The Cost of Doubt


Doubt costs repetitions. The time you spend thinking about how to do something, or what you have done wrong, or even if there is a better way to do something, is time you spend not doing something.

Success in athletic endeavors can be correlated to volume. Working on handstands, the students with the best handstands, or most improving handstands, are the ones who do the most handstands. In the brief amount of time there is to perform the task in class, some students will do 20 or more handstands or handstand attempts. Some students will only do two or three.

Over time, volume wins. The old saying about the water wearing away the rock is true, but it’s difficult to be the water. Doubt is a thing that holds us tight, and stops us from wearing away at our task.

When a student is wondering about the correct way to extend the arm or leg during a lunge, the little bit of doubt can creep in. They worry that if they do it wrong, they will teach themselves to do it wrong, and their performance will always suffer from this point. Regardless of instruction, they will hesitate and slow down, and try to be perfect in each repetition.

Which is admirable, but when volume drops off results drop off.

Learning a target-based sport like archery or shooting, you learn consistency before correction (at least once the gross errors and basic lessons are covered.) You want to develop a good grouping, the ability to consistently hit the target in roughly the same area with each shot, more than you want to hit the bullseye each time. When the grouping is consistent, then corrective work on where the grouping is landing can begin.

Not every blow thrown in practice will be perfect. Far less perfection can be expected when throwing a blow in earnest. Every motion, good or bad, teaches a lesson when we are opening to learning the lesson.

If I throw a poor lunge, I can stop and think about it and try to fix it. I can do this with every subsequent lunge, and eventually I will throw a far more ideal lunge.

Or I can throw the poor lunge, and just continue lunging, paying attention to my errors but continuing on with my repetitions. I may by luck lunge poorly three times, perfectly once, and somewhere in between six times. On the next ten lunges, I make one small correction and my poor lunges are gone. I throw eight mediocre lunges and two very good ones.

In the meantime the prior fencer has completed five lunges to my twenty. I have a habit of twenty lunges, she has a habit of five. Over the course of a year, I’m going to perform my task twenty thousand times to her five thousand times. If we are receiving the same level of instruction and feedback from our coach, one of us is going to soar far above the other.

Of course, you must always take time off for correction and perfection. It should be seen as a cost against your volume goal, and budgeted accordingly.

With much of the more complex physical skills in martial arts, difficulty in performance relates more to lack of repetitions than poor instruction.

When you are drilling an athletic task, and you start to wonder if you are doing something wrong, don’t stop. Just listen for a bit while you keep adding to your volume. If a solution doesn’t appear, ask for feedback from your coach or instructor. But makes sure the problem isn’t just the need for volume first.

2 thoughts on “The Cost of Doubt

  1. Jamie Le Rossignol

    I see doubt as a useful tool to identify areas that I need clarifying in my own technique, but I can also see the point you are making about doubt can not be allowed to become a barrier to regular training of the techniques of fencing, however, to blindly chase volume of repartitions can lead to it’s own problems when the technique is flawed. So a middle ground between reps and technique must be found. I think that mindful practise that is critical to success.

    In research on world class athletics, musicians, and other technical experts, it has been shown that volume alone (or time spent) is not enough, both world-class and good violinists practise about the same. It is the quality of that practise that is important and what separated the violinists was the focus. The world-class players would focus on the details of a performance, looking to correct minor details to improve the quality of the overall performance. If they have doubts about a particular technique, then follow it up with a coach or other expert to refine the part they are uncertain of.

  2. Kamil Devonish

    Certainly there is a cost to doubt. The trick is to be able to tell the difference between hesitation and deliberation. The first is pointless and the second can save a lot of wasted effort.

    To err on the side of quantity over quality is akin to the argument of consistency over intensity. The thinking goes that consistency can bring intensity but intensity can harm consistency. But it is undeniable that doing something consistently, at high volume and poorly can either lead to you doing something well or simply being really good at doing something badly. It could go either way.


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