Practice Slow, Learn Fast

If you’ve ever taken music or martial arts classes, you’ve most likely gone through the ritual called “slow practice.” For those who don’t know what it is, slow practice is an essential part of the learning experience. It’s also the most challenging, frustrating and boring part of learning a new skill (for me, anyway).

I don’t have any stats to back it up, but after having taught martial arts courses and enrolled in a dozen more—plus learning musical instruments, rally driving, and others—I feel confident in asserting that this is where many newbies fall off the wagon. And why wouldn’t it be? You see all the advanced students and pros ripping through their routines like they were The Flash, and here you are doing an impression of a drunken sloth.

I’ve had impatient students who think slow practice is just a form of hazing, or something teachers do to put students in their place. But I can assure you it’s not.

Why Slow Practice Doesn’t Suck

Let’s take the simplest move in martial art, the punch, and use it to demonstrate why slow practice is so awesome.

Ingrains proper form. A fast punch seems simple, at first glance. But try breaking it down. You have to plant your feet, angle your shoulder, twist your hips, rotate your forearm, align your wrist, and try to hit a moving target with the first two knuckles of your hand. That’s a lot to keep in mind, and it’s impossible for a newbie to do all that in the less than a second—the speed of a proper jab.

Doing it slowly gives your body time to adjust to and memorize all those disparate movements. Repeating it slowly is like carving it into your muscle memory, creating a lasting impression that it can draw on at a moment’s notice, once you’ve practiced it enough.

Reduce bad habits. The first time I rushed through my slow practice, I developed a bad habit of punching with my wrist bent. I didn’t happen all the time, but when it did I wound up hitting the bag with my fingers instead of my knuckles. Nobody really caught it because I was punching at full speed with gloves on. Only when I took a step back and began practicing punches slowly again did I get myself out of that habit.

Decrease injury. It’s a damn good thing I did it, too. My bad habit afflicted me with a sprained wrist, sprained fingers, and bloody finger knuckles until I got my technique straightened out. I’ve seen (and gotten) worse injuries as a result of poor technique, and the only cure for that was more slow practice.

When Slow Practice Does Suck

As much a proponent of slow practice as I am, I do have to admit that it has downsides. Most of these are a result of coming into it with the wrong mindset. I’ll explain what I mean by that in a minute, but first here are the disadvantages:

Stuck on “slow.” There’s a saying that goes, “you play as you practice.” This applies to slow practice in both positive and negative ways. Perform slow practice too often, or with the wrong mindset, and you risk performing slowly even when you’re trying to perform fast. This is probably because you’ve made your slow pace a bad habit in and of itself.

Different bad habits. In practicing slow, you may develop a whole different set of bad habits. One of the ones I developed was a tendency to exaggerate my shoulder movements. I couldn’t detect it moving slowly, but it telegraphed my punch when I tried to do it full-speed. This applies in music, too, when you’re so used to exaggerating your movements in making a chord that it makes it difficult to perform high-speed tunes.

So does that mean slow practice is useless? That you should just practice at full speed anyway? Absolutely not!

All it means is that slow practice needs to be done right in order to be truly effective.

Maximizing the Slo-Mo

If you want to learn faster, you have to keep the following things in mind during slow practice:

Be mindful. Keep track of everything that you do. Notice any bad tendencies you may have and work hard to iron those out during your slow practice. Do an action at the regular speed, figure out where your stumbling blocks are, and use your slow practice to overcome them.

Don’t forget to push. Remember the original purpose of your slow practice: to improve your high-speed performance as fast as possible. Challenge yourself to increase your pace while still maintaining proper form and technique. Don’t stay frozen at the slow pace forever.

The Last Word

I know slow practice is frustrating and tortuous, but it really is the fastest way to get to a high level. It doesn’t matter if you’re learning a sport, martial arts, music, art, or a new language. Mastering the basics is critical for all of these and more.

Hop slowly, grasshopper, and you will hop far.

Image credit: Robert Rinyu


3 Things I Learned Teaching My Daughter to Read

I love books, if you didn’t already know. My daughter does, too. She’s got a good speaking vocabulary, and knows her letters back to front (literally), but still relies on her parents to act as live-performance audiobooks.

To remedy that, us older folks have been trying to teach Little Girl how to read on her own. It’s been difficult, sure, but it’s also been really rewarding. It may sound trite, and I really hate the touchy-feely new age statements of “the experience taught me things, too,” but…

The experience taught me things, too.

I realized a few things that has implications for how we learn things as adults. And if you’re willing to cut through all the sentimentality, I’m willing to share it.

Cool? Cool.  Continue reading 3 Things I Learned Teaching My Daughter to Read

Why I’ll Never Go Back to FM Radio

To me, FM Radio is like having candy for dinner. It’s all empty calories.

Now before the Internet falls down on me for condemning the radio industry, let me just say this is a personal choice, not a critique of your own personal tastes. If you can’t handle that, please leave the room.

Okay, are those dinosaurs gone? Great!

Thereare much better things to listen to in your car than FM radio. Continue reading Why I’ll Never Go Back to FM Radio

Productivity Tips that Never Work (For Me)

Productivity Tips that Never Work (For Me)

There are so many productivity tips on the Internet that, if each one was turned into a coin, it would fill up Scrooge McDuck’s Duck Tales vault. And yet why aren’t more people more productive? Why hasn’t the world turned into a utopia of uber-productive, overachieving individuals?

I read the same tips that you do (probably more), and I’ve also tried the same ones you have (again, probably more). Now, I can’t speak for why you’re still a chronic underachiever, but I know why I am.

A lot of the tips just don’t work.

They don’t work for me, that is (so don’t burn me at the stake just yet). I’m going to share a few of the productivity tips I tried, as well as my thoughts on why they didn’t work. If you have a different analysis, please share it in the comments. I’ll have a bonus for you at the end.

Continue reading Productivity Tips that Never Work (For Me)

Don’t Want to Suck? Pick Your Training Partners Wisely

Coaches and mentors are a great help for improving your skills, but most of us don’t have access to one. And even those who do need someone closer to their skill level with whom they can practice (unless you enjoy getting beat up by your sensei every time you spar).

Your training partner is going to have a very strong influence on your progress. So you have to be sure you’ve paired up with the right person. To butcher a popular saying, “you can’t pick your family, but you can pick your training partners.”
Continue reading Don’t Want to Suck? Pick Your Training Partners Wisely

5 Teachers That will Stunt Your Growth

5 Teachers That will Stunt your Growth

If something is worth learning, it’s worth learning from someone who knows better: teachers, coaches, mentors, gurus, senseis, shifus—learning from knowledgeable people is smart and part of human nature. But some teachers can cause far more harm to a student than good. These duds don’t encourage growth, they stunt it.

I’ve encountered quite a few of these bad teachers over the years (and heard stories of more). Here are a few of the ones you should avoid:
Continue reading 5 Teachers That will Stunt your Growth

James Earl Jones

People Who Used to Suck: James Earl Jones

Quick survey: How many of you recognize this voice:

Or this voice?

If you do, then you probably know the speaker as James Earl Jones, one of the most accomplished actors of our—no, any era. His deep basso profundo voice is instantly recognizable as the chime of an ice cream truck (though not nearly as popular with children). He’s won more awards over the years than you can shake a lightsaber at, and not just for film. James Earl Jones is also an incredible stage actor, and still manages to participate despite being over 80 years old.

But that iconic voice of his almost never came to be.
Continue reading People Who Used to Suck: James Earl Jones

8 Industry Pros Share Their Best Skill-Building Tips

Are you trying to raise your skills to a professional level? A level that can compete with practically anyone else in your field?

If you said “yes,” then congratulations! This is the post for you. I approached people I admired from various fields, like music and writing and project management, and I asked them the following question:

“What does it take to bring your skills to a professional level?”

I was blown away by the responses: not just at how many replied (nearly all of them), but at the depth and insight of their advice. These are pros at the top of their game, folks, and I’m honored that they took the time to participate.
Continue reading 8 Industry Pros Share Their Best Skill-Building Tips

How to Tell If You're a Bad Training Partner

How to Tell If You’re a Bad Training Partner

In a previous post, I explained the different breeds of bad training partners, and we all had a good laugh. After all, who hasn’t encountered someone like that? But then the question sneaks into the back of your mind, like a cold draft through the door—what if that’s me?

Let’s be realistic. Nobody’s perfect. Everyone has bad training habits or weird personality quirks. But how do we know when those quirks have crossed the line from “harmless” to “obnoxious?” How can you tell when you’ve stopped being a “good guy to train with” and become an “erm, no?”
Continue reading How to Tell If You’re a Bad Training Partner