I am bad at watching somebody move and then doing “the same thing.” This made it very difficult for me to learn any movement-based activity—martial arts, dance, parkour, gymnastics—until I came up with a coping strategy: Generate a verbal description of the move, then do the move by executing my verbal description.

As a coping strategy, this worked great—it’s how I learned my tai chi.

The downside is that it’s very slow. I have seen dancers who can look at new choreography and copy it so fast you can scarcely tell that it’s new, rather than something that’s been practiced hundreds of times. By contrast, I take almost forever to learn something like that.

First, I have to watch the move repeatedly, so I can begin to construct my verbal description. Then, once I have a framework for how it goes, I need to watch it repeatedly again so I can notice specific details and add them to the verbal description. Only then can I even begin to practice the move myself. Then I need to watch the move repeatedly yet again (now while trying to do it), because only then can I begin to compare what I’m doing to what the instructor is doing, and adjust my verbal description when I notice a discrepancy.

I end up with something like this (one instance of the tai chi move “step back and whirl arms”):

  1. Shift your weight to the left foot
  2. Turn your right foot in 4 or 5 degrees
  3. Shift your weight to the right foot and close your step to the right
  4. Step back with the left foot into santi position
  5. Keep your left arm coming back, and your weight coming back until your arm is all the way back and all your weight is on your left foot
  6. Step to the side with your right foot, so your right foot is even with and parallel with the left
  7. Do a toe pivot with the right foot, to get it out of the way
  8. Do a heel pivot with the left foot so that it is in the right position for santi on the other side
  9. Step back on the right

Note that the whole thing depends on having previously established a bit of vocabulary—toe pivots, heel pivots, close step, and of course, santi position.

As I say, the downside is that it’s very slow. There is a countervailing upside, which is that by the time I have learned a move I have already pre-generated a verbal description of the move to use when I want to teach the move. Essentially, I already have the instructions for every tai chi move in my head. I run through them silently as I execute the move anyway. About all I do that’s different when I teach the move is say the instructions out loud. (I use the first few classes to establish the vocabulary—teaching toe pivots, heel pivots, santi position, etc.)

I realized a while ago that the fact that I need to learn this way was probably why I’ve been finding Mark Wildman’s movement skills videos so compelling: He was already creating these verbal descriptions for me, saving me a bunch of time and effort. But it was only today, after having watched probably two hundred of his videos, that I came upon this one, in which he advocates for the students to repeat the descriptions of the moves aloud as they practice them:

Mark Wildman video on narrating your moves.

This is probably a great idea. It’s not one that I would have tried to impose on my students, but I think I’m going to start doing this myself, to remind myself of how a move goes as I practice it.