Keep practising – especially as you get older!

A few months back I did a martial arts session with my original instructor. It had been a long time and I was far from my best, so I paired up with a relatively junior student for some padwork.

He was young and strong and had been training hard for a few months.

Little did he know that I had trained since before he was walking. It began when I was 15, and I loved spending hours in the hall, relentlessly asking questions of my instructor long after the class had finished. So when I hit him, he was pretty surprised 🙂

When I step back into one of those same classes today, I remember most of the techniques but my skill level has suffered – perhaps more than I would like to admit. But I’m still not your average beginner.

In my first session back, it’s best if I just watch, or pair up with a beginning student. In my second session back, I can pair up with someone who has been training for a few months. And after a few weeks, I’ll expect to match it with the guys who have been training for a year or more.

But why? Why can we get so much better so quickly?

It’s the same with older experts. After playing at the top of their field, they will stop doing so much deliberate practice. The sportsperson won’t be competing so they won’t be training – at least not as much. The doctor won’t be studying and maintaining their skills through regular patient contact. The linguist will struggle in a language after not having used it for a while. We all get ‘rusty’.

If you’ve been reading much of what I’ve said before, you’ll know that deliberate practice is important for skill acquisition. But deliberate practice is also important for maintaining those skills.

(So if you find yourself competing with someone who seems to be ‘past it’, you might want to check how much practice they have been getting lately.)

It’s like there is a ‘trait’ component and a ‘state’ component of skill. The ‘trait’ component is how good you are at your worst – when Lleyton Hewitt plays tennis at his worst, he’s still much better than most of us. But there is also something else: “How good are you today?” We could call that part our ‘state’ skill level because it depends upon our state in any given moment. To compete with the best, you might need to have a high level of “state skill” and combine that with being at your best on that day with a high “trait skill”.

As you get better, you not only polish your performance skills, but create mental and physical adaptations. When you start driving, it’s hard work to keep the car in the right gear, to check the mirrors, steer and keep a safe distance from the cars around you. After a while, you just need to think “turn right” and you can. Some of this comes from tasks becoming automated so they require less attention, some of it comes from using a better strategy and having better technique. But even the best of us can have a bad day – so there is a ‘state’ component and a ‘trait’ component.

The great thing about deliberate practice enhancing our ‘trait skill’ level is that once you have developed a high level of performance, you can take those adaptations with you without too much effort.

It’s the ‘hard work’ of deliberate practice that creates a context for these adaptations. It’s hard work because we are learning to do things differently. Rehearsal or playing the game can give you ‘experience’ but this polish doesn’t improve the stone. Deliberate practice upgrades the quality of the underlying stone.

So, as you begin 2010, I hope that you can find ways to upgrade your skills, not just getting a little better.

Originally from Genius as a choice.

2 comments on “Keep practising – especially as you get older!

  1. Daniel…..very funny article. As an “old, fat and lazy” karete black belt i know exactly what you are talking about. For several years now, old injuries, laziness, weight and work has prevented much practicing. This year we “took the bull by the horn”1 We just scheduled a 5 day Muay Thai Training camp in Thailand for the whole family during the Chinese new year celebration………you may never see me again. farewell…or see you later!


  2. Great idea, Krister – upon arriving in Brisbane in November, I headed back to the gym to train with my original instructor again… it was hard to start with, but felt great. I’ve been thinking of heading down to Thailand myself so let me know how you find it. Where are you staying?
    Take care of yourself… remember to take it easy, especially starting out!

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