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.