Slow is Smooth, Smooth is Fast: The Learning Curve

Lately I’ve had the honor and privilege of working with a new white belt during class.  We are working through his first kyu (belt) level so he can complete his first test. Last night we were working on his punching and kicking techniques when Sensei came over to help my fellow student smooth out some parts of his punching technique.  He said to the student, “Slow is smooth.  Smooth is fast.”  Our instructor often says he would rather us take our time learning the technique and do it correctly than be fast and hard but doing the technique incorrectly.  Incorrect movement leads to injury, or being defeated.

Earlier this year, I was able to attend a seminar by Roy Goldberg Sensei, 7th Dan in Daito Ryu Aiki Jujutsu.  He was teaching us how to move in a way that was almost like not moving that produced an amazing finish.  It was like watching the tiniest atom bomb produce a world-ending explosion.  As I watched Goldberg Sensei demonstrate the technique and explain what he was doing with his body I was amazed at how smooth and barely perceptible his  movements were to my eyes.  I, of course, was clunky and using too much strength in my attempts to match his silkiness.  What he wanted us to accomplish seemed to be an awareness of our body movements and how to coordinate everything from the top of our head to the soles of our feet.  That felt like an impossible task at the time and I knew I would have to continue to train in this style if I wanted to achieve even the tiniest sliver of the kind of control he had.  Compared to his mastery I felt like a new born giraffe attempting to stand: all legs and no balance.  Goldberg Sensei is in his 70’s and has been practicing his art for many decades.  Smooth is fast was in play before my eyes.

I’ve been training in Ninpo Bugei for almost 3 years now.  I remember watching the black belts at the beginning of my training and feeling amazed at the effectiveness of their movement.  The end result of a throw seemed grander than the actual technique because the movements were so smooth. I am by no means a master of this art, but I have mastered some very basic things.  I find some of my movements are instinctual and habitual.  Some things are smoother than they were at my newborn giraffe stage of training.

Everything in life worth doing has a learning curve.  The above graphs show what the learning curve is like.  My experiences are probably more like the top graph, but feel like the second one. Whenever we start to learn a new thing, the initial attempts are bumbling and slow.  There’s no coordination, balance, or precision.  This is as it should be and where “slow is smooth” becomes a thing in training.  If I take the time to connect with my body via my thoughts, and really think about what I’m doing eventually the neural connections I need form between my body and brain.  I am creating coordination by practicing until the neural connections solidify and the synapses fire faster and faster. 

This is the learning curve.  Coordination, balance, and precision become second nature which results in smoothness.  I no longer have to think so hard about what I’m doing, it just happens and now “smooth is fast.”  Which leads to me to today’s encouragement:

Anyone can follow this principle no matter what they are learning.  Frustration tends to occur during the slow beginning for many people.  “This is taking too long,” “I’m so stupid,” “This is so HARD” enter our thoughts at this stage, and is where the greatest amount of mental gymnastics becomes essential.  Giving up too soon on the learning curve ensures failure.  Humans are super adaptable beings with an amazing ability to learn.  If we want to attain anything we must push into and work with slow is smooth until smooth is fast.  We must stay on and climb that learning curve until we reach mastery. 

Be patient with yourself and keep going, you’ll get there eventually. 

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