Getting better at sport (Part 2)


This is the half-sister post to this one, which looked at how breaking down and analysing the physical movements in sport can help you to understand and become better at it. In many ways it’s the bit that comes next – once you understand how to do something then you need to do it on a regular basis to become better at it – simple :)

One of the most valuable things I’ve learnt as a result of doing karate (and really it still amazes me that it took me so long to work it out) is this idea:

“Repetition is the mother of skill”

It’s something my first karate teacher, Tassie Sinclair, used to say a lot (and that I have also gone on to say a lot). I think about it almost daily, and as time goes on I realise more and more how true it is.

On the physical side of sport, obviously the more you practise something the more your body, and the specific muscles involved, will adapt to it. A similar thing happens in the brain – repeating actions again and again strengthens the neural pathways involved, making each iteration of the pattern more ingrained in our brain and therefore increasing the liklihood of us being able to perform it even more effectively in the future.

Recently an article was published on the BBC website looking at a scientific report released about punching. The study sought to find out what advantages expert (black belt) karateka might have over novices. They looked at activity in the brain using MRI scanners, and concluded:

The karate black belts were able to repeatedly coordinate their punching action with a level of coordination that novices can’t produce. We think that ability might be related to fine tuning of neural connections in the cerebellum.

And you don’t even have to punch anything or hit a golf ball (continuing with the previous post’s golf theme) to get the benefits. Just making the motion is enough to start making those connections in your brain. In Japan you’d often see men practising their golf anywhere from the middle of the street, an empty train station in the evening or just some nearby wasteland at the weekend. But they wouldn’t be hitting a ball, instead just practising their swing to keep the motion fresh in their minds for the next chance they have to leave Tokyo and spend the day on the course. Actually I was talking to a friend yesterday who said that Korea has a lot of excellent golfers, the reason for which is apparently because they had so few golf courses people would practise the swing away from the course, then go to the driving range and hit lots of balls (a far far higher number than you would do in a round of golf), so by the time they actually played on a course their skills were much higher than you would expect in somewhere like England, where we have a (relatively) large number of (relatively) affordable golf courses.

It makes me laugh when people talk about Chinese and Japanese gymnasts, saying that they must have some genetic advantage to get their movements so precise and their routines so perfect. That’s not the case at all (nor is it the case they have higher metabolisms or any of that nonsense) – they just have a very different attitude to practise. They understand that to become truly skilled takes consistent practise – repeating the same things day in day out. It’s no coincidence that the kanji in the Japanese verb for “practise” – kenshuu (研修) – actually means “to polish”.

As a final word (ok – I’m lying – there’re a few related things I’ve had to shunt into my ideas folder to talk about later) I will leave you with an interview with Aleks Salkin, a kettlebell instructor from Omaha in the States. I can’t even remember how I “met” Aleks – I think I came across a video of his and then ended up adding him on Facebook, where we converse about all things training and nutrition. His comments about consistency really add to what I’ve said here. Plus he has cool hair – one of my friends calls him “that bouffant haired dude”.

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2 Responses

  1. Felicia says:

    So true!! Great post, F…

  2. Excellent post, Fi Fi! And I’m flattered that I have a nickname on the other side of the pond, even if it is “that bouffant-haired dude.” :-) You couldn’t be more right about the importance of repetition in becoming skilled at a task. As one famous Russian sports scientist has quipped “Exercise is repetition without repetition.” What I glean from that is that constantly practice the move better and better – repeat the good stuff and smooth out the rough spots. The only way you’ll ever get good at anything is by doing that thing over and over and over again.

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