Differential Learning

We learn better when practice is unpredictable.

In the world of martial arts, the “traditional” way to teach students is to give them a technique and ask them to repeat it over and over again. The idea being that through endless repetition, you develop skill.

The problem with this approach is: science is increasingly showing that mindless repetition is a terrible way to learn.

The study of ecological psychology shows us that we learn best when variability is involved.

This is because the human brain isn’t a computer that can download new knowledge and repeat it perfectly. In fact, even if our brains did work this way, mindless repetition is a bad way to learn because no technique is ever executed the same way twice.

There’s always variability in techniques: the starting position is slightly different, your opponent’s reactions are slightly different…heck, even your own body has changed since yesterday. So repetitive drilling just isn’t effective because it doesn’t accurately mirror the variability and chaos of the real world.

Think of how computers can crash terribly if even a small and unexpected variation in input occurs. You don’t want that to happen to you!

So what’s the right way to train, then? Ecological psychology would tell us: differential learning. In the field, they sometimes call this “repetition without repetition.” In other words, when you’re drilling, shake it up a bit!

Add variability and unpredictability into your movement. Shake up starting positions, opponent behavior, win conditions, and anything else you can think of to keep training spicy. Our intent here is to help our bodies learn to be adaptable, work with the unpredictability of the real world, and come up with the right answer on the fly.


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