Skill Retention Tips

Any skill you want to keep should be rehearsed weekly. Any skill you want to improve should be practiced daily.

Spaced repetitions

In the case of learning new vocabulary, or memorizing names, we have a lot of good data from psychological studies. It is well known that there is a certain frequency of reminders that will optimally solidify your recall. Some call it the forgetting curve.

Graduated-interval recall is a type of spaced repetition published by Paul Pimsleur in 1967. The intervals published in Pimsleur’s paper were: 5 seconds, 25 seconds, 2 minutes, 10 minutes, 1 hour, 5 hours, 1 day, 5 days, 25 days, 4 months, and 2 years.

This research holds for learning foreign language words, but you should keep it in mind for your own study of martial arts and the skills you learn in stage combat. Within a class, I’ll repeat a word two sentences in a row, so that’s your 5 second reminder. After explaining in other words, I’ll try to repeat the new term between 25 seconds later and 2 minutes later. After practicing the skill, I’ll sum up or give feedback 10 minutes later. And at the end of the class, I’ll try to summarize the lesson and the new term about an hour later. Your responsibility will be to think about your lesson 5 hours later and repeat the new term to yourself, or practice the movement a bit solo. Since we don’t have class every day, you have to do your homework by thinking about the lesson the next day, then once on the weekend, and then about a month later. After that, you should have good recall of the skill and the name of it, but we’ll come back to lessons at least every 4 months to make sure.

Now, that’s one new skill, movement, or term. What about all the other techniques? The next class, you’ll learn another new skill, so the best thing is to keep a simple journal with the date and the lesson and/or the vocabulary you learned that day. Then you can plan your spaced repetitions.

Mental Rehearsal

In many recent studies, it has been discovered that mental rehearsal of a physical skill can be as effective as physical rehearsal. The classic study that has been replicated in different circumstances was originally done by Dr. Biasiotto at the University of Chicago. He split people into three groups and tested each group on how many free throws they could make, with daily physical practice, with daily mental practice (visualization) only, and with no practice. The second group’s improvement was only 1% lower than the first group.

So when it comes to those repetitions, you don’t need to physically act out the skill you were learning. Sit quietly and close your eyes, and really vividly imagine the action in as much detail as possible. Visualize yourself being successful at it every time. It will improve your performance, and you don’t need to pick up a sword or find a partner.

I like to do visualization when I get into bed at night. Instead of thinking about the difficulties I faced that day, or making a task list for the next morning, I visualize a skill I’ve been working on. Doing so gives me the quiet time to get some good practice in, and also primes me to dream about my skill, which I can’t help but feel is helpful as well.


In a study at Texas A&M, it was found that the most significant factor in knowledge and skill retention was the degree of over-learning. “Over learning” is training beyond what is required for the initial skill.

I try to include additional details and advice whenever we practice a skill in class, not only the bare essentials. I also try to talk about the historical basis for certain movements when appropriate. I’ll sometimes talk about when I’ve used a certain unique move in shows I’ve choreographed. All of these details are extras. I don’t expect my students to remember all of those details, but I do expect their attention because every bit of knowledge will help to solidify the action we’re learning that day.

The student can put in their own extra time by researching or reading about the new skill they learned. If I mentioned that a technique comes from Italian rapier, then the student can look it up in the Academie Duello library. If I talked about the big battle at the end of Macbeth, the student could read those scenes, or watch any of the film adaptations. The more you add to the experience of learning, the more the core aspects will be solidified in your memory.

Amazing Expertise

The more you recall and the more you exude familiarity in conversation, the more your audience will appreciate your expertise. People are often amazed by the depth of knowledge of historical martial artists and FDC fight directors, and that’s because of the same reason: constantly learning and practicing a little every day.

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