I read quite an interesting article on the web the other day. It had to do with learning through practice, and why it’s important to keep practicing even after you’ve ‘learned’ whatever it is you’re trying to learn. The author cites research involving manipulation of a robotic arm, and applies the findings to music performance and playing tennis, but she could just as easily have discussed the implications for the practice of Aikido as well.
It’s no big surprise to hear that when we first try something new, our initial efforts are usually awkward and full of hesitations and mistakes (remember the first few times you tried Katatetori Ikkyo?). As we repeat the task, it becomes less awkward; we smooth out the hesitations and correct the mistakes. Eventually, the task that at first seemed difficult and strange becomes familiar and easy. Instead of a jerky, barely-controlled careening toward the mat, the tenkan becomes a graceful, swooping circular descent around a firmly established center. We feel we’ve learned the task: “OK, I know this one now. What’s next?”
The research the article discusses, though, suggests that once you’ve ‘learned’ the task, the real learning is just beginning. When we learn a new movement, our brains start setting up neural pathways – the article calls it a “sensorimotor map” – to help us execute it a little better, and more efficiently, as we repeat it over and over. The more we practice the movement, the more the brain “updates the map,” and the more efficiently we move. The technique requires less and less effort (less and less muscle). You finally reach a point where your physical effort is about as efficient as it can be: executing the technique “feels effortless.”
Here is where the article became especially interesting: the researchers found that even after maximum physical efficiency had been achieved, energy use in the brain continued to drop. The brain, apparently, isn’t satisfied with mere metabolic efficiency: it makes its own neural processes more and more efficient, too, after the motor skills have been mastered. And if your brain is spending a little less energy doing one thing, that means there’s a little more energy available for something else: lightning-quick calculations of the speed and angle of an incoming yokomenuchi, say, or being aware of everyone’s position during jiyu-waza.
This is why it’s not enough merely to learn the exercises and the techniques; we must overlearn them. Continue to practice over and over and over, even if you think you’ve already got the moves down pretty well, and don’t just “go through the motions.” Pay attention to what you’re doing, even if you’ve done it a thousand times before. The final paragraph of the article sums it up beautifully:
“The message from this study is that in order to perform with less effort, keep on practicing, even after it seems the task has been learned. We have shown there is an advantage to continued practice beyond any visible changes in performance.”
In other words: You’re getting better and better, even when you can’t tell you’re improving—a thought to keep you going through those long hours of practice.