Book Review: The Art of Learning by Josh Waizkin

Half autobiography, half one badass's take on learning theory, this is a good read for coaches and students.  Three stars (out of four)
Buy it here.

If you've seen or read "Searching for Bobby Fisher," the author is the subject of that film/book.  The short version is that he was a chess phenom.  He played world-class chess from an early age, and then his dad wrote a book about him, which then turned into a movie, which then made him more famous than was helpful for his chess career.  He got to a place where he wasn't loving chess like he once did, and then discovered Tai Chi, which then led to his introduction into push hands.  And after a few years of practicing push hands, he became world champion at that.  World-class chess player, world-champion martial artist.  Thus, badass.  He said that at one point he realized that his gift wasn't that he was good at chess, and it wasn't that he was good at martial arts... he was good at learning, so he decided to write a book about it.

As I stated above, it is half autobiography... he gets a lot into his chess career and development, and into his martial arts career.  These stories serve to build credibility, provide illustration for some of his points, and it's just pretty interesting to learn about his experiences.  The learning theory bit is good stuff.  Nothing revolutionary, but I think that his stories really help illustrate his point.  The basic idea of his theory (condensed to my take) is:

  • Deconstruct the thing you are trying to learn (e.g., if you are trying to learn Judo, you may think of it consisting of skills such as gripping, using footwork to neutralize Kuzushi, disrupting the advancing foot, etc)
  • Focus down on one thing at a time, building from the ground up, and perfect and internalize that thing (e.g., spend time practicing Tsugiashi movement, then practice Tsugiashi while connected to a moving partner... then connected to an attacking partner, finding and fixing gaps and mistakes, until you are unconsciously maintaining a solid, mobile base wherever circumstances lead you)
  • As you internalize more and more of the base skills, time will "slow down" as your conscious mind can focus on less and less, and you can "specialize" the skills which you are seeking to learn
  • During this process, you will need to "invest in loss" - in part, that means not being afraid to lose as you are working on a new skill; in part, it means that you should seek out those who can beat you so that you can find new areas to develop in your game
  • There is also quite a bit on psychology... both how to "get in your opponent's head" as well as how to trigger optimum performance states in your own mind

Last I looked, this thing was $9 on Amazon...  It's a fairly quick read, it has pretty cool stories, and may well help you improve how you learn and how you teach.  It is already influencing me, and I'll post more about that in the near future.