Ten Thousand Repetitions
Early on, we called it the rule of 10,000
Simply stated it meant you had to work very hard if you wished to
develop a skill. Problem was many people wanted to become experts but they expected it to happen overnight. That’s not reality. Anything we truly desire or hope to achieve requires discipline, fortitude and practice to
Whether the skill be a punch or a kick, a kata, or a self defense concept, you will achieve your objective only with a great number of focused repetitions. Though it is rarely done it this way anymore,
back then we would sometimes run cycles of 1000 repetitions. That would include each kick and each hand technique during training cycles. Likewise, when attempting to perfect the fine points of a Kata, we would
frequently run through the form 10-20 times.
Needless to say, this could be exhausting, and mentally challenging. It was however productive, if excellence was the objective. Furthermore, there were the associated
benefits to physical conditioning, endurance, and strength.
So what does the rule of 10,000 really mean?
I can share a story related by Steve James the great country blues and roots musician. Steve had
been teaching a slide guitar class and had volunteered insights into some of his unique guitar fills. Not unexpectedly, some in the group were challenged by the dexterity demanded to strike the notes cleanly. One of the
students hailed Steve, saying in frustration that he would never get it ... questioning whether it was even possible. Steve encouraged the student, noting the grist for any situation where you’re attempting to learn new
technique is repetition. The only question for the student was whether he could rise to the test. The student queried, “Exactly how much repetition?” Steve answered, “As much as it takes.” The student posited whether
that meant a hundred, a thousand, ten thousand. Steve underscored, “Whatever it takes.” All that Steve could promise was that repetition would result in improvement and that enough repetition would eventually result in
Several days later, in a follow-up session, the same student shared with the group that he had learned to play the Steve James lick which had previously eluded him. He demonstrated, and Steve was
satisfied the student was well on the road. Steve then asked the student, “How many?” The student responded, “How many what?” “Repetitions, how many repetitions did you go through before it became fluid?” The student
answered, “Eleven hundred and nineteen.”
Part of the magic of repetitions is that it's a way of programming yourself to to recognize what’s most important to you. Your body and mind need that ... to focus as
they’re meant to. The many aspects of daily life which occur only once are processed quickly through our stream of consciousness, and are instantly flushed. For example, can you recite your food menu for the past seven
days? Can you remember what you had for dinner three days ago?
That's why repetition looms larger than anything else in perfecting your martial art. Things like patterns, forms and Kata were designed and meant to
be lifelong pursuits, in some cases producing their fruit only after decades of diligent practice, exploration and meditation.
Repetitions were the key. My teachers never let me lose site of the point, even
though that key was frequently lost to others. They posited the benefit of 10,000 repetitions would accrue to the student as an outcome of certainty. If you paid the price, success would follow. And that would happen
whether you spent 50 years doing the repetitions, or one year.
Let's see what they meant.
Suppose you learn a new Kata and because of your schedule, practice it once weekly. That means during the next
year, you would do 52 repetitions, give or take. In 50 years, assuming you have that much time remaining, you will have done 2600 repetitions. For all of those 50 years, and for all those repetitions, you will struggle
with the execution, sometimes making false moves, sometimes blanking out, and sometimes being unable to complete the form. You will gain some degree of physical conditioning, and acquire some rudimentary fighting
skills, but will not achieve excellence or mastery.
Let's say is that you're still executing the kata once weekly, and do so for a period of two years, then taper off. At the end of two years, you’ve done about
100 repetitions and your skills will be minimal. As soon as you taper off, the movement, lessons, and benefits, will quickly disperse.
Suppose you're more ambitious, and do the form once daily, never missing a
day. In one year you will have executed 365 repetitions and at some point approaching 30 years, you will have executed 10,000. You will derive substantially more benefit than you would have in the other scenarios, and
you might even achieve a certain degree of mastery over the form. We would expect all of your movement to be crisp and we would also expect you to attain the full physical conditioning warranted by the regular activity.
If you executed with proper focus, we would even expect you to achieve deep insight into the flows of energy and power within the structure and geometry of the form, perhaps even coming to understand how those energies
and configurations are applied in real life.
Now, think about executing 10 times a day for three years. I was taught you could achieve the same gains in that routine as you would in the preceding 30-year routine.
The main advantage here being that once the form has been mastered, your energies are freed and available to pursue other learning objectives. Ultimately, mastery means the form becomes you ... and is no longer
something you have to practice repeatedly. Therein lies the reward.
My teachers expected nothing less than one hundred repetitions of each form, each week. That meant 5200 repetitions per year, and mastery in as
short a period of time as possible. As you can imagine, that required considerable sacrifice, and dedication, but in return, produced accelerated and tangible benefits. At the end of two years, the form will have become
a permanent part of your identity. You will never forget the moves, and they will be there at your command when needed. The techniques will be precisely defined, explosive, and effective. Most importantly, the skills
you develop with this approach will become part of the package you bring to the next form, as you pursue further growth. In effect, the better you get, the better you can become. Everything builds on what has already
transpired. The more you’ve done, the more you can do.
In the old days, Master Steve Armstrong would characteristically teach one - two katas per year. He was a strong proponent for seeing excellence in a form,
before allowing anyone to progress beyond. His expectation of excellence, and insistence that it be pursued, resulted in sparkling executions, even dominance, by his students in tournaments throughout the West Coast for
For me, the role of 10,000 is a personal standard. Whether it's a technique, a skill, tai chi, sword, or even poker, I have come to consider 10,000 to be the threshold separating the dilatante from the
committed. It just boils down to you, as an individual deciding who you are and what is important.
After spending years perfecting their chops in the clubs of Hamburg and Liverpool, the Beatles entered the world
stage as an extremely polished and competent band ... though only just out of their teens.
In various interviews regarding that period, Paul McCartney has been questioned regarding the technique he and John
Lennon used writing songs. The interviewer inevitably asks McCartney whether they recorded, or wrote everything down so that nothing good was lost. McCartney typically responds, “No we didn't do that as we worked.” The
interviewer, puzzles, then asks McCartney to explain. McCartney adds that if something was good, both he and John Lennon recognized it immediately, and once they decided it was good, they would know to commit it to
memory, and not to lose it.
Now that’s thinking like a martial artist. If it’s really important, treat it like it deserves to be a permanent part of you!