The Thousands Club
Several years ago, I was working with eight guards in the same season. That’s two rehearsals a day and more than two hundred miles round trip each! You want to talk about time management – sometimes I was late to my latter rehearsal because of traffic. I needed something to buy me some more time training my kids.. Knowing that the difference between Box Three (Knowledge) and Box Four (Understanding) is a degree of familiarity between the general and specific details of skills, I decided to try something to achieve within my students a higher degree of familiarity with our technical syllabus: The Thousands Club.
Very simply put, we gave our students a list of skills we wanted them to achieve and asked them to record in a journal one thousand ATTEMPTS at that skill. Once a week, I would look at the students’ journals and see what they were doing and attempted to reconcile the problems I saw in their apparent progress with what was going on in their daily routines. At first, things didn’t seem to change much. It looked a lot like it had prior to this new idea. But, after about 500 for each student I saw something beginning to happen. Their ability to make subtle changes from my corrections was happening with a greater degree of ease than in years past.
With weapon, the equipment is handled in what I call “kinetic flow”. That means that the equipment is mostly in a state of movement and must be controlled as it moves in gradations of speed. Unlike flag which is mostly “static flow” (which means that you can stop and hold each position of the equipment aside from tosses), the weapon must be finessed into new directions and speeds by a delicate process of loosening and tightening of grips, flexibilities in the wrist, lifting of the forearm and so on. These processes are very clumsy for a novice. The reason is that the beginner is still seeing the object of cognition as the rifle. Their minds are focused more on the equipment than on their hands. The more familiarity they develop in these kinetic flow moments, the more the mind starts to marry both hand and weapon almost as one object.
Having a technical training syllabus for the basic motor skills involved in basic weapon manipulation and choreography is primary. Then, developing a regimen for the students in rehearsals is necessary to identify the individual’s responsibility within the ensemble and creating the ensemble’s style and methodologies together. However, if left to rehearsals alone, it is unlikely that an ensemble will be able to advance to intermediate and advanced skills. Think about it like this (as I have said to my students): if it takes a thousand attempts before you can make more subtle changes in developing technique to a higher state of clarity, and you throw only twenty tosses isolated in a basics block during rehearsals, and you have two to three rehearsals a week – how long will it take to be able to make the necessary subtle adjustments?
The Thousands Club proved to be a success. We were able to get the first round of thousands on all of our tosses within a month. After the first month, most of my students could adjust their hands appropriately as I would correct them. Two of my Open Class winter guards were to co mpete at the same location for the first show of the season…and they tied for first place - GOLD!
Let’s examine this just a bit more. Box Three is called “Knowledge”. This means that the student is able to repeat with average success the general details of a skill. There is little familiarity in merely knowing something. Think about someone that you know, someone that you have only known a short time. You know relatively little about them. Now, think of someone that you are closer to…and “understand”. That’s the difference between Box Three and Box Four. In Box Four, one understands the specific details of the skill – and no matter what, this takes time just like developing a friendship with someone.
Other instructors have asked me, “Aren’t you afraid that your students are going to develop bad habits just by trying something over and over again, without being monitored by an instructor?” No, I’m not. The human being learns by repetition. Bad habits aren’t permanent. If they were, none of us would have ever gotten out of Box TWO. Besides, the only way to overcome bad habits is through a deeper degree of familiarity. By using the Thousands Club, we’re getting that familiarity a lot faster than merely working at rehearsals.
Now, when a person learns something for the first time, the information is processed through the right frontal lobe. Function MRIs show a higher degree of blood flow in the right prefrontal cortex during learning. As the information is processed and associative neural networks are conditioned together (meaning, the parts of the whole must already be present in the brain to make sense of what’s being learned. Next time you teach a drop spin, liken the movement in the wrist as that of turning a door knob. You’re sure to see some light bulbs go off faster!) the left frontal lobe takes over. The left frontal lobe monitors familiar habits. Once these processes cease to be new, the right frontal lobe is no longer involved and the neocortex (which stores these habits and their parts, or associative links) pretty much runs on autopilot.
For the average student, the neocortex is rarely challenged on what has been wired into it. There is a challenge for instructors to overcome “lazy thinking”. This means that each rehearsal the instructor has to find ways of taking what has already been wired and make it new again. Without this, the right frontal lobe cannot be engaged to undo what has been done. And that’s what cleaning is all about. It’s all about changing yesterday’s habits with today’s habits. The more one puts themselves back into their frontal lobe the better they’ll be at consciously rewiring the neocortex, refining the neural networks concerning the parts and the whole of the skill.
The Thousands Club does something much more than just make rifle and sabre lines able to toss with proficiency quickly. It teaches the students a valuable tool to the learning process. Hebb’s Law states, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” This is a process we are using all the time. However, if you think about the opposite of that statement, “Neurons that CEASE to fire together, CEASE to wire together.” That means that once a habit has been created it won’t just stop being wired in the neocortex on its own. One must review the data freshly in every rehearsal. The instructor’s role of identifying the errors in habits puts the student in their right frontal lobe once more and forces them to focus on changing the undesired habit to one that is appropriate. Without motor familiarity, “muscle memory” cannot be rewritten. And constantly putting the student into the frontal lobe in this process makes a student capable of always rising above their circumstances and into a higher level of intellect. This to me is the most valuable tool we can give our students.
Ten years ago, I created a video training series consisting of four DVDs, four Handbooks with information and illustrations supplemental to the videos, and four practice manuals (that act as a daily journal, give the students the chance to evaluate their progress with their instructors within the Five Box System used by most judges, and a portion of each page devoted to identifying the instructor’s uniqueness for each skill as it varies from those demonstrated in the Program). The practice manuals have been the single biggest help to so many instructors. I have friends that have marched in outstanding drum and bugle corps that use this program as a means of creating more time for their rehearsals, much like the Thousands Club did for me!
The Thousands Club is more than just homework. It’s a way to develop better habits in the students’ personal practice time when not in the company of the instructor. It is also the best way I have found to get to those higher degrees of familiarity that will enable the student to actualize my information proficiently. I think you will find it to be a great new way to stimulate your students’ growth as well as your own! Be careful though, you might find that YOU have to work harder than your students when they’re developed faster than you’ve ever seen them before!