Book Review: The Talent Code

You know that guy you train with who is so fast it makes your head spin when you spar with him?  He must simply have been lucky enough to be born fast, right?  Wrong!  Excellence in martial arts, just like playing an instrument or playing baseball is a skill, and skills follow a universal set of rules for how you excel.  In his book The Talent Code: Greatness Isn’t Born. It’s Grown. Here’s How, author Daniel Coyle describes the science behind talent acquisition and how you can use this knowledge to become that guy who’s faster and better than everyone else.

In his book Coyle says, “Every human skill, whether it’s playing baseball or playing Bach, is created by chains of nerve fibers carrying a tiny electrical impulse — basically, a signal traveling through a circuit.”  He then goes on to describe how your nervous system responds to this by building a substance called myelin, “When we fire our circuits in the right way — when we practice swinging that bat or playing that note — our myelin responds by wrapping layers of insulation around that neural circuit, each new layer adding a bit more skill and speed. The thicker the myelin gets, the better it insulates, and the faster and more accurate our movements and thoughts become.”

He goes on to describe the process that world-class individuals use to get better.  It’s called Deep Practice.  “Deep practice is built on a paradox: struggling in certain targeted ways– operating at the edges of your ability, where you make mistakes– makes you smarter.  Or to put it a slightly different way, experiences where you’re forced to slow down, make errors and correct them — as you would if you were walking up an ice covered hill, slipping and stumbling as you go — end up making you swift and graceful without your realizing it.”  So, yes it is going to be hard.  But, you can do it.  Anyone can do it.  There are no Luke Skywalkers, people who posses special abilities at birth that the rest of us can’t replicate!

So, here’s the bottom line.

  • Every type of movement, and everything you think and feel is a precise set electric signal traveling through a chain of neuronal connections
  • Neural connections strengthen and are wrapped in myelin to increases signal strength, speed and accuracy
  • The more you fire a circuit, the more it becomes optimized, and the stronger, faster and more fluent your movements and thoughts become

So, how much better is a finely tuned set of neural connections than a new set?  A lot faster!  In martial arts terms, we’re not talking just a little bit faster.  Think about Neo-in-The-Matrix-faster as your guide!  Coyle gives us this reference, “Neural traffic that ones trundled along at two miles an hour can, with myelin’s help, accelerate to two hundred miles and hour.  The refractory time (the wait required between one signal and the next) decreases by a factor of 30.  The increased speed and decreased refractory time combine to boost overall information-processing capability by 3,000 times.”

So, bottom line, what do you need to do in order to become that guy who’s faster than everyone at your school?  You need to practice!  You need to practice hard!  You need to focus on your task at hand when you practice!  Time alone won’t do it.  This final quote from Coyle seems to sum it up for me, “Struggle is not optional — it’s neurologically required: in order to get your skill circuit to fire optimally, you must by definition fire the circuit suboptimally; you must make mistakes and pay attention to those mistakes; you must slowly teach your circuit.”

You should check out this book.


The Power of One-on-One Coaching

Last week I was lucky. I made it the lunch-time, adults-only Taekwondo class at my school , but I was the only one who did — other than the instructor. That meant I got an hour of totally customized, private training.  I had a few private sessions over the past couple of years and they’re always special.

When I have a true one-on-one lesson, I don’t have to follow the “class planner” and work on what everyone else is doing. The instructor knows me. He sees me every week, and he knows what I’m good at and what I’m not. At one private session I had 6 months ago, we spent almost the entire time on my side-kick. My side-kick was kind of broken, but I didn’t even know it.  However, with 45 minutes of dedicated attention and a number of drills to focus on it the instructor fixed months of bad habits I’d developed.

At last week’s private lesson, we spent 15 minutes working on the form I’ll need to show at my next grading. The instructor showed me things to focus on that we’d never get to in a class full of kids — which describes most of the classes at my school.

I’ve recently been enjoying the HBO series Game of Thrones.  It’s a fun swords and sorcery piece with great charters. My favorite character is Arya, a 9 year-old noble-born girl who is something of a tomboy. After it becomes clear his family is in danger, her father agrees to let Arya learn to handle a sword.  The clip below from the third episode shows Arya’s first lesson. It’s a great example of the power of one-on-one coaching. Watch how engaged she is. He is totally focused on her and she senses that. If you’re a martial arts teacher, when was the last time you had a session like this with one of your students?

I’m Calling Out Steven Seagal!

Steven Seagal is one of the few action movie stars who is actually as bad-ass off-screen as the characters he plays on-screen. He has legit martial arts credentials, like a 7th degree black belt in Aikido, and more recently spends his time working as an actual member of the SWAT team for an Arizona police department. His early movies, like Above the Law, are a some of the best Hollywood-produced martial arts flicks ever.  Back when I started to study Aikido, many years ago, he was one of my inspirations. In fact, I can say he has been one of my heros.

On a recent trip, I picked up a copy of Fight! magazine and was pretty excited to see it had an interview with Seagal.  While the interview was well done, and Steven had many interesting things to say, there was one part of the interview that really set me off.  Recently, he’s been credited with training some UFC mixed-martial arts (MMA) fighters to use some old-fashion karate techniques to deal devastating knock out blows.  In discussing this he gets into his philosophy on talent.  Here’s what he has to say:

“Certainly, there is a technique that you’re learning and the master you’re learning from, but also there’s a certain sort of natual gift that you are given from God, which has to do with real genetics and what you’re born with.  It’s something that no one can really be given. God gives you that. You’re parents give you that.  In other words, Bill Gates is very good at compuaters, and I am practucally computer illiterate. I don’t have the natural gift to understand those things, but if you look at the Hall-of-Famers, if you look at all the different fighters that have become great, great masters and very successful, those are people who have had  special aptitude, probably since birth and have taken what they specially good at and made themselves better. Those people may not be good at other things and that’s the same way I am — I’ve been learning the fighting arts since I was a child. I’m good at a few things in life and pretty terrible at most of the other ones.”

Now, to me this is just all wrong. Steven Seagal didn’t get good at martial arts because God or genetics gave him a gift. That just smacks of Luke Skywalker syndrome to me.  In reality, he got so good at martial arts because, in his own words, he has been “learning the fighting arts since I was a child.” He got good because he practiced intensely for years!  Now, I’m not a world class martial artist like Seagal, but there are things at which I am world class. In fact, Seagal brings up Bill Gates and computers as an example in this quote. I am a world class computer technologist, and I can say that without hesitation.  However, I didn’t learn about computers from God. I learned about programming from my dad, starting when I was 7 years old, and subsequently spent thousands of hours programming computers. I got good at it because I practiced — just like Bill Gates!

I fundamentally believe that people achieve greatness through hard work, practice and determination, not supernatural gifts. And, I believe this is just as true in martial arts as it is in computers, music or any other discipline. I believe this enough that I go out and train every day so that some day I will be a great martial artist. You can be too!  Feel free to take advice from Mr. Seagal on how to preform the Crane kick to knock out a UFC fighter, but don’t listen to him about whether you can succeed as a martial artist. I know that I can do it, and so can you!

Top 5 Movie Martial Arts Masters

Every good martial arts movie has a great martial arts master to help the hero along on their journey to greatness.  Here are a few of my favorites.  All of these are fun characters, but I think we can also learn something about how to teach the martial arts from each of them.  Here is my take on each one of these Movie Martial Arts Masters.

Name: Mr. Miyagi

Movie: Karate Kid (1984)
Home: Southern California (by way of Okinawa)
Art: Karate

Wise Quote:

Daniel: Hey – you ever get into fights when you were a kid?
Miyagi: Huh – plenty.
Daniel: Yeah, but it wasn’t like the problem I have, right?
Miyagi: Why? Fighting fighting. Same same.
Daniel: Yeah, but you knew karate.
Miyagi: Someone always know more.
Daniel: You mean there were times when you were scared to fight?
Miyagi: Always scare. Miyagi hate fighting.
Daniel: Yeah, but you like karate.
Miyagi: So?
Daniel: So, karate’s fighting. You train to fight.
Miyagi: That what you think?
Daniel: [pondering] No.
Miyagi: Then why train?
Daniel: [thinks] So I won’t have to fight.
Miyagi: [laughs] Miyagi have hope for you.

What we can learn:

Mr. Miyagi teaches from a place of pure love.  He loves Daniel and he loves Karate.  Teaching Karate isn’t a job for him.  It’s part of him and it is something he must do.  Belts, uniforms and tournaments are not the center of his teaching.  He is helping Daniel grow in the same way he shapes his bonsai trees.

Name: Mr. Han

Movie: Karate Kid (2010)
Home: Beijing, China
Art: Kung Fu

Wise Quote:

  • Your focus needs more focus!

What we can learn:

Mr. Han shares much in common with Mr. Miyagi.  Hey, they’re basically the same character!  But, there’s one very special thing about him that I was attracted to.  Mr. Han has a unique challenge when compared to any of the other masters in this entry.  He’s teaching a child — Dre is only 11.  All the others are teaching a teenager or a young man.  Having done a lot of martial arts with children (including my own daughters) I know how different that is.  Mr. Han’s relentless calls to focus address the hardest part of teaching smaller children.  I’ve used his “Your focus needs more focus!” quote when working with my own six year old daughter.  It’s always a challenge, but it’s rewarding to see when they start to learn it.

Name: Yoda

Movie: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Home: Degobah
Art: The Way of the Force

Wise Quotes:

  • Size matters not. Look at me. Judge me by my size, do you? Hmm? Hmm. And well you should not.
  • No. Try not. Do… or do not. There is no try.

What we can learn:

I’ve previously made clear my issues with Luke Skywalker as a role model for a martial arts student.  However, I have fewer issues with Yoda as a role model for a martial arts master.  Once Yoda decides to take on Luke as a student, he pours all his energy into breaking Luke’s preconceptions about himself and the universe.  More important than teaching technique, Yoda is trying to build Luke’s character.  There’s no job more important for a true martial arts teacher.

Name: Morpheus

Movie: The Matrix (1999)
Home: Zion
Art: Virtual Kung Fu

Wise Quote:

  • Neo, sooner or later you’re going to realize just as I did that there’s a difference between knowing the path and walking the path.

What we can learn:

Does Morpheus actually know any martial arts outside of the Matrix in the Real World?  That’s actually pretty unclear to me.  And, Neo learns all his Jujitsu and Kung Fu from a “Training Program.”  This means Morpheus is a pretty unique martial arts master.  In his first sparring session with Neo he notes that “your problem is not your technique.”  He doesn’t need to teach Neo any Kung Fu, he needs to free Neo’s mind.  Morpheus needs to break down Neo’s preconceptions about his own limitations.  He needs Neo to BELIEVE he can do it — which is a challenge any martial arts teacher knows.

Name: Oogway and Shifu

Movie: Kung Fu Panda (2008)
Home: The Valley of Peace
Art: Kung Fu


Sample Wisdom:

Oogway: My friend, the panda will never fulfill his destiny, nor you yours until you let go of the illusion of control.
Shifu: Illusion?
Oogway: Yes.
[points at peach tree]
Oogway: Look at this tree, Shifu. I cannot make it blossom when it suits me nor make it bear fruit before its time.
Shifu: But there are things we *can* control: I can control when the fruit will fall, I can control where to plant the seed.  That is no illusion, Master!
Oogway: Ah, yes. But no matter what you do, that seed will grow to be a peach tree. You may wish for an apple or an orange, but you will get a peach.
Shifu: But a peach cannot defeat Tai Lung!
Oogway: Maybe it can, if you are willing to guide, to nurture it, to believe in it.
Shifu: But how? How? I need your help, master.
Oogway: No, you just need to believe. Promise me, Shifu, promise me you will believe.

What We Can Learn:

OK, I’m counting these two as a single master for my top 5 list. In my view, both Oogway and Shifu are incomplete martial arts teachers, but together they’re great.  Shifu is too rash.  He’s focused on technique, achievement and recognition.  However, Oogway is also flawed.  While he is powerful, he’s so introspective that I can’t imagine him teaching technique.  Flawed as they both are, together they make a great team.  One focused on the outward and one on the inner self.  In the best schools I’ve trained in, there has been more than one instructor who inspired me and taught me different things.  Teaching as a team can be powerful.

So, there’s my list of the Top 5 Movie Martial Arts Masters.  What do you think?  Do you have other thoughts on these guys?  Who did I leave off the list?  Leave me a comment and let me know!

How I Learned to Hate Luke Skywalker

In the summer of 1977 the movie Star Wars changed my life.  I was six and a half years old and I saw that movie at least a dozen times that summer.  I dreamt of X-Wings and light sabers every night.  The hero of the movie is a young farm boy named Luke Skywalker, and over the course of the movie trilogy he evolves from gawky teen-ager to powerful Jedi Knight.

Luke has a powerful pair of mentors throughout the movies: Obi-wan Kenobi and Yoda – two masters who teach Luke to harness “The Force.”  In many ways this is a story not unlike any earthbound martial arts movie such as the Karate Kid.  In fact, this story has been told a thousand times.  It’s been well documented that George Lucas had followed a blueprint more than a 1,000 years old  called the Hero’s Journey. At the surface, Luke seems like a fantastic role model for a young boy.  He’s good hearted, honest and through his adventures helps to save the Galaxy!

So, George Lucas created a fantastic movie, based on a well-known set of principals, which had a big impact on me as a child.  Then why did I come to hate Luke Skywalker?  To understand this we need to fast forward in time many years.  A couple of years ago, I read Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book called Outliers: The Story of Success.  In this book, Gladwell makes a fantastic claim: people become great at things through practice, not inherent skill.  He goes on to claim that in order to become world-class at any skill requires one fundamental thing: 10,000 hours of practice.  That’s it!  Whatever your passion, if you want to be great at it then you must practice. You don’t need to be born to it.  Gladwell, and many other researchers have gone on to show this is true for musicians, professional athletes, computer programmers, chess players and almost any other profession.

So, now let’s look back at Luke’s Hero’s Journey.  Here’s the rub, Luke actually does very little practice in order to become a Jedi.  He really only spends a few days with Obi-Wan and maybe a few weeks with Yoda.  What made him a great Jedi?  Hard work didn’t do it!  He became a great Jedi because he father before him had been one.  He was born to it.  It was genetic.

In my opinion, this makes Luke a rotten role model.  It tells kids that you should pick a skill they’re adept at and pursue it.  If they’re not good at it quickly, then they probably never will be.  However, we now know that this “talent” mind set of almost completely false.  You can be great at whatever skill you choose.  You must only practice, practice, practice.  For a martial artist like myself, who started serious training later in life, there is no more important realization.  There are days when training is hard, and I don’t feel skilled.  I have doubts that maybe I can never be good at this.  However, I now know that I can be.  I just have to stick with it.  No one is lucky enough to be born a Jedi.  You have to earn it!