Two of my main passions are martial arts and piano. I have only been doing the latter for a couple of
years, and I am mediocre at best, but I really love both activities. While practicing either, I am often
amazed at the similarities between the two. Each as taught me a lot about the other. I practice both
because I absolutely love to do so, and because I want to improve. However, the enjoyment of said
activities is what really motivates me, and any progress or improvement is icing on the cake. However,
recently, desiring to accelerate my progress, I have been giving more thought to the most efficient and
effective training methods.
I have read a few studies, and consulted an athletic trainer and coach, but I’m not going to be quoting
many numbers or studies here, because I believe that these concepts work differently for each
individual. However, being aware of these ideas has helped me to make better use of my training and
studying time. Anyway, let’s dig in!
When learning a song on the piano, or a new technique in the martial arts, I try to practice it
obsessively. However, I have learned that even if I practice said song or technique 30 times in one day,
there is little visible progress that can be made in 24 hours. However, if I practice said song or technique
10 times a day for a week, or better yet, a month, and the improvement is clear. Actually, to tell the
truth, learning most songs on any instrument is probably much harder than learning most martial arts
techniques, which is good news for martial artists. Learning a martial arts technique is probably more
akin to learning a small section of one song. It might just seem that way to me because I have been
doing to martial arts longer, but I still feel this to be generally true.
Anyway, with jiu-jitsu techniques, most students are probably ready to start attempting a technique in
sparring if they have practiced it a handful of times on a few different occasions. Of course, exactly how
many repetitions are necessary will differ for each individual. A black belt, for example, may be able
to make a technique work in sparring after merely seeing it performed, just as an experienced pianist
might be able to play a section of a song after merely hearing it.
I make this point because I used to think that the key to mastering moves was to do them hundreds
of times on a non-resisting partner. To some degree, I was right. But I was forgetting the law of
diminishing returns. Let’s say you want to get better at a new technique. Breaking it down and
performing the move slowly on a non-resisting partner can help immensely, especially if this is a
relatively new technique for you. Let’s say you practice the move in this manner about 10 times in
each class. In one week or two the neural pathways will improve and you will probably be much more
proficient with this technique. Maybe you think, “Next week I will do 20 reps per class and make twice
However, in reality, it often happens where reps 11-15 are providing only a minor improvement, and
reps 16-20 almost amount to a waste of time. Of course, I’m just offering these numbers to make a
point. Some techniques may need to be practiced more to gain proficiency. With certain techniques,
like kicks, it may be easy to practice many repetitions in a very short period of time, which is also
something we want to take into consideration when devising our workout routine. At some point, I
believe that the main opportunity for growth is to focus on using the technique in sparring. Sure, the
student can practice it on their own, to warm-up and maintain their technical capabilities, but that alone
will generally not take them to the next level.
A famous Bruce Lee quote is, “I don’t fear the man who has practice a thousand kicks one time, I fear
the man who has practiced one kick a thousand times,” and I generally agree with the point that I think
Old Bruce was trying to make. However, I would need to know more: over how long of a time did this
person do the kick one thousand times? Did they do 500 a day for two days, in which case there will be
very little progress, or 20 times a day for 50 days (in which case I would fear them too)? Also, I might
suggest that this person practice more than one type of kick, say 4 different kinds of kicks 15 times each,
since practicing one kick 50 times in one training session is unlikely to produce a significantly different
result than 25 times in most people.
Anyway, I’m not trying to disagree with one of the greatest martial artists who ever lived, and who was
simply making a very valid point with the aforementioned quote. I’m just pointing out that our training
should be a balancing act. Certainly, we SHOULD focus on a limited number of techniques or concepts
in our training, lest we become jacks of all trades and masters of none. Pick a few techniques or skills
to really improve upon at any one time. However, make sure that you are not wasting time repeating
countless repetitions of a technique when you have already maximized the neural improvement that
can take place in any one training session for that technique. If you feel comfortable with one technique
you may be better off working on something else or sparring, rather than simply repeating what you
already know. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to practice an entirely different technique.
It may mean asking your partner to add resistance while you still attempt to make the technique work.
Therefore, figure out how much you need to practice a technique to start to feel comfortable with it.
Then attempt using it in sparring against a resisting opponent. Don’t overload your brain with a ton of
information all at once. Once you have become proficient in a technique, work to maintain that skill,
and improve upon it, while at the same time bringing up other skills or techniques that may be lacking at
Well, I’m starting to ramble so please allow me to leave you with a few key points I was trying to make:
1. If you are passionate about what you are doing, the other stuff will generally take care of itself.
2. Earlier in my martial arts career, I greatly overestimated my ability to master techniques in a
day, an underestimated my ability to gain proficiency in techniques in a month.
3. Spend your training time wisely; don’t waste time performing excessive repetitions.
4. While we can’t master anything over night, we can get better at anything with CONSISTENT
practice; even if the practice sessions are low-volume, they do add up over time.
5. The two extremes we want to avoid would be becoming jacks of all trades and masters of none,
and becoming masters of one skill that doesn’t really do a lot for us by itself (i.e. a master of
doing one or two techniques against a non-resisting parter)