Summary: We commonly imitate others to learn new skills (addition). But when we imitate others we often also copy their bad and personal habits. At some point, to take our skill development further things need to get personal. This sometimes means removing (subtracting) the excess movement, tensions, or habits picked up in earlier stages of learning: To do less, so the skill can happen more easily on it’s own.
We typically learn new skills by imitating someone else. Let’s call this addition.
Playing an instrument, swinging a tennis racket, doing a dance step, or skiing down a slope; at one point in learning the skill you probably copied the movement and postures of someone else. You had no idea how to do it, you saw someone do it, you imitated them, and over multiple rough attempts you got the gist of it.
With practice your skill then became more automatic and unconscious (i.e ‘muscle memory’) - which dropped the cognitive load on your brain to allow you to think about and process other things while performing the skill.
Imitating someone to learn a skill is something we all do intuitively. It’s our ‘go to’ for learning new skills, and depending on a range of factors (such as prior training in something that transfers over, cognitive state, the kind of feedback you get etc), copying will be faster or slower for you.
The problem with imitation is that we often unconsciously add on more than we need from other person. We also add on their personal habits that might not match us or be the best way to do the skill.
Over-tensions, personalized ways of balancing, mis-sequencing in movement, old patterns of injury or stress that the person we’re modelling carries into their movement etc.. These are all personalized aspects of movement that we tend to copy, even though they don’t often match us.
It’s also the case that sometimes their movements don’t actually suit our own physical and cognitive needs. For instance, we might have longer or short arms than them which require different speeds and level of refined control of movement; or have a different length in our torso which can lead to us overly compressing ourselves to stabilize or make ourselves smaller - or to try to stretch and over brace ourselves when more fluidity may be what’s actually needed.
Addition is an essential aspect to help us learn and move forwards at key points in skill development, but sometimes to make more progress we might need subtraction.
Subtraction is the clearing away of aspects of movement, tensions, or patterning/ sequencing of movement that are getting in your way; those that limit your ability to perform the skill or movement in the most optimal way for you, personally.
This can involve learning to recognize excess or under tensions that get in your way, or eliminating extra movements while re-sequencing others.
For instance, the particular way the person you modelled balances themselves might not be optimal for the speed of your movements or for your height. The movement of their arms or limbs might not match the length of your limbs; which might work better for people with longer arms or legs than shorter ones etc…
The truth is that subtraction isn’t as easy or as sexy because
We’re not usually aware excess in our actions because they’re unconsciously integrated into our movement
Removing something can be more challenging than simply doing something new
It’s not cool or easy to show people all the things we’re not doing so it’s harder to talk about!
Still, subtraction is essential in many contexts, and once you become aware of the concept you can start to train yourself to see it. We get hooked on addition as the only way to get better at our craft so we keep looking for new add ons; but sometimes subtraction is the way forwards- removing the stuff that’s getting in your way. To do less so the skill can happen more easily on it’s own.
So the next time you’re watching someone else doing a skill that you can do…but they make it look easy…play with subtraction instead of addition:
“What movements do I do, that they don’t do?”
“What extra stuff do I do that interferes with my supports or balance?”
“What is one obvious excess movement here? What happens when I don’t this? “