The Rule of 10,000

Ten Thousand Repetitions

Early on, we called it the rule of 10,000

Simply stated it meant you had to work very hard if you wished to develop a skill. Problem was many people wanted to become experts but they expected it to happen overnight. That’s not reality. Anything we truly desire or hope to achieve requires discipline, fortitude and practice to actualize.

Whether the skill be a punch or a kick, a kata, or a self defense concept, you will achieve your objective only with a great number of focused repetitions. Though it is rarely done it this way anymore, back then we would sometimes run cycles of 1000 repetitions. That would include each kick and each hand technique during training cycles. Likewise, when attempting to perfect the fine points of a Kata, we would frequently run through the form 10-20 times.

Needless to say, this could be exhausting, and mentally challenging. It was however productive, if excellence was the objective. Furthermore, there were the associated benefits to physical conditioning, endurance, and strength.

So what does the rule of 10,000 really mean?

I can share a story related by Steve James the great country blues and roots musician. Steve had been teaching a slide guitar class and had volunteered insights into some of his unique guitar fills. Not unexpectedly, some in the group were challenged by the dexterity demanded to strike the notes cleanly. One of the students hailed Steve, saying in frustration that he would never get it, questioning whether it was even possible. Steve encouraged the student, noting the grist for any situation where you’re attempting to learn new technique is repetition. The only question for the student was whether he could rise to the test. The student queried, “Exactly how much repetition?” Steve answered, “As much as it takes.” The student posited whether that meant a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand. Steve underscored, “Whatever it takes.” All that Steve could promise was that repetition would result in improvement and that enough repetition would eventually result in excellence.

Several days later, in a follow-up session, the same student shared with the group that he had learned to play the Steve James lick which had previously eluded him. He demonstrated, and Steve was satisfied the student was well on the road. Steve then asked the student, “How many?” The student responded, “How many what?” “Repetitions, how many repetitions did you go through before it became fluid?” The student answered, “Eleven hundred and nineteen.”

Part of the magic of repetitions is that it's a way of programming yourself to to recognize what’s most important to you. Your body and mind need that, to focus as they’re meant to.  Stated differently, muscles have memory. The many aspects of daily life which occur only once are processed quickly through our stream of consciousness, and are instantly flushed. For example, can you recite your food menu for the past seven days? Can you remember what you had for dinner three days ago?

That's why repetition looms larger than anything else in perfecting your martial art. Things like patterns, forms and Kata were designed and meant to be lifelong pursuits, in some cases producing their fruit only after decades of diligent practice, exploration and meditation.

Repetitions were the key. My teachers never let me lose site of the point, even though that key was frequently lost to others. They posited the benefit of 10,000 repetitions would accrue to the student as an outcome of assured certainty. If you paid the price, success would follow. And that would happen whether you spent 50 years doing the repetitions, or one year.

Let's see how that works.

Suppose you learn a new Kata and because of your schedule, practice it once weekly. That means during the next year, you would do 52 repetitions, give or take. In 50 years, assuming you have that much time remaining, you will have done 2600 repetitions. For all of those 50 years, and for all those repetitions, you will struggle with the execution, sometimes making false moves, sometimes blanking out, and sometimes being unable to complete the form. You will gain some degree of physical conditioning, and acquire some rudimentary fighting skills, but will not achieve excellence or mastery.

Let's say is that you're still executing the kata once weekly, and do so for a period of two years, then taper off. At the end of two years, you’ve done about 100 repetitions and your skills will be minimal. As soon as you taper off, the movement, lessons, and benefits, will quickly disperse.  You’ll quickly forget the form.

Suppose you're more ambitious, and do the form once daily, never missing a day. In one year you will have executed 365 repetitions and at some point approaching 30 years, you will have executed 10,000. You will derive substantially more benefit than you would have in the other scenarios, and you might even achieve a certain degree of mastery over the content. We would expect all of your movement to be crisp and we would also expect you to attain the full physical conditioning warranted by the regular activity. If you executed with proper focus, we would even expect you to achieve deep insight into the flows of energy and power within the structure and geometry of the form, perhaps even coming to understand how those energies and configurations are applied in real life.

Now, think about executing 10 times a day for three years. I was taught you could achieve the same gains in that routine as you would in the preceding 30-year routine. The main advantage here being that once the form has been mastered, your energies are freed and available to pursue other learning objectives. Ultimately, mastery means the form becomes you, and is no longer something you have to practice repeatedly. Therein lies the reward.

My teachers expected nothing less than one hundred repetitions of each form, each week. That meant 5200 repetitions per year, and mastery in as short a period of time as possible. As you can imagine, that required considerable sacrifice, and dedication, but in return, produced accelerated and tangible benefits. At the end of two years, the form will have become a permanent part of your identity. You will never forget the moves, and they will be there at your command when needed. The techniques will be precisely defined, explosive, and effective. Most importantly, the skills you develop with this approach will become part of the package you bring to the next form, as you pursue further growth. In effect, the better you get, the better you can become. Everything builds on what has already transpired. The more you’ve done, the more you can do.

Was I able to achieve that?  Honestly, no.  I had to work and support a family.  I’m sure you know what that means.  It took me between five and ten years to reach the mark.

In the old days, Master Steve Armstrong would characteristically teach one or two katas per year. He was a strong proponent for seeing excellence in a form, before allowing anyone to progress beyond. His expectation of excellence, and insistence it be pursued, resulted in sparkling executions, even dominance, by his students competing in West Coast tournaments over the course of decades.

For me, the role of 10,000 is a personal standard. Whether it's a technique, a skill, tai chi, sword, or even poker, I have come to consider 10,000 to be the threshold separating the dilatante from the committed. It just boils down to you, as an individual deciding who you are and what is important.

After spending years perfecting their chops in the clubs of Hamburg and Liverpool, the Beatles entered the world stage as an extremely polished and competent band, though only just out of their teens.

In various interviews regarding that period, Paul McCartney has been questioned regarding the technique he and John Lennon used writing songs. The interviewer inevitably asks McCartney whether they recorded, or wrote everything down so that nothing good was lost. McCartney typically responds, “No we didn't do that as we worked.” The interviewer, puzzles, then asks McCartney to explain. McCartney adds that if something was good, both he and John Lennon recognized it immediately, and once they decided it was good, they would know to commit it to memory, and not to lose it.

Now that’s thinking like a martial artist. If it’s really important, treat it like it deserves to be a permanent part of you!

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