How Long to Learn a New Muay Thai Skill? – 20 Hours of Practice

this post will make the most sense if you watch at least the 1st 12 mins of this video lecture We are all trying to improve our Muay Thai,...

this post will make the most sense if you watch at least the 1st 12 mins of this video lecture

We are all trying to improve our Muay Thai, but one of the difficulties in plotting out one’s improvement is that it’s tricky to take compass readings on where exactly one is trying to get and how long it should take to get there. We have the examples of great fighters, many with stories of fighting from a young age. Some gyms give arm bands or establish levels upon which “grading” is based (this is NOT something that is done in Thailand, by the way, at all), something designed to give students a tangible feeling of advancement. Maybe you are already fighting and you take it as a sign of progress if you win a fight, or a lack of progress if you lose. We hear things like that it takes 10,000 to become an expert in something, but what does that actually mean for you?  It’s reasonable to break it down to something like concentrating on acquiring skills you’d like to have in your arsenal – a sharp teep; a strong guard; being able to turn in the clinch – and then just focusing on those things until you feel you “have them.”  How much time should you expect it to take to “have” these skills?  How long does it take to “improve” in the sense of acquiring the language of contexts around these skills, so that they work? The answer, it seems, is somewhere around a month, if you do it right.

10,000 Hours to Master, but 20 Hours to Acquire

This TED lecture by Josh Kaufman (20 minute video above) takes on the practical contexts of the well-known “10,000 Hour Rule,” made famous by Malcolm Gladwell’s explication in his book Outliers: The Story of Success, which is a rule of thumb for how much careful practices it takes to becomes an “expert” at something. He (Josh Kaufman) says that this amounts to about 5 years of a full time job, a job of only “focused, deliberate” practicing. But even this can be misleading: I, for instance, began Muay Thai seriously in the Spring of 2008 with Master K, taking private lessons while having a full time job as a bartender. Adding up all the “focused and deliberate” practice in those first 4 years – which is a very particular kind of practice that involves correction – I accumulated maybe 1,000 hours altogether, with him and several other significant trainers, mostly in one-on-one lessons. (This total was calculated to exclude time for conditioning and other non-concentrated-on-skill work, of course). This includes a 10 week trip to Thailand in 2010, as well. Since moving to Thailand 2 years ago and training full time straight through those years, no real time off, I’ve probably accumulated another 1,500 hours of focused practice to go along with my 70 plus fight total. When fighting frequently, conditioning takes up a fair amount of any training day. So these 6 years, including 2 of full time devotion, only account for about 1/4 of the way to the average hour total for becoming so-called “expert” under this theory – I dare say that at 10,000 hours I still would not be an expert. There is a reason why real Muay Thai masters start as kids. It takes a lot of very particular practice quality to master something as complex and demanding as Muay Thai and you simply cannot rush time.

Deliberate Practice - 10,000 hours

a little graphic on 10,000 hours and time

Josh Kaufman though talks about how this 10,000 hours rule has been misunderstood as it has spread as a meme across the internet and has come to mean that huge time investments are required to get good at something. It has become a kind of barrier to learning. Indeed, research has given support to the idea that 10,000 hours of practice can lead to expert status in some disciplines (chess master, violin virtuoso, etc), and Malcolm Gladwell used this research to forward a thesis against the idea that success was primarily driven by in-born talent – here are his latest thoughts on the debate. But turning the question away from the top end, “mastery”, Kaufman wants to know:  How long does it take to get “reasonably good” at a skill? Instead of 10,000 hours to expertise, how fast can one move from “knowing nothing” to relative competence? This is an important question for someone learning Muay Thai, or, if already proficient, looking to improve their Muay Thai. As he explains it, he is interested in the first part of the learning curve (below), the period where people learn things pretty fast:

Performance vs Practice Time

What he found was that no matter the skill you are trying to develop it takes about 20 hours of focused and deliberate practice to acquire a new skill. That is around 45 minutes a day for about a month. This is pretty manageable for most people. And in the video lecture he proposes a simple method for how to practice, so you make the most of your 20 hours, they are as follows.

1. Deconstruct the Skill

Look very closely at the skill you are trying to acquire and break it down into smaller and smaller skill pieces. Figure out the parts of the general skill that will get you to where you want, and practice those first. For instance in many Muay Thai techniques these may be footwork positions, or weight changes. Or related to footwork, executing a strike and returning to base position. If you practice the most important things first you’ll improve your performance much faster as you progress. Basics, basics, basics.

I played violin for 22 years (no Taekwondo or Karate classes for me, violin), beginning when I was just about to turn three years old.  I was terrible at practicing – terrible – because I just hated doing it.  I wouldn’t focus, I wasn’t deliberate, I hated doing anything repeatedly because it was boring.  My last violin teacher taught me how to practice deliberately.  He told me that I should play each note so slowly and with such a long break between to get them exactly right that my “own mother wouldn’t recognize it if I was playing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’.”  Once you get the notes right, the fingering and bowing correct, the slurs and shifts and all the pieces that make up the mechanics of actually playing a song, then you can put it all together and make the violin sing the damn song.  But take out all the mistakes first.  I was a terrible violin student and really only progressed due to a brilliant ear and ability to memorize practically anything (I can still remember almost all the 100+ songs and could play them, poorly, on a violin if I picked one up today).  Having matured since my days of leaving violin behind, I can take those lessons in how to practice and apply them to Muay Thai, breaking everything down so that it doesn’t even look like a move – it looks like I’m just shifting weight, just extending an arm with my shoulder guarding my chin.  I need to do more of this.  I’d be much cleaner in all my techniques if I’d been doing this all along.  But along with the slow, careful practice, one has to know what to look for, which brings up the next point.

2. Learn Enough to Self-Correct

Find 4 or 5 sources which will educate you to a point of self-correction. If you have a knowledgeable instructor, that may be enough. The point is that because you don’t want to practice errors, bootstrap your learning by becoming self-aware of your errors, just enough knowledge to efficiently progress on your own. This correction is fundamental to “focused and deliberate” practice.  If you can’t hear the wrong note, if you don’t know what a correct kick looks or feels like, then you can’t practice the errors out.

3. Remove Barriers to Practice

This is self-explanatory, but maybe there can be hidden distractions. Chatting at the gym can be a big one. You need to focus yourself.  But I’ve noticed far more often that people just get in their own way more than anyone else doing it for them.  If you’re constantly bending to excuses like that you’re tired, you didn’t sleep well, your stomach hurts from whatever you ate, your feet hurt, you’re sore, etc, then you’re just never going to get the time in.  I’ll burst this bubble right here and now: there is always something that hurts, that’s distracting you, making things difficult or cluttering your mind.  Always.  You move toward what you’re focused on, so if you focus on distractions or injury, that’s where you’ll always be.

4. Pre-Committing to Practicing at Least 20 Hours

An important factor in the process of learning something is what Kaufman calls the “frustration barrier”. We don’t like to feel stupid or uncoordinated and these feelings act as a barrier to practice. So he suggests that a pre-commitment to a reasonable number of hours (in this case 20) works to push you past that barrier. Practice beyond where you feel uncomfortable, because you have promised yourself. His entire approach is really a psychological one. Because humans will encounter a frustration point early on where they may feel they “aren’t getting it”, but also because they learn at a pretty fast rate in a short amount of time, he is finding the sweet spot. Within 20 hours you’ll start feeling a positive “hey, I’m pretty good at this”, and not get stuck behind the frustration.

By my experience this is the important thing. You need to get yourself into a positive feedback situation, pushing yourself into the sweet spot of felt success.  When you first start out and you learn fast it all feels really good and it’s exciting.  When that first growth-spurt starts to level off you might think there’s something wrong with you – there isn’t; you’re just going to have to work harder.

Changing your Muay Thai

For those who have been following me you know I went down to Pattaya the last two months to change up my training and learn some new skills. I summed up maybe the best 15 techniques I learned while down there, if anyone is interested, but perhaps the most significant technique was learning a new floating block on my kick, and the footwork and balance associated with it.

I had worked on getting my block up many times before this and have been pretty persistent with it, doing 5o0 blocks as a finishing drill to every training session.  That’s 1,000 blocks per day and 6,000 blocks per week.  Still wasn’t blocking in padwork or in fights.  But the difference was to be found in how well I understood the drill, not just the repetition, because practice has to be deliberate. I had been doing 6,000 blocks a week in a mode of repetition.  Sakmongkol showed me how he wanted me to be more relaxed with the blocks and so I folded them into my footwork drills and now I see a huge improvement in being able to utilize them, as well as their general form.

Same with being told since forever to keep my back foot heel up off the ground.  My stance just couldn’t accommodate it, which means of course that I have to change my stance.  It wasn’t until I was doing 30 minutes of shadow to warmup and 10 minutes to cool down in every practice session, with conscious attention on the position of that foot, that I could maintain my foot in that position most of the time – and gradually without thinking about it so much.

Both of these skills were acquired (and are still being developed) by a change in motivation – understanding why I want to block this way and stand that way – as well as a change in practice, mainly focusing on just one or two things in a very concentrated way.

Adding Techniques to Your Muay Thai

It is important to note a few things. If you listen to the lecture you’ll see that Kaufman talks about how there are fundamental elements to techniques that are found everywhere in a discipline. This is pretty good news for practitioners of Muay Thai who have a solid understanding, and who want to add a stiff jab, or new low-kick or a combo. They already (perhaps) know many of the elementary principles of the action, and so learning it may be accelerated. On the other hand, if your fundamentals aren’t correct, you may have to dig down into them and start learning at a more basic level than you imagine, just as I had to with my kick.

The other thing to think about is that these 20 hours are meant to just get you to the point where you can say “Hey, I’m pretty good at that!” This is an important positive feedback moment when you can do something proficiently, comfortably perhaps on the bag or on pads, maybe in sparring. But this is just the beginning of it. The most challenging thing (and hidden joys) about fighting is that, while you may have many techniques you are quite comfortable using in practice, when the pressure is on, can you access them? Once you have a good grasp of your new skill and a positive feeling about it, that is when you have to start working it into your trusted repertoire, things you will rely on in fights when under pressure. This may take another 20 hours of pressure practice, perhaps even more.

Look at it this way: I train full-time, six hours per day and six days per week.  Of each of those days maybe 2.5 – 3 hours is focused practice toward honing my skills (the rest is running, conditioning, etc.) and even less of that is actually getting correction or using concentrated, deliberate practice to fine-tune a skill.  But taking those 2.5 hours per day, that’s still 15 hours per week of good practice.  I fight, on average, every 10 days, which means that if my fight goes all five rounds I get 10 minutes of fight-context, pressure experience every 10 days – that’s 30 minutes per month.  That’s not a lot!  It takes a lot of time to get these things to a point of proficiency, let alone becoming good at it.  When you look at Saenchai or Den or Sakmongkol or Master K – these guys have 300 fights or 20, 30, 60 years of experience working on these styles and skills.  But the good news is that anything that takes a lot of time means that you get to spend a lot of time doing what you love to do, knowing that with every hour you’re getting better.

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A 100 lb. (46 kg) female Muay Thai fighter. Originally I trained under Kumron Vaitayanon (Master K) and Kaensak sor. Ploenjit in New Jersey. I then moved to Thailand to train and fight full time in April of 2012, devoting myself to fighting 100 Thai fights, as well as blogging full time. Having surpassed 100, and then 200, becoming the westerner with the most fights in Thailand, in history, my new goal is to fight an impossible 471 times, the historical record for the greatest number of documented professional fights (see western boxer Len Wickwar, circa 1940), and along the way to continue documenting the Muay Thai of Thailand in the Muay Thai Library project: see patreon.com/sylviemuay

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