“What’s the secret?”
Who has heard this before? With reference to learning; there is no secret. There is no cheat code that lets you skip the hard work, the effort and demands of improving and learning something new. However, as is the focus of quite a few discussions here at Articulate BJJ, there are specific habits we can develop that will help us to maximize, and maybe even fast track, your learning. One of these is Mental Presence.
Mental Presence refers specifically to the frame of mind that effective learners foster and repeatedly place themselves in when learning. It refers to a mindset that puts maximum emphasis on concentration, absorbing information and focus on the task at hand (whatever it may be) with the goal being solely to discover, inquire and explore any learning opportunity fully.
I first learned about the concept of mental presence from listening to an Olympic Judoka discussing his mentality and focus when training. He discussed how he was exhausted at the end of a training session, not because of the physical exertion (any high level athlete will be able to recover & have the physical endurance to help them through tough training sessions), but because of his mental exertion. He dedicated every fraction of his attention to the task at hand; mentally investing 100% of his focus on performing and executing his training correctly. No matter how absorbing or draining his day had been, he would put that aside to be completely present whilst training and learning.
It really resounded with me and it made me reflect on my own training and my wider learning. I was an average student growing up; I thought that physical presence (just physically being there and going through the motions) was all that was required for learning. This is not the case.
Without mental presence, we do not absorb learning in a meaningful way. In a martial arts context, this is the equivalent of training every night but never reflecting on what you’ve trained and/or how the techniques you are learning might translate into your overall practice and execution of your martial art. Once I started to focus on being mentally present while I trained and learned, I noticed a sharp increase in my ability to detect, retain relevant details and important techniques that I can implement in my wider training.
Developing mental presence takes time, and it requires constant attention to insure that it becomes a constructive and positive habit. The most important thing that I learned to do to put myself in the right frame of mind to be mentally present was arriving early for class. By arriving early for class, I never feel rushed and I have time to stretch, relax and decompress after whatever kind of day I’ve had. If I need to sit quietly on my own, I do that. If I feel like talking to others and stretching, I do that. Whatever I choose to do before the class begins and I commit myself to the learning opportunity therein, I make sure that I have completely removed distractions from my mind. I’ve found that being mindful of this and acting upon it has had the biggest impact on my learning and the trajectory of my training.
Try it for yourself. One of the only common denominators I have found in learning is that everyone is different and we all have our own habits and preferences. I can’t stress enough the impact that mental presence has made in my training & learning, but I strongly suggest developing a strategy that will help you maximize your own learning in some way. You may frame or develop this mindset differently to myself, but I firmly believe that it holds benefits for everyone trying to learn anything, not just martial arts.