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,
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
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!