Wax on, wax off. Don’t forget to breathe.
Many years ago, when I first started learning Goju-Ryu karate, my sensei had a strange way of teaching this martial art. Much like Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid, before I was allowed to use any technique in sparring, he had me do the single move over and over until it was perfect. I didn’t have to wax any cars or paint any fences (although I did paint the inside of the dojo), but I did have to perform nothing but an upper block for six months before I was allowed to progress to a new move.
That’s right. I trained every day for six months to learn the perfect upper block. Often I was doing this for hours in his driveway because I would show up for training and he was not there, or so I thought. He would go to his neighbor’s house and watch me to see how long it would take before I gave up. Everything was a test. Of course, I never gave up.
Then one day, as I was practicing, my sensei started throwing punches at my face without any forewarning. I easily blocked every punch he threw. Master that he was, he knew that by making me repeat the perfect block in practice I would be prepared for the real punch in life. And I was ready! Through his instruction, I had trained my joints and muscles to move along a single path so many times that they were subconsciously able to remember that path with amazing speed and ease. Through my training, I had mastered muscle memory.
Muscle Memory (a.k.a. Myelination)
What most people (including me) call muscle memory is the process of myelination. Myelin is basically insulation that your body puts around your nerves. Repetition of motor skills builds myelin around the nerves responsible for your movements so that the next time you do a practiced movement, it can be faster, smoother and easier. This happens slowly… but it DOES happen no matter what your movement.
The important point here is that if you are training incorrectly, you’re still building myelin around that erroneous pathway. Each time you do any motor skill the wrong way, you are reinforcing the wrong way to do something and it will be that much harder to learn the right way of doing that task later down the road. If, for example, my sensei had been throwing punches at me when I was trying to learn and perfect the single movement of the block, I would have been blocking slightly differently each time and there would have been no clear path to perfection.
To build myelin the fastest, your movements need to be flawless, but not necessarily fast. The best way to learn and reinforce motor skills is through slow, perfect practice.
Paving the Path to Perfection
With consistent, perfect practice, you are paving the path to perfection. Let’s say your goal was to eventually get from one side of a dense forest to the other as quickly and easily as possible, and you had time to train and prepare. How would you do it? How would you spend your valuable training time? Would you just keep running different patterns as fast as you could, seeing which route was the fastest? Or would you plot out the best course, remove obstacles along the way and then pave the ground so the path is smooth and fast for the future challenge?
Sure the first time you go down the wooded path, it will be slow moving and you may even need to backtrack a few times to find the best route. But each time you take the path, the route will be smoother and faster. Stay on the path long enough and you’ll be able to do it with your eyes closed! But take just one step off the path and you’re instantly back in deep brush. The key is to recognize what happened. All is not lost; you just need to get back on the path. Slow down and backtrack to where you went off course and you’ll be back up to speed.
The best way to learn and reinforce motor skills is through slow, perfect practice.
And This Has What to Do with Shooting?
Going to the range and just shooting to learn how to shoot is like trying to learn an upper block while someone is punching you in the face. Some people will eventually learn this way, but their skills are likely to be flawed (Flinch anyone?) and it will never lead to mastery. Still, others will find the whole thing hopeless and simply stop trying to learn.
If you want to be the best shooter you can be, you need to learn without someone punching you in the face (gun no make bang, bang). You need to perfect your shooting skills before going to the range and having small explosions going off in your hands as you’re trying to learn. If you do, those explosions won’t distract you because you have cemented your path to perfection. As you’re starting off, you might feel like you’re learning slower than those who are burning through ammo on the range.
Don’t give in to these thoughts. Stick with your perfect practice, conserve your ammo for a later time and you’ll be amazed at how quickly you progress. You will soon be the one on the range not just pointlessly burning through your ammo but, instead, shooting with true skill, deadly accuracy and impressive speed.
That’s right. There are two types of people you will meet on a range — those who choose to build up expensive piles of brass and those who build priceless pathways of myelin.
Which path are you paving?