Repetitio mater studiorum est (Repetition is the mother of all learning).
“Repetition is the mother of learning, the father of action, which makes it the architect of accomplishment.” – Zig Zigler
Repetitio est mater studiorum (Repetition is the mother of studies).
(Photo Credit: Tom Kelly)
What happens when you learn a physical skill?
Learning, specifically learning a physical skill, involves enhancing the communication between the nerves and the brain. Your nerves speak to your brain through electrical impulses. The faster and more efficient the communication, the faster and more efficient the movement or series of movements.
Learning happens when new connections are made between brain nerve cells and those connections communicate electrical impulses faster.
A little neurobiology from Wikipedia (Neurons):
A neuron is an electrically excitable cell that processes and transmits information through electrical and chemical signals. These signals between neurons occur via synapses, specialized connections with other cells. Neurons can connect to each other to form neural networks. Neurons are the core components of the brain and spinal cord of the central nervous system (CNS), and of the ganglia of the peripheral nervous system (PNS). Specialized types of neurons include: sensory neurons which respond to touch, sound, light and all other stimuli affecting the cells of the sensory organs that then send signals to the spinal cord and brain, motor neurons that receive signals from the brain and spinal cord to cause muscle contractions and affect glandular outputs, and interneurons which connect neurons to other neurons within the same region of the brain, or spinal cord in neural networks.
When different parts of the brain communicate and coordinate with each other, they send electrical impulses that travel down a cable called an axon. The axon communicates with other neurons in a chain. Firing a nerve impulse is like pushing over the first domino in a chain. This process repeats from neuron to neuron, until the nerve signals reach their destination.
Myelin is the white fatty substance which coats the axon. Myelination is when the body coats the axon with more myelin. Myelin increases the speed of the electrical impulse by letting the impulse jump across the myelin sheath to the next axon. So those dominos are falling a lot faster.
For our purposes the bottom line is, the more myelin coating the axons the faster and more accurately we move. As children learn they lay down more myelin to make everyday processes easier.
Cells in the brain detect movements which are repeated (ie. practicing a handgun or knife draw stroke). By moving in a specific sequence, we trigger a pattern of electrical signals through our neurons. At first, these signals are weak and uncoordinated.
If an action is repeated enough, the brain cells then determine the very specific sequence of movements are important enough to the organism (you) to enhance the process. The brain cells will make the movement more efficient by producing a chemical which generates myelin around the specific axons which are being used during the performance of that movement, increasing the speed and strength of the signal.
OTHER BIOLOGICAL FACTORS ASSOCIATED WITH LEARNING A SKILL
Special communications channels in the nerve cells of our brains called NMDA receptors (N-methyl-D-aspartate receptor) produce associative learning by helping to make new connections. Researchers have shown a protein called GAP-43 is activated by the NMDA receptor. GAP-43 makes it easier for a cell to fire its neurotransmitter molecules. The NMDA receptors are needed to produce the receipt signal, the GAP-43 proteins to receive it.
Flooding GAP-43 with impulses gets nerve connections to form rapidly. Repeating the same combination of nerve signals over and over, activates GAP-43 again and again in the nerve cells that form that memory.
Neurobiology is out of my lane and I take full responsibility for anything I have misrepresented in the above description. But a basic understand allows us to begin to understand why accurate repetitive practice is so important.
Vince Lombardi has been credited with the quote: “Practice doesn’t make perfect, proper practice makes perfect”.
Myelination and NMDA/GAP-43 research begins to explain why quantity of a specific sequence of movements makes that movement more efficient and faster. There is no biological research which points to how many repetitions it takes to myelinate an axon or enhance GAP-43.
The research does show you will enhance the EXACT sequence you repeat. So if you have crappy technical instruction, do the movement wrong, or cut corners, you will default to movement errors. Practice makes permanent.
This is why it is vitally important to get a qualified instructor/coach to teach YOU the movement and correct YOUR errors, in the early stages of learning. we want to always groove the correct sequence of movements. Once a wrong pathway is myelinated, it is very difficult to reprogram. So, be careful how you initially learn a movement and who you learn that movement from!
Myelination and NMDA/GAP-43 enhancement occur regardless of speed of movement! Interjecting fast repetitions of a movement to early in the learning process will lead to movement errors and those errors will be embedded in your system. Movement errors take a lot of work to erase. Especially when first learning a skill, practice that skill slowly, very slowly, like you are practicing Tai Chi. Make corrections early in the process, before myelination occurs. Slow practice allows you to see and feel faults, to correct course early, before your brain lays down myelin.
Once you can reproduce the correct movement slowly, you want to encourage myelination as quickly as possible. That means thousands of repetitions of the technically perfect movement.
It is helpful to break down a complex series of movements, like a pistol draw stroke, to their smallest pieces and practice the pieces individually.
For example, if we wanted to learn to draw a pistol from a holster and aim the pistol, we have to move our dominant hand to the pistol grip; establish a grip; release the pistol from the holster; move the pistol up a vertical plane away from our holster, up the body, and closer to our center line; move the pistol into either a retention position or into the horizontal line of presentation; extend the pistol along the horizontal line of presentation to full extension of our arms; have the sights come into our exact visual cone so we have to do minimal or no adjustment of sight picture and sight alignment.
That is an extremely complex series of movements!
As we initially progress through the series of movements in the draw stroke, we are going to make many errors. Early errors (say in gripping the pistol in the holster) will compound into errors later in the sequence (poor grip throws initial sight alignment or sight picture off). We then need to add corrections from an early sequential error into our repetition (initial grip is to low causing our sight picture to be too high, causing us to dip the muzzle of the pistol to compensate). If our grip is consistently off and we have to compensate in every repetition, that compensation will become part of our draw stroke. This is very bad!
To prevent this we could break down the draw stroke into stages and practice the stages. So in our above example we could just practice acquiring a proper grip when the pistol is in the holster. Our first 100 reps should be slow and controlled. We should correct any errors as early as possible. Get feedback from coaches and experienced individuals. Video yourself practicing and correct errors.
Once we could do technically perfect movement, we need to burn that movement out with thousands of repetitions.
When drilling a new move in BJJ, I will just drill the opening grip sequence for 100s reps and try to repeat this day after day, week after week.
HOW DO WE FIT ALL OF THESE REPS INTO OUR ALREADY BUSY DAY?
Utilize dead spaces in your day to perform some technically perfect repetitions.
Everytime you go to the bathroom, draw the knife from your pocket 10 times.
When you stand from your computer, perform 20 perfect repetitions of pistol grip acquisition.
Every morning, right after getting out of bed do 30 perfect hip escapes.
Find the dead spaces and fill them with repetitions of a skill you want to acquire or enhance.
Do this EVERY DAY, no excuses.
Once you acquire the skill, own that skill, and prove it under realistic pressure, you can push the skill to maintenance but you still have to practice it, rep it, just not as much.
Let’s review and pull out the takeaways:
- Identify a skill we want to acquire.
- Identify and hire the most experienced and best instructor we can find, to teach us the skill and evaluate our progress.
- Practice the skill slowly and receive brutally honest feedback regarding errors. Catch and correct errors prior to performing reps to “groove” the movement.
- Use the feedback to eradicate movement errors in the sequence.
- Break the sequence of the movement into component parts.
- Practice the component parts slowly via repetition.
- Fit repetitions into the dead spaces within your day. Groove the movement into your nervous system.
- Gradually increase the speed of the repetition.
- Rep daily, no excuses.
- Practice the movement under ever increasing pressure, until you could replicate it, at will, under any intensity of pressure.
- Maintain the skill through less frequent practice.
- Identify another skill you wish to acquire.
- Repeat until you die.