Achieving proficiency in a martial art requires certain abilities. However, the abilities themselves do not equate to high level proficiency. To achieve mastery of an art requires developing skill. Skill and ability are related concepts, but are distinct. The difference between the two is subtle, and I have not always had the best explanation to distinguish them when I get into a discussion with others. But after reading through Geoff Colvin’s “Talent is Overrated,” I see that the difference between the two can be succinctly stated: skill is not automatic.
What that means is you are never in auto-pilot with skill. Skill entails mental engagement and full conscious control. An ability on the other hand could be unconscious and reflexive. Just because you can do something does not mean you have any idea what you’re doing or that you have conscious control over your action. The example from Colvin’s book was Tiger Wood’s ability to check his golf swing. Even though Tiger Woods practiced his swing over countless repetitions, the swing never became automatic or reflexive. His greatness came from his being fully conscious of his swing, not from drilled muscle memory. He was so in control of his swing that he could amazingly stop mid-swing if some distraction were to interrupt his flow. An ordinary golfer who is not as mentally aware of his swing would have just swung through and hit a bad shot.
Colvin writes in his book:
“Frequently when we see great performers doing what they do, it strikes us that they’ve practice for so long, and done it so many times, they can just do it automatically. But, in fact, what they have achieved is the ability to avoid doing it automatically.”
“When we learn to do anything new–how to drive, for example–we go through three stages. The first stage demands a lot of attention as we try out the controls, learn the rules of driving, and so on. In the second stage we begin to coordinate our knowledge, linking movements together and more fluidly combining out actions with our knowledge of the car, the situation, and the rules. In the third stage we drive the car with barely a thought. It’s automatic. And with that our improvement at driving slows dramatically, eventually stopping completely.”
“For most things we do, including driving, that’s not a problem. We don’t need to be great at such things, just good enough to carry on with our lives… But it does mean that our brains have pretty much checked out when we’re doing these things. If your golfing opponent jingles his change at the top of your back-swing, he can probably reach the part of your brain that responds instinctively to sudden noises; since you’re on autopilot, you’re helpless to stop your now doomed swing.”
“By contrast, great performers never allow themselves to reach the automatic, arrested-development stage in their chosen field. That is the effect of continual deliberate practice–avoiding automaticity.”
The repeated drilling in practicing is not rote. Mentally checking out only results in muscle memory and a reflexive ability to perform. It does not lead to skill which forms the essence of the art. Being mentally immersed in the practice is what develops the awareness necessary to improve skill. An ability is fine and good for just getting something accomplished, but the essence of the art is not fully expressed until we remove automaticity and manifest skill.