I already see a bewildered look on your face. We religiously believe that any skill - whether it is a new language, playing a musical instrument, or a handstand - is solely down to hard work, dedication and diligence. I am not going to take it away, as I agree that these three components are crucial. However, I am going to add another factor that we stubbornly refuse to acknowledge. It is LUCK.
To see it more clearly, we need to learn how the brain is organized, makes a decision, executes, and learns movements. I promise to make it short.
The brain is a collection of cells called neurons. We have 86 billion of them. They connect with the nerve fibre (axons and dendrites) and talk to each other by exchanging chemical-electrical impulses. A neuron receives millions of them per second from the other neurons connected to it. These impulses can be excitatory (+) or inhibitory (-). Their frequency and patterns determine which kind prevails at a time. If it’s excitatory, then the receiving neuron generates and passes on its own impulse. The process called firing. If it is inhibitory, then the neuron stays quiet, does not fire. A neuron can fire up to 1200 impulses per second. Imagine 86 000 000 000 neurons constantly talking at a rate of 1200 words per second each. Not even Kardashians can catch up with it. Essentially, everything we do or feel is about how the neurons communicate and where in the brain.
What happens when you decide to walk? This decision is born in the prefrontal lobe. The signals from that area travel to the premotor cortex, which, in turn, talks to the cerebellum asking it for a specific set of instructions for the muscles responsible for walking. This set is called a neural motor program and the cerebellum stores programs for all known - to a particular individual - movements. When the premotor cortex gets the requested program, it sends it to the motor cortex. The latter relays the instructions to the motor neurons in the midbrain and the spinal cord, which are connected to the muscle via the peripheral nerves. Having received impulses from the motor neurons, the muscles start contracting - we take a step.
The description of the brain areas involved might not be exactly accurate as the neuroscience is still in its infancy, and new theories and data keep rapidly emerging. Nevertheless, the general concept is very accurate. To implement a move, the brain needs to activate specific muscles with a certain order, timing, and intensity in place. But how does the brain know which muscles?
We take for granted the complexity of our everyday activities. We think that walking, running, jumping, jogging are easy. Yet, on average, we might take up to two years to learn it, because our very young brain does not possess the knowledge of what muscles to engage and how right away. We learned it with the help of our parents. They guided us on what muscles to use, and we kept trying until we couldn’t get it wrong. During this process, the brain kept “seeing” the muscles working and was adjusting the order, timing, and intensity of their engagement, gradually developing a robust motor neural program to be stored in the cerebellum. With time walking became subliminal routine, not demanding any conscious efforts, and we started taking it for granted.
It is worth mentioning that the brain learns and stores any knowledge by connecting previously unconnected neurons. This process is called neuroplasticity. Now, you might ask - how does LUCK fit in here? Let’s say you want to learn a handstand. The main reason why you cannot do it at the moment is that your brain does not possess a neural motor program for it. It has yet to be developed. The task is simple: figure out what muscles participate and find the right order, timing, and intensity of their engagement. Pretty much the same as with walking when you were a kid.
Next, to get the guidance, you go on YouTube and type “handstand.” After having watched a couple of videos, you saw what needed to be done: bend the torso, place the hands on the ground, hop into the position bringing the legs vertically one a time. All these are combinations of essential moves such as bending/extending the knees, elbows, hips, shoulders, wrists. Your brain already possesses the programs for each of them. Now you need to connect the dots. Because you perceived the handstand in that way, the brain knows that to hop, it needs to engage the calves, hamstrings, gluts. To straighten the leg in the air - the quadriceps. To place the legs vertically - the gluts or less quadriceps at the hop to avoid excessive momentum. And so on. You try and, of course, it is not so smooth for the first time. You take a couple of weeks. A couple of months later or even a year, the handstand still does not look like the one of a gymnast and feels heavy and unstable. But you don’t give up; you keep trying. You believe that hard work, dedication, and diligence eventually pay off. The latter, your belief that is what makes it hard for so long. Why?
In phycology, they have a term theory-induced blindness. It is when one refuses to see or simply does not see things differently because the current way makes a total sense for that or another reason. I think you would agree with me that there is always another solution, another strategy. However counterintuitive, they might save a tremendous amount of time and effort. They might prevent injuries and frustration. But they only can be seen from a different perspective. The only thing you need to do to gain access to a different solution is to be willing to challenge your current view. It is hard.
Indeed, when somebody does a handstand, his legs are going up; therefore, you need to bring the legs up. To do it, you need to hop. Why would you even question the fact that the legs are going up? And yet, let’s try a different perspective. It is not the legs going up; it is the torso. Now the play is different. Now you need to use the muscles of your back such as erector spinae, iliocostalis lumborum, and others. With this, the legs are brought passively up by the torso actively going up. So there is no need in hopping anymore, therefore no need to engage the calves, hamstrings, gluts other than keeping them slightly tight to maintain the body integrity. By eliminating the hopping, you get rid of the leg momentum, making the handstand much more comfortable and stable.
Interestingly, whether you use the first approach or the second - the outcome looks almost identical from aside. Your friend watching will not be able to tell what exactly you did differently. Just by changing your perspective, the brain utilized different muscles with different parameters of their engagement. Note that strength and other characteristics of any of them stayed the same. There are a few more different prospectives for the handstand skill, which lead to a significant improvement, although they are not the focus of this article.
The handstand and other skills alike are very sophisticated. They require coordinated work of 100+ muscle groups, each with its order, timing, and intensity of engagement. The motor-neural patterns of such skills are immensely complex. Imagine a skill that takes only six muscles to engage and coordinate: A-B-C-D-E-F. To perform the skill right, you need to engage the muscles in the following sequence: A-F-C-B-E-D. The problem is that this precise combination is one of 720 possible ones (6*5*4*3*2*1). How would you choose which one to focus on first? And what if those six muscles need to be engaged in a different sequence depending on the current angle of the body. Say the element is dynamic, and the body moves from a 60 to a 90-degree angle, such as the torso in a handstand. Now we have 720 choices for every degree. 720 * (90-60) = 21 600 options need to be dynamically sorted out within less than a second (not even, the handstand entrance takes a fraction of a second). Yet, the handstand takes more than 100+ muscles to be run dynamically. Thankfully, our brain has second to none computational power of an astronomical scale. It can easily handle the handstands and much much more at the same time.
You also need an astronomical amount of LUCK to perceive the skill with the right perspective or at least very close to it. Especially when you are on your own and have no prior experience. Also, you need much luck to stay injury-free while you are going through those numerous perceptions playing with the skill as you learn. To make it worse, the amount of time you allocate to the skill training (not to resting) must be not too much and not too little. Lucky if you get it right to begin with, which is typically not the case. Too much time will not allow the body to recover and the brain to reorganize itself and build new neural connections to learn the skill. Too little time will not be enough to trigger the learning process in the brain. I have come up with this equation, which shows the interdependency of the amount of time needed to get any skill, learning, and practice.
SKILL ACQUISITION TIME = LUCK FACTOR * LEARNING HOURS + PRACTICE HOURS
skill acquisition time > 0 (if 0 - no skill learned)
luck = 0 … 1 (0 - luck factor eliminated and 1 - luck factor is very present)
As you can see, hard work, dedication, and diligence still matter. Those are the base of your practice hours. However, the learning hours heavily depend on luck. If you manage to get the luck factor to zero or close, then the time needed to get the skill as well as its robustness depends only on the number of hours you put into practice. How to do it?
If over two-three weeks, you see no progress with the skill - change your perspective. Try asking yourself, “how can I think of the same movement differently?”. For example, you stand on both feet and want to move into a one-foot stand. I can think of three ways: push yourself sideways with the other foot while taking it off the floor, or bend the torso sideways until the bodyweight shifts onto one side and then take the other foot off the floor, or tilt the shudders sideways until the bodyweight shifts onto one side and then take the other foot off the floor. These all produce a visually similar movement but engage different sets of muscles; therefore, different motor-programs are retrieved from the cerebellum.
Avoid theory-induced blindness by staying open-minded and challenging your current approaches often if they yield little or no results.
Seek advice from a filed professional whose specialty is teaching. Who continuously learns how to teach by studying neuroscience, behavioral neuroscience, phycology, sports phycology, physiology, biochemistry, etc. Who is genuinely curious about how we function and learn on the level of the CNS. Unfortunately, not all athletes, performers, etc. can help you eliminate luck and tech effectively unless they are the filed professionals described above. Many of them had teachers or coaches back when they started as kids. Their coaches did the thinking part for them (like our parents did for us to teach us walking), shaping their perceptions of skills by providing constant feedback and guidance, therefore giving them more hours for practice by eliminating their luck factor. Those athletes did not go through a trial and error learning curve on their own. Many of them teach in the same way they were taught, which worked very well for them but might or might not (luck again) work for you. They also might be prone to the theory-induced blindness and believe only in their way of teaching, failing (often unwittingly) to make a radical individual adjustment.
As for the physical skill development, keep in mind, the same drills might work for one, but be counterproductive for another. If you use YouTube tutorials, learn from a person whose body constitution, such as height, weight, arm length/torso length ration, elbow structure (hyperextended or regular), flexibility are closely matching yours. Remember the example of six muscles - A-B-C-D-E-F? Say a person tells you to use the A-F-B-C-D-E sequence but his arms 20% longer than yours, so A-F-B-C-D-E might not work for you quite as well as for him, and you might end up wasting your time (by not getting the result faster) following the guidance he designed based on his body constitution. Not to mention a possibly higher chance of injuries. In the end, it is all about physics and levers. Another example is that If one has short torso (due to her hight), then it is easier for her to avoid arching in the lower or mid-back than for a person with a long torso (a taller one), who, in most cases, needs to take extra efforts and use slightly different technique and thinking to prevent arching of the lower or mid-back. Of course, there are other factors such as shoulder, wrist, or spine flexibility, but I hope you got the idea.
Find time to learn the basics of neuroscience, human biomechanics, and phycology. Read textbooks or useful blogs. Self educate. It will allow you to recognize the right filed professional or build an effective skill training yourself. It is not as difficult as you might think, although it takes time. Otherwise, when two knowledge-free people talk the skill development, and the first person has a physical advantage over the second - the second believes anything the first preaches owing to his being just simply impressed by the strength and skillfulness of the first one. Not a good situation.
And remember, professional gymnasts have the whole team working for them: two or three coaches, doctor, physiotherapist, and a phycologist (some times). Their luck factor and need for learning hours are very close to zero. It gives them many more hours for precise skill practicing. It is a huge advantage. In your case, it is mostly only you (well, I am always here to help you). Therefore, be smart, reasonable, and stay curious.
PS. Thank you for reading my friends. I hope you enjoyed it. If you also could leave a comment on my blog, it would be much appreciated and helpful. Otherwise, I might develop my own theory-induced blindness, thinking that I do a decent job sharing my knowledge.