Practicing to Automaticity

West Coast Swing Online Grab Bag

Research on practice strategies has revealed that the value of practice actually increases once a skill can be executed successfully. In other words, mastery is a new starting point for practice, not an endpoint.

The reason practice continues to be valuable even after a skill is mastered is because, at the level of mastery, a skill still requires thought in order to be executed correctly. What practice does is move from the level of mastery—consistently correct execution—to the level of automaticity, in which no mental effort is required in order to execute the skill. Because the brain can only juggle a limited number of thoughts at once, moving to the level of automaticity makes it possible to execute higher-order skills.

There are thousands of examples in WCS of how moving from mastery to automaticity improves the quality of performance. Say that you have mastered a body ripple during your anchor. If you move to the level of automaticity, you can now perform that body ripple while also shaping your partner and responding to his or her connection. Achieving automaticity for picking patterns to accent specific counts in the music allows you to spend your mental energy figuring out how to exit the pattern in order to set up the next hit. Automaticity in your footwork allows you to syncopate to the music on the fly, instead of having to manually determine, “now I need a triple, then an &kick-ball change, then a double, then a hold-step.”

The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead remarked on the value of automaticity by writing,

It is a profoundly erroneous truism, repeated by all copybooks and by eminent people when they are making speeches, that we should cultivate the habit of thinking of what we are doing. The precise opposite is the case. Civilization advances by extending the number of important operations which we can perform without thinking about them.

If you want to be a truly advanced dancer, practice to automaticity. The more you can do without thinking, the more you can use your brainpower to set up amazing movements that would be far beyond the reach of mere masters.

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