June 30, 2014
Repetition is the Key to Mastery
By William Imbo
July 1, 2014
“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times”
How do we acquire a skill, hone it, develop it and make it our own? From riding a bicycle to learning to drive, from tying our shoelaces to nailing a muscle-up, what is the one constant variable? Repetition. And failure. Ok, I suppose that’s two, but aren’t they invariably linked? Without failure, we cannot succeed. To quote Alfred the Butler in Batman Begins; “Why do we fall down Mr. Wayne? So we can learn to pick ourselves up again.”
And again, and again, and again. It may only take a few weeks to master some skills, while others could take a lifetime. It is true that for a few lucky souls, the innate genius they are born with allows them to master a talent far quicker than their counterparts. Mozart wrote his first symphony at age 8. For goodness sakes, Bo Jackson played for a professional football AND baseball team, and he was named an All-Star in both! Rich Froning is 26 years old, and he’s already won three CrossFit Games championships.
The rest of us, however, are not prodigies. We may never accomplish the feats that so many legends of the arts have done, but we do aspire to achieve our own feats of greatness by maximizing our potential. In order to do that, we have to practice. We have to get the reps in.
There is a theory popularized by best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell that 10,000 hours of appropriately guided practice is “the magic number of greatness,” regardless of a person’s natural aptitude. In his book, Outliers, he claims that with enough practice, anyone could achieve a level of proficiency that would rival that of a professional. Amazing as Froning is, he easily could have had four CrossFit titles instead of his current three, were it not for the difficulty he experienced with the rope climb in 2010. But surprise surprise, Froning put in the work, practiced this skill, and is a far better athlete for it. In fact, he credits the rope climbs of 2010 for making him the champion that he is today.
For the rest of us, we may have more things to work on then just a solitary rope climb like Mr. Froning had to worry about, which is only natural. But the question then becomes, are you willing to put in the hours and reps to make a weakness a strength, and a strength a skill? Do you come to open gym to work on your handstands? Do you get to the box 10 minutes early to work on your double-unders? Do you stay behind after class to get a few more reps in? Or do you shy away from the tricky elements of CrossFit in hope that your persistence in coming to class and staying dedicated to the general WOD will be sufficient in helping you get over the hump and somehow acquire the skill that you so desperately want? I think you know the answer, because there is only one that’s realistic. There is no elite athlete who rose to the top by just showing up. Michael Jordan got cut from the varsity team to the jv team when he was in high school. I think he started putting the work in to make sure that never happened again.
The more you practice something (i.e. the more reps you do), the more you build up the procedural memory in the brain (a memory for the performance of particular types of action), which will allow you to carry out a movement quicker and more naturally with increased practice. This is also called muscle memory, and in the same way it can help you develop a skill, it can also make you repeatedly fail, and here’s why. Practicing a movement repeatedly with bad form is promoting bad habits and severely inhibits your capabilities to progress as an athlete. Yes, falling down makes us learn how to pick ourselves up—but if no one is there to show us how to stand up correctly, we could be getting it horribly, horribly wrong. Think back to when you first attempted to properly execute an air squat. You probably thought it was easy to simply squat down, and stand back up again. But then your coach starts to point all these inefficiencies in your movement. Your knees come in, you go on to your toes, you don’t extend your hips backward and your chest is caving forwards. This isn’t necessarily your fault, you simply didn’t have anyone showing you how to do it properly. When you add those things to your squat, you open up a whole world of possibilities to the PR’s you can hit and the exercises you can do. To summarize, spending countless hours practicing a skill incorrectly can be more damaging than practicing it at all. Bad habits that are regimented into your muscle memory are notoriously hard to break. Just ask your flexibility. As legendary football coach Vince Lombardi once said, “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.”
But remember, just because you may master a skill now doesn’t mean you won’t lose it in the future—the easiest way to do that is by simply not practicing it. Once you feel confident in a movement, you can always, ALWAYS fine-tune it to make it better. Any elite CrossFitter will tell you that there’s always something to work on. I’m sure Rich still spends a great amount of time on his rope climbs to make sure that that skill remains a skill he possesses.
So get your coach to show you how to execute that skill you’ve been trying to master. Learn the progressions, read and watch video and gather as much information as you can about the particular task at hand. Once you have the foundations down, it’s simply a matter of practicing that it for 10,000 hours. And once you’ve mastered it, it’s time to work on another one. Let’s get to work!