|Wayne Boylan, 1938-2019
Dedicated to my Father, Wayne Boylan 1938-2019
I was talking about doing some suburi (repetitive sword cut practice) with a friend and he mentioned that one of his teachers says you shouldn’t do 100 suburi. You should do one good cut.I have to agree. Mindless repetition doesn’t make for good practice. If you’re just cranking out repetitions to hit a number, you’re not paying attention to the quality of what you are doing. You’ll be sloppy and rushed.
“Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent.” My Dad was a teacher - music - not budo, but he knew more about how to teach and learn skills than I ever will. And it’s true. You’re only as good as your practice. Doing thousands of suburi will only ingrain your mistakes if you’re not consciously trying to make each one better than the last. Real practice is as mentally hard as it is physically tough. When you’re practicing effectively you engage your mind as much as your muscles. You’re aware of what you're doing and always looking for flaws.
I’ve had the same satisfaction with my budo for the last 30+ years. I’m consistently satisfied with less than 10% of everything I do. Whether I do 100 kirioroshi (sword cuts) or 100 hikiotoshi uchi (jo strikes) or 100 harai goshi (a judo throw), if I’m happy with 10 of them it’s an unusually good day. I use too much right hand or not enough left. I tense my shoulders (that one really ticks me off about myself). I don’t engage my koshi enough. My stance is too narrow. Weak te no uchi. I muscle the cut, My angle is off, my tip bounces. I’m off target. I do a chicken neck. My movement is small. There are days I could write an entire essay just chronicling the different mistakes I make.
One of my goals is to never make the same mistake twice in a row. If I do that I’m not being aware and correcting myself. In practice I have to be aware of what I’m doing so I can consistently correct mistakes. Practice is about fixing, correcting and improving. It’s not about repeating what you’ve already learned. Suck, yes, but as my friend Janet says, “Suck at a higher level.” Be aware of what you’re doing and make it a little better every time. I know flaws won’t go away with one correction, but at least make sure that you’re not repeating them.
The hardest thing to fix is a flaw that you’ve practiced. My iai has a flaw where my stance is too shallow. At some point I decided that what I was doing was good enough, and then I did thousands of repetitions with that shallow stance. Now that is my body’s default stance. Any time I’m not consciously extending my stance, it shortens up. Practice makes permanent. Whatever you practice is what you’ll do. I practiced with a shallow stance and now it will take even longer to correct because the mistake has been drilled into my body.
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I have to build a whole new set of neural pathways and polish this deeper stance until I’ve overwritten the old training. That’s going to take time. I’m going to have to be sharp and watch my stance whenever I’m training. I will have to do more repetitions with a correct, deep stance than I’ve done with the flawed, shallow stance. That’s no fun, but it’s what I get for practicing a flaw.
The good news is that good practice isn’t difficult to do, and it’s more interesting than bad practice. With good practice you’re constantly aware and tuned in to what you're doing so you can fix any flaws you spot. This is much more interesting than doing a hundred or two hundred mindless reps just to get in some reps. As in so much else, it’s the quality, not the quantity.
Just as in music, it doesn’t do any good to rush through things just to say you’ve done it. Maybe do the whole kata once. Pay attention to what’s weak, then go back and just work on the parts that are weak.
Good practice makes for good budo. Poor quality practice makes for poor quality budo. Pay attention to what you're doing, and to what you’re not doing. Practice the stuff you’re good at, and practice the things you're bad at even more. If you don’t practice, things won’t improve; but if you practice badly then things will stay bad.
Special thanks to Deborah Klens-Bigman, Ph.D for her editorial support.