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Personal Growth – Why breaking things down into systems helps us learn new and difficult skills

I am at Taekwondo training. My instructor has two hand mitts held up in front of me. We are practicing sparring and I have no idea what to do. My brain is drawing a blank.

In martial arts this has always been a struggle for me. In a sparring match I am like a deer in the headlights. Not even frozen with indecision, I haven’t even reached the idea stage let alone the decision stage.

In my early years of martial arts training, I possibly wasn’t paying enough attention to sparring training, or I just didn’t get it, or maybe even my instructor didn’t break it down enough for my slow brain to understand.

Today, my new instructor said. ‘You need to develop a series of responses to the other person’s actions. If they do A, you do B. Work these out, practice them over and over and you’ll have something to work with.’ I’m paraphrasing of course but that’s the general gist. he also said. ‘You have to probe your opponent, see what they do, when you do something and work with that.’

In my mind, this is all still very overwhelming. However, I can now see how I can begin to learn and practice something that is very difficult.

Similar to when we learn to ride a bike or drive a car. We have to practice a series of activities over and over until they become second nature. With martial arts, I needed to be shown some options so that I could begin to learn and develop on my own.

Jerry Seinfeld says something very similar in a Tim Ferriss show podcast episode. He said, if you want to write you have to start by sitting yourself down and begin the process of learning to write. Start small and work up from there. I’m paraphrasing again but the idea is the same.

James Clear, author of Atomic Habits, also follows this idea by encouraging us to break down new habits into small repeatable systems.

In my case, move, counter move, practice. Then the next move and counter move and practice. Eventually, a sparring match will not be just chaos to my confused mind but a series of moves and counter moves with a little bit of chaos thrown in.

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