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.

How Circus Skills Will Help You Pass Your GCSEs (SATs and A-Levels)

Animals Exam

I might miss some classes this term.

Every year in the summer term our students (and their parents) tell me that they may have to miss several classes this term. It’s not because it’s summer and they’re going on an exciting holiday with their family. It’s because it’s exam season. Students (and/or their parents) are worried about failing their exams and think that they need to spend as much time as possible studying and revising – especially the dreaded Night Before An Exam.

It’s great that our students are committed to doing well in their exams. (When I was that age I didn’t care about the exam grades I achieved. What was important to me was studying circus skills!) However I’ve noticed that many students don’t study effectively and end up sacrificing their circus classes unnecessarily and possibly even to their detriment.

Most students feel like they should (or need to) revise – or worse, do their actual studying – the Night Before An Exam. They think that last minute cramming is going to help them perform better in the exam and achieve better results.

But does last minute studying – or cramming – actually work? Or could attending your circus class actually help you pass your exam? Continue reading

How to teach the parts of circus students don’t want to learn

Flying Trapeze

Illustration by Jon Worden from Learning to Fly by Sam Keen

Learning Circus

I’m a big fan of all our students – especially our young people – learning a broad range of circus skills. That’s one of the reasons our classes don’t specialise in just one skill. I believe that there is enormous value in being able to climb a rope, fly the trapeze, juggle, and tumble (amongst other things). But every week one student or another will tell me that they don’t like this or that – whether they don’t like acrobatics, juggling, diabolo or trapeze is different from person to person, and often from week to week. And every time they say it I ask myself the same questions:

  1. Should we really push our students to be a “Jack of all trades, master of none” or would it be better to let students concentrate on just the things they enjoy and become “specialists”? (And is it even true that you can’t be a master of many?!)
  2. How can we get them to see the value in learning something that they don’t enjoy?

Continue reading

Circus Schools, Circus Shows

Over the past four days I’ve been to two different circus schools, one circus training space, and seen three different circus shows in two different cities. It’s been a busy few days.

Over the past year my cousin, Stephen, has been attending Circomedia in Bristol. Circomedia is the second biggest circus school in the UK after Circus Space. (Interestingly, Bim Mason, who founded the school, describes it as a Physical Theatre school that teaches circus rather than a Circus School. No one else I know describes it that way. We all think of it as a Circus School.)

The two show’s I’ve seen were Circomedia’s end of year show, Touch & Go, by their first year students on the Foundation Degree, and Circus Space’s end of year ensemble show by their second year students. The two shows couldn’t have been more different, although I didn’t enjoy either of them particularly. Don’t get me wrong, each show had some great moments, and each show had some great skill, I just didn’t really like the shows overall.

On Thursday, Circomedia’s show, staged at the Bristol Old Vic, was mostly solo acts or duets, some distracted by a cast of performers surrounding them. The trouble was that there are around 25 students in the year, some performing in more than one act, leading to a show that was far too long – nearly three hours including an interval!

With one or two exceptions, the students’ skills were not of a high standard. Feet were lazy and unpointed or sickled, legs were bent, timing was out, double lunges were necessary, comedy wasn’t funny, dancing was scrappy, and more than a few drops were made. It strikes me as odd that after one year, with the school focusing on physical theatre rather than circus skills and technique, Circomedia would stage such a lengthy ‘solo’ show rather than an shorter, tighter ensemble.

It seemed to me that the best performances were either physical-theatre-based (Dare Devilina and many of the links) or were done by students who had come to the school with a high skill level to begin with (such as the jugglers and beat boxers – both highlights of the show for me) or were the performances that kept things ‘nice and neat’ such as the doubles trapeze.

The next day, Steve took me on a tour of Circomedia’s two sites, the school and the training space, and then also the Invisible Circus, an amazing venue based in an old fire station. That evening I returned to the Invisible Circus for ‘The Last Resort’ which was great fun. The event was part party, part event and part cabaret show and was in stark contrast to the previous night’s student show. It was a slickly produced affair with some sharp acts (including some Circomedia graduates) and a big dose of fun. I’d strongly recommend their next event, The Swing Thing, which will combine classic circus with lindy hop and swing dance.

Then last night came the Circus Space second year ensemble show, ‘I came to live out loud’. The show was short, tight, and had some nice skills (I enjoyed the Chinese Pole the most) but lacked something. Maybe it’s just that I don’t really care about any of the student shows apart from their solo acts in their third year, maybe it’s that I don’t really get to know any of the students and have no personal connection to them. But I don’t think so. I think it was really lacking in it’s direction. The comedy wasn’t funny, the drama undramatic, and the romance flat. I was left bereft of any personal connection to any of the characters. And even though it was far better (and shorter) than the Circomedia show, I just wanted it to be over.

It’s hard for me to articulate how I feel about it. I haven’t seen any of the second year Circus Space student shows in a few years so, with the exception of the Touch & Go, I don’t have anything recent to compare it to, and I feel it unfair to compare a first year Circomedia show (where their focus is on physical theatre) with a second year Circus Space show (where the students’ focus is on skills).

What I do know is that with 40 – 50 students at Circus Space and Circomedia every year, and with the growing number of circus schools, circus clubs, circus workshops, circus shows, circus seasons, circus classes and circus courses, things can only get better.


Adam tweets as CircusBoy1 on twitter here.

Learning to Juggle

I learnt to juggle when I was about 10. I was home ill for a week and my dad had the classic juggling book Juggling for the Complete Klutz so I taught myself to juggle. It took me most of the week with a bit of practice each day to really get it solid. I’d tried once before when I was 6 or 8 years old but I think I was just too young at that point to really be able to get it.

Anyway, with a week of practice under my belt I was a juggler. I went back to school and started teaching the other kids in my class how to juggle. I’ve got vivid memories of standing in the hallway outside our class 6 classroom teaching two or three people how to juggle. But they couldn’t get it and didn’t seem to have the patience to learn. I’m sure that I, at 10 years old, didn’t really have the knowledge of how to teach them either. Twenty years later I think I’ve now mastered the art of teaching someone to juggle.

Everyone Can Juggle

After 20 years as a juggler, and over a decade as a professional teacher, I’m pretty confident in saying that anyone can juggle 3 balls. I’ve taught thousands of people to juggle over the years and in around 80% of cases I can teach you to juggle in 45 minutes. Some a little longer, some a little quicker. I’ve had people pick it up instantly and I’ve had people who can’t quite crack it after an hour and a half.

However, it always surprises me how many people come to my juggling workshops and right at the beginning – before I’ve even started teaching them – tell me they can’t juggle. “If you say so” is a fairly standard response. There is only one thing that stops you from being able to juggle. Saying “I can’t juggle”. This is the one and only thing that is going to get in your way. You may think your mal-coordinated, or think you have bad hand-to-eye coordination but the truth is probably more like you haven’t ever spent much time practising catching.

I come from a very sporty family. From a very early age – literally from as soon as I could walk – my dad and grandpa were teaching me to catch. Then it was constant hand-eye coordination games: football, tennis, table tennis, baseball, cricket, etc. It was constant and it was fun. I practised. By the time I taught myself to juggle I’d amassed a huge number of hours practising hand-eye coordination. I guess a lot of people don’t get that.

Teaching Juggling

You Never Learnt To Juggle

I’ve done a lot of work coaching, both in personal and professional settings, and I coach from an ontological perspective. When I teach juggling, I teach in much the same way. If who you are is that you cannot juggle then you’ll be right. I don’t mean to say that you should be telling yourself “I can juggle” as that kind of affirmation very rarely helps. Instead, confront (stand and face) the simple reality of the situation: you’ve never learnt to juggle.

That’s it. You never learned to juggle. It’s a good job you came to my workshop because I know how to teach you to juggle.

How do I keep all the balls in the air?

That’s probably the most common question I get about learning to juggle. And the simple answer is: You don’t.

People often think that you have all three balls in the air but for the most part, you only have one ball in the air. You only have one thing to deal with at a time. And we can all handle dealing with one thing.

Juggling is very simple. It’s one action repeated over and over, first on the right, then on the left. Right, left, right, left, right, left.

Driving a car is far more complicated. You have to carefully and precisely coordinate a steering wheel, gears, three pedals, mirrors, indicators, wipers, lights as well as all the other vehicles on the road, pedestrians, animals (even a circus Zebra recently!) and concentrate on where you’re going!

You can drive but you think you can’t juggle?

People have no problem spending weeks, months or even years learning to drive. They expect driving to be difficult and have no issue persevering with learning. However, there is a clear pay-off in being able to drive. There isn’t often a clear pay-off in being able to juggle. So there has to be something else. You have to create for yourself a desire to be able to juggle. You’ve got to want it. If you don’t want to be able to juggle, learning will just be a chore. And if it ain’t no fun for you, it just ain’t worth it.

Throwing, Catching & Dropping

People think that in juggling catching is really important. One of the hardest things to get people to accept is dropping. People think that if they drop, it means they can’t catch, it means they aren’t any good at it. People get embarrassed when they drop, they wonder what other people think of them when they drop. And sometimes they’re so afraid of dropping that they’d rather not try to learn.

And dropping really isn’t a big deal. Dropping certainly doesn’t mean you can’t juggle. Juggling has been around for thousands of years (since almost 2000 BC). There isn’t a juggler in the world that hasn’t dropped. But people are so fixated on not dropping that they forget the most important part of juggling: a good throw. If you do a good throw a catch is easy. If you do a bad throw a catch is difficult. Jugglers are concerned with throws not catches. If you can do good throw, after good throw, after good throw, your body will take care of the catches on it’s own.

So if you can get that you simply never learned to juggle…

And you can get that the simplicity of juggling is not beyond you…

And you have the desire to learn and don’t mind a drop or two along the way…

Then you can learn to juggle.