TIP OF THE ICEBERG
I have trained in martial arts and hand-to-hand combat skills for going on 45 years, and just when I’m tempted to think that I’ve learned a thing or two, just when I start to believe that I have arrived, I soon begin to realize that there is just so much to learn and so many skills to master. I must concede that I have barely scratched the surface of the proverbial tip of the iceberg.
The word ‘iceberg,’ from the Dutch term ‘ijsberg,’ literally means ‘mountain of ice.’ Formed from ice more than 15,000 years ago, glaciers slowly move towards the sea where they break apart and begin drifting into open waters. Thousands of sections break off each year, and, as fans of the movie Titanic recall, they can become a genuine hazard to ships at sea. One giant mountain of ice, Iceberg B-15, was 183 miles long and 23 miles wide, (larger than Jamaica), and weighed an estimated three billion tons!
However, as big as they are, what you don’t see is what’s beneath the surface. It’s been estimated that as much as 90% of the iceberg’s mass is under water. If basic skill acquisition in martial arts is the tip, mastery, like the other 90% of the iceberg that most people never see, is what lies beneath.
THE LONG & WINDING ROAD TO MASTERY
The board game Othello has a great tag line: “A minute to learn…a life time to master.” I have always liked that concept, and as a combatives instructor I have often thought about the lifelong journey, the long and winding road from beginner to master. I have often wondered how long it should actually take to first learn the basic skills and then to move on to competency and finally mastery of self protection skills. Also of great interest to me is how to effectively facilitate the retention of key skills so that they will be available in a critical moment.
Consider the game of chess. “Chess masters spend roughly 50,000 to 100,000 hours studying chess to reach the ‘expert’ level
.” (Simon and Chase, 1973). “Let’s do a quick calculation
,” write Karl Wirth and Dexter Perkins about the process of moving from beginner to expert in chess in their educational article, ‘Learning to Learn.’ “An average of 75,000 hours means spending 8 hours per day, 365 days per year, for more than 25 years to become an accomplished chess player. That’s how long it takes to develop the necessary skills for recognizing patterns of chess pieces, understanding their implications for future outcomes, and making the best moves
Mastering a musical instrument also requires extreme dedication. When Pablo Casals turned ninety-five, so the story goes, a curious reporter asked him a question: “Mr. Casals, you are ninety-five and perhaps the greatest cellist who ever lived. Why do you still have to practice six hours a day?” Casals answered, “Because I think I’m making progress.”
Bruce Lee, arguably THE spokesperson for directness and simplicity in martial arts training, seemed to agree with Casals when he said, “I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once…I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times
Legendary combatives instructor Hock Hochheim, ever the iconoclast, was curious about the concept that it takes thousands and thousands of repetitions to become skilled, and he asked himself the simple question, “Where do these magic numbers actually come from?” In his blog Hock posted “How Many Reps Was That? Again?”*, where he refers to research by Richard Schmidt, Craig Wrisberg, and Timothy Lee. This research indicated that it may not be 3,000 to 5,000 repetitions after all, but actually only 300 to 500!
Hock understands the concept of statistical analysis however, and he says, “I am well aware that each student will have a different, learning repetition ratio. One might really ‘get’ something with only 75 reps, another person may take 6,000. Another, even 10,000.” Hock also acknowledges that skills are ‘perishable‘ and that they “need to be exercised with some frequency that is – once again, different for each person…
Remember, the ‘masters’ be they in golf, cooking, baseball, piano, or karate…practice forever. The Masters lose count and just practice for practice sake. That’s why they are masters.”
Hock is on solid ground on this one. Some important skills, like that board game Othello, can be learned relatively quickly. Have you ever attended a CPR class? In these classes laypeople are taught basic life support (BLS) techniques involving ‘CAB’s: Circulation, airway, breathing. Most laypersons can learn BLS skills after attending a short course offered by the American Red Cross or American Heart Association. Attendees learn the compression-to-breath ratio (30:2) and the techniques associated with these life-saving measures. Most of these courses run from 3 to 9 hours. There is even a new, hands-only course “a potentially lifesaving technique involving no mouth to mouth contact” taught by the Red Cross that only takes 30 minutes to learn.
EASY AS RIDING A BIKE
In a previous post I used the analogy of learning to ride a bike to show that some things, once learned, are not easily forgotten. Balancing on a bike is not inherently a natural activity, but there is something else at work…something very special. There is a lot of anticipation, determination, and excitement associated with that magic moment when you take off the training wheels and begin free-wheeling down the road. The strong emotions of that moment of freedom combine with the effort it takes to learn, and it’s almost as if that particular skill becomes etched into the brain! Perhaps this is one secret to learning and remembering an important skill:
Combine Effort with Emotion…Mix Intent with Intensity
NOT FADE AWAY
Most skills are indeed perishable. Without constant, continual and consistent maintenance, abilities can fade away all too quickly.
If you’re an investor you’re probably familiar with the oft-used disclaimer which is usually included in fine print:
PAST PERFORMANCE IS NOT NECESSARILY INDICATIVE OF FUTURE RESULTS
Here’s an excerpt from another investing disclaimer that speaks to this idea that skills may be perishable:
“HYPOTHETICAL PERFORMANCE RESULTS HAVE MANY INHERENT LIMITATIONS…IN FACT, THERE ARE FREQUENTLY SHARP DIFFERENCES BETWEEN HYPOTHETICAL PERFORMANCE RESULTS AND THE ACTUAL RESULTS SUBSEQUENTLY ACHIEVED… ONE OF THE LIMITATIONS OF HYPOTHETICAL PERFORMANCE RESULTS IS THAT THEY ARE GENERALLY PREPARED WITH THE BENEFIT OF HINDSIGHT.”
According to R. Keith Sawyer, writing for CERI-Centre for Educational Research and Innovation, cognitive research indicates that expertise is based on the following characteristics:
- A large and complex set of representational structures.
- A large set of procedures and plans.
- The ability to improvisationally apply and adapt those plans to each situation’s unique demands.
- The ability to reflect on one’s own cognitive processes while they are occurring.
Sawyer contends that it’s really about the need to learn “integrated and usable knowledge,” rather than “sets of compartmentalized and decontextualized facts.
“Becoming an expert requires building a large repertoire of patterns that can be recognized and acted on,” according to Penuel and Roschelle in ‘Designing Learning.’ “There is no known mechanism for short-cutting direct experience of the situations of practice in order to build up these patterns.”
J.S. Atherton** defines the components and pyramid structure of expertise in ‘Competence, Proficiency and Beyond’:
- Competence: is the simple ability to perform the requisite range of skills for practice.
- Contextualisation: is knowing when to do what.
- Contingency: is the greater flexibility to be able to cope when things go wrong.
- Creativity: is the capacity to use all the “lower” level skills in new ways to solve new problems.
In Part II we will take a look at some specific steps on the journey to expertise based on the breakthroughs in cognitive science.
Ron Goin, P.U.M.A.
(Originally posted 2/23/2012)
Ron Goin is a critical thinking, rational, humanist, skeptical & a non-traditional combatives instructor with 45 years of Martial Arts & combatives training. He runs a blog of his own. Follow it if you dare. (click his picture to travel there)