There are actually a few steps involved in learning the techniques in a martial art. The first is to define what the movement is and how to do it. Usually, an instructor will demonstrate the move and explain it in detail. Some people will learn more visually or by watching the movement. Others learn more by auditory or by listening. Sometimes instructors will actually physically move the student’s arms or legs through the technique. This is especially helpful in cases where there is a language barrier or the student is impaired in some way.
Once we’re able to duplicate a movement we typically must use our conscious mind to execute the move and “think our way through it.” We must be careful to remember the different parts of the strategy and execute them in the correct order. Our movements are driven by the thinking part of our brain.
The next step in learning a move is to build muscle memory in the technique. We do this by executing the movement based on our knowledge of it with the ‘motor brain.’ This is the part of the brain that controls our muscles without really thinking about it...the part that learns to ride a bike. During this time we start to feel comfortable with the move and that we’re starting to get it.
Before long we can simply execute the movement well based on ‘muscle memory’ or our motor-brain’s familiarity with it. This is the last step in mastering a certain strategy in our art. The move will become something we can execute on instinct without thought. We should continue to monitor the technical aspects of the move but focus more on maximizing things like timing, rhythm, flow, optimizing speed and power, distancing, and application. This is, of course, important in real world application where we would not usually have the time to think our way through an application.
As we gain more experience in this we will usually get better at learning, and be able to pick things up faster. We may be able to get to a point where we skip over a step or two and simply learn a new move or make adjustments to what we already know on the fly. We can permanently change something quickly without a lot of thought or processing time.
Some arts have ways to help this ‘muscle memory’ learning process along. For example, in arts like Uechi-Ryu Karate the student is taught to coordinate their breathing with the movements they’re learning. Since breathing can be voluntary and involuntary (with thought and without), the student will make stronger connections between the thinking part of their brain and the bicycle riding part.
Sparring and sparring drills are also an essential part of learning to execute our movements instinctively and without thought. When sparring or rolling we need to train ourselves to be in the moment and completely clear our minds. We should shoot for total immersion, and act and react quickly based on our training. Eventually this will enable us to execute technical strategies without any thought or hesitation as opportunities for them happen.
Over time, the instructor may provide more details on a move the student is familiar with to refine the technique further. When this happens, we need let go of any negative feelings of going backwards in our training and simply make the adjustments. In truth, these are opportunities to make our art more perfect. We should listen carefully to all of the information the instructor provides based on their own years of training and experience.
As we accumulate strategies and experience in our art, we will get better at learning. We will learn new techniques and make adjustments to known ones quicker. We may get to a point where we can see something once or twice and just have it.
Eventually we will master our chosen art and become a living vessel of all of the principles and strategies in it. We will know the basic applications of each and have an intuitive sense of making it all work in real time. As in bike riding, our bodies will be ready for unexpected twists from moment to moment while enjoying the highest levels of the activity.