Learning, then, is not just a matter of casually (or fiercely) performing a motion over and over. That may build stamina and muscles, but it will not necessarily develop the straightest path to natural ability. What you require is a strategy of training that employs insight and concentration in place of mechanical repetition. The following techniques and principles make up that strategy of effective learning.
Overcompensation is the single most valuable aid to rapid learning you're ever likely to come across. Here's why: When you're performing an incorrect movement pattern over a period of time, you're going to become comfortable with that pattern. Any changes?ven toward the correct pattern?re going to feel "strange" because you're not used to them. When you're wrong, what's right feels wrong. Because of this principle, corrections tend to be insufficient. Your attempts tend to cluster around your old habit.
If, for example, you're learning to hit a baseball and have formed a habit of swinging too high, you'll tend to continue swinging high. Even if someone tells you to swing lower, you'll correct only a little bit, otherwise it will feel "all wrong" Maybe you'll swing a little lower than before, but your swing will still be too high.
Recognizing the law of balance, therefore, you have to apply overcompensation to your practice and work both sides of the movement. You have to make a determined attempt to swing "much too low." When you attempt this, it's best if you actually swing under the ball. After working both sides?oo high and too low--you'll know where the middle is. (Most likely, though, in trying to swing "too low," you'll connect with the ball.)
The principle of overcompensation?r working both sides applies to elements of timing, balance, accuracy, and force in every possible sport or movement art. It works on the same natural gyroscopic principle that allows a guided missile to home in on target quickly, by moving from one side to the other, until it finds the middle. "Finding the middle" is what effective learning is all about.
Faster Learning Through Overcompensation
I'm going to assume that catching an object in front of you that you've thrown up behind your back is a new skill for you. Take a lemon or other unbreakable fruit. Toss it behind your back and up over your shoulder, catching it in front of you in the same hand. You can throw the object over the same or the opposite shoulder of the hand in which you hold the object. The main object here is to make conscious use of overcompensation. Work on one variable at a time. If you threw too far left, then on your next attempt throw too far right. If you then throw too far behind you, make sure you throw way in front of you. Then you'll find the middle.
Using this principle, you should be able to learn this tricky skill in just a few minutes. You can then apply the same technique to any endeavor. But like many other athletes, you may experience resistance to working both sides; it may seem like a "waste of time" to try to do something deliberately wrong. You may feel impatient just to do it right the next time and want to avoid another wrong attempt even on "the other side." If that's the case, I hope the reasons behind the strategy of overcompensation are now dear, making its time-saving usefulness obvious.
If you are incapable of working both sides because of insufficient strength, suppleness, or other qualities that would enable you to overcompensate, then it's back to basics. You need more preparation, or else you'll only ingrain the error more deeply.
If you feel acutely uncomfortable or even fearful of working both sides because it "feels too strange" (especially if you're engaged in a high-risk sport), that's normal. If you're a high diver and you keep under-throwing a dive, you may feel just a bit nervous about the prospect of overthrowing the same dive. Still, the principle applies; you can make use of it or not. If you wish to learn successfully and rapidly, you have to be willing to work both sides.
Ideomotor Action and Mental Practice
Your powers of imagination can help you enhance old skills and learn new ones. This is possible because of the interaction of mind and muscle. In the negative sense, turbulent thought can impose muscular tension, as you've seen. On the positive side, clear mental imagery can even with out actual movement?evelop correct muscular responses. This principle can be demonstrated with a simple experiment:
MIND MOVING BODY
Tie a small weighted object (like a ring) to a six-inch length of thread or string. Let the object hang by the string, held by your thumb and first finger. Hold the string still, then begin to imagine that the ring is swinging back and forth, back and forth. Continue to imagine this, and watch what happens.
Next, while the ring swings back and forth, imagine that it is going in a circle instead; see the results.
This test demonstrates the phenomenon of ideomotor action?hat for any image of movement there is a subtle, corresponding muscular impulse. If you relax the body and imagine yourself performing a movement correctly, the muscles respond. Ideomotor action is a key principle behind mental practice.
The value of mental practice is well established in research. One study of mental practice used a group of sixty beginning basketball players. The group was split into three groups of twenty each. The first group practiced shooting baskets from the free-throw line, attempting a specified number of shots in a specified time for a period of two weeks. The second group was asked to practice mentally in exactly the same fashion?magining themselves shooting baskets. The third group performed unrelated activities during that same time period.
Everyone in each group was tested at the beginning of practice and again after the two-week period. As expected, the third group didn't improve. Those who practiced mentally, however, improved almost as much as those who trained physically.
The moral of that study is not, of course, that we should begin practicing from the living-room couch but that mental practice can be very useful as a supplement to physical practice. I gained a reputation as a "natural" when I competed on the University of California's gymnastics team, because I seemed to learn difficult movements "effortlessly" on on the first try. What my teammates didn't know was that I would dream about those moves the night before and perform them in my head all day before actually attempting them. When I finally executed the movement physically, it felt as if I'd done it many times already. This confidence helped me to overcome fear, too.
In some situations especially, mental practice has distinct advantages:
- It's absolutely safe-unless you mentally practice your golf swing while driving down the freeway.
- You can do it anywhere Be careful with this, however. I once imagined myself doing a trampoline routine while sitting in a dull political-science lecture. As I practiced, my arms made waving gestures as I "twisted" and "somersaulted." The professor stopped his lecture, and all eight hundred people in the hall strained for a look at "the guy in the front row having a fit."
- There's no fear of failure in mental practice, because it can be free of error; you can perform brilliantly.
There are exceptions to this rule, too. One of my gymnasts at the University of California consistently fell off the balance beam. As surely as the sun rose, as regularly as Monday followed Sunday, she'd fall off. She fell on weekdays or weekends, rain or shine, in practice or competition, without discrimination.
One day, out of sheer desperation?or her safety and my peace of mind? suggested that she try mental practice for a while. "Go through five or ten routines perfectly, in your head," I said, feeling that perhaps in this way she'd develop a good habit.
I busied myself with the other gymnasts until later, when I glanced over and saw her sitting there, brows knitted with concentration, eyes shut tight, whispering to herself, "Damn! Oops . . . oh, damn!"
Puzzled. I asked her what was the matter. She replied,
"Oh, nothing, Coach. It's just that I keep falling off."
Another advantage of mental practice is that it's free. If you take those private lessons twice a week instead of three times, or an hour each day instead of two, you can spend the rest of your time practicing in your imagination. You really get your money's worth.
Mental practice means that you are concentrating automatically, because concentration is part of mental effort. You can do casual physical practice by just letting your body go through the motions without real attention. Not so with mental practice. Because of this, it isn't as easy as it sounds. You have to develop your capacity for visualization, imagery, and concentration, but once you do, your efforts will reap rewards of learning.
You can use mental practice if you're ill or injured, or at odd moments during the day when there's nothing much to do. It beats thinking about your problems and you can get a jump on your favorite opponents.
As you imagine yourself doing well in competition or practice, this visualization will also serve to dissolve any limiting self-concept, since your subconscious mind doesn't differentiate strongly between what you see or do and what you imagine vividly.
Athletes who improve faster than equally-prepared counterparts simply put in more mental practice time. When someone would ask me how I learned a particular gymnastics move, I'd joke, "Oh, I think about it a lot." Actually, of course, thinking about the movement was part of my practice.
Mental practice also explains the common phenomenon of athletes returning to a sport after a layoff only to find that their technique has improved. It also explains the occurrence of big improvement in a skill on a Monday after an athlete had trouble with it on a Friday and took the weekend off. In just thinking about the movements, it's possible for you to improve, because you don't practice any errors. Mental practice is more efficient than physical practice.
The main requirement of mental practice is to stay entirely relaxed so that no other muscle tensions interfere with the proper response. While practicing mentally you can lie down, or you can sit quietly. Of course, you have to have some kind of "feel" for the movement before practicing it in your imagination. Once you know how it should feel, practice it repeatedly in your mind.
Slow-motion practice, a key to reaching the highest levels of mastery, gives you the time to be aware of every part of a movement, whether it's a baseball or golf swing, a javelin toss, or a karate punch. When you perform an activity in slow motion you can sense such complex parts of the act as weight shift and coordination of body parts. Since most unconscious errors occur in the middle of a movement sequence, slowing the movement down can have surprising benefits in ease and speed of learning, because mistakes that were formerly hidden can become painfully obvious.
Test 1. Hold your right hand in front of your face, so that you are looking into your palm. Quickly move your right arm out to the side, turning your palm outward, and stop. Notice that you were aware of only the beginning and the end of that movement.
Test 2. Now repeat the same sequence, but this time move your arm and hand in slow motion?s slowly as you possibly can. Let it take a full minute. Be aware of the relaxation of the arm and hand muscles. Notice how each finger turns; clearly see the different angles of your hand, as if for the first time.
In this test, you were clearly aware of the movement of your arm and hand in its entirety, from beginning to end. I discovered, after a period of slow-motion practice, that I could move faster than ever because in moving slowly I became aware of tension and was able to let it go. Without tension, it's possible to move with blinding speed.
Slow-motion practice is like studying slow-motion instant replay films of training, except that in practice you're also feeling, not just seeing. You can apply this technique to virtually every sport or movement form. It applies particularly well to activities like golf, baseball, tennis, and handball. In coaching gymnastics, I often carry athletes slowly through a somersaulting movement so that they can become aware of every part of turning over. Slowing down your practice expands your awareness and eliminates the blurred blind spot encountered in rapid movements. You can be very creative in applying slow motion to different activities. (If you figure out how to apply it to skydiving, of course, I'd like to hear about it.)