Deliberate Practice and Mental Training – Mapping, Violin and Muay Thai

As the story goes, I was 2 and a half years old and my oldest brother Gabe – then probably about 9 years old – was finishing up his...

As the story goes, I was 2 and a half years old and my oldest brother Gabe – then probably about 9 years old – was finishing up his violin lesson. I stood up from whatever wooden blocks or plastic toys were keeping me occupied on the floor of the practice studio and crept up to my mother’s knees. She couldn’t hear my meek, mousy voice (my nickname back then was “Miss Mouse”) and leaned down to hear me better, and I repeated my question, “When do I get my violin?”

And that’s how I came to play the violin. I actually remember this event, the whole room tiny and from the vantage point of a tiny person: the chairs were too big and there was gray carpet. I think I just assumed that because Gabe played the violin I would get lessons, too. I always wanted to be doing what my brothers were doing. So, my first violin lesson was standing on a cardboard pizza circle (frozen pizzas come on these) with my feet outlined in the correct stance and balancing a violin made out of a Triscuit box and ruler between my chin and my shoulder for 30 seconds. Once I could master that, I was ready to try it with a real instrument. For my third birthday, I got a real violin. It’s tiny, barely the length of my own forearm now, and due to its size is pretty much incapable of producing pleasant sounds. Everything is too high pitched and squeaky… like a mouse.

Sylvie violin 2

the featured photo at top isn’t me, but this is, about at age 3

I played the violin for 20 years, taking weekly lessons from a total of 3 different teachers over that time and participating in countless recitals, joining several orchestras. Indeed, my best friend from Kindergarten onward, Nell, became so because she also played violin. Nell’s approach was 180 degrees different from mine. She practiced under the dutiful eye and ear of her father, who as Nell got better also took up lessons so that he could continue to help her after she’d surpassed his understanding. We both learned under the Suzuki approach, which stems from Japan and requires students to learn songs in order of difficulty, like kata in marital arts, before advancing to the next level. But my practice was not enforced by parental aid so much as reinforced by the reward of candy. If I practiced for 30 minutes and, as I got older, an hour or more, I got to pick a piece of candy out of my mom’s stash. It’s not my mom’s fault, but my adult brain has learned to correlate these extrinsic reward systems with faulty motivations and, ultimately, I just had to noodle around on my violin for the duration of required time in order to get what I really wanted out of it. I also was motivated by guilt. Firstly, I wanted the approval of my mother and it seemed like playing violin accomplished that; however, I was terrible at practicing and so every time I saw my teacher at our weekly lesson, I was made aware of how I had all this potential I wasn’t tapping into because I wasted a lot of my practice time just noodling around. I felt guilty about not practicing but I also felt guilty about my parents spending money on the lessons, as we didn’t have a lot to spare – but I couldn’t bear the thought of quitting. It was an impossible position.

So, when I was in college and failed to get into the school orchestra (I wasn’t a music student, so my chances were pretty much nil) I just stopped playing at all. In many ways, I was “free,” and in the 10 years since I put my violin in its case with the knowledge that I would never be getting any better with it, it has remained stored in my parents’ house, the fluctuation in temperatures taking it out of tune. That’s the true tragedy of beautiful instruments made of wood and aluminum and horse hair – if you don’t use them, they deteriorate. Here’s the crazy thing, something I never expected: I miss playing the violin. I hated practicing, I hated scales and fudged my way through the difficult process of learning to read music by my inborn talent at having a good ear and being able to memorize; I don’t miss those things. What I do miss is playing the violin. I still hear those songs in my head and will tap out the fingering, shifts and vibrato with my left hand holding my right forearm like the neck of a violin. It’s like “air guitar” for the music in my head. And as I remember it, tapping out those songs, I also remember how good it felt to just play whatever song came to my head as I stood on my back porch in the summer, playing midday out in the open with the purple mountains as my vista. The thing about the violin is that an accurate note is one of the sweetest things you ever heard but a slight misplacement sounds horrible. So, naturally my brothers complained about my mistakes in practice because it sounds bad, so I had to lock myself in a room to practice, play timidly or put a “mute” on the bridge of my instrument to dull the sound. That didn’t feel good; that helped me not practice deliberately. But out there on the back porch, my violin singing into the open air as loud and as free as I wanted, mistakes and all… I mourn the loss of those moments.

Recently, I started listening to a book called “Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise,” by Anders Ericsson. In short, it’s a detailed analysis of how people master any given skill or art form rather than the false notion of inborn talent. Over and over again, Ericsson demonstrates how the key to memorizing long strings of numbers, becoming a chess Grand Master, the particular skill set of London Cabbies, and masters of any given sport are all due to deliberate practice. Most people have heard of the 10,000 hour rule, as outlined by Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers: the Story of Success,” but in his dissection of this average time spent to becoming an expert Gladwell falls short in expressing the necessity of these hours being spent in focused, mindful and deliberate practice. It’s not fun, really. But it’s Ericsson’s chapter on the violin that really brought this home for me. I never considered myself “a violinist,” and never acted like one as a result. I spent enough hours in those 20 years learning to play the violin to have reached a degree of proficiency, but it was a two decade long study in how not to become an expert. However, I did get better, albeit much more slowly than could have been if I’d put my mind to it, so I actually learned a great deal about improvement from those years with the violin. And now I’m beginning to realize that because I resist the idea of being “a violinist”, I also tossed out all the relevant experience which might be applied to improving in Muay Thai. It’s the same process between learning to memorize strings of numbers and becoming a Karate black-belt at the age of 73, so surely all the trial and error from my 20 years of violin can be applied to my dedication to Muay.

One of the first things I noted, when being put to the task of comparing violin to Muay, is that I don’t feel the movements of Muay Thai when I’m watching it in the way that I can viscerally feel how a piece of music is being played on the strings of a violin. With no visual at all, just by listening to the sound I can tell whether the note being played is an “up stroke” or a “down stroke” on the bow. They sound different. I can feel the strings under my fingers when I hear a shift on the finger board. If put to it I can feel the kicks and evasions of a fighter I’m watching on a screen, but that’s not how I actually watch fights. When watching live shows I do feel it, and I can tell when a fight is choreographed versus when it’s real, but through a screen I usually don’t put myself in the body of the fighters I’m watching. When I said this to Kevin he was shocked, as to him this is how one watches sports. I reasoned that this detachment on my part is also why I find car chase scenes so utterly boring in movies (especially the way they’re edited in contemporary action movies) and kind of zone-out during the really long fight scenes in Kung Fu movies. Kevin loves Kung Fu movies precisely because he (and he argues as a group men do this) puts himself in the bodily experience of the hero or villain – watching the sequences, he feels that he is flying through the air and kicking ass. My experience is more like watching Ballet or a horse running. I don’t feel those movements in my body, I just find the grace and flow really beautiful. When my dog Jaidee opens up to his full speed on a stretch of beach, I can feel his freedom and I’m moved by it, but I don’t picture the feeling of the sand being kicked up onto his tongue as it flops out of his mouth and his lips flap around. I know it feels good, but I have to purposefully think about the detailed sensations of that freedom.

Some of this is very weird, because if I see someone with a broken leg (like, in a cast) I can feel what that feels like, I get a faint ache and idea of what the break might have felt. I have high physical empathy, which is due to something called “mirror neurons” and basically they’re the part of the brain that makes us feel an empathetic sting when watching someone else get pricked by a needle, or why we might get nauseated by seeing someone else throw up or why we yawn when someone else is yawning. It’s why my mother winces and lets out an “oh!” when someone gets punched in a movie – like, even a really fake looking punch. So, if I have the capacity for this kind of empathy, why don’t I watch demonstrations of my own sport with a connection to this capacity, rather than just following the movements with a detached eye? When I watch someone playing violin, I can feel every note. I can feel the horsehair against the aluminum string. If I think about it, I can feel a teep landing either as the one giving or the one taking the stab; but it’s not my default to watch a fight this way.

It’s still a mystery to me and figuring out the “why” might come a bit down the line, but in the meantime I’ve begun addressing this in my training. In order to become more deliberate in my practice I’ve taken to watching fights and purposefully picking one fighter with whom to identify, mapping all their movements onto my own fantasized experience of it. In the same way that we learn to read, first by painstakingly sounding out every letter and then by recognizing entire words and even clusters of words, I figure that visualizing fight exchanges in clusters is a better way to visualize and will eventually lead to doing this in real time, Ericsson’s book argues that there is strong evidence for this. I have a wonderfully rich ability to visualize, but when put to visualizing a fight or sparring or really anything else that is so key to mental training techniques, I often fall short. It’s just hard for me to see something that didn’t happen, because it’s not a narrative. So I create the narrative in my mind by putting together the exchanges in clusters, in whole sentences rather than single strikes or just improvising every exchange as I go along. Rather, I’m watching fights, over and over again, and memorizing them almost as choreography and then visualizing those. Not because I want to fight in choreographed, set combinations, but because it’s teaching myself how to visualize. I’m relearning how to train, how to practice.

Again, this is a work in progress. I absolutely loved playing the violin just for the joy of it, playing whatever song – or just a piece of a song – that popped into my head. Like shadowboxing and throwing whatever comes to mind instead of visualizing the counters and challenges presented by an opponent in front of you. In violin, my mistakes were inaccuracies in the fingering, producing sour notes, or playing the wrong note all together or hold it for the wrong number of beats. My mistakes in Muay Thai are more mental, which makes the deliberate practice of identifying and correcting those mistakes much more complicated. But that’s okay, because it’s the same process of matching the physical sensation of doing a technique correctly and the mental sensation of gaining pleasure out of that body position. I’m re-wearing the grooves in my brain so that the associated feeling of pressure or hesitation is one that can be overwritten, or corrected, with an associated feeling of pleasure with the body positions which are “correct.”

You can read all my Mental Training articles here.

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Mental Training for Muay ThaiMuay Thai

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


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