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