The one thing that allows us to get better, faster

“Did you do any striking?”

“Pfft. No. When we spar and he hits me, it’s like being hit with a big rock.”

One of my jiu-jitsu instructors was talking about training with a high level MMA athlete. He told us about the athlete’s training style: “I’ll show him one or two moves and then he’ll spend the rest of the session doing them over and over and over again.”

Gray Cook is a movement specialist. He came up with the infamous Functional Movement Screen. It’s a standardised test used to determine potential problem areas and risks in an athlete’s movement. Some coaches and organisations swear by it. Others abhor it and attack it at every opportunity. 

He also came up with something called the optimum performance pyramid

Cook has this to say about the structure, emphasis mine:

“Note how the broad base creates a buffer zone for the second pillar, and the second pillar creates a buffer zone for the top pillar. This zone is extremely important; it implies that the individual exceeds the necessary mobility and stability needed to perform the specific tasks. Without the buffer, there may be potential for injury or for compromised power and efficiency.”

To re-word Cook’s point, if you don’t have more than the physical capacity required for a skill, you won’t be able to do it. Or you’ll only be able to do it in a very inefficient manner. Or you’ll hurt yourself while attempting it.

Think about it. In the example above, what allows the MMA athlete to repeat the same technique over and over until he’s mastered it? His physical capacity.

Now apply that to the rest of his game. To his striking, to his takedowns, to his grappling. What’s the consequence of his ability to practice one skill an endless amount of times? He can train harder, faster and for longer than most. He can therefore learn at a faster rate.

Let’s move away from the realm of the physical to the mental. Into the world of creativity, ingenuity, problem solving and thinking. Does this idea translate? Is there one foundational ability which will allow us to practice harder, faster and longer? Is there one thing which will allow us to practice and get better more rapidly? 

Yes: Singularity of focus. The ability to exclude everything from your mind except the task at hand. Often for hours at a time.

Need to learn something new but can’t focus on the thing you’re learning about? You won’t learn it. Need to understand the issue your colleague has presented you with? You’ll only be able to do that if you can get the argument you had with your partner out of your mind.

A distracted mind, a mind not concentrated on whatever is before it, is an ineffectual thing.

Recognising the significance of focus is one thing. But how do you actually attain the ability to stay fixated on one thing for a substantial period?

First, you need to create the space for that level of focus. You could have the focus of a Greek god with a vengeance, but it’s irrelevant if you’re constantly being interrupted. You can’t achieve a deep level of focus on something for hours if you only have twenty minutes.

The best way to create these blocks of time is through the use of strong filters. That means you have to say no to a lot of things. That means you have to set boundaries and not allow others to violate them. At all. Doing both these things will put you in some uncomfortable situations and undoubtedly create friction in your relationships. But doing these two things is what allows you to create the time and space required for immersion in a task.

And once you actually have the time and space to focus? How do you train that ability? One word: mindfulness.

I’m serious. Mindfulness may seem like some new-age cliche. Like a fad. And the way some people talk about it, I can’t fault you for getting that impression.  But think about how we defined singularity of focus: “The ability to exclude everything from your mind except the task at hand. Often for hours at a time.” 

Does that not sound like mindfulness to you?