What counts is not the number of hours you put in but how much you put in those hours.
In this chapter, I will share key principles to enhance and accelerate your learning. No matter what activity you practice, you'll be able to apply the following principles, perspectives, and practices to your activity.
Warmup and the Transitions of Life
Our lives are filled with cycles and with periods of transition. Our growth from infancy through childhood, adolescence, and adulthood required many transitions into increasingly advanced modes of behavior, responsibility, and understanding. Birth and death are the Great Transitions. Graduation from school, beginning a livelihood, getting married, raising children, and retiring are all lesser but typical examples of changes in our lives. Life itself consists of a series of changes, sometimes smooth and orderly, sometimes unexpected, minute to minute, day to day, year by year. Inner athletes need the capacity to recognize these periods of transition in training and in daily life.
Years ago, while working in a busy offlce, I used to snarl at my wife when I arrived home from work until I realized that all I needed was a fifteen-minute transition to decompress, slow down, and space out before I was ready to listen happily to her news of the day.
Most of our transitions are sudden or nonexistent. Adolescence is a transition that leaves most of us unprepared and traumatized. Many of us have difficulties with the transitions of getting up in the morning or going to bed at night. Our minds, emotions, and physical rhythms may still be adjusted to an earlier frequency as we begin a new activity requiring much slower or faster vibrations. No wonder we sometimes have difficulty coping with new situations.
Transitions are in-between periods. When we leave work and are driving home, we're in between. When golfers hit the ball and are walking down the fairway, they are in between. Learning to enjoy and make use of these in-between periods will even out our lives. Unless we have learned to appreciate the value of in-betweens, our lives consists of jerky motions, highs and lows, stops and starts a series of shocks. We make conscious use of transitions by noticing when we're moving from one kind of activity to another which ones may require a different mental, emotional, or physical approach.
Instead of leaping out of bed in the morning, we may find it useful to set the alarm fifteen minutes earlier, giving ourselves time to glide into the kitchen, put on some water for herb tea, read a few minutes, look out the window and take some deep breaths, say hello to a new day. I start my day by sitting up with my eyes still closed, doing a few slow, deep breathing exercises, and drinking a glass of water before I get out of bed.
You may wish to include some light calisthenics or to walk around the block before breakfast as part of your morning transition. This is only a suggestion; the main point is to create transition rituals that work for you.
Nowhere is a transition ritual so crucial as in the world of athletics. We call it a warm-up; it serves as a buffer zone between the day's prior events and the moment of truth in the athletic arena. A proper warm-up serves to prepare us for the unique demands of sport and helps us avoid days when nothing seems to go right.
Most of us are familiar with a physical warm-up to get the muscles warm, stretch out, and prepare physically for the intensity of training. Relatively few athletes appreciate the importance of a concurrent mental and emotional warm-up.
Engaging in mental warm-up means determining a clear course of action for the day. You'll want to choose realistic goals, based upon the circumstances and your energy level that day. Mental warm-up involves turning your attention to the place of practice, leaving all the day's cares and concerns at the door. Finally, you'll want to cultivate the proper attitude of respect and gratitude?he right mental "set"?or your activity. This is the purpose behind the Japanese tradition of bowing upon entering and leaving the practice hall.
Just as a decathlete needs a similar transition between the pole vault and javelin throw, a gymnast requires a mental transition between two pieces of apparatus because of the different qualities of each. Even a ballroom dancer needs to make a shift between a waltz or a disco dance. Runners and swimmers cultivate a different approach to sprinting and distance events; golfers need different mental warm-ups for driving and putting. Mental warm-up provides the proper focus and energy for each activity.
Emotional warm-up might begin with a few deep, calming breaths. Then you can recall the initial excitement you first felt about your sport and form a few mental images (mental warm-up) that create heightened emotional energy. Choose your emotional goal?ocus on what fires you up about training. Imagine yourself succeeding at your goals; picture yourself winning because of a good practice day. Feel how much you can gain from some wisely directed energy.
Mental and emotional warm-up might seem to be long and involved, but they can actually take place almost simultaneously, at the speed of thought. The whole process might take place in the space of five slow, deep breaths or a moment of quiet contemplation as you make your transition. Many athletes do something like this subconsciously. Inner athletes do it consciously and strategically in order to control and amplify their direction and energy for the day.
Physical warm-up should be a definite period, set aside especially for the purpose. It doesn't have to (and probably shouldn't) be a long, involved process. Yet it is a time to get the body literally warm, oxygenated, fully awake, free of sluggishness energized and relaxed. Never rush into warm-up?it's not the main event. Our bodies are like automobiles. You wouldn't want to start a cold engine, then race off at top speed. The oil (or, in our case, blood) isn't warm and flowing yet.
You may start some days feeling clogged up or lethargic. Don't let that discourage you. Some of my all-time best workouts began like that and ended well. It just took the body longer to warm up on that kind of day.
After a training session, you may wish to do some stretching and deep breathing exercises as a warm-down.
Learning How to Learn
When you were a child you may have had the opportuni ty to play in an empty lot, just after a fresh snowfall when the bare earth was hidden by a smooth cover of snow. Maybe that winter you were the first kid on your block to blaze that first straight, clean pathway through the crunchy, knee-deep carpet of white.
As it happens, the neurological pathways you blaze when you learn a new movement pattern are just like the paths through that snowy field. The white carpet is your nervous system; the pathway is a neural one, and it represents a specific movement pattern or skill.
After all your preparation is done, you are ready to learn your new skill?laze the correct neural pathway. Repetition of this pathway will lead to development of your skill. This applies to any movement pattern, simple or complex, whether running jumping swinging a bat, throwing a ball, or turning a triple somersault.
I use the image of the snow-covered lot (above) because it represents graphically what happens in your neuromuscular system when you are learning a new skill. The solid line from A to B shows the perfect execution of a skill. If line A? is your first attempt at the skill, it means that you were totally prepared?entally, emotionally, and physically?nd were thus ready to perform it correctly the very first time.
Because most of us are not perfectly prepared, our first attempts are represented by the curving dotted lines above. Then we gradually home in on line A?. This homing in process takes varying amounts of time, depending upon the approach to learning.
Your first attempt at a new skill is the most important one, because you've formed no previous pathway. The next time . . . and the next time, you're likely to follow the first path you made. Every time you take the same neural pathway, you'll stabilize and reinforce that motor response whether it is correct or not.
Every time you let yourself practice a movement incorrectly, you're increasing your ability to do it wrong. It follows that you want to repeat the correct movement pattern as much as possible and to avoid, at all costs, repeating an incorrect pattern. A fundamental rule of learning, therefore, is this: Never repeat the same error twice.
We know that errors are a part of learning. You will make errors. In order to avoid stabilizing the errors, however, you have to make consciously different errors each time, in order to move yourself toward the correct pattern. If you make different errors, you don't habituate yourself to any single incorrect movement pattern. This is a very important point, because one of the prime causes of slow learning is repetition of (and thus habituation to) one incorrect motor response. You get used to swinging the bat too low; you get accustomed to arching in a handstand; you begin to feel comfortable shifting your weight to the wrong foot on your golf swing.
As you consciously make each attempt different, you're simply exploring the many possibilities for error as you home in slowly to the straight path, the correct way, without forming bad habits.
Awareness and Practice
If you practice hitting a thousand golf balls every day but really pay attention to only two hundred swings, then you're wasting eight hundred swings a day?nd in fact, those eight hundred semiconscious swings may be doing you more harm than good, because, as I just pointed out, you can form bad pathways without noticing it?ike walking through the empty lot in your sleep.
Practice doesn't make perfect; only perfect practice makes perfect. Proper learning technique consists not only of attempting the correct pattern but avoiding the incorrect one. Remain fully aware in your mind and in your body of every attempt you make during practice. If you make an error, never just "do it again." Take a moment to be fully aware of what went wrong if you don't know, you'll just repeat the error. Then make a determined attempt to do something different.
The Stages of Practice
Most of us assume that if we want to become skilled, we must practice the skill over and over, many times. This is not necessarily true. Most beginners tend to practice too much at first. If you're a beginner at a particular skill, you'll probably have a low level of "feeling awareness" at first. You don't exactly know what the skill, performed correctly, should feel like. Don't practice many repetitions, therefore, or you're likely to develop incorrect patterns. Instead, begin with a few repetitions, maintaining intense concentration and real interest. You may continue while concentration and interest are strong but if you begin to repeat an error, or if real interest and attention start to fade?f your approach becomes casual?hen stop, and come back to your practice later on. Practice is like gambling: you have to know when to quit. When you find that you can consistently repeat the correct pattern, only then should you begin to do many repetitions for endurance and stabilization.
Following this principle, I taught myself within a very short time to juggle three balls. I'd try each progression, beginning with one ball, then two, and finally three, only four or five times each day. Working for five minutes a day, within five days I taught myself to juggle three balls. It's very true that some people, by practicing for an hour or two, might learn to juggle three balls in one day. What I want to emphasize, however, is that the way I suggest, aligned with natural order and realistic psychological dynamics, will allow you to learn correctly. Many "fast learners" also pick up little compensations and poor habit patterns. They may learn the skill fast, but they don't necessarily learn it right. Take the time to learn it right, and you'll save time. There's a big difference between learning and learning correctly.
As you practice, stop for a moment between each two attempts. "Check yourself," take a deep breath, shake loose, and relax. Feel awareness tingling through your body, out to your fingertips and toes. Feel your connection to the earth. Then continue.