow yourself to not be excellent *right now*.
Good training, everyone!