I read an interesting article about peak performance in the NY Times. Part of it discusses the importance of the total number of hours of practice time vs. natural talent in the development of peak performance in a sport or art.
Having taught Jiu-jitsu for 12 years, I’ve seen all types of students and what it takes within them to excel in the long run in a martial art. I agree that hours of practice does correlate with excellence. However it’s not just about mechanical repetition.
My Sensei, Ed Hiscoe, always said: “Practice does not make perfect. Practice makes permanent. Perfect practice makes perfect.” This, of course, does not mean he expects everyone to only practice if they can do it perfectly. It means the student should practice and consciously make corrections as they practice to continually get closer and closer to their goal. If a student only mechanically repeats movements without analyzing them for improvement, they will never fix the problems they may be having with technique.
While practice is a key component in developing as a martial artist, natural talent is also factor. Every so often I get a student who can learn and adapt amazingly fast, even without prior training. If these students put in the hours, the have the capacity to become awesome martial artists. The practice process is the same as it is for other students, except that they take on corrections and adjustments faster, which leads to their faster development as a martial artist overall. That being said, natural ability isn’t enough on its own.
I’ve seen talented individuals come and go from my mats. The reason they don’t necessarily make it as martial artists is that they don’t have the motivation and temperament to continue their practice through the inevitable plateaus that appear, particularly in later stages of development.
On the other hand, I’ve also had students who are of average ability, but because they’re motivated, they maintain their practice through the plateaus to achieve great things. It may take them longer, but by maintaining consistent motivation to train, they get there eventually.
So what should we take away from all this? I can tell you from many years of having observed my students: It doesn’t matter if you have natural talent. If you have the motivation to put in your hours of training, you’ll eventually succeed in your goals, given the right training atmosphere. And if you love what you’re doing, you won’t care if it takes longer to develop because you enjoy training for training’s sake.