Knowledge vs Deliberate Practice

I read a very good point today. Basically, the author pointed out that in many fields of study the emphasis is on imparting knowledge rather than focus on deliberate practice. In understanding what the author wrote I would say that this is a big problem with how Tai Chi is taught.

It is common for beginners to learn warm up exercises, stake standing and then forms. In some schools push hands would be either practiced at the end of class or mainly not at all and scheduled on another specific day in the week.

Its good to learn forms because they are the textbooks of the system but if we do not have deliberate practice of the forms in tandem with how to achieve the principles then it will take a long time to attain a level of mastery, if at all.

Take for example the part on brushing the knee in Brush Knee, Twist Step. How exactly do you brush the knee? Why do you brush the knee? How can you check if your brushing action is correct? How far do you lift the knee? Why do you performing the brushing action the way you do? How do you apply it? When do you apply it? When should you apply the other arm’s palm strike after brushing the knee? How do you check if the striking palm is structurally sound? How do you strike?

In our Tai Chi the above are some of the issues and questions we consider when learning Brush Knee, Twist Step. It may sound like stuff you take years to learn. However, I taught most of it over two lessons to the student who came for a crash course. I mean, if I don’t teach the details how would the student or anyone for that matter be able to learn properly and be able to walk away with some competency after a few days of learning.

Even with the step-by-step procedures on how to move the arms, when to turn the waist, how much to turn, how to lift the knee, how high to lift, how to brush the knee, how to position the striking hand, how to mobilize it to achieve alignment, kinetic chain and power, how to time the movements, the why of each movements, how to apply the movement one way and in a few other ways, it is an uphill struggle to remember so many things even if the student has learned Tai Chi before.

But with a roadmap it is not impossible to do so. It is achievable. The first step is to remember the procedures, each step and its attendant details. The next step is to understand at least a basic straight forward application because this will give the student a feel for the importance of timing, distancing, coordination, awareness and targeting. Then repeat the procedures. Correct mistakes. If no mistakes then refine the movement. Sometimes check various structures by using pressure. In some cases the pressure is to enable the learning of coordination.

I believe the above is what the founder of the new science of expertise meant by deliberate practice. In line with being deliberate and exact with the details I had to change the sequencing of some movements in the first learning pass so that students can get the alignment exactly. I can understand that not every student can turn the body and rotate the arm and still maintain the proper alignment as the arm moves through space. More often than not the alignment is lost and the student is not even aware of it.

If the movement results in an evident misalignment then it is easy to spot and correct. OK, not every student can see even something as straightforward as evident misalignment. If the misalignment is minor then it will be difficult to spot and you cannot correct something you are not even aware is wrong.

Case in point, today I did a test of the hands raised in Beginning Posture with a long time student and his left arm was wobbly despite being aligned. What was wrong?

Quick survey……….. ah, I saw the mistake. Very slight but it was enough to cause the student’s body to turn and fall back when pressure was applied on it.

The culprit?

An uneven distribution of body weight.

In this posture the body weight should be equally distributed and thus you have each half of the body supporting each arm. However, when the weight on the left side was only 45% it inadvertently cause the vertical axis to form on the right side of the body making the left side easy to be pushed to turn when pressure was applied on the left arm. Mystery solved.

When I learned Beginning Posture I was not given so many details. The old school of learning was simple – watch, do, remember, go practice. And if you are lucky you get some principles to go along with it. It took me three months of practice to get it.

Today with the use of deliberate practice to learn Tai Chi it should not take even 3 months to get a movement down pat. If you ask me I would say if you diligently work on just Beginning Posture for half an hour each day for 1-2 weeks you should be able to nail it down. Most of the time if students don’t get it within a short period of time it is because they do not stick to regular practice. Unfortunately, this is the part of mastering Tai Chi that no master or teacher can do anything about. If a student doing a crash course seems to get it faster than a regular student it is because the crash course student is getting pushed to learn day after day whereas the regular student only gets pushed to learn once a week.

I suppose how to self-motivate is a topic I would need to look into next. Perhaps I would need to set a series of learning goals and make it conditional to achieve them in order to move on to the next level of learning. Now I need to find a magic lamp and get a genie to grant me the wish for early retirement so that I can work on this full time instead of doing it whenever I have free time now which is not as frequently. If you know of a genie be sure to tell me.


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