A deeper understanding of learning

Making Smaller Circles

One of the biggest stumbling blocks to regular practice is boredom. After doing a move 10 or 15 times, you feel like you know it and are ready to move on. Yet pros know that 15 repetitions is barely enough to start learning a movement, let alone master it. How do they keep practicing the same moves without getting bored?

An important part of the answer is that the pros aren’t actually practicing the move in the same way that the less experienced dancers are. Beginning dancers practice to execute the movement correctly. Professionals, on the other hand, practice in order to distill the movement down to its finest elements.

We’re all familiar with the experience of trying a new movement and feeling really awkward. The first time you took a triple step, your entire body was probably lurching back and forth. But, with practice, you discovered that you can shift your weight between your feet without having to move your entire body. You refined your movement from a gross, lurching zombie to a fine, balanced dance. That process of discovering how to do a movement as simply as possible is what pros—intentionally—spend lots of practice time doing.

Josh Waitzkin, who won multiple national junior chess championships as well as several world championships in T’ai Chi Ch’uan, describes this process of refinement of a skill as “making smaller circles.” He takes a gross skill, such as throwing a punch or overloading a chess piece, and practices that skill in a simple setting. As he becomes more comfortable with the skill, he focused on identifying the essence of the technique rather than the external manifestation. In a punch, for example, the key is not how far or fast the arm moves, but how the body generates power from the legs and hips and then transmits that power into the hand, without resistance from other parts of the body. By refining the essence of the technique, he can then execute a fully powered punch even when he can only move his hand an inch. He has circled around the movement and, by focusing on the key elements, made the circle smaller.

There are lots of areas in west coast that are suitable for making smaller circles. The movement of your center to generate a lead or to respond to a lead can be incredibly controlled. Body isolations for styling can be refined into extraordinarily subtle movements. Any time you move in the dance, ask yourself: what is the essential piece of this movement, and can I refine my control of that piece?

In short, amateurs practice to do the move. Pros practice to make their circles as small as possible. Set your goal to refine the essence of the movement in its purest form, and you’ll have plenty of variety in your practice even if you do nothing but side passes for an hour.

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