Deliberate practice

Malcolm Gladwell made the rule to practice 10,000 hours to achieve mastery famous. However this is actually a misleading simplification from research that was conducted by Anders Ericsson and published in his book ‘Peak’ (ISBN-10: 0544947223).

Practicing 10,000 hours will not guarantee mastery or even deeper understanding. Deliberate practice will.


Practicing deliberately means to isolate certain aspects of our practice and training and focusing on them without distraction by all the other things we should also train and improve. Deliberate practice helps us to concentrate our mind on only one thing and to repeat, improve and assimilate that one thing.

Students in Tai Chi are often overwhelmed by all the things they ‘should’ learn and understand. Especially in the beginning they come to class but feel that they cannot achieve the stage where they remember enough to start practicing on their own without needing to peek at the teacher for the next movement.

Following the principles of deliberate practice and separating out certain aspects of the whole will help a lot in those situations. Instead of trying to learn everything at the same time, try to break your own practice in focus areas. Only focus on that area, ignore all the rest. Then after some good deliberate practice, bring that area back into the larger whole.

Some example for breaking out a complex form into aspects for deliberate practice:

Details of a movement – Only practice one movement. Whatever you struggle with, the bow step, stroking the mane of the horse, diagonal flying. Pick that one technique and practice it in isolation. Maybe repeat the same technique but do not worry about what comes next in the form.

Sequence of the form – Don’t worry about the details of any given movement when you try to memorize a form. Don’t even execute the movements fully, just give a sloppy hint to get your muscle memory engaged. Close your eye for even better focus. The detail of the movement does not matter in this practice, only what technique comes next.

Directions and footwork – As forms get longer, for example the Yang form, it can become challenging to remember the different directions and stances. Practice your footwork separately. Maybe use hinted arm movements to jog your memory, but don’t focus on the arms or the details of any technique at all. Focus on your feet, your stance, the difference between bow step and two sides of a line. Make sure your feet are pointing in the right direction, your knees are slightly bent and you are deliberate about your eight points.

And then after you spent a good amount of time on isolated practice of only one aspect, bring it all together again to practice the form once or twice in its completeness. Separate and re-unite.

Reflections on Achieving Your Goals: If You Make a Mistake Keep Going


What’s the difference between a beginner making a mistake and a master making the same mistake?

The beginner will notice the mistake, stop, blame himself for making the stupid mistake and maybe even stop altogether for the day in frustration. He might contemplate for a long while, why this mistake has happened and how embarrassing the situation was.

The master accepts the situation and keeps going without a blink. Later when there is time, she will reflect on what led to the mistake and how she might be able to prevent it in the future. She will practice the situation and be prepared to deal with it the next time it might occur. She will not waste energy to dwell in self-blame or pity.

I once saw this mindset live in perfect demonstration. Tsuguo Sakumoto, a 9th degree black belt and the leader of Ryuei-ryu karate, demonstrated a Kama kata. Kama are Okinawan sickles. They have razor-sharp blades and the kata consists of lightning fast movements swirling two of them through the air at the same time.

Master Sakumoto made a mistake while demonstrating this kata to a crowd of about hundred people, all highly ranked karate-kas. One of the blades came in contact with the handle of the other. it cut right through the wood and made the other blade fly high through the air. Master Sakumoto was lucky that he hadn’t cut off some fingers.

This was a scary moment, a pretty bad mistake and could have been embarrassing. Other athletes might have gone in frustration and maybe thrown their tennis rack on the ground, storming out of the court. Not the karate master. He kept going as if nothing had happened. Not a moment of hesitation, not a blink, not a flinch. He was a hundred percent committed and finished the form. After that he bowed, went, picked up the other blade and was ready for questions from the audience.

Be in the moment. Finish what you have started. Don’t get thrown off by what you didn’t expect. Don’t dwell in analysis and get stuck in something that has already happened and which you can’t influence anymore. Think about it when you have time and then move on.

When you make a mistake in your practice don’t miss a beat. Realize and acknowledge what has happened. Decide if you need to adjust and move on in the same instance. Don’t let it throw you off.

The same is true for life. When you hit a bump in the road you need to keep going. Practice this mindset in martial arts. Make it your second nature and then make sure you apply the same mindset in your daily life.


Did you like this article? Want to read more?

I will keep posting articles here and I have them lined up way into summer 2020. However if you want to get it all in one comprehensive, structured, and grammar-checked (!) view, check out our new book:


Put on your oxygen mask first - book cover

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First

A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps

By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk

ISBN 9781077278929

Find it on Amazon: Paperback, Kindle


If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Reflections from Tai Chi Class Today

I usually don’t share discussions and lessons from class here, but today we talked about one that I think is worth sharing outside of our little Tai Chi family.

Pushing hands – Like water, like wind

We did quite a bit of pushing hands in class today. We don’t do it very often in our regular Tai Chi classes, but when we do, it’s a great way to feel, practice and guide our energy, face external obstacles and get direct feedback on our own actions.

It helps us understand the form on a deeper level, and it also presents broader lessons that apply to all areas of life.

Here’s the key point:

Don’t have a preconceived plan. Listen and react to the situation. Feel the energy and respond to it.

Our as our teacher, Hilmar Fuchs, likes to say:

Keep your mind open for opportunities. When they present themselves, go for it.

With that, we learn to ‘listen’ in push hands, to ‘keep our eyes open’ for challenges (attacks) and opportunities (openings).

Some of the principles we study in pushing hands:

  1. Have your mind on the end goal, on what you want to achieve. Don’t hold yourself back by overthinking the challenges in front of you, or thinking they are unsurmountable.
  2. Don’t try to force your way because you had a certain plan and want to stick to it.
  3. Don’t miss opportunities because you weren’t ready yet, or because they don’t fit in your plan and timeline.
  4. Be frugal, only move when you need to. Only react when you get energy. Don’t be mechanical, if there is no signal, there is no need for response.
  5. Don’t be stiff either, be flexible. The tree bends to the wind, the water flows around the rock, the wind reaches into every corner. On the other hand, the frozen branch breaks upon resistance.

When you get the principles right, you don’t need force

When we need to apply force, speed or trickery to overcome our partner (or obstacle), then we got the timing and the principles wrong. When we can be soft and calm, and still achieve our goals, then we did the right thing at the right time.

Strive to be soft (flexible) and calm, while maintaining course towards your goal.

When there is an opening, allow your energy to flow into it. When you pull a bolder out of the stream, the water will fill the void without hesitation.

When there is resistance, go around it. Every hard spot has a corresponding soft spot that is presented to you as a gift.

And in ‘real’ life?

After class we talked a little about the application of these principles to life and business.

It’s the same thing.

You want to have a general sense of where you want to go (we call it strategy), you want to simulate a few things that could happen to train your sensitivity (often referred to as business plan). But after that, you need to look and listen carefully to what is happening.

Keep your goal in mind, but lock your plan away where you can’t see it. Sense, listen, and react (we often call this experimentation and learning, or ‘little bets’). If an opening (an unexpected opportunity) presents itself, then go for it, whether the time is right or not (it usually never is). The goalpost is durable, the actual path to get there usually is unexpected.

Opportunities you didn’t predict will present themselves (openings), challenges you did’t anticipate will get in your way (resistance). Stay sensitive, flexible, and oriented towards forward momentum (project your energy to your goal, not to the obstacle in your way).

In the military they say:

No plan survives first contact with the enemy.

Be attentive, be flexible, be nimble, and be open for the unexpected.

Strategy gradually evolves – tactics pivot on a dime.

Spiritual Balance – Week 45: Practice Mindfulness


You hear people talking about ‘mindfulness’ a lot these days. Some of it is hype, but it also is for good reason. For centuries philosophers, artists and monks have stressed the importance of being in the moment. Of fully living in the ‘now’. One key Zen principles is to ‘be in the here and now’.

Be in the here and now.

Mindfulness has many benefits to offer. It helps us be better at what we are doing, because we give it our full focus. It helps to calm our mind, because we don’t get distracted and torn between many things at the same time. And it helps us to be happier, because we put our full attention to the moment and with that have deeper and more satisfying experiences.

Uli teaches mindfulness for kids at our Elementary School and it helps kids who are struggling with their attention to re-center and to manage their emotions better. What she does are very simple exercises, but they have a strong and hopefully lasting impact on those kids.

Put some mindfulness into your life as well. That does not at all mean, that you need to book fancy classes or expensive coaches. It much rather means to simplify your thinking and to bring it back to the details of the current moment.

Focus on the task – What are you doing right now? What precisely? Are you on auto-pilot? If so, turn it off and go manual. Bring your attention back into what you’re doing. Deliberately execute every single step of your current task

Experience the environment – What sensations are you exposed to? What do you see, hear, feel and smell? Is it cold or warm right now? What is the feel, weight and texture of the tool you are using right now? What smells and sounds are in your environment?

Tune in to your body – How is your body feeling? Do you have tensions anywhere? Are you standing or sitting upright or slouching down? Are you smiling or frowning? Remember, your outside reflects on your inside, your posture reflects on your mood.

Listen to your breath – Your breath is your simplest but most powerful and important tool. First of all, without proper breathing you will die in minutes. But further, your breathing controls your mood, your stress level and even hormone levels like adrenaline. Learn to breathe deliberately and consciously. Learn to listen to your breathing. Learn to control your breathing and to let your breathing control your mindset. Start by just listening, then expand to gently controlling and adjusting the speed and pattern of your breathing.

Mindful exercises – Some exercises help you to be in the moment. Tai Chi is known for that effect, meditation as well. Yoga can get you there if you do it right. Most martial arts, taught by a true teacher, will lead your there as well. Running on the treadmill and watching the news or reading won’t. Those are good for cardio, but if you exercise distracted, you miss out on the awareness and mindfulness. I even stopped listening to music while I’m running on the trail. I loved it, but listening to the sounds of nature and feeling the gravel under my barefoot running shoes is even better.

Be mindful of what you do – every moment and every little detail of it!


Did you like this article? Want to read more?

I will keep posting articles here and I have them lined up way into summer 2020. However if you want to get it all in one comprehensive, structured, and grammar-checked (!) view, check out our new book:


Put on your oxygen mask first - book cover

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First

A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps

By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk

ISBN 9781077278929

Find it on Amazon: Paperback, Kindle


If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

Spiritual Balance – Week 35: Open Doors


I’m a person of lists and plans. I always want to have a plan for the short and longer term. I need to be organized to feel comfortable and be in control.

However, I was also taught by my teacher early on in my martial arts training, that situations constantly change and we need to adapt to new opportunities and challenges. As they say in the military: “all plans are outdated upon first contact with the enemy”.

Have a plan and follow it. However, watch out for unexpected opportunities and be flexible enough to change your plan to embrace them.

We need to have a plan and a goal to know where we want to go to, and to make progress towards that destination, instead of wandering aimlessly around (“going nowhere fast”). However, that plan must not make us myopic and oblivious for necessary change.

Throughout my life, I always had a plan, but the best things happened when an unexpected opportunity presented itself and I reached out for it. Even though many times I was scared to my bones.

Having a plan and working towards it, prepares us to be ready for the moment when opportunities present themselves. However, if we don’t make the leap and grasp them, all the preparation was for nothing.

Have a plan, work on it. Prepare yourself, but be ready to drop your plan and adjust to the moment when needed. Don’t be scared of unexpected opportunities. They are when magic happens in life.

I recently read a very similar idea in ‘Racing Winter on the Pacific Crest Trail’, by Kyle S Rohrig. It goes like this:

There are always doors that open unexpectedly for us. Walk through them. After you walk through an open door, new doors will open up behind, eventually leading to an endless universe of open doors and opportunities. You find good thing behind open doors.

If you close the door, the opportunities end right there. That’s it, end of story, you’re stuck. Being stuck is stagnation. Stagnation is the beginning of the end.

Or in the words of Daoism:

When we are young we are flexible, we push out, we try new things and grow. When we stop being curious and flexible, we get hard. When we get hard, we break, crumble and fade away.

Be open, be flexible, see opportunities!


Did you like this article? Want to read more?

I will keep posting articles here and I have them lined up way into summer 2020. However if you want to get it all in one comprehensive, structured, and grammar-checked (!) view, check out our new book:


Put on your oxygen mask first - book cover

Put On Your Own Oxygen Mask First

A practical guide to living healthier, happier and more successful in 52 weekly steps

By Alfons and Ulrike Staerk

ISBN 9781077278929

Find it on Amazon: Paperback, Kindle


If you like what you’re reading, please consider leaving a review on Amazon. If you don’t like it, please tell us what we can do better the next time. As self-published authors we don’t have the marketing power of big publishing houses. We rely on word of mouth endorsements through reader reviews.

How Would Your Spirit Animal Do The Form?

Do you have a spirit animal? Do you have a favorite animal? Is there an animal always meeting you throughout your life and just showing up whenever you least expect it?

In a lot of spiritual communities animals have a very influential role.

The same can be said for Tai Chi. Tai Chi has roots in Kung Fu and even the names of the moves often refer to animals, for example “stroke the mane of the horse”, “stroke the sparrows tail” or “spread your wings” and more. Feel the movement and try to embrace the animal being mentioned in the move.

Now think about the animal forms of Tai Chi and feel their specific spirit.

Do you think about the lumbering bear? The careful and light-footed deer or rather the tiger or the snake?

How do you feel just now? Can you breathe in the specific spirit of this animal and then do the form with this animal in mind?

Each one of the animals has their specific traits and we can show it in our forms. Each animal is connected to different principles of Tai Chi.

Crane – Breath

Crane, Bird, Wings, Water, Swamp, Nature

Flying, opening your wings and spreading your fingers. Open your Lao Gong points. Feel the contrast between spreading your fingers and cupping them. Think about your fingers as the feathers on the wings and feel the wind flowing through them. Hands in clouds let’s you soar through the clouds. Feel the lightness of leaving the earth and feeling the sky. Open up and breathe the air and energy surrounding you.

Bear – Roots

Bear Sitting Wildlife Nature Brooks River

The lumbering heavy bear has you grounded and connects you back to the earth. Feel your balance and your stance on the ground. Be connected through your 16 points. Feel heavy, but strong. Think about your breath, going steady and smooth through your moves. Be aware of your surroundings, but also steady knowing your power.

Deer – Mindfulness

Roe Deer, Capreolus Capreolus, Doe

Like the bear be aware of your surroundings, but more careful. Be light on your feet and able to change quickly and lightly into different positions. Feel the focus, but continue breathing evenly and lightly.

Snake – Spirals

Snake Grass Snake Reptile Nature Water Sna

Slithering over the ground. Twisting your body and your mind and connect it to your movements. Embody the snake while twisting your joints, opening and closing your body and spine. Think about spiraling in every move.  At the same time be aware of your surroundings. Maybe hiss a little to change your breathing.

Tiger – Energy

Tiger, Sumatran Tiger, Big Cat

A force to be reckoned with. Silently and with focus wandering through the jungle. Embracing its strength and still being aware of its surroundings. There is not a lot they have to be afraid of, but tigers still are careful. Feel the strength and the focus in each move. Think about possible martial art applications or the flow of energy providing the support and strength of the movement. No unneccessary movements there. Everything is focused and simplified.

Monkey – Movement

Squirrel Monkey Monkey Climb Feeding Zoo N

Have fun! Be light on your feet and quick. Transition easily from one move to the other, bu still stay focused and light on your feet. Never forget to play and have fun and don’t take everything too serious. Breath lightly in and out and try to feel like a monkey picking the fruit of the tree. Switch up the routine and try something new.

Spirit animal

Now come back to your spirit animal, if you have one, and try to think about their specific and unique traits and try to infuse them into your movements.

I like to mix up the forms every now and then and show the specific trait of the animal. Don’t be afraid to be playful like the monkey or twist and spiral like a snake. Maybe lumber like the bear or show the Tigers power. And last but not least be the crane, being rooted on the ground but also opening up to breath and spreading your wings!

And sometimes be like the little mouse – my spirit animal – and be quick and curious and careful at the same time. Switch between deep breath and light breath, move and twist and just be playful.


Let’s Go Flying

Great Blue Heron Flying Bird Wild Beak Nec

No, I am not talking about levitation. Let your imagination soar and go fly!

Kung Fu, Karate, other martial arts and yes, also Tai Chi Ch’uan have origins showing the spirit of different animals. Think about the Form of 24: Stroke the horse’s mane, spread your wings, repulse the monkey, stroke the sparrows tail, etc. You get the idea.

To go fly, let’s choose the crane.

Imagine a great blue heron standing in our wetlands, stalking the fish, patiently waiting and then suddenly picking one out of the water. Or standing there balancing on one leg, maybe sleeping or just being and breathing.

The best example for this is the crane form, Hakutsuru, which is admittedly not Yang style. It originates from Okinawa Karate and before that Kung Fu. Check out the Komatsu-Ha style for it!

But you can find the same feeling in a Yang style form. Open your arms wide, open your fingers like the tips of your wing feathers and play with the opening and closing of your fingers while doing the form. Imagine being a crane, moving through your practice.

Our inner emotions and anxieties often show on our outside. But the opposite is also true. How we present ourselves on the outside can also reflect on our inner well-being. Someone said to me:

“Fake it until you make it!”

One perfect way to feel this is to play with our soaring. Open up your wings and soar in the sky! You could even play with the opposites. Walk through one form rather subdued and then follow it up with a crane flying form. How do you feel?

Let’s fly!

You Are Never Too Old

There is no right or wrong way

I might not be mainstream with this, but one of the things I love about Tai Chi is the possibility to adjust it to your own body, to your own abilities and restrictions.

And yes, you can and should adjust Tai Chi as needed. Even feel encouraged to do so!

There are enough studies nowadays, showing that Tai Chi helps with Balance, Breathing, Osteoporosis, Fibromyalgia and all kinds of other maladies, but how can it affect all those different areas of your life and body, when we all do exactly the same? We are all different with our bodies and we all start at a different level of ability with our Tai Chi journey. So just feel free to adjust it in any way necessary.

Yes, of course we look at all those older Chinese people in the park practicing their Tai Chi and admire their flexibility, fluidity and low stance, but is that really necessary?

I do not think so.

To reap in the benefits of Tai Chi, we have to start somewhere and cannot and should not try to do what others do. We have to use the principles we are learning and just move! It does not matter if the form looks perfect or not, it is important to move and breath and focus. It is not important that your hand is in that specific angle, or your foot has to be 45 degrees and your stance has to be this low.

We all have our specific abilities and restrictions and we have to work with those. So feel your own body, follow your gut feeling. If something does not work for you, don’t do it. Change it in a way, which won’t hurt and start working on it. The journey always starts with the first step. So if at first you are not able to lift your arms, start with minimal movement. If your body prohibits bending down, just start with moving your spine. Round it, tug in your tailbone, round your shoulders. In the end we want to work on our flexibility, slowly improving it, but not forcing it.

If balance is an issue, sit down. Slowly start with short periods of standing up and holding on to the chair. You might not be able to practice a form, but use the principles to move.

Adjust what you’re doing to your abilities. Think about principles, not perfectionism. Start with those and over time, your body will follow.


The Three Legs of a Stool

Why do we learn and practice Tai Chi? Everyone has a different motivation,  but essentially Tai Chi spans three big areas: physical health, mental well-being and martial arts.

Physical health

Chinese people have known and enjoyed the health benefits of Tai Chi for centuries. Recently western medicine picked up on it as well and by now there are countless studies that show the long-term health benefits of Tai Chi.

While Tai Chi can not replace medical treatment for illnesses, it can certainly help with recovery or ease the pains of various diseases and ailments. Tai Chi also helps us to age more gracefully and healthy.

Tai Chi is a holistic and gentle exercise system. Where western medicine focused on isolated sub-systems for a long time, eastern health practitioners always looked at the whole human being holistically. Tai Chi reflects that approach.

By practicing Tai Chi, we slowly extend the capabilities of our bodies and over time build up resilience, strength and flexibility.

Mental well-being

Tai Chi is often referred to as ‘meditation in motion’. We pay close attention to our movements, our gaze and our breathing. We are aware of every little detail as well as how they connect together to the bigger whole.

That focus and awareness helps us calm our minds and tame the random thoughts that usually chase us through the day. We take a break from the hectic of the day and reconnect with our inner selves.

With that, Tai Chi is an excellence counterbalance to stress and helps us to step back and take a broader perspective. Our minds calm down and many things that had upset us before class appear in a different light afterwards and seem less daunting than they did before.

We also learn that everything come in waves. Everything is Yin and Yang. The same is true in life. There is stress and there is relaxation (if we are willing to allow us to find it), there is frustration and there is joy.

Tai Chi is a great metaphor for the flooding and ebbing of life and by examining and understanding Tai Chi we can develop a greater understanding of life itself.

Martial arts

Tai Chi originated from a martial art. Today different schools put different emphasis on Tai Chi as a martial art versus Tai Chi for health. In our school we focus on the health aspect, but we also personally have our roots in the martial arts and have always been fond of exploring possible applications. We just don’t believe that the martial aspect is the most valuable thing we can get out of Tai Chi practice.

With that I mean, that as you progress you should try to understand possible applications to more deeply understand the form and Tai Chi itself. However, I don’t think that the ultimate goal is to be unbeatable in push-hands. If pure self-defense is your goal, go and buy some pepper spray or a gun, it’s a way easier and faster path.

Unlike what some folks on the Internet will tell you, Tai Chi is not a secret martial art that gives you magic powers to control others without even touching them. You will not be unbeatable since real combat is way different from what you experience in the training hall, with friends pretending to attack you. Real street thugs are vicious and unless you train for that scenario specifically, you will not be prepared. It’s more dangerous to fool yourself into a wrong sense of control, than to be aware of your gaps and conscious of your surroundings.


However, Tai Chi has originated from, and still is, an internal martial art, and if you study it for a LONG time, the movements will become natural and turn into reflexes. You will be more aware of your surroundings and might be able to use some reflexive moves for initial self-defense. After creating that short opening,  you run and dial 911!

Likewise, if you are practicing another external martial art, Tai Chi will for sure improve your grasp of that art and make it more effective. The slow movements and principled approach of Tai Chi will allow you to grasp underlying principles of body mechanics as well as martial applications. Tai Chi will greatly enhance your understanding of your original art, like it did for our own Karate understanding. Eventually it will all blend together to the system that works for your specific body and background.

Whatever reason brings you to Tai Chi, make sure you also experience the other aspects. Don’t become an one-legged stool, they are rather useless.

“Learn Tai Chi Ch’uan, and you will become agile like a child, strong like a wood-cutter and calm like a wise man.”
Chinese proverb