Mastery = 10,000 Hours?

By Dennis Lawson
Published on Apr 14th, 2015

I recently had a discussion with a young man who was exuberant about learning the Martial Arts. His desire was scattered around studying a number of different Arts. I suggested that, to be successful, he should start by focusing on a single Art and train toward a goal. He countered that MMA fighters often train in lots of different styles. “True”, I said, “but their goal is to achieve one thing – to win in the ring.”

In his recent book, Outliners, Malcolm Gladwell, studied the lives of highly successful people. He concluded that it takes 10,000 hours of work to achieve mastery in any field. I was particularly fascinated by one study he cited from the early 1990’s. A team of psychologists in Berlin, Germany assessed the practice habits of violin students. The researchers started with the question – “Over the course of your entire career, ever since you first picked up the violin, how many hours have you practiced?” All the violinists had started around the age of five. At that time, they had practiced about the same number of hours. This changed over the next 15 years. By the age of 20, the most talented performers had put in 10,000 hours of training with their violins. The less able violinists averaged a “mere” 4,000 hours. The most impressive conclusion of this study – natural talent was NOT a factor in developing expertise! The experimenters found a direct correlation between achievement and hours of training – no exceptions.

So, then, Martial Arts Mastery would be just a matter of putting in the repetitions, right? I disagree. Repetition builds fitness, endurance, consistency in movement, neuro-muscular memory, etc., but the process of mastering any discipline requires intelligent training. You may acquire knowledge about a subject passively – reading about it, discussing it, or watching a demo on YouTube. You can only acquire a skill by actively and intelligently training it. The exceptional violin students in the Berlin study didn’t simply “saw” on their strings for 10,000 hours. They spent time refining their basic skills of bowing and fingering the strings on the fret board. They trained to play different songs. This required increasing coordination levels and increased understanding of tone, timbre, and modulation. All the violinists had teachers who challenged and stretched their abilities. These teachers regularly tailored their knowledge, abilities, and methods to bring out the best in each individual student.

Desiring to train in this Art or that style is not enough. Learning all the Art-specific terminology in Korean, Chinese, or Filipino is not enough. Watching all the available DVDs and YouTube footage of the techniques is not enough. You must train! You must be mindful; focusing on what you want to accomplish during the exercise. You must be diligent and tenacious; willing to push your perceived limits. Finally, you must maintain your enthusiasm and sense of humor in the face of inevitable failures and 10,000 hours of repetition!

Good Luck!

Filed under Philosophy and Opinion

Author Bio :: Dennis Lawson

Dennis Lawson has trained for 4 decades in Ed Parker's Kenpo. During his varied career, Mr. Lawson has been an IKKA Regional Director for Region #3, has acted as Master of Ceremonies for the International Karate Championships, and has published numerous articles in publications for the International Kenpo Karate Association, The Martial Arts Learning Community (TheMALC), and Kenpo 2000.

Mr. Lawson has had the opportunity to study other Martial Arts and holds advanced rank in Aikido and Takemusu Aiki Budo. Dennis taught, competed in, and promoted events in the New Orleans area for 20 years. Among his list of favorite achievements is choreographing and performing Kenpo for the Dance Council of New Orleans. His academic background in psychology and love of music allow Dennis to offer a unique and entertaining approach to tailoring "the Art" to the individual. Dennis has taught seminars in Ireland, Jersey Channel Islands, The Netherlands, Portugal, and throughout the United States.

Dennis holds a Sixth Degree Black Belt in Ed Parker's Kenpo and was awarded the title “Professor” under the auspices of The Martial Arts Learning Community (TheMALC). Mr. Lawson was inducted into the International Black Belt Hall of Fame as Master Instructor of the Year for 2006.

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