Practice, Improvement, Hours & Greatness

One thing I’ve noticed among my Vancouver-based foreign friends is that so many of them have good, workable, English, but not great English. Many of these people have been speaking English for more than 20 years, they’ve put in tons of hours of practice, yet they’re not getting any better — one friend told me he feels that he’s actually getting worse.
I have seen this phenomenon of practice without improvement in my own speaking of foreign languages, as well as some other complex skills in my life like playing guitar, and of course, in swordplay.

Hours Alone are not Enough

As Michael Syed cites very thoroughly in his book Bounce, the number of hours you invest is important, but the quality of those hours is what actually matters when it comes to achieving mastery. To effectively push forward, you must spend the bulk of your hours working in the most challenging places, putting yourself into a space where you make mistakes and fail frequently.
At the beginning, when you start learning a new language or a new skill, it’s very easy to find the challenging places. Everything is new, and in every direction there are interesting difficulties to overcome. You are also in a space where you are actively being instructed and corrected by other practitioners. Yet there comes a time when you get the fundamentals under your belt and you’re able to satisfy the first set of objectives of that skill. You can carry on a conversation, or comport yourself reasonably in a sword fight. Your partners stop actively correcting you. Here, learning slows or stops.
It is easy to view these moments in learning as a “plateau”, and functionally, they are. You might continue to practice in the same manner you have up to this point, even working harder, yet still not make any discernible progress. My foreign language friends are often stuck here, as are many swordplay students I work with.

Two Challenges that Need to be Faced

  1. You have to push through “Satisfactory”. “Good enough” is the enemy of great. If you want to excel beyond your current level, you’re going to need to delve back into the same discomfort you experienced when you first began learning. Then do it again, and again.
  2. You have to change the way you practice. The second mountain, and the third mountain, must be approached differently than the first. To return to the language metaphor, to squeeze out the last 20% of your English skills is not going to be a matter of learning verb tenses and vocabulary. The tools you learned to establish a base in English are not the tools you need to master to become a poet. You have to devise a new method of learning and set your sights on a completely different set of targets.

So in your training, what do these next targets look like? Where is failure and how do you get there? Once there, what are the learning strategies that will help you flourish there and not just flounder? What do you need from your training partners to keep pushing you?
If you want to keep pushing your language forward, make sure your friends keep correcting you. Put yourself into speaking environments beyond your comfort zone. If you want to excel at swordplay, find where your edge is, and train there.
How do you push through the “good enough” towards the “great”? Share your thoughts in the comments.

Academie Duello’s HEMA Instructor Intensive

Registration is now open for our June Instructor Intensive. If you’re interested to learn how to push yourself and others toward greater excellence, join us for the kickoff to this 8-month program.
The intensive combines a week of training in Academie Duello’s martial system with the rapier and longsword as well as the teaching and learning methodology required to create effective educational environments. Our teaching approach has been developed over the last twelve years and has been tested and refined through exposure to literally thousands of students.
If you’re excited about doing a program like this but are not sure that you could afford it, we offer payment plans and billeting options in Vancouver. If you’re passionate about becoming an instructor and high-level practitioner we want to help make it possible. Don’t hesitate to be in touch.
Don’t wait to sign up. The last intensive filled in less than a week so be sure to mark your calendar. Registration is available through Academie Duello’s HEMA Instructor Program page. Please ask questions and share comments about this course. Also, please pass this along to anyone you know who may be interested. See you there!

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  1. One of the keys to obtain high quality training is to objectively know what you’re bad at. I know that my remise is not done correctly because I’m doing it without the opponent’s response, so I should train on my remise more and ask my instructor what’s up.
    Having a list of things to improve on is very important in the long term. This list shouldn’t be static; it must always be inspected and added or subtracted so that one can see progressions and flaws in oneself. Because one has a pinpoint (the list), one can “sketch” in relation to the point. Some of us call this list a diary.
    Guy Windsor also notes that reproducing the problem (the reason why one is bad at something) is valuable (link to his article: Fencing is a science, and to reproduce a situation is the hallmark of science.

    1. Hi Henry, I absolutely agree. I have kept a fencing journal for many years where I keep track of my own technical goals and weak areas I’m working on. I find it valuable to have this even just to help me stay on track with ongoing training plans. Without notes its often easy to forget between sessions where you are in the cycle of improvement of a particular skill.
      Regarding reproducing problems. I think this is essential and Guy’s post is great. I have my students work on developing the fight recall skill: Fence a pass, then recreate the end of the pass with your partner. The goal is to identify where the hit occurred, what tempo it was in, the configuration of the sword, and then what happened in the preceding tempi. I keep the focus just on recall for the first while, then we work on using recall to create a drill that allows you to identify the cause, determine a solution, and drill correction.
      Thanks for your comment Henry and the links.