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Natural Talent vs. Systematic Practice in the Martial Arts | Pacific Wave Jiu-jitsu

Natural Talent vs. Systematic Practice in the Martial Arts

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.

Comments (3)

3 thoughts on “Natural Talent vs. Systematic Practice in the Martial Arts

  1. Yes.

    The NYT article is partly about Anders Ericsson’s famous line of research, reinforcing the “10 year rule” of expertise across many different domains, and which is very definitely not about mechanical repitition!

    Ericsson’s work has shown emphatically that there is a huge difference between repeating something and performing it with full awareness of what you are doing and getting quality feedback so you can refine the skill. He would agree with your sensei in that regard, and maybe go a step farther: practice makes more permanent, mindless practice makes mediocre skills more permanent, and good practice means deliberate attention and quality feedback during repetition. That’s not a catchy as the alteratives, but more realistic.

    It is not just about quality practice, but also distinguising “technique” from “skill.” “Technique” is really just a prototype of what good skills would look like if performed properly under ideal conditions in a standard situation. Skill is about using your muscles in a way that gets the objective accomplished. The skill (internal) is what improves, it isn’t neccessarily always reflected in changes in the surface appearance (“technique”) over time.

    This is why quality practice is not just having a teacher watch for good form, it is also about learning what the skill feel like when correct and how to adapt to changes while executing them. The teacher’s role is more problem solver when you get stuck than your primary source of feedback.

    Extreme expertise is a result of learning to use the right kinds of feedback to learn from reptitition while training.

    Thanks for the interesting post.

  2. I do not think there is something as a special talent for the martial-arts. Sure, if you’re nimble, powerful and experienced in sports (good for coordination) you’ll have somewhat of an edge in the early stages of training but martial-arts is not sports (on so many levels) and in my mind it basically boils down to spirit. Spirit or the will to succeed no matter what.

    Let me try to clarify that: sure martial-arts is a physical activity and the muscles, bones and endurance need to be developped but this is not specific to the martial-arts and certainly not the essence… when you have a better base (physically) to start from you, you’ll succeed in the physical part much quicker but there is no such thing as a better base in matters of the spirit. I derive this knowledge from my own experience: for years I’ve practiced ju-jutsu and people (including my sensei, a then 8th dan) said I was good at it and improving but it didn’t feel like that… it felt like something was missing, that I just wasn’t good enough and that everything I was doing was fake and unreal. And it was really and you know why? Because in my mind I was doubting myself and my technique and even my sensei at times and I was on the road to mastery of the physical and technical part of the MA (the techniques and applications) but there was too much ‘I’ and too little fighting spirit…

    This is very hard to explain since you have to experience it for yourself but lately in training I’ve started to let go of my preconceptions, doubts and fears and the result is not so much perfect technique as a perfect attitude and total commitment to the technique: no hesitation, no preconception only action and total focus on the opponent. At a certain moment (we were practicing with a stick: interception and disarms) everything felt so right, my timing was excellent and in my atemi I felt like I could literally go through his neck (using shuto) I sort of transcended myself and my physical but especially emotional and mental limitations. I can’t explain it further but in Zen there is a great concept (or non-concept if you will) which pertains to this: ‘munen muso’ or no mind, no thoughts, not ideas… there is action but there is no person performing the action, movement without consciouss thought to the point of near perfection. I used to think the ‘one punch one kill’ philosophy was bull and not realistic but I’m beginning to see what they could have meant: the indomitable will to triumph, to annihilate him completely (and basically yourself too). Yet without ill-will or malice… strange really.

    Anyway: my point is that the western mind is fond of rationalisation and especially numbers and equations but spirituality doesn’t work that way and MA are for the greater part about spirituality (btw this probably true for the greatest of athletes too: just look at their faces when they cross the finish-line, make a goal or break a record) and every human-being has the same potential for enlightenment and insight. Be it through MA, Zen, the thee-ceremony or at peak-moments during ordinary life. Like the Buddha once said (honour onto him) even the stupidest monk or human-being can achieve enlightenment and maybe we in the west just needlessly complicate things by objectifying them and crunching numbers like they really mean anything… This is not meant as a sneer at science (very useful, worthwhile and valuable) but there is so much more and what is more important: knowing alot or living well? Even in the west you see this: if you’ve ever listened to Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion, one of his cantates or his divine violin-concertos you’ll see what I mean: while Bach’s work represents Barok at its purest and it is very technical, almost mathematical Music (mathematical meaning perfectly predictable, among other things) it’s also pure spiritual music, appealing to the best in humankind. The mathematical and technical is only secondary.

    Ah well, what do I know? Is there even an I? I really doubt it… (lol)


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