The Importance of Training Well

He Jinbao demonstrating to me the fruits of training well.

He Jinbao demonstrating to me the fruits of training well.

My kids are home from college for the summer (still! still!), and so we get a lot of chances to talk with them. One of them had a hard time with some of her subjects in her first year, and while discussing the matter with her mom, I overheard her say something along the lines of, “It doesn’t really matter if I study more or not. I can only get so much out of it, and doing more doesn’t help.” Hmm.

As someone who did college all the way (and for almost thirteen years), and someone who taught college-level courses at three different schools for a number of years, and someone who has chased skills in Yin Style Bagua, and someone who has tried to help other people chase skills in the art as well, I think I can diagnose my daughter’s study problem (not that telling her about it will have much by way of immediate returns). My suspicion is that my daughter doesn’t know how to study, which is really no surprise as nearly none of the college students I’ve ever worked with have much of a clue of how proper study is conducted.

Training, or studying–these ultimately really being the same thing–must be done well to get good results, and good results shouldn’t look like my daughter’s collegiate difficulties. In fact, putting more time in without noticeable returns is an almost sure sign that your study, or training, is too hollow, that you are not, in fact, training well. And so we reach a big first point.

If you’re not training well, you’re wasting a lot of time

Suppose you decide that putting an extra few hours a week into your training might be just what it needs to spur improvement, and so you do that. You up your training regimen, stick to it diligently, and do a whole lot more of exactly the same thing that you’re already doing. If you’re lucky, something might click into place with all this extra time you’re investing, or you may overcome some plateau in your training, but chances are that more of the same will produce exactly that, more of the same. Like my daughter’s predicament, doing more of whatever she’s doing probably won’t help. The same is true of shoddy training.

If you are dedicating a lot of time to an ineffective method, you will not improve very much, if at all. If you dedicate more time to that same method, you’re really just wasting your time unless your ultimate goals are things like “train x hours per week,” “get more exercise,” or “prove to myself that I can be more dedicated.” Those are fine as goals, to be sure, but not when they’re being done unintentionally in the name of a different goal: getting better at what you’re training. My daughter doesn’t need to set a rule to study at least twenty hours a week if better grades are her goals and only two or three of those hours are productive. She’d be wasting a lot of time (even if it builds character, inter alia).

It could be worse…

Even worse than dedicating time to ineffective methods would be dedicating it to bad training methods. There’s an old adage that says that “practice makes perfect,” which is complete rubbish. “Practice makes permanent” is closer, if you like the alliteration, but “practice makes consistent” and “practice makes regular” fall nearer the mark. Training badly will have bad results. Really, try to avoid it. You’re better taking the day off than going out and screwing around.

The easiest way to avoid terrible training, even as a complete beginner, is to keep a few things in mind. First, what you’re trying to accomplish. If you know this clearly, it’s much easier to choose activities that serve it. Second, know what kinds of things help you accomplish those goals. If you need better grades in your biology classes, understanding biology should eventually seem like an obvious answer. Third, don’t lose sight of what you already know. In training a martial art, go out and work to meet as many of the requirements as you can, be that because of physical limitations, only knowing a few of them, lacking the requisite coordination, or only being able to remember some of them.

But it could be better too!

The quality of your training most definitely can improve, and being able to train well makes everything related to training better (even life–more on this another time).

In my experience, every breakthrough period in my training in Yin Style Bagua has followed some deliberate refinement and improvement of my approach to training, usually getting something mentally right. There have been periods (sometimes long ones) of relative stagnation in which I didn’t improve. There have been periods in which I improved steadily. There have also been these breakthrough periods in which I improved dramatically in a relatively short time–these leading to more productive steady improvement later and less time caught in stagnation. Each one of those big bursts has followed a definite change in how I trained. Training better had the most dramatic effect upon improving my skill. (And for those who are dying to know, 90% of the change, at least, came from getting my head right about training.)

By extension, one of the goals you should have if you study or train anything, particularly something complicated and difficult like YSB, is to improve the method by which you train. Training better will make a much better use of your time, and, if many of your practice methods are generally ineffective, will help you get better at what you’re training while dedicating less time to it, not more. Imagine the potential, then, of developing mostly good training habits and training for as long as you already do, or for increasing your training by several hours a week. Big improvement is almost guaranteed. The question is just a matter of how you can improve the quality of your training.

How do we do it?

Training, to be done well, has to be organized, intelligent, and incremental. It must be goal-oriented, and it must be done with the right mentality. As I said, every major jump in my training has followed getting my mind more appropriately engaged in what I’m doing, making the exercise less abstract and more realistic, at least in what I’m thinking about when I’m doing it. I can’t overstate the importance of this. (Indeed, it is the correct definition of what an internal martial art does, so it’s really a no-brainer that it worked.)

Starting at the beginning

There is one point, though, I’ve seen again and again in life, and it’s important. There is a place where you are with any given set of material, and if you try to go forward from some other place than that, you will not succeed. My training in YSB took some major leaps when I started with something I already felt good at.

By beginning with something with which I felt some measure of skill, I was able to extend that skill to other domains, to really look at the nuts and bolts of the material I was studying and to draw analogies that let me move forward. That changed my solo training time into periods in which I could really focus on the reasons for the various parts of the practice and thus add that all-important mental component to my training. The improvements were pretty dramatic.

Once I had a foundation built in that way, I could start branching out to other material, again moving incrementally and in an organized fashion. The operative question I kept (and keep) asking myself is what is this skill/technique/movement/change aiming to accomplish?

Progressing required assessing myself: in times where I felt like I was making no progress, or no more progress after a while, I realized I needed to change gears and try to make progress elsewhere. I’ve been digging into pushing attacks for weeks, and I feel stuck, what about moving attacks? I can always come back to pushing attacks later, when I understand more things.

The trick, ultimately, though, is getting at least one or two skills that you have a reliable feel for and then working outward from there, using them as the foundation that instructs you in the next thing you poke at.

An analogy to the classroom

When I was studying for my Ph.D. qualifying exams (which, by the way, are hard), I used a very similar method to what I described above. I knew I knew some mathematics, and I started with the easiest material I was pretty sure I had a firm grip on. Then I studied it thoroughly and systematically, and something remarkable happened: I made steady progress, had tons of engagement with the material, and came to a place where each new subject I took on seemed easy to master.

In the beginning, it came down to humility, admitting that I didn’t know nearly as much as I should know by the time I had finished some of the courses I had taken. I had to go back further than that and build the foundation, sometimes deeply into undergraduate textbooks. And it worked. Chapter by chapter, I moved through more basic material and into the more difficult things I was supposed to be learning and then beyond. It never became difficult.

Training worked similarly. Once I wheeled my attention back to a couple of the first concepts that had clicked with me and worked to make them regular, I could start building from there. Sometimes I went too far and would just hit a wall. Other times I’d land right upon something I didn’t understand before and would make progress. Sticking with this method and then putting it mentally into what I was doing–training for results even when training solo–made all the difference. When I really get stuck, I still roll all the way back to the absolute fundamentals and spend more time turning the circle, paying ever more attention to the fine details. It seems to work like a charm every time.

What if you’re not good at anything yet?

If you’re so new that you aren’t really good at anything yet, follow the curriculum, and do it so that, in short, you’re throwing things at the wall until something sticks. Seriously.

At first, of course you won’t be good at specific technical skills, but you’re not completely inept. In YSB, turn the circle and do it seriously. Train your strikes as well as you can. Practice applications seriously during classes or group meetings. Keep trying, and look for any toehold you can find. (The ability to coordinate hands and feet or some semblance of power emission are often early skills people stumble upon and can latch onto.) Then you’ve got something you’re good at. You can build from there.

At first, of course, systematic improvement is very difficult and is, in a lot of ways, something of the responsibility of those instructing you to provide. So listen and try out what you’re told.

Enduring

In difficult arenas of study, YSB very much included, being able to endure is of utmost importance. When I studied for my Ph.D. qualifying exams, I averaged ten hours a day, seven days a week, for four months leading into each of the exams. That takes endurance.

In YSB, you need to be able to throw a lot of strikes, perform large numbers of repetitions of our attack strategy forms, and, most of all, to turn the circle for a long time while being mentally focused enough to look for all the requirements (instead of just trying to keep your breath or ignore the burning pain in your body). This requires an incremental approach to increasing your endurance as well, and even that can serve as a toehold for you if none of the specific skills are resonating with you. To put in the required time, you have to be able to endure, and the way you get to being able to endure is to practice it–intelligently and systematically.

Above all, though, you must train well if you want to get better. Just training, even a lot, isn’t nearly enough.

As always, if you have anything to add about the importance of training well, including things that have worked for you, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

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