In teaching martial arts, I have found that successful progress revolves around the number five (5). This is especially so in teaching Wing Chun for realistic self-defense.
Why We Repeat Things
Repetition is a key part of structured training, but using repetition the wrong way is unproductive and doesn’t work. From Beginner to Expert level, training involves learning new techniques, forms, movements, strikes, locks and sparring tactics. Students don’t learn anything by trying something once or twice, but doing something endlessly in one class isn’t effective either. It’s just boring and unfocused. Therefore, it’s critical to have the right amount of repetition at each stage of learning: Discovery, Emulation, Competence and Mastery. Repetition isn’t useful unless you have a strategy around using it at each learning stage.
Tune the amount of repetition to the learning stage for maximum benefit. Too little and students don’t learn anything. Too much repetition can be even more destructive. Let’s touch on learning stages
Discovery is when a student is first exposed to a technique. They might see it demonstrated and/or explained to them. The student needs to attempt to do the technique to move forward. Since the initial attempts to repeat what has been demonstrated will not be good, DO NOT repeat endlessly. Have students slowly work through it a handful of times while asking pointed questions that the instructor answers minimally. The goal is to get the student to accept “I know this technique exists, and I can kind of do it”. If a student wants to repeat it 100 times or “tell me every last thing I’m doing wrong”, just say no. They are sloppy. Endless repetition of sloppy is pointless.
Emulation is when a student knows a technique is good, but has to consciously think to do it. They will inevitably emulate how the instructor does it as a ‘gold standard’ of perfection because they have to aim for something. At this stage, they should receive a little more detailed correction. Let’s drill into the over-correcting problem. Even if the student demands “every correction” and the well-meaning instructor tries to do it nicely, too many corrections at once is always destructive and pointless. Students will question their ability to ever master the technique, plus they simply can’t act on a bunch of corrections at one time. Students are often making many different mistakes. Choose the one, best thing to correct. The best strategy is to have students do small sets of repetition. In each repetition set, offer ONLY ONE correction. Do only one repetition set of a technique in a given class. Resist the urge to beat it to death, offering more and more corrections.
Martial arts corrections, like text on a written page, need white space around them.
Offer eight corrections and the student is likely to remember none. Offer one correction today, and perhaps they will retain it tomorrow. Stay on correction #1 until they can remember and do it, then move on to another. The instructor’s goal is to keep the student motivated and positive as they make incremental progress.
Competence is achieved when a student feels they can do a technique competently without consciously thinking about every move. Thinking about every move is emulating their master. Through focused and disguised repetition, students can move beyond “doing what I’m supposed to do” to simply “DOING IT”. Competence is inhabiting and taking ownership over a technique, without thinking about who taught it, how they do it or considering everyone who helped correct them.
Instructors don’t really teach technique. They guide students to teach it to themselves.
The best way to move students from emulation to competence is by shaking up how they practice. If they can use the same technique in another context or to defend another attack (instead of standing, can they do it kneeling or in a chair?), it forces the student to understand the essence of the technique, not just a recipe to follow. Another great idea is to make it more intense. Have one attacker press harder, try to counter or look for openings if they hesitate. Have two attackers press them for time, so they have to either interrupt the technique or go faster. Do small sessions where you mix it up to gain ownership.
Competence is not the finish line. To master a technique, students need to be able to apply it flexibly outside the context they learned it, applying it to completely different attacks. When a student successfully uses a technique for attacks they didn’t know it worked for, they are showing mastery of the technique whether they “feel like they were right” or “feel like they messed up”. Over time, senior students should seek more equanimity with not thinking so much. Part of mastery is also an ability to help others to do it. If you cannot teach someone else to do it competently, your understanding of how you do it is incomplete. In that case, you will get caught someday misapplying it because you don’t understand why the things you do usually work.
When you are in combat, good technique flows from subconscious knowingness, not conscious thinking.
But if you can’t explain how it works, you aren’t very good.
Five is the Magic Number
As discussed above, at each stage of learning, small sessions of repetition are ideal. Specifically, repeating things five times per side is the best way to do it. Why five? I could say that in my lifetime of learning, coaching and teaching sports and martial arts, I have found that five simply works best.
The first repetition is where someone is pulling what they remember off the bookshelf of their mind. The 2nd and 3rd reps are “getting in gear”, expressing a bit of confidence and a good time for a pointed instructor correction. Repetition 4 should be “solid”. However good or sloppy they might be, it should be a more fluid expression of doing it. Repetition 5 is “Gold”. The last repetition should be a confident expression of the technique. It should feel like the student is a) doing well and b) probably corrected one thing, whether big or small. If rep 5 doesn’t feel like that, then do a few more to get that feeling. The last rep needs to feel noticeably better than the first to keep a student motivated, but go no further than 8 reps to achieve that. Then do the other side. Few are ambidextrous, so it might require 5 reps on their “good” side, and 7 on their weak side. However, I have often found that the pattern laid down in the brain works the other way, with the weak side actually requiring less repetition. I think this is due to two factors. One is that the student has already repeated the pattern on their “good” side, so transposing is easier than learning. Secondly, the “weak” side may be more open to learning new patterns because that side of the brain has less ingrained patterns to break.
OK, But Why Five?
Many studies have examined the cost/benefit of less vs more repetition of learning new physical skills. We’re talking sports, dance, music, martial arts, any physical skill. They found that for most people, most of the time, five is the ideal amount of gainful repetition.
- Learn more about learning styles and ‘spaced’ learning
- Learn more from a study on learning physical skills
The consensus was that less than five is too little repetition to put any technique or improvement into long-term memory at all. Gains in future recall increased until about five repetitions and then largely plateaued. Furthermore, going past ten repetitions for most skills not only lead to no further gains, but actually lead to decreased fidelity due to boredom. In short, continuously repeating something is usually counter-productive. There are exceptions of course. For example, if you are learning a new technique and repeat it five times and then reuse it slightly differently, you can make more incremental gains. As long as it feels like a fresh challenge, the student can keep improving, but only up to a saturation point. If you are playing tennis, you learn more from a one hour game than four hours of “hitting the ball” at a wall because a game is a live dynamic of angles, power, speed, and mobility. Learning is like building muscle. The brain responds best to variations on a theme.
The research agrees with my personal observations in teaching and coaching.
The Rule of Five in Wing Chun
Whether you are attacking or defending, we aim to practice 5 times/side. The first attack is just to feel it out. The attacker should hold back a bit because the defender is acclimating to the attack. Attacks 2 and 3 are ‘getting in gear’. Increase power and realism as the defender gets more confident and assured with balance, timing and movement. Attack 4 should be ‘solid’ where the attack feels real and the defender isn’t thinking too much. Attack 5 is ‘gold’. The attack should feel real and the defender should respond in an assured way that is clearly better than how they did the first repetition. Add a few more repetitions to get the feeling of clear improvement if needed, but don’t go past 8-9 reps/side. It won’t get any better. Excellence is the result of many small, repeated improvements.
Do a Full Followup (5) to Win
One of the founders of Wing Chun was Ng Mui (Fifth Nun). Every defense much be finished with a followup that is clear and decisive, dissolving the problem. In her honor, we normally follow up with at least five punches. If you lose count, add more. Never do less. Punching someone once or twice isn’t enough. You might knock them out in the first punch, but don’t count on it. Attackers move, dodge, and block. Sometimes your first few punches will be a bit weak because your range and power are non-ideal. In training, aim for every single punch to hit, but assume that any single punch could be ineffective or miss. The flurry or chain of wing chun punches will do the job, not any single punch. When we say five punch followup, we really mean “punch until you have the feeling of victory”. If someone attacks you, you need to convince them that it’s over and they can’t try again. Sometimes this can be resolved with a neck control, joint lock or throw, but assume that most of the time, you need to hurt them until they give up on fighting you. The steps are: move, deflect, hurt them, then run. When you stop punching them, your next action is to leave the scene. Convince them to stay down before you turn to leave. If you do a full follow up, including walking through their personal space as you punch, they are not going to pop up and try again.
1,2,3,4,5 = Yut, Yee, Sum, Say, Hnnmm
To help learning the first 5 numbers in Cantonese. use the following trick. Remember ‘yut’ and ‘yee’ are 1 and 2. When people can’t remember what’s next, some say hmmm. Sum say hnnnm are 3, 4,5.