Practice What You Can’t Do Yet

West Coast Swing Online Grab Bag

At some point, you’ve had the experience of trying to practice something that you can’t do yet. Whether it’s a one-footed spin or a body roll, you watch someone demonstrate the move and then feel the gears jam when you try it. What are you supposed to do when you can’t do it yet?

This moment—the gears-grinding “I-feel-like-an-epileptic” moment—is actually proof positive that practice works. The reason you feel uncoordinated and out of control is because you literally can’t do it yet. Your muscles and nervous system are physically unable to process the movement that you are asking for, at the speed you need. The whole point of practice is to develop the physical ability to control your body in a way that is completely beyond you right now.

The secret is to realize that your body needs to physically change at the cellular level. As you repeatedly try to do a movement, your nerve cells will adapt by undergoing a process known as myelination. The nerves involved in the movement will be coated with a fatty layer, called myelin, which allows the nerve signals to go through faster and more reliably. In other words, your body physically changes to make you more coordinated.

Once you realize that your body needs to myelinate in order to master a new movement, practice starts to make more sense. Your goal is to stimulate the nerve cells a lot, so they respond by become more attuned to those demands. There are lots of ways to do it: practice a small part of the movement, practice slower, or practice something simpler. As your body adapts to those movements, you will feel more coordinated—because you are actively becoming more coordinated.

As you become more coordinated, you can build on what you’ve learned by going faster, doing a larger component of the movement, or doing a more complicated variation. It will take several hundred repetitions, but the process is as inevitable as it is frustrating. If you keep at it, your body will be able to do something that you literally could not do earlier. That is the power of practice.

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