The way to get better at a thing is via feedback. Feedback, unlike criticism, can come in many forms, and is absolutely necessary if your goal is to improve at a thing. My Kung Fu and Tai Chi students sometimes struggle to practice, because they lack confidence that they are practicing correctly.
We often mistake a lack of confidence for laziness, and wonder “why can’t I bring myself to this practice? What’s wrong with me?” and we find ourselves doing something else, even when we have the time to practice. Mostly I think, it’s about not quite knowing what to do, feeling adrift, or unsure of ourselves. We question our own methods and motivation, and on some level it’s very easy to wonder what is the point, if we’re not training rightly? This is one of the ways in which perfectionism can really get in the way of, well, everything.
A Tai Chi teacher I know recently said that the belief you should be doing it perfectly is the number one reason why people don’t practice, especially beginners.
The first rule is this: do not expect to be perfect. There’s a relationship – skilled athletes, advanced athletes – natural talent does count for something, but nobody is good at a thing, nobody possesses a refined degree of skill, unless they have practiced the hell out of a thing.
So what are the keys? It’s the same as practicing chin-ups, which I have written about at length: if you cannot do a chin-up, stubbornly trying to do something you cannot do, will not magically one day make you able to do it. You must take yourself through processes.
All training is like this: you move from thing you can do, to thing you can do. This principle comes first: don’t waste time trying to practice something you cannot do. Practice the things you can. There is always some give-and-take, the things you can do will not be perfect, but once you have become more skilled, you will start to find the things you cannot do are not so foreign anymore, and you will start to perceive more subtle degrees between the skills you currently possess and the skills you wish to develop.
The next two principles are these: bear in mind the fundamental philosophy of the training method you are practicing, and – as mentioned previously – feedback. These are your points of reference, as it were.
Fundamental philosophical principles may vary wildly from one discipline to another. The underlying principles of Tai Chi come down to the elimination of tension; smooth and harmonious movements; and the unity of body and mind via the breath. As you progress, you will discover more principles, but in the first instance, your practice wants to be twofold: you bear in mind the principles, and you rely on feedback to move you ever closer to mastery of those core principles. Without this dual perspective, you are adrift, and you may never know how or what to practice, or how to improve.
Feedback may take many forms. In the context of Tai Chi, and the first philosophical principle of the elimination of tension: first it is obvious that if there were no tension, you would be sprawled across the ground, but this means you need to bring your awareness to the task. If you feel funky in your joints, or you feel excess tension in a body-part or a movement, what can you do to help to resolve or eliminate that tension? Use your awareness, practice moving in slightly different ways, question your instructor, and try to move ever towards more smooth and relaxed movements.
Some people like to use mirrors or take footage of themselves. These people may be in a minority, but this is another form of feedback. When looking in a mirror, you can judge if one shoulder is higher than the other, if your movements are too quick, to slow, jerky or smooth.
This is what they mean, when people talk about learning styles: you may rely on visual, auditory, or kinaesthetic feedback. In truth, if you are practicing a movement style or some kind of exercise, you will require all three in one way or another.
Tai Chi is also famous for the Push Hands exercise, which is a partnered exercise. Both participants extend their hands towards each other, and practice both pressing forward and deflecting the force of their partner. You will notice that dynamic here: either participant is pushing, the other is deflecting or redirecting. In the end, the movements appear circular, but if you pay close attention you can see there is always an exchange of press and deflect, push and pull.
This practice provides you with many kinds of feedback – your press or deflection may be successful or it may not, it may feel smooth or it may feel laboured, but the essence of this feedback – unlike the use of mirrors – is kinaesthetic, it is based upon the physical sensations of practice.
But you need not make practice too serious or too formal. If you are struggling with one particular technique, you do not need to practice it comprehensively all the time, you may break it down and practice simple aspects such as pronating or supinating the wrist, extending or flexing the fingers, I frequently practice these simple, small movements while sitting on the couch, because it’s very easy to rush through the small movements of the forearms and the wrists.
But I know many of you do not practice Tai Chi.
Weightlifting is in many ways, the opposite. To successfully lift heavy weights, you need to maximise tension, you may need to immobilise your spine, yet move through the hips and shoulder blades, so there is already an unusual contrast within the body: some parts must be locked down, solid, and other parts must be free to move smoothly. Intention counts for so much. Practice engaging the muscles that must be engaged, relaxing the ones that must be relaxed, and analyse the exercise you wish to improve.
Training in front of a mirror can again, be useful. But it is not for everyone. Feedback can come in many forms. Feel the weight. Are your hands even on the bar? Does it appear to be heavier on one side than the other? Adding more weight provides you with extra feedback, but it is not always possible. I often start light, and add weight as my body warms up, as my awareness deepens. Your awareness is not static, it changes through your workout. As you progress, your ability to focus will improve, until you are fatigued, when it will start to decline again.
Work in harmony with your mental and physical rhythms. Too much weight will prohibit you from practicing correctly, but insufficient resistance will not require you to practice correctly either. When you have completed your warm-up sets, and you come to your work-set, use enough weight, but not too much. Enough weight will force you to concentrate and engage all the right muscles correctly, but too much will prohibit you from doing so.
As with Tai Chi, harmony of movement is key. If your body feels uncomfortable, if you feel strain in your joints but not your muscles – this feedback is valuable. Use it, trust your body as much as you are able, and adjust your technique where possible. Work to feel the effort in your muscles, not your joints, and practice deepening this awareness over time. As your muscles grow stronger, your awareness will grow stronger too, if you practice it.
When it comes to rehabilitation or Pilates, bear in mind what are you trying to achieve? It is probably an improved quality of movement or physical function in some way. To this end, you know that you will come across stumbling blocks, obstacles, frustrations of many kinds. You will press up against the limits of your range of motion and wonder what is the best way to progress, when you are seeking to improve mobility or strength. Bear in mind the principles of your practice. Do no harm in the name of rehab. Where is my restriction? Where is my weakness? What will help me to move through this obstacle? Do I require more stability, or do I need to challenge my stability? Does the movement look or feel awkward? Do I need to maximise tension? Or work to eliminate it?
The thing is this, I think, in the end: there are two ways to think about feedback. In the Chinese martial arts we would refer to them as “external” vs “internal” methods. If you are thinking about the angle or your arms, or what you look like in the mirror, this is to take the external or outside-in approach. You aim to mimic the correct positions, and you may rely heavily on auditory cues from your trainer. If instead you try to sense the movements and contractions of your muscles and investigate what feels like a safe position or angle for your joints and bones, this is to take an internal or inside-out approach.
Both methods have merit and are of use. Both will provide you with some kind of useful feedback. We are unique, not standardised, and all humans will find in one way or another that a textbook-approach to training will not always suit them. Sometimes it is useful to try to mimic the movement, and sometimes you must try to feel the movement. Some exercises you practice will feel very natural, and they will look “correct”, but for others this will not be the case. Sometimes the right movement pattern for you, as an individual, will look rather unorthodox. This is the heart of practice and investigation. Learn from feedback. Question and investigate. For progress, it is important to approach these issues with an open, yet critical mindset.