In a recent interview with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Black Belt Dan Faggella, I spoke about a 3 step process to mastering skills in BJJ and Wrestling. In this post, I want to take our 3 step process and apply it to quickly and systematically become awesome at any skill.
You can see our interview (plus a downloadable bonus) at the end of this post.
Here are the 3 steps critical for becoming awesome at any skill:
- Break it down to sub-skills
- Establish a baseline and train
- Create feedback loops
1. Break It Down To Sub-Skills
Most of what we think of as skills, are actually large bundles of mini-skills. Let’s use playing guitar as an example. The skill of guitar play is really a grouping of:
- Finger strength, dexterity, and independence
- Left- and right-hand coordination
- Rhythmic understanding and control
and etc. (source: Mike Turitzin).
Easy enough, right? “But there’s only so many things you can do with a guitar,” you might say, “I’m trying to learn something that’s infinitely more complicated”. So, let’s take a look at a subject that some may consider more “complex” than guitar – Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ).
Disclaimer: I am not trying to say that becoming awesome at the skills involved in playing guitar is easier than becoming awesome at the skills involved in brazilian jiu jitsu, but the argument goes something like this:
BJJ has a never-ending supply of moves, tactics and counters. In one instance, Gene LeBell (stunt performer, author and martial arts instructor to notable students like Ronda Rousey) wrote The Encyclopedia of Finishing Holds a book featuring more than 1,000 finishing holds. That doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of all the possible holds and combinations found in BJJ.
On the other hand a 22-fret, six-string guitar in standard tuning has a range of just under 4 full octaves, and is able to create 47 different notes, as defined in western music.
OK, I’m sure I’ll get some hate in the comments for this comparison, but let’s move forward. BJJ can still be broken down into sub-skills very similarly to guitar. Let’s say you want to improve your triangle submission (a sub-skill of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu). Some of the areas you should focus on are:
- Posture breakdown
- Posture control
- Arm isolation (one arm in, one arm out)
- Pre-triangle to triangle transition
Even these sub-skills can be broken down further – the level you are trying to get to is where you can practice efficiently and measure improvement quickly, which we’ll discuss in the following sections.
(For you BJJ guys and gals – let me know in the comments if some of this terminology doesn’t make sense, I know every school references positions and transitions in their own way.)
“When a teacher dies, a world of knowledge is lost forever. That’s why I have no secrets. So when I die, cast my ashes to the four winds. For as long as my students live and teach, I will live” – Gene LeBell
2. Establish A Baseline And Train
Another way of saying this is: figure out where you’re at, how far you want to go and put in the work to go from point A to point B. One practical way of doing it is to identify accomplishment you can test in the next few months, eg:
- For learning a foreign language: Carry on a 10 minute conversation with a native speaker
- For becoming awesome at swimming: Swim for 30 minutes without getting tired
- For mastering BJJ: Place at local tournament
- For kicking butt at Muay Thai: Hit 12 different combos on the heavy bag without stopping to think
(also, see the strength map at the end of the post for a good way to track your skill development)
Next, find the sub-skills that best increase your chances of success (having a conversation with a mentor or teacher is very helpful at this stage).
Learning to identify sub-skills, and even more importantly learning to identify the sub-skills critical to success, empowers master learners like Tim Ferriss, Joshua Waitzkin and Arianna Huffington. These master learners rely on something called the Pareto Principle to find critical skills. Your separation of critical and non-critical skills should follow the same principle, a.k.a. the 80-20 rule. The rule tells us that concentrating on the important 20% of your identified sub-skills will contribute up to 80% to your total mastery.
Tactically, here’s what you can do to emulate our master learners – write out a full list of sub-skills and star or highlight those skills you believe are on the critical path to mastery.
Your current skill-level in these areas is the baseline and you should articulate how you’ll measure your progression.
Once you establish a baseline and start training, it’s important you consider sequencing. That is the order in which you learn your sub-skills. In many cases, I recommend flipping “the conventional” sequence on its head. For example, when learning chess, practice endings rather than openings first, like Waitzkin did or, as Ferriss did, become a tango champion by studying the traditionally female role.
No Stake Practice
Another important element of your training should be “no stakes practice”. Using cooking as an example, don’t try to learn a new dish when you’re making a meal for a big date, use dry beans over a carpet to learn to sauté and use a lettuce knife instead of chef’s knife to practice knife skills with celery.
3. Create Feedback Loops
A feedback loop is a system where outputs are fed back into the system as inputs, increasing or decreasing effects. Positive feedback reinforces and negative feedback moderates your learning. The book Gifted Children: Myths and Realities described its subjects setting their own learning course, which fed back satisfaction, encouraged them to set higher learning goals and the feedback loop continues. That’s what we’re trying to emulate in this step. Be the gifted child.
When not working with coaches or mentors, you might be working with a training partner. In this scenario, while you’re training, don’t let your partner slack! Every time you practice or drill, your partner should be giving you appropriate resistance and feedback. If not, don’t just keep going; have a talk with your partner.
She should constantly be verifying that you are executing your skills correctly so you can use that feedback as inspiration for further learning.
Become Awesome at Any Skill Extras
Extras 1: Strength Maps
Strength maps are a useful tool for identifying important sub-skills.
Back in January 2013 I was inspired by Dan’s BJJ Strength Mapping guide to create a fully-detailed Strength Map that’s downloadable and updatable. You can copy the template and easily convert it for whatever discipline you’re trying to perfect.
Screenshot of The Strength Map
Be sure to use the Area of Focus column to identify the critical sub-skills most important to your improvement.
Extras 2: Interview with Dan Faggella
If you can get past the video quality, you’ll find some extra insights in terms of how I apply this process to BJJ and Wrestling.