Learning new movement

I want to start this with a quote from one of my favourite books: “The choreographer’s handbook” by Jonathan Burrows. A book about the creative process, the body and perception. It is made for choreographers but I find the insights can be transferred to many areas of life.

He says: “Learning motor skills is emotionally stressful.” I had to re-read this when I encountered it first because it seemed obvious and wrong at the same time. I mean, I know learning a new skill is hard on the body, it can be frustrating, it is a slow and long process. I have however never considered that all those feeling are stressful. Yes, they are stressful! There is a lot to process and many voices in your head to appease.

“How”, he then asks, ”can we make this process less stressful?” He also says that this type of stress may be just the right thing for some people. What type of stress is useful for you?

I have written about the inner dialogue of learning in the post before. A big source of stress for my students is when they get a correction but cannot immediately implement it. Someone may be convinced they are a slow learner because I have explained to them how for example the weight transfer to a one arm handstand happens, yet they cannot do it like that, not even after a week’s practice. They will ask me why they cannot do it? They are looking for the missing piece of information. Mostly I can see in their attempts that they have understood the correction and are trying what I asked them to do. All I can do is explain it again, in more detail. It now just needs 1000 repetitions.

Repetition can be a beautiful process in itself. Firstly because you can loose yourself in it, it can be totally immersive and absorb your focus so completely that it becomes quite a meditative state. Secondly because every attempt is another chance to learn something. It is not all hit or miss, failure or success. It is rather that in one attempt you have gotten a bit closer to where your body is supposed to be and in another you are a bit further off. Both attempts though, have told you more about how your body works. You have created dots on the map, created a better understanding of the movement you were trying to do. You are on your way.

In juggling (having learnt my handstand stuff at a circus school, I have talked to a lot of jugglers about their work) every throw is important, even the throw that drops the ball. With every throw you have gained more information about how to throw the ball in order to keep it up in the air in that particular pattern and catch it again. When you drop, you know how NOT to throw the ball and that information is as important as knowing how to throw to succeed. I learned a lot from juggling about the process of repetition, failure and success because juggling is as laborious and frustrating to learn as handstands and it is equally obvious when it goes wrong. When you drop the ball, when you loose your balance, it is obvious. You cannot hide it, especially not on stage. That is why in juggling, “the drop” is the big fear and in handstands it is losing your balance.

To gain mastery and confidence requires a huge amount of perfection and precision and this precision has to be acquired through ten thousand attempts. Ten thousand repetitions, and after that you are much more likely to be closer to your desired outcome when you try the handstand, the movement, the juggling pattern you are aiming for. You have not become perfect but a lot more consistent. Consistency is what you should aim for, not perfection.

I think being in an environment where everybody is learning difficult skills like in a circus school makes it easier to accept the struggle that accompanies you through all the repetitions. You also witness everyone else’s struggles, so it is easier to accept it as a given that repetition is at the core of learning. It is not about getting it right but about trying so many times that eventually the likelihood of doing it approximately right is relatively high. It still is not a guarantee, every time you do the movement or the handstand it is a new attempt. For a movement that you have learnt, the chances are high that you will get it. For a movement or handstand you have not mastered yet the chances are less high. You will however never master it 100%, you have approximated the movement and over time the goal is to keep the approximation as accurate as possible by repeatedly practising. The wonderful and maddening thing is that movement changes, it does not stay the same, so in order to keep the skill that you have acquired you need to continuously practice it and make sure that your map is still correct. If your body changes, which it does over a lifetime, then the parameters of the movement change. This means that you need to adjust the dots on the map and relearn a part of it.

I love the stories that my circus colleagues tell about when they “lost” a trick. The acrobatic move, the juggling throw or the hula hoop pattern they have confidently performed hundreds of times on stage is suddenly “gone”. It does not work any more, it is as if it has been wiped from the brain and the body. It can then take months to get it back. It basically has to be relearned. A baffling process for someone who is a master of their skill.

Don’t look for success but rather accept the struggle of repetition. The struggle of trying to repeatedly approximate a very precise physical process is a worthwhile one. In every attempt you learn more about your body in general and about how it feels today. It is a daily task.

Jonathan Burrows closes the paragraph on learning new movement with a quote: “The subjective discomfort of attempting to maintain prolonged periods of unusual concentration, together with the inevitable poor performance at this stage, is highly stressful and requires considerable emotional commitment to sustain perseverance.” (“Human Movement – an introductory text” by Churchill Livingstone). I loved this because it means that it is ok to not feel great when you practice. It is ok to struggle through it. It is normal to fall left and right and only occasionally get it right. It is normal because you are attempting to master something difficult and the harder the task the more rocky the path. It does not mean that you are slow, it is just what it is: The process of learning through repetition.

I take part in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, this means that if you click on the links below and then buy the product I get a small commision at no additional cost to you. I only get the commision if you actually buy the product not just by you clicking on the link.

Human movement – An introductory text
Jonathan Burrows – A Choreographer’s Handbook


  1. Thank you for sharing this. It is stimulating how you always mention the importance of repetition and put that in a perspective.

  2. “I discuss auto-replay of skill learning in the brain during sleep and the value of adding in post-training ‘deliberately idle’ sessions. I cover how to immediately improve limb-range-of-motion by leveraging cerebellum function, error generation, optimal repetition numbers for learning and more. ”

    worth reading 🙂

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