Turbo-Charge Your Learning: Make more mistakes


Circus Skills are Hard

Circus skills are hard – and they should be. We wouldn’t call them circus skills if they weren’t a skill, and we wouldn’t call things tricks if they weren’t tricky. Circus skills take time to learn and a lifetime to master.

But students get frustrated if they don’t feel like they are progressing. Whatever you learn, there comes a point when you will probably plateau for a while. You’ll make mistakes, and you’ll probably make the same mistake frequently. This is common in learning physical skills – sports, music, martial arts and definitely in circus – where motor control is key.

As you practice you’ll notice you make mistakes and after a while you’ll probably start to start to notice that you keep making the same mistake. When students see that they are making the same mistake over and over (sometimes they don’t see that it’s the same mistake but see that they are making a mistake over and over), frustration and annoyance kicks in.

It’s very common when first learning to juggle, for instance, that after two or three throws your body suddenly freezes and you don’t make your third or fourth throw. It feels like the ball is stuck in your hand. If students get stuck at this point for too long they get frustrated and sooner or later will probably give up.

Practice Makes Perfect… Or Not.

When you repeatedly perform an action, you teach your body and your brain to perform that action, and the action (or movement) becomes easier. Each time you perform the action, the neural pathway for that action becomes stronger and the action itself becomes easier.

Looking at our juggling example, the neural pathway for juggling is new and that the brain can’t coordinate throwing the “stuck” ball – the synapse hasn’t been used before. Not throwing and feeling like the ball is stuck in your hand is the result of the neurological pathway being unused.

When I’m teaching I tell people that they have to throw the ball even if it’s a terrible throw. Once they force the ball out of their hand once or twice, the neural pathway starts to get worn in, the synapses in the brain become easier for the electrical impulses to cross, and throwing the ball starts to becomes easier and more natural.

Whatever movement you make, if you repeatedly perform that movement, the neural pathway activates more fluidly and the movement becomes easier. Of course, the movement may be correct or incorrect – but neurologically speaking the result is the same: more fluid neural pathways.

When you make a mistake over and over again you’re teaching your brain and your body to perform that mistake more easily. You’re actually practicing the mistake and the mistake starts to become automatic. You are getting better but not in the way you want. You’re getting better at making the mistake. This is what we call a bad habit.

We all know that “practice makes perfect” but by practicing incorrectly, it also makes bad habits.

To ensure that we’re on the path to perfect (rather than forming bad habits) we have to perform a new movement or action. It doesn’t have to be correct, it just has to be different.

Performing a different movement or action is difficult. It doesn’t feel natural or comfortable. You’re brain is “walking an untrodden path.” It’s using neural pathways that haven’t been used before and it takes a concerted mental effort to do something differently.

Until the neural pathway for that movement is “well-trodden” it will take focus, attention and mental effort.

Don’t do it right, do it different.

If making the same mistake over and over isn’t going to achieve what we want, we have to something different. I don’t care what our students do differently and often tell them to “make a new mistake.”

I want my students to keep making different mistakes. If they keep making new mistakes eventually they’ll get it right and then we can try to replicate the correct movement. This is especially important if they’ve already formed a bad habit. They must unlearn what they have learned.

Making mistakes is never a problem. I want my students to make mistakes – lots of them! Because only when they make mistakes will they get better.

Make mistakes. Make lots of mistakes.