For a while now I wanted to write about the difference between habitual repetition and intensive practice. Understanding the difference between the two can mean that we get more out of our daily training. It took me a while to know the difference myself. When I read Daniel Coyle’s book “The talent code” I realized that what he calls “deep practice” comes very close to what I call “intensive practice”. Daniel Coyle tries to pin down what exactly leads to excellence across a range of fields from writing to basketball. His conclusions are that what people call talent is in fact mostly the result of a specific type of practice that breaks a skill down to manageable small parts. He also talks about how operating at the limits of your ability and actively processing mistakes intensifies your practice and strengthens the neural connections you need for that specific activity. Anders Ericcson calls this type of practice “deliberate practice” in his 1993 essay “The Role of Deliberate Practice in the Acquisition of Expert Performance”. Both their findings resonate with what I have experienced throughout my training and education. So this post will be inspired by their ideas as well as my personal experience and will hopefully tell you more about how to progress faster in your handstand training.
Before I continue I would like to point out that training does not necessarily have to be focused on progress. If it is fun, keeps to fit and gives you quality recreational time that is great! Rather than ideologically advocating self optimization (radical optimization and climate change have in common that they are guaranteed to ruin you and everyone around – so please, my friends increase your carrot cake intake!); rather than telling you what you have to do, this post is a quest into my ongoing fascination with what makes my students progress. Alongside that quest I am also trying to remember how I progressed and what the crucial moments in my learning curve were.
When I was 12 I was determined to become part of the German sports-acro national team. Our sports-acro club had a six week long summer break and I was in total despair over how much training I was going to miss out on. So I wrote myself a summer practice plan to keep fit and improve, so that I could go right back to training properly after the break. The practice plan consisted of precise exercises for every handstand move I wanted to learn, with an exact amount of repetitions that I would increase every week and the plan also included targeted conditioning exercises. I had a laser focus on everything I did with a really vivid picture of the moves I wanted to learn in mind. The practice plan was set out for two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. My grandmother was deeply concerned about this “training obsession” and thought I should be outside playing with the other kids. She had a point there! BUT in those weeks I learned a one arm handstand by myself as well as many other handstand shapes and I set the base for more than twenty years of handstand training to come. In these six weeks I became a handbalancer, I still stick to the structure of training I wrote for myself back then and it took me a long time to realize how remarkable and important these six weeks were.
What made this summer so important was not just the time I put into the practice. I was very focused, I practiced without music playing in the background or any other distractions purely focusing on what I would now call an efficient body mind connection. I was really trying to figure out each move in a physical, not in a logical way. It is hard to pin down what happens in the complex flux of muscular impulses and in the split second feedback between body and brain. Bodily learning means that you need to find a system to make sense of what you feel in order to know the difference between right and wrong movements.
Within that system you then need to break a move down into parts that make sense to you. So when you get a correction or feedback your job as someone who wants to learn a handstand is to break the information down into digestible bits and have a laser focus on the body part that needs to implement the correction. In order to facilitate this process as a teacher I try to give precise visual examples (show the student), provide somatic images (“imagine your legs are like laser rays”) and precise physical instructions (“curve your upper back”).
When you have this type of focus in your practice, you don’t need to put in long hours. I don’t ever practice for more than three hours a day. While I have accumulated many hours of practice over the years for sure, I do not think that long hours of training are useful. Regular practice is important but not for hours at a time. What really makes a difference is the quality of the instructions you get and the sharpness of your awareness while you are training.
When you are engaged in deep practice your awareness is entirely in your body. This does not mean that you are actively thinking about your body it means that you are actively feeling it. This feeling is not the equivalent of merely observing your body. While it is important to be a good observer, you need to develop a holistic feeling of your body as one whole connected space. It means detailed, intrinsic, felt knowledge of the body so that it becomes both a database and a map upon which you mark new territory. Your body becomes a canvas onto which you draw a picture. Learning a knew physical skill, especially as an adult means that you need to find a method of processing instructions and images in a way that allows you to translate them to bodily knowledge or kinesthetic intelligence. So this poses the question of what happens to information within the training process? If a handstand student is told to tilt their hips more to the front how do they make sure this actually happens? Why does it not happen sometimes even though we have clearly understood the theory of the handstand and the importance of tucking the hips in? Once upside down the world is suddenly different. Even though it is the same body, standing on your feet or upside down, one is in control the other is not. How is it possible to bridge that gap?
What I suggest is to consider yourself an explorer, a cartographer of unknown territory. Your body is foreign land and you are trying to create a map that consists of intrinsic, bodily images, not words. The words sit in your brain, the intrinsic images are your physical map and guideline against which you can execute corrections. Try this: when you practice break the movement down into sections. Work on two pieces of information at the most. Say you want to correct your straight line handstand, pick two very specific areas you want to work on, let’s say pushing the shoulder out and pushing the ribs flat. Before you do the movement think of what it means to push the shoulders out or to keep the ribs flat. Physically try it out whilst standing or in a prep exercise. Put all your awareness onto that specific movement/body part. Try to be very clear about what this feels like! What it feels like! Ask yourself: “What is the physical sensation of my body being in this position?” Then memorize it! Press save! Then press copy! Now do the move and try to recreate that feeling when you are doing the handstand with your mind completely focused on the thing you want to correct. This is the process of learning: 1. understand the problem 2. understand the correction 3. while standing or in a prep exercise execute the correction 4. save the feeling 5. copy and paste into the move 6. repeat it a hundred times to anchor it in the body. While you repeat the movement, also repeat the correction feedback process every 30th of 40th repetition (roughly) to make sure that you are still on track. With each repetition the correction will become more body and less thought. It becomes automatic. If you stick to this process you will improve, it is an incredibly efficient way to physically learn. Make it a habit to have your mind like a laser on the body part that has to execute the correction. When I struggle to coordinate a movement and my limbs keep doing the wrong thing I sometimes stop and think with big, bold, loud words: “At this point (picture the physical position) your left leg will do this” (kind of do it + picture in which direction it will go = towards he corner). Think again: “Towards the corner! This one is my left leg!” (I then pinch or pat my left leg). Then I do the movement and think: Left + corner, left + corner. – This is much faster than it sounds and it becomes a habit.
The physical map you create will be the base upon which you apply further learning and corrections, so that your physical knowledge builds in complexity just like your knowledge of a language builds. So even if you are processing feedback about what you are doing from a teacher or from watching yourself on a video your awareness should be in your body. You are not trying to solve a logical problem, understand an abstract theory or construct any other framework outside of your body. Your thoughts have to refer to the great unknown which you are trying to map: the body. This way you can break a big goal like mastering a handstand down to a thousand little steps of which you can take two every day.