I’d like to share with you a couple of important discoveries I’ve made with regard to teaching martial arts, which may be translated into other areas as well. An important lesson is that you are not good at anything you need to do in your conscious mind. When you first learned to tie your shoes, you probably made some mistakes, and went slow and sloppy. Then you internalized the skill, and now with the mere thought “tie my shoes” you do it fast and nearly perfectly every time. Overthinking what you are doing will get in your way.

Cognitive psychology has a model where you begin at the level of unconscious incompetance – you don’t even know what you don’t know. Then you reach the level of conscious incompetance – you know that there is something you don’t know or can’t do. Next is conscious competence – you can do the skill as long as you are immediately focused on performing it, and it requires some thought. Mastery comes at the level of unconscious competence – the level where you perform the skill without conscious thought. So ho do we more rapidly get people to a level of unconscious competence?

Here are a few methods I’ve had a great deal of success with:

1. Multipart drill-stacking: This is where I take a number of movements I want to teach and string them into a continuous drill. Think kata or multi-step sparring. I teach the beginning of the exercise – no more than 3-5 movements. I have the students practice this until they are just about to “get it”. At this point they may be at a level of conscious competence. Then I add the next part of the drill and do the same thing.

What I have found, is that the student will begin focusing on the second part of the drill and will have to relegate the first part of the drill to the unconscious. It takes a little practice to learn when to push the next part of the drill. I have taught people very long segments of movements in a single session with near perfect retention using this method. Not only that, but the beginning movements start to smooth out on their own.

It’s important to stop adding sections if the previous sections get sloppy or mixed up. Then it’s time to go back and fix what’s broken.

2. Single session repetition with breaks: The unconscious mind takes time to process new information. This processing goes on even when we are thinking about something else. The basic way to do this method is to practice the same skills multiple times in the same session, while taking breaks and working on something else in between.

Let’s say you start your class with a kicking drill. After that you may move on to punching for 15 minutes. Then, you’d do the same kicking drill again, perhaps with another break and then end with the same kicking drill. An added benefit here is that you give a group of muscles some time to rest. Muscle fatigue can lead to a loss of coordination.

3. Add a distracting stimulus: A training drill I remember fondly was standing around in a circle practicing footwork while two or three people held medicine balls. After each foot movement, whoever was holding a medicine ball would throw it to someone else in the circle. This was an awesome awareness drill, and made people force the footwork into the back of their mind, while they tried to not get knocked down by a 13 pound medicine ball.

Other things you can do is add flashing lights, or shut the lights off, play really bad music in the background, a you name it.

These are just a few of the methods we use to get people good very fast.

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