I must’ve looked as frustrated as I felt, because after one particularly disastrous attempt, my instructor took me aside and asked what was the matter. It was the turns, I explained. And the blocks. And the footwork. Basically everything except the punches (at least I had those going for me). I could name each move as the instructor demonstrated it, I could map out every step in my head, but every time I tried to put that mental roadmap into action, I’d turn the wrong way or throw the wrong block. Worse yet, the more I screwed up, the more I memorized my mistakes. “Here’s the part I always screw up. Aaaaaaand I screwed it up again.”
The instructor thought for a moment, then offered a solution. All I had to do was drill some choreography into my head: after a left forward punch, always turn ninety degrees left and throw a left block. Right forward punch, 180 degrees to the right, right block. On and on through the entire form, step by step, I had unbreakable rules I had to follow. Miss a step? Start over. Remember to turn left this time.
The change was immediate. No, I wasn’t suddenly tournament material. But I wasn’t staggering around like a confused toddler, either. I had ironclad reference points: if this, do that. After this many of that, do this. No more worrying about the entire pattern! All I had to do was react to what I’d already done. “Oh, I punched that way? Cool, now turn this way.” It was like navigating by landmark instead of by map. When you reach that Korean barbecue restaurant, turn left, and you will punch your destination.
LEARNING BY DOING BADLY
I clung to those rules like a life raft. Which was odd, because I usually prefer a looser, more experiential approach to learning. When I memorize a new script for my sketch comedy group, for example, I learn the scene’s emotional beats first (“this is where I confess that my melting ice cream cone reminds me of my fear of death”) and get the lines right later. If I’m trying out a sweet new gadget, the instruction manual’s probably gonna stay in the box until something goes horribly wrong. I like doing things, even if I bungle them at first. Call it learning-by-doing-badly.
With taekwondo, I had to alter my approach. I couldn’t convey a right-turn-low-block’s dramatic intent while throwing a left forward punch, or perfect a roundhouse kick without any instructions. I could only do it right or not do it at all. So I used my instructor’s rules, over and over, until suddenly I wasn’t even thinking about what I was doing anymore. I didn’t even need to go through every step; I could start from any point in the pattern and immediately know what to do next.
Of course, that’s the entire point of patterns in martial arts: repeat an action until it’s instinctual. Taekwondo has hyeung, karate’s got kata, even sword fighters practice the same overhead strike over and over again. But until I had to memorize a hyeung myself, I didn’t realize just how much I’d have to adjust my thinking.
Every student has to. Some, like me, rely on mental checklists. By breaking a complex task down into manageable bits, we gain a sense of control over what we’re learning. Neuroscientist Daniel Bor calls it “chunking”: using the human brain’s ability to combine smaller pieces of information into a larger whole (a process one guy used to go from memorizing seven-digit sequences to eighty-digit sequences). It’s even useful for effective long-term goal-setting.
Others think spatially. Ticking off boxes in their heads might trip them up, but by visualizing the shape they make as they move back and forth on the dojang floor, they know where to go next and what to do on the way there. I’ve seen this in action. One of the black belts at my dojang uses the alphabet and can narrate while doing so: