Cooking up Mastery
My first exposure to learning how to cook came as a child, watching the WTTW public television show, The Frugal Gourmet, starring Jeff Smith.* I didn’t know what that name meant at the time, but I did know it was one of my dad’s favorite shows. We watched it for years, eyes glued to the TV set, mouths watering as Smith prepared delectable, easy-to-make and cheap meals.
After watching with my dad, I came to a realization, I never actually got to eat any of these scrumptious meals. As faithfully as my dad watched the show, HE NEVER LEARNED TO COOK. The show would air and then it was over. We couldn’t record the show, we couldn’t go back to watch a step we missed and we couldn’t get a copy of the recipe.
Our only recourse was to write in to order a copy of his cookbooks. As far as learning how to cook went, the show was worthless.
I forgot all about my dad’s failed attempts at using a TV show to learn how to cook until one day, thirty years later, my mother told me over the phone how he had cooked the best beef tenderloin of his life.
What happened? Had he finally taken a cooking class?
No, but times had changed.
My dad was watching Bobby Flay cook a beef tenderloin on the Food Network. He recorded the program with his DVR so he could keep re-watching it at the press of a button to review the steps he needed help with. He also went online and downloaded Flay’s recipe so he could prepare his ingredients, watch Bobby and follow along, step by step.
And it worked.
After decades of sitting by passively watching other people cook, my dad took action and set himself to cooking, much to the joy of my mother’s taste buds.
Just about everything you would like to learn is now on YouTube. We have virtually unlimited access to professionals showing us how to do whatever. My dad regularly YouTube’s videos to help him fix up his house successfully, and I just used it to help me change a broken radiator on my Xterra.
The information is out there. Mikhail has advanced video clips all over the internet, Vladimir has a series of fantastic videos and I’ve put some of my favorite Systema insights on video in my Tension & Relaxation series.
There is no lack of information out there, but don’t make the mistake of equating watching with skill development.
If watching were all it took to gain skill, my dad would have been a gourmet chef by the time I was out of elementary school, and I’d be an NFL quarterback. I had a student lament during one Systema end circle, “I don’t understand it. I’ve watched all the videos. Why can’t I do this?”
Because information is not knowledge, and watching doesn’t equal doing.
20th century research into sports performance uncovered a valuable phenomenon, athletes who mentally rehearsed a skill, like shooting free throws, performed about as well as those who physically practiced. This was a landmark finding because athletes could practice away from the courts and perform virtually the same as if they had put the sweat into actually practicing. I’m sure you can see where people could abuse this research to reach false conclusions — “if I can just think about it, I don’t actually have to do anything to improve.” The lazy man’s way to expertise, the Think and Grow Rich of athletics.
But wait, there’s more. The discovery of mirror neurons in the 1990’s took the visualizing=learning phenomenon one step farther into the realm of watching=learning. If you watch someone perform an action, many of the same neurons fire as if you acted yourself. Now, backed by neuroscience, you could just watch and and soak up skills like you are basking in the sun, no sweat necessary, or so goes the sales pitch. Ugh! And people bought it hook, line and sinker. You could have just asked my dad about his lack of cooking skills to know something is rotten in the state of neuroscience.
For one, mental rehearsal is an active cognitive process which has been shown in numerous experiments to enhance skills (mental rehearsal works and you should do it), whereas merely watching is a passive process which produces little long-term skill. Note too, that in the basketball experiments the players already knew how to shoot baskets, they had the motor programs imbedded into their memories, so they were practicing and reviewing skills they were already proficient in, they weren’t trying to acquire new skills.
For two, motor actions are inhibited when watching an action, otherwise you would automatically mimic every motion you see. That would be instant chaos. By watching you may learn to understand a movement but you are not virtually doing it. Passively watching and thinking you are developing the same motor-sensory skills is naive and misguided at best.
My dad’s foray into the world of cooking does contain the recipe for training success. He found an expert. He watched and listened intently, with a strong desire to learn the skill. He gathered everything he would need to proceed, including the recipe, the ingredients and the tools. He tried the recipe, referring to the video and notes he took as he went along. He gave himself feedback, tasting as he cooked. He also got external feedback from my mother. Then, he cooked the recipe a few more times just to make sure he got it right, he validated his newly-developed cooking skill.
Although just following recipes is not enough to make him a world-class chef, with this simple system in place, he is well on his way to cooking competence.
You can’t learn by only watching, nor can you learn by just reading. What books and videos can do for you is point the way to correct physical practices.
I know a guy who is a highly successful writer. He said that he could give away every one of his writing secrets and it wouldn’t hurt him at all. For one, he said, no one would actually take action and follow his expert advice, and two, it would take them decades to catch up to him because he’s been writing for 40+ years.
Words and videos are best used as guides and supplements to your practice, not substitutes.
Watching Systema videos is entertaining, no doubt, but here’s how to best use video for skill acquisition, for education instead of entertainment.
The Proper Roles of Video in Skill Acquisition
4. To See Masterful Movement.
Videos train your eyes to recognize masterful movement. Mikhail has graciously made available videos of his own evolution from proficiency to expertise to mastery to eminence. You can watch him move from as early as age 18, through the years up until the present. Look closely and you will see his progression and the refinement of his skills. Juxtapose a video of Vladimir with yourself, performing the same type of work, so you can see where you are and where you have to go. The more you do this, the more you will develop a sense for how the work should feel when performed correctly.
A caveat about video: you may not understand what you are looking, at first. When videos of Mikhail first hit the internet, numerous comments came in that it was obvious they had no idea what they were looking at. Mikhail’s moves were so advanced, so subtle and so DIFFERENT that viewers couldn’t, and still can’t, relate. I noticed some of the same viewers simply adore the work of some of Mikhail’s students. That was a head-scratching moment — people liked the less-masterful work, but didn’t like the jaw-dropping work Mikhail demonstrated. In their viewings, they mistakenly thought Mikhail’s students were more skilled than he because they could make sense of the grosser, less-refined moves and not Mikhail’s subtle mastery.
One instructor said to me, referring to working with Mikhail for the first time, “When I saw Vladimir, I thought that with years of effort I could probably get to be that good, but then I saw Mikhail and I thought,’no way.’” While I thought he was being a bit ambitious about being Vladimir-good, the point is he saw a level that was out of reach but understandable. With Mikhail, he had no clue how Mikhail did what he does.
The takeaway for you is that you may be better off watching some videos of newer instructors so you can see, understand and relate to their movements. Then, as you improve watch higher level teachers so you can appreciate their skill and integrate their ideas into your training.
3. As Training Guides
Pragmatically, videos (and books) give you clear lesson plans to guide your training sessions. Professional videos will give you logical training progression and help you structure your training time; the progressions will give shape and order to the apparent chaos that is Systema. Videos show you where to begin, how to train your body to move effectively and finally, how to integrate the drills and principles into self-defense applications.
People outside of Systema are perennially confused as to why we stand and allow ourselves to be stabbed with a knife before moving. They mistake the drill for the end result, and without seeing the entire training progression, scoff at the method. When you take the next steps after the knife-on-body drill — adding footwork, handwork and beginning to move before contact is made — only then do you see “the system” behind our art that makes it so potent a martial art.
Videos show you the path from the principles to the practical applications of those principles.
2. For Movement Ideas
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve demonstrated something and heard students say, “I never would have thought of that.” Yes, you have to build your own wheel, but you don’t have to re-invent it. Videos can give you movement ideas to explore without resorting to rote techniques. Videos demonstrate different types of moves to work on, and ideas of how to move in ways you may never have discovered on your own.
I had one of these “opening of the creative floodgate” moments the first time I saw Vladimir use his chest and shoulders to manipulate a knife. I had never thought to use my body like that, but once I saw Vladimir do it I practiced using my chest and shoulders constantly and applied these moves to every martial art technique I had ever learned, taking me to a much higher level.
One of the reasons that Vladimir demonstrates for so long is to give students as many different ideas as he can. Each person sees something he can take from the demonstration and work at, based on his current level or skill and understanding.
Videos are great for showing you possibilities, where your training can take you, and they can inspire you to get working.
1. For Training Feedback.
Professional athletes obsessively watch and review videos of their performances. At press conferences after football games, the reporter asks a losing head coach what happened, to which he invariably replies, “I have to look at the tape.” What feels right to you while you are training may, in fact, be not-quite-right or outright wrong so it makes sense to watch video of yourself.
Who are you going to believe?
I routinely correct students’ posture or movements only to be met with the bewildering reply,”That’s exactly what I’m doing.”
This is where video is invaluable.
For example, it’s common for people to unconsciously break their structure by collapsing their abdomen when attacked toward the mid-section rather than stepping out of the way. I corrected one student about this and he swore he wasn’t bending over because it felt like he was staying straight. Finally, I recorded him in action. After reviewing the footage, clearly seeing himself bending over and sticking his chin out, “Oh, I guess you’re right,” he says.
The video doesn’t lie.
Feelings will fool you. Your body eventually adjusts and adapt to whatever postures and movement patterns you use most often, regardless of their efficiency. Over time, you create a set-point for what “feels right,” even when it’s wrong.
You need a different perspective, ideally from a live teacher, but in the absence of one you can film yourself and mercilessly critique yourself, re-film and keep correcting your mistakes. Of course you have to know what you are looking for on the video, so again, ideally you would watch yourself with your teacher.
Have you ever had this happen to you?
A friend sets up the perfect joke and you don’t respond fast enough, missing the opportunity for a good laugh. Later, you think to yourself, “I should have said (x).” The same dynamic happens in training. You respond poorly to an attack then think, “I should have done something else instead.”
With video of your performance, you can watch and see options you might not have known you had and can try next time. By taking a third-person perspective of yourself, you can see these missed opportunities, opportunities that you can get back on the mat and work to explore.
I am such a fan of using video in training, I will critique your videos for free. Just send me a short video clip of yourself as a Facebook message at SystemaColorado or tweet me @BradScornavacco and I will give you some specific, helpful feedback.
*Smith’s career ended in disgrace, under the scandal of pedophilia, which makes me reluctant to tell this story and mention his name, but this is a true story.