Get to the Edge – Making Performance Breakthroughs

by Marc Winitz

This is part 2 in a series discussing performance breakthroughs.

I always tell karate students to push themselves to the edge of what they can take and then I get them to go beyond that for short periods of time. This kind of short period, high intensity focus forces exhaustion and frustration. But it also achieves performance breakthroughs and gets you down the path of being at a higher level of performance as you get put outside of your comfort zone as I have written about here. This concept is a lot like weightlifting where you periodically lift slightly heavier weights than usual. You can’t keep that up indefinitely and you won’t necessarily see the progress of the effort immediately as the noticeable progress of increased strength comes over time. The technique I am talking about here, called “Edge training”, is similar and just moves you along the path higher performance much faster by temporarily pushing you to the edge of what you can do. The thing is this training mechanism is not reserved exclusively for martial arts or weightlifting. And it is not restricted to physical activities either which is why I am talking about it here.

What is a Performance Breakthrough?
In my last post, I talked about the trade off between short term and long term results and the importance of not fixating on how much progress you have made in the short term. This is definitely a pillar of martial arts training, and by extension a basic philosophy in many Eastern cultures. Long term results are the result of short term efforts. Although that sounds and seems obvious it’s really not.

Practically speaking you have to have periodic and repeated emphasis on a specific focus area over a long period of time to make a breakthrough in that specific area. That means you have to find a focus area, perform a series of activities for improvement to that area (for ease of discussion we will call this training), and then look back at your progress through a series of markers or milestones over time.

Performance breakthroughs can be achieved in many areas, not just physical activity.

The Zen of…Tennis?
Although the principle of “edge training” is used in martial arts training it works for a variety of activities. To understand the concept I’ll  use a very simple example most people can relate to: the game of tennis. Even if you don’t play the game you have likely seen it so the process described below should make sense. Top tennis players don’t just play a game of tennis to improve their performance. They focus on specific swings: forehand, backhand, volley, serve, and overhead. The best players are always working on these basics, but to really in improve on any of them they pick one element and overwork it for a period of time usually 2-3 weeks if they are playing regularly. An hour of practice 3 times a week, with a specific focus on forehand improvement might look like this:

  • Warm-up with all basic strokes – 15 minutes
  • Intense focus on forehand stroke – 10 minutes
  • Full game (set of serving, receiving and strokes) – 30 minutes
  • Warm down focus on forehand stroke – 5 minutes

So in this example, 3 hours of tennis in one week keeps your entire game moving forward but you are spending close to an hour of that working specifically on your forehand. 30% of the player’s time is devoted to working on the forehand. And the fact that you are focusing on the stroke carries over during the game you are playing with an opponent so the focus on the forehand swing is really 40% or higher.

Get to the Edge
This overemphasis on a specific area is what I mean by “getting to the edge”. The idea is simply to temporarily over train in an area you are focusing on for specific improvement. By doing this you increase two key learning mechanisms:

  • Focused effort in a specific area, for short and intense periods, absorbs the participant in that specific activity both at a mental and physical level promoting a quicker learning and improvement process.
  • When this is done against the backdrop of broader framework (e.g. tennis, martial arts, writing, etc…) you make connections to and from the broader framework through the focused activity.

We use the identical framework of practice and training in the martial arts dojo because there are so many types of punches, kicks, blocks, strikes, throws, and other techniques to master beyond the 5 strokes in tennis. In a more complex activity like martial arts (complex in the sense that there are more movements to perfect) we start most classes with a focus on basic static drills (punching, kicking, blocking, etc…), technique that are practiced in a solo environment. Next, a one on one partner drill is worked on, focusing on the basic technique where the student applies the focus area in a practical setting. Following that a set of kata (forms) are done which are a series of choreographed moves that includes the focus area in some way (among other important elements like breathing, balance, focus, control, etc…). And finally sparring training is done for free form combat training.

So while the student is working in several different training scenarios, the focus area is constantly being worked for short periods of time (2-3 weeks). The process of rotating through to a new area with similar intensity, while everything else remains constant provides a new “edge”.

Areas Where Getting to the Edge Works

Edge training works for many different types of activities, not all physical. Below are some examples:

1. Physical Activities – The most obvious place this training method works is for any kind of physical activity and applies to virtually any sport or fitness. The tennis and martial arts examples described above demonstrate this.

2. Writing – One of the best places the edge training strategy works is for writing improvement. If you are a blogger, spend one week writing a specific type of blog post, such as a short post, every day. Try and write 3 different posts a day of 250 words or less for 1- 2 weeks. Committing to this process forces you to find a topic you can write to, create a quick outline, and produce the content with as few words as possible. Set a fixed time period to try and complete the piece. This helps to “exhaust” yourself, very similar to a physical version of edge training, which is good. You won’t get the result you want at first (a perfect post), but that’s fine.  This becomes a focus exercise given the distraction the mind puts on us when writing. The time period creates an artificial boundary and as a milestone or marker for how well you are doing in terms of content creation.

One of my favorite bloggers is Chris Guillebeau at The Art of Non-Conformity. Chris takes getting to the edge to the extreme and takes about how he writes on a schedule and never misses a post, very much a form of edge training.

3. Public Speaking – I personally use this strategy as I love public speaking. For me, it’s less about a time period, as in the writing example, and more about finding different types of situations to speak in. Examples of this are:

  • Teaching in front of a group or class
  • Speaking at industry conferences
  • Presenting in front of a group of peers or colleagues
  • Giving sales presentations

I recently saw a very good video providing tips on how to present in front of audiences by Ben Lumley who writes the blog 6Aliens. Ben’s work is such that he presents in front of school children, usually in groups of 50-250 students almost every day for limited periods of time. His works gives him the opportunity to speak publicly on a regular basis, so there is no way he can’t improve. However, his video provides a good example of the steps you can take to improve your public speaking. In addition, his 7 step approach points out specific areas you can then focus in on. This can easily be converted to the edge training strategy I am describing here where you can focus on anyone of the 7 areas for gains in speaking improvement for short, intense periods and rotate through them over time.

4. Learning – This is a complex topic because people learn and take in information in many different ways. Recently, I set out to understand more about social media by focusing on blogging (the creation of this blog) which for me included creating and managing a self hosted WordPress site (vs. using a hosted solution from or Google’s Blogger), post writing (a much more schedule frequency driven approach than my last blog project), and site promotion using social media strategies including Linked In, Twitter and Facebook. I have had to take each piece and apply myself in one of these specific areas to make gains. I went from not understanding how to do any of this to getting each of these skill sets moving down a path. I’ll put myself at a white belt+ level right now, but using an “edge training” strategy has enabled me to move forward with quick and measurable short term results by focusing intently in one area for a short period and then moving on to the next.

The new blogging site Blogcastfm which does interviews with top blog writers and discusses what has led to their success, recently featured Adam Baker. He writes manvsdebt, a well established personal finance blog. Adam discusses how he started out researching the personal finance medium, learning his specific space by reading what dozens of other bloggers were writing about, and connecting with key people in his niche for promotion. His interview points to a “throw yourself in and learn as much as you can” style of learning. But you can hear in the interview how he used an “edge engagement” approach to further refine each of the key areas he was learning and improving in. It is worth listening to the interview as a good example of an “edge training” process.

Edge Training – Leadership of Self
Edge training is really common in martial arts training. Although this is done in a physical context, I categorize it as a Leadership exercise, one of the 6Elements that black belts train to achieve. But I am referring to leadership of self for personal development and self improvement, not leading others. You can’t always keep your foot on the gas all the time for everything. That just leads to burnout and failure for most people. The “edge training” process allows you to focus on an area and then change up your focus area every few weeks. By rotating through the areas you have defined that are important to the activity you are combining short term results with long term performance gains.

So go out and get to the edge to make a performance breakthrough. Thanks for training with me.

Photo Credit Courtesy of Foto Pamp

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