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Interested in learning a new dance step or knitting pattern? Always wanted to learn how to throw a curveball or how to surf? Learning something physical comes naturally to some people. We all know the type of person who can be shown how to do something quite elaborate and within 3 minutes is doing it themselves. For most of us however, doing something physical may not come naturally or easy even if the motivation is there.
Learning a new physical activity can be hard. You feel clumsy and awkward, you feel like you’re being watched like a hawk, and you consider quitting when you’re not getting it right. But remember: everyone starts where they are, and the best dancer/fighter/runner/juggler (or insert your interest here) was where you are now once in their life. No one is born with near-perfect coordination over their body, it always takes some time to build it.
A number of years ago I did some training at the Straight Blast Gym, one of the best mixed martial arts gyms in the world. Other than being thrown around the mat like a ragdoll by UFC champ Randy Couture (yes, I’m a name dropper), I had the privilege of training with someone who has had a profound impact on the way people train in modern martial arts. His name is Matt Thornton and the steps I’m going to outline are based on his steps for learning a new martial arts movement as covered in his original Functional Jeet Kune Do series. But this is certainly not limited to punching, kicking, or choking – as you’ll likely see, the same steps work just as well for learning just about any physical activity provided you want to do it well and do it “for real” (i.e. you don’t just want to pretend you can pull it off, you actually want to be able to pull it off in a real setting).
For this example, I’ll walk you through learning how to throw a left jab (aka straight punch). It’s something I can relate directly to as I sit here covered in sweat from a Muay Thai session. Again, you can replace throwing a jab with learning a salsa move and the same steps apply.
- First, you’re going to introduce the concept to your body without any distraction or resistance. You’re going to create a “safe zone” for yourself without judgment from others, and you aren’t (yet) going to throw yourself into the deep end of the pool to try and make this work as part of an integrated whole. For learning to throw a left jab, this step is going to consist of setting up your boxing stance, learning the basic hip and hand movements, and performing a jab without movement, timing, or distance. This means hitting a stationary focus mitt or even the air, and making sure you understand and can perform the basic body mechanics before moving on. In the case of surfing (which I can’t do) this is likely where you practice jumping up on the board from a prone position while on the beach before even getting in the water. Take your time – but once you think you’ve got the basic mechanics down, move on to the next step.
- Second, you’re going to isolate the movement in an alive manner. This means training the movement, and just that movement alone, in a more realistic setting. You aren’t going to worry about incorporating your other movements yet, you’re just going to make sure you’re able to throw the jab against a moving target – someone who’s moving in and out, mixing up his or her timing, punching back (in a safe way) and generally not just standing there letting you punch them. You want the steps you take here to be realistic, even though you’re limiting your response to just a single isolated movement. In surfing (again, I know nothing about surfing!) this could be practicing your movement in light surf, closely replicating what it will be like when you do it “for real”.
- Third, you’re going to functionalize this movement (and in the case of the jab, against a resisting opponent). This means incorporating the movement into your complete arsenal, and continuing to try to land it against someone actually fighting back. You’re no longer isolating the movement, so you’re free to throw a cross or hook as well. It’s now integrated and being used “for real” against energy in a way that very closely resembles reality. At this stage, it may be necessary for you or your partner to remind you to use the movement you’ve recently integrated if you start to subconsciously avoid it in favor of something that feels more comfortable.
- Fourth and finally, you’re going to maintain, improve, and drill the movement. Just because you’ve been able to functionalize it, you aren’t finished yet. Now you need to continually get better at it (remember: the basics are important!) in order to improve your overall approach. For the jab, this may mean drilling it in isolation again – or just focusing on the jab in the context of an otherwise normal sparring session. You can always get better at something, right? Don’t just “move on” if you’re serious about being good at it.
Things to watch-out for:
- The beginning is always awkward. Just know that consistency over time will make all the difference and keep pushing yourself through the awkward phase. For many people, the first few weeks of doing anything can make them feel like they have two left feet, even if they feel like they actually “get it”. Sometimes the body doesn’t care that you think you’ve got it.
- Give yourself permission to start slowly. Don’t rush yourself, go at your own pace. If you’re the last person to “advance” don’t let that bother you – what’s important is that you’re picking up the movement. If you join a ballet class and think you should be in the Level 3 class immediately, you probably need to relax. In other words: don’t rush to the top just to collapse to the bottom. Remember: the journey is the reward! Even if you’ve got 5 years of experience but have taken a few years off, it’s always best to start slowly and work your way up. In other words, set yourself up to nail the basics before getting in over your head.
- Don’t expect perfection or become a victim of shame. Don’t beat yourself up if it takes you a little longer than you expected! Remember: you are where you are, and with time and energy you will continually improve. It’s an inevitability!
- Don’t give up too soon. It’s easy to quit when things aren’t coming as quickly as you had hoped, but sticking with it (if it’s truly something you want to do) will be far more rewarding than packing it in and living with regret. Do your best to stick with something for at least 4-6 weeks of consistent practice before deciding whether or not it’s for you, because it’s highly likely that no matter what it is, you couldn’t have mastered it any sooner anyway.
That’s it! Give these steps a try and let me know how they work for you. What is it you’d like to learn? (Note: if you actually want to learn to throw a left jab, I would visit the Straight Blast Gym!)