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Deliberate Practice and Internal Martial Arts: by IAI Instructor John Paul Magenis

“Just get out there and get some work done”

John Paul Magenis

Years ago, I read an essay about training where the author quoted his high school gymnastics coach saying, “Just get out there and get some work done”. This quote typifies my initial understanding of practice in the martial arts: essentially that it was enough just to do it. Around 2005 I started training in Pekiti-Tirsia Kali with Wes Tasker, who in addition to currently being an IAI instructor, is a phenomenal practitioner and teacher of Filipino and Indonesian (as well as multiple other) martial arts. Up until this point, I had trained in Karate and Filipino arts but this marked a significant fork in my martial arts journey.

During those years, I struggled with developing a regular practice but eventually pushed through. I bought a kitchen timer and found that by setting it for 15 minutes I could get a session started by simply setting the bar very low, saying: “I’ll train for 15 minutes and then reassess”. At one point while living in Boston I figured out that the closest open space to my apartment was on some Department of Transportation land between the piles of salt and sand they stored, so I climbed the fence at night to train and “got some work done” under the orange glow of sodium halide lights. Later, after moving closer to where Wes taught, he generously allowed me access to his teaching space provided that it was empty of other classes. At that point, there wasn’t much thought or structure behind what I was practicing – it was just about getting the movements down, ‘getting my reps’ and those 15 minute segments piled up. As I practiced, Pektiti-Tirsia started to make sense or at least the solo practice portion started to click.

A few years passed and Wes kindly introduced me to Zheng Gu Tui Na which is the system of Chinese medical massage taught by Tom Bisio. Through those classes, I became acquainted with Tom and eventually he was kind enough to take Wes and I on as Xing Yi Quan students. Xing Yi was a revelation to both of us. To this day, I continue to practice a little Pekiti-Tirsia, but I have come to focus primarily on Xing Yi Quan and Ba Gua Zhang. At the time I started training with Tom, I was still struggling with increasing the time I spent practicing, as that was the only measure I knew to push.

Understanding the fact that increasing intensity and athleticism do not help build ability in Chinese Internal Arts, I was at a loss for a better method. So for years I simply ‘got work done’ – increasing time of practice, and consistency. Ultimately, it was made apparent that it was wiser to focus on my specific weak spots and the corrections I had recently received. I don’t have a knack for bringing corrections into my practice quickly and so even there – I ‘got the reps in’ and eventually made progress, but it was always time and labor intensive. The measurements of concern were quantity, as well as consistency; subsequent breakthroughs, when they happened, happened seemingly randomly.

Eventually, I would learn that people who research expertise and training refer to this type of practice as ‘naive practice.’ It was the method I had devised and it led me to a plateau from which I could not figure out how to ascend.

From “Naive Practice” to “Deliberate Practice”

After years of practicing Xing Yi Quan and Ba Gua Zhang in this ‘naive’ way, I started to look at the quality of my practice. I’d long since started taking notes on what I learned, initially as a memory aid and then as a way to explore and describe specific feelings when things felt right. The conceptualization of writing became a further pathway into whatever material I was working on.

At this time, I was careful to select which material I focused on, spending more time on the Ji Ben Gong and the more essential parts of training like Tu Na Si Ba and standing in San Ti Shi. I poured over the internet and instagram looking for supplemental exercises that might fill in the spaces in my movement which were lacking and recalcitrant to the exercises I already practiced.

The critical moment where I realized that I had been practicing with the wrong focus came during a session in my apartment in Brooklyn. During previous practice blocks, I had felt something occasionally – a relationship between my foot, ankle, knee and hip that felt ‘right’ and far better than my circle walking had ever felt before. When it drifted by, I couldn’t capture it or reproduce it. It was a cloud passing in the sky, and as I lay uncomprehending below I could only see it, recognize it, and watch it pass. This session however I leaned hard into looking for it, with effort and focus. I pushed my attention further into the minutia of the movements: smaller and smaller connections, subtler and subtler lines of tension and force, like pulling a thread more and more gently as it got thinner and thinner for fear the thinness would allow it to break. And then, far down in the weeds of how much to externally rotate my hip to pin my knee at the point where those alignments together made the arch of my foot most alive, I connected with a sense of correctness through the leg that was far more subtle than anything I had felt before. I stuck with it for a minute until I was exhausted from maintaining this web of subtle kinesthetic relationships. I stopped what I was doing. I allowed my body and mind to relax and walked around the room, strolling like we do after standing during Xing Yi practice.

Rested and relaxed from that physical change of scenery, I returned to Ding Shi. I shaped my body into downward pressing palm and to my surprise what I had just felt was reproducible. I could immediately feel it again, though it still required a heightened sense of attention. This attention was not physical force but a felt experience like listening hard for a song in the distance while humming along. The feeling of connection while mud stepping would arise and pass over the next few weeks until it settled in entirely and became my habit, but that night a light had been lit. This wasn’t ‘getting reps’ and hoping to stumble into more skill. This was something else. I made a note of it and realized that I had to do THIS to go further.

This experience taught me that I could up the quality of my practice through upping the quality of my attention to experience. I had already pushed increasing time and an intelligent mix of practice material to the limit my life and personality would allow. While useful, that approach had inevitably led me to a plateau. Instead, I needed to heighten my awareness and correlate my response to the feedback from that awareness with a clear image of the feeling and form I was seeking to generate within my body.

“You can get 20 years experience or you can get 1 year of experience 20 times.” 

The discovery of a more effective method of practice pushed me to start reading research into performance and learning, in order to better understand the process of practice outside of the immediate context of martial arts. I found the ‘Pomodoro Method’ which had been created by Francesco Cirillo and named for a ubiquitous tomato shaped kitchen timer which was coincidentally very similar to how I had already been practicing: small chunks of time, with short rests bundled into longer blocks. This method, along with note taking and an emphasis on doing at least something every day had helped me move along, but ultimately led to the plateau that engendered my recent discovery.

Further exploration led me to investigate the ‘Getting Things Done’ Method which comes out of David Allen’s book by the same name. It is a fascinating approach to work-flow which I ultimately realized helped across the broad spectrum of activities and my professional life, but did not offer much in the way of direct benefit to the practice of Internal Martial Arts.

During the same time period, I also discovered an approach to organizing my days and practice sessions called a ‘Bullet Journal’ which has been quite useful in scheduling and structuring my free time. The Bullet Journal Approach condensed a lot of the thinking around when and what to practice; thus simplifying the implementation of these aspects of my practice life.

Most impactful was Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, in it he extolls the virtue of practicing for large amounts of time and promised expertise if one could attain his much vaunted goal of 10,000 practice hours. Unfortunately, I had at one point taken this idea to mean I was on the right track with my time-heavy approach to quantifying practice. The idea that you can practice a thing for 10,000 hours and be rewarded with expertise was a revelation to me and many others when we read it. Gladwell references the literature of expertise in his writings, but I fond that baked into his  approach is a simple and dangerous flaw: it assumes that every hour is of equal value. However, the hour where a practitioner is ‘just getting some work done’ and the hour where they are diving deeply into something simple with a great deal of attention and care cannot be of equal value, and as such they do not yield equal results.

“Practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect.”

With all this thinking about characteristics of practice in Internal Martial Arts, I have started to theorize that what separates different level practitioners is most likely HOW they practice, more than WHAT they practice. Beginning practitioners struggle to put in the time and develop the consistency of daily practice. Intermediate level practitioners have learned how to practice, how to be consistent, and to seek out and apply corrections from themselves, from senior students and from their teachers. Though at this level intermediate level students are often more concerned with the accumulation of forms and applications an approach which can prevent them from diving toward the depth of their art. More mature, advanced intermediate level practitioners have figured out how to build on that foundation, and come to realize that quality of practice is what allows them to progress and develop. This interest in depth over breadth is what opens the gateway to skill. I cannot tell what an advanced practice pattern would look like, as I haven’t experienced one personally. I am willing to guess that it is most likely typified by a further deepening of attention and awareness with ever increasing clarity of perception and granularity of understanding. I suspect this level of practice requires an understanding of the Daoist and Internal Martial Arts classics and an ability to apply these timeless teachings across the breadth of one’s performance.

My current understanding of quality practice in Internal Martial Arts means quality of attention to sensation and the minutiae of a movement with an understanding of what correct performance looks and feels like. While it is often said, “Practice doesn’t make perfect, perfect practice makes perfect”, an alternative statement could be “the closer we come to perfect practice the closer we approach perfection given that it is unattainable by its very nature”. Inch by inch, we are constantly arriving as the quality of our practice is superior to the inch before.

This realization can be liberating as it means that rather than knowing 1000 forms, one only needs to dive deeply and attentively into the basics of their art, and perhaps a handful of forms in order to watch that deep, deliberate practice extend out through everything one does. I’ve heard this many times, but can attest to its veracity now that I’ve repeatedly run into the wall of naive practice and perhaps found an early iteration of a way around.

“Enlightenment is an accident but meditation makes you accident prone.”

Anders Ericsson is credited with coining the term ‘Deliberate Practice’ which he discusses at length in the book he wrote along with Eric Pool: Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise. Deliberate or Purposeful Practice, as he describes it, represents one avenue into improving the quality of one’s practice. Fortunately, it has a few easy to enumerate characteristics:

                  John Paul Magenis – Xing Yi Dragon

1. Deliberate/Purposeful practice is focused.

The quality of the attention we bring to the task determines the quality of the output from the task. At the very least deliberate practice requires our full attention when we practice, at the most a complex and thoughtful approach which analyses our current and past performance, isolates weaknesses and focuses on them in appropriate amounts to maximize improvements. The more pronounced the weakness, the greater the amount of time we should spend in practice on that characteristic of our performance.

2. Deliberate/Purposeful Practice is Tiring

Due to the level of focus necessary this type of practice should feel tiring. High level practitioners of musical instruments like the ones who served as the sample for Ericsson’s study tend to practice only twice a day for a few hours at a stretch, many of them reported needed a daily nap to sustain the effort of deliberate practice. It is not the physicality of violin practice that places these demands on the practitioner, but the quality of attention they bring to bear.

3. Deliberate Purposeful practice requires returning to the fundamentals of the activity

Because mastery is dependent on having mastered the fundamentals of an activity – be it fingering and bow technique in violin, Ding Shi and mud stepping in Ba Gua Zhang or Tu Na SI Ba and Pi Quan in Xing Yi Quan – implicit in deliberate practice is a return to the basics. Deliberate practice is about depth rather than breadth and this understanding is essential, as without a highly refined foundation, time spent on more complex routines will yield little fruit.

4. Deliberate/Purposeful practice involves feedback

Good feedback necessitates a clear understanding of what correct performance entails. When we deviate from correct performance, we must perceive the deviation and quickly return to pursuing the correct form. Within a practitioner this is a constantly running loop centering on attention: perform while feeling and observing, note and correct imperfections, repeat.  An instructor or other student can tell us when we deviate and where we need to improve, but this is limited as it requires their constant attention and presence. Ideally, we can develop our understanding of correct performance – which Ericsson calls ‘internal representations’ – so that we can give ourselves meaningful feedback during solo practice. The better the internal representation of a skill, the more one can tune and improve their performance of that skill.

Ultimately, we as practitioners need to refine our internal representation of our movement and develop enough body sense to tell where each move is not as smooth or connected as that idealized internal representation indicates it can be. An additional technique for generating feedback during solo practice is video recording oneself in order to perceive the flaws that are below our felt experience. This can be valuable when an instructor is not readily available.

5. Deliberate/Purposeful practice involves getting out of one’s comfort zone

The growing edge of practice is unfortunately always going to be where the challenge lies and challenge is at its heart uncomfortable. ‘Growing pains’ are appropriately titled in this regard. So we must practice with a goal for improvement over comfort as too much pursuit of comfort can lead to stagnation. When we inevitably stagnate, we should remember to look not at WHAT we are practicing but HOW we are practicing in order to adapt those processes in an effort to continually recalibrate toward our goals. If that specific adaptation does not bear fruit, then adapt again. The process of iteration and reiteration needs to be ongoing and is just as much a part of the process as repeating what is correct/working. We need to improvise in little ways in service to a clear goal, and ideally have clear feedback either from ourselves, our partners or our teachers about when those little changes bring us closer to that goal.

Final Impressions

Of note, Ericsson’s approach falls short in some regards when applied to sports and martial arts as the majority of subjects he studied were not involved in martial or sporting activities. He felt a component of deliberate/purposeful practice is a clearly described and well trod pathway to mastery that is generally applicable to all practitioners with objective criteria for evaluation of mastery that are perceivable by a wide range of observers. He and his group primarily drew from studies of high level classical music students and chess masters; both disciplines where people have been obsessively training and cataloging training methods back to the middle ages.

Tom Bisio recently mentioned to me that Xing Yi Quan Master and IAI Senior Xing Yi Advisor Song Zhi Yong once said to him, “you should just be sensing what the body is doing” when practicing San Ti Shi. It was surprising to me that Song would emphasize the most passive aspect of San Ti Shi. In light of the discussion above, I should not have been surprised. It is the part of us that senses what is occurring inside the body that creates the feedback which is essential for deliberate practice according to Ericsson and it is that feedback which allows us to improve. The higher the resolution of the infinitely recursive process of sensing, followed by feedback, the better the potential for improvement.

There will be points in our development where the way to move forward is not to practice more, but to practice better: to concentrate more on our experience so that the feedback from it allows for finer and finer tuning of a movement, to experiment and push ourselves to the edges of our comfort zone so that we are always iterating our way toward more perfect practice, and to focus on the universal aspects of our arts which, despite being termed the ‘basics,’ are also the exercises directing us toward the primordial core body method that underlies graceful and efficient performance of the Internal Martial Arts.

John Paul Magenis is an Instructor in Xing Yi Quan  and Ba Gua Zhang ased in Great Barrington, MA. He can be contacted at: