The Learning Process

Skill acquisition is a process of failures where each incorrect attempt grows closer and closer to the desired outcome until it is correct. This sterile language almost makes skill acquisition sound inevitable, and in a way, it is. But there are several factors that will influence both the rate and quality of development for any given skill.

Of primary importance is mental focus upon the desired outcome. This process is twofold because it not only requires the focus of the athlete in the moment - it also requires a correct and accurate understanding of how to execute. For example, you could be dead set on getting a 300 lb clean, so dead set in fact that you focus exclusively on the heaviest lifts you can do while failing to recognize the importance of the specific technique that makes a 300 lb clean achievable. You will commonly see this among people that can back squat upwards of 400 lb easily, but when they front squat, they round their shoulders over and thus their clean technique does the same at comparatively light weights.

Divergent learning courses such as this will extend the timeline for learning significantly. Changing an ingrained habit will take at least as long as learning it correctly in the first place, and this is on top of the time it took to gain the bad habits to begin with.

Having a good coach to assist you through the early stages of skill acquisition is essential to preventing these large swings of inaccuracy and tightening the learning process towards the goal from the outset. By following closely to the instructions of an expert, you won’t magically improve, but you will have immediate feedback letting you know if you are veering off course in your execution. Receiving feedback with a beginner’s mind and working hard to integrate the corrections and cues into your movement patterns will invariably decrease the amount of time required to develop skills.

It is this process of repeated course correction that facilitates growth. A highly skilled coach will aid you in this process by matching skills at the edge of your abilities so that as you learn one, the next skill naturally progresses as a layer to the first. Over a period of months and years you can become extremely advanced, provided you fully develop each skill before moving onto the next without proper understanding and acquisition.

Tightening things down to the individual day, there are some things you can do as an athlete, in a more general sense, that will aid your workouts on a moment to moment basis. Any time you are doing multiple reps of a skill, it is an opportunity to refine your movement. One great example of this is the common prescription of triples in weightlifting training. Without even thinking about it, most athletes will have their best rep on the third rep - the first rep is too far forward, the second is too far back, and the third is just right. The third time's the charm, as they say.

Recognizing this process and bringing it to the forefront can have massive benefits. Combining an awareness rep to rep with a proper understanding facilitated by a qualified coach will tighten the course correction even further, so that not only is every training phase built in such a way to help you improve, but every single rep is in your own hands and can help you build progress.

Now, this all sounds good on paper, but learning and making these course corrections can be extremely frustrating. What I personally find to be a key component of learning is developing the perspective that frustration is a good feeling. By recognizing that the initial struggle and frustration to perform a skill adequately are simply a prelude to success, you will gradually create a progress-seeking personality. Rather than simply judging a workout based upon easy/hard criteria - the lowest form of critique - you will always seek to perform your movement precisely, regardless of the physical exertion requirement. “Easy” workouts will no longer be boring, and “hard” workouts will no longer be daunting. The challenge will now come from your own dedication to quality rather than arbitrary metrics of fatigue or novelty.

By starting on the right course and committing yourself to precision, you will shorten the time it takes to learn anything. This is not a hack. There are biological factors that cannot be circumvented that will dictate timelines for learning with even the most dedicated athletes. But with the proper guidance and the proper mindset, you can bring the actual learning time much closer to the minimal biological adaptation period and progress much further and faster than you otherwise would.