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Skill Acquisition for Adults

We all have one major problem.

We’re all grown up.

Of course I’m assuming that the people reading this are adults. No matter how much you still consider yourself a child, it’s a sad, irreversable fact that you are not. This is a serious impedement to your progression at almost anything physical.

If you’re like me, and over 30, then I have some even worse news. It’s almost certainly over. The slide towards old age is in progress. You are on the downward spiral. The whirlpool-like circling of the drain has begun. You’re done for, really.

There are some positives. You no longer have to worry about fashion, you get hair in interesting places and you can play a game called “guess the ache” after training. (that’s where you train hard and write down where you think you’ll hurt in the morning, it’s surprising how little you get it right) You’ll also get excited when they play Nirvana on the radio, though they almost never do.

But let’s accentuate the negative for a minute and talk a little bit about how you’re basically in total physical decline. I’ll simplify. You can’t learn new skills like you used to. It’s true, you can’t. I think you should quit and let the kids at it.

Okay obviously I don’t really think that, but I do have some better news. You can slow this decline through physical training, and you can do the one thing that the 18 year old you never could- you can have the discipline and focus to acquire these skills through greater time spent studying them.

Boring, but true. Think for a second about your weekly schedule, and let’s take my favourite sport as an example, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Let’s say you spend once per week training. In that training, you spend an hour acquiring new skills or refining old ones, plus a further hour of practice or drilling. Once per week or 2 hours. Now let’s say you do BJJ twice per week. This would be twice as valuable to you, and gives you a weekly value of 4 hours. Now go to three times per week. It follows that this should mean this would give you a value of 6 hours per week. (I am a hell of a mathematician) Okay. We’re nearly there so hang on in.

So what does it mean, having three times more practice? Well, over the course of a week, not much, and everyone has had times where they’ve only trained once per week for a while. But let’s take it over the course of a month:

Once per week- 2hrs x 4 wks = 8 hours per month

Twice per week- 4hrs x 4weeks = 16 hours per month

Don’t stop there Barry, I hear you exclaim, tell me about the 3 times per week trainee! Well he’s doing well

Thrice (yes, thrice) per week- 6hrs x 4 weeks = 24 hours per month

If that’s not enough, here’s a graph! (I used the most up to date graphical software available http://nces.ed.gov/nceskids/index.asp)


You can see for yourself the stunning results. A man training 3 times per week spends 3 times as much time per month learning BJJ. Amazing.

But seriously, the difference between 8 and 24 in one month is vast. It’s vast for another reason too. BJJ is essentially counter intuitive, and time spent learning it doesn’t actually amount to that straight line you see above. It’s actually more of a curve like the one below:


As you can see, your awesomeness level increases exponentially rather than linearly the more time you spend at your given sport. This is really only true of novices or those relatively new to the skills, after which the curve begins to flatten before almost completely plateauing. This is due to the simple fact that leaving any skill for a week before revisiting it obviously is far worse than revisiting it after 2 or 3 days. So while the once per week guy gets himself to level 2 on the awesomeness scale, he might be back at 1 after a week out of practice. The twice per week man retains his level 2 by refreshing that skill 2 days later, and gets to add to that.

This is a very simple and immature method of explaining more complicated psychological concepts and theories of learning. However, I don’t think we need to read too many studies to know that practice makes perfect.

So see you on the mat.



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