Virtuosity Breeds Learning and Learning Breeds Virtuosity

by Kevin Bowles

Music moves us; literally and figuratively. But why does it have such an effect on all human beings? We would be hard pressed to find a single individual who doesn’t appreciate or use music in their daily lives. What’s more, is that most cultures have invented their own version of music, becoming a universal language. You don’t need to be an expert in the field to understand good from bad music; when the sound comes together, we can hear and feel a rhythm. The musician playing the instrument has quite the task to please her listeners, further, to have a profound effect on her listeners is a very rare ability. In the music industry, they call this person a virtuoso. A virtuoso is a musical version of a connoisseur; a person who understands something at a level that translates to a beautiful performance or display of their skill, at an overly unique level. There are musicians who are simply learning how to play a six string guitar with nineteen frets; a virtuoso uses the same six string, nineteen fret guitar, but can make it sing in a way that moves us at an emotional level. They have figured out mastery.

Born with it?

We should understand that human beings are not born with the capabilities of a virtuoso; it is a highly developed skill. We are born with varying levels of talent and genetic potential. However, the display of virtuosity is more about what a person does with their talent. Take an athlete for example, who has the talent to make a highschool level team. If we give them appropriate doses of practicing skills and physical training, we should be able to see that athlete supersede their natural potential, maybe even going onto a university scholarship. Even though this type of practice and training is mentally and physically stressful, we have found a great benefit to placing these stresses on the mind and the body. Then there are the virtuoso’s. Some athletes become infatuated with the training process and some might even say obsessive, to the point where 10+ years go by and they have developed a tremendous amount of usable experience, knowledge, and understanding, due to a total immersion into their respective discipline. This is not where we obtain virtuosity, but where we can begin to find it. One would assume, if the goal is to get to a level of mastery in a particular skill, there is only time in life, to truly master and become a virtuoso in one thing.


This brings me to ask: why do we see many of the best musicians also write the best lyrics, when music and poetry, or writing in general, are seemingly unrelated. I believe the answer lies in the brain. When a person masters one thing, it becomes easier to master other things. This is the transferable nature of the human brain and even the human body. When we are overcoming the challenge of learning new things, the brain’s neurons and synapses (the neuronal junction) become much more active in chemical changes, that promote the growth of new synapses and even neurons, in order to adapt to the demands we ask of it, in order to make room for future adaptations. Simply put, whenever we learn something new, there is real physical change in the nervous system and the brain, making the next time we learn something new, an easier experience. It has been studied that when the human brain produces a higher volume of firing and transporting neuron’s in this manner, it will learn to become better at firing those neuron’s in general, in the future. No matter the subject matter, it is attempting to learn. Here is a brain scan of a brain in a mundane routine versus a brain actively engaged in a simple task:

The above neuroscan shows an incredible difference in brain activity in a sedentary brain versus a lightly active brain. A simple 20min walk can stimulate the brain in fascinating ways, even then, we are taking in new material and learning new things, both mentally and physically, with each step we take. Imagine what a highly involved and complex situation can do for the adaptation of our nervous system. What’s incredible, is that this works for both physical and mental stimulus. So the more we learn, the better we learn.

Diversity: ring a bell?

A general consensus in self betterment practices, is to focus on one thing, and specialize in that one thing. There are obvious theoretical benefits to this frame of mind, and some endeavours will even require this specialization. On one hand, this tends to work very well, as you are ‘hedging your bets’ sort of speak. However, there is something to be said about diversifying your portfolio of skills. Uncovering more and more about the human brain and body everyday, we can see that there is a generality to the brain. The example to this, would be a heart surgeon learning to woodwork or play chess; we would expect a person with that mental capacity to certainly be able to learn at a much faster rate than a person with a different or lesser skillset. The heart surgeon is going to have developed transferable skills, allowing them to keep their hands steady and eyes sharp during their carpentry endeavours, while also allowing them to anticipate their opponents moves and strategize while playing chess. This is the merging of right and left brain thinking. For so long, we thought that the right side and the left side of the brain were separate from each other, and individuals were stuck at the mercy of genetics to being more developed on one side than the other. What we have now discovered is that individuals are born with more of a proclivity to the left or to the right, and both are interwoven with each other more than we thought.

Transferability; The key

What we can take from knowing all of this, is that skills are transferable. For an athlete who is training, this is an especially important

realization; that in its simplest form translates to: when we are working on a back squat, we are developing an astronomical amount of leg and core strength that will spill over into usable strength in a snatch, tackling a player on a football field with more force, pushing a bobsled, and overall, we increase our endurance potential by increasing our maximal strength, allowing the ceiling of our work capacity to rise leaving more room to grow beneath it. To push this point further, a back squat is a movement that has only ever been in the CrossFit Games a handful of times. The snatch, although, has been a part of almost every qualifying stage of the CrossFit Games and a part of the CrossFit Games itself, each and every year. In training, the two lifts are synonymous in their frequency in which they show up in an athletes program. This is due to the enormous transferable nature for an athletes body to learn to generally produce force in the environment of the back squat.

As an athlete, our goal should never be to do away with specifics. There are specific elements to each and every sport, and they must be a priority to any serious athlete. But rather, to look at training elements as a pyramid; where the skills lie at the tip of the pyramid and the transferable basics to mastery can be found at the base of the pyramid, where everything else that makes us an athlete is built upon. Our goal is not to neglect the transferable basic elements that reinforce those specifics, because otherwise, we will find our athletic potential performing a balancing act on stilts, rather than truly rooted through continual improvement of our most basic and transferable skills.

Knowledge is power

Learning is an investment; the cost of learning is time and patience, in which an athlete must willingly and gladly sacrifice in order to learn. It eventually takes hard work to learn. Talent usually convolutes the learning concept; as we see some athletes begin learning

at a much more advanced level than others, but the point is, that every athlete with goals and a purpose, will reach a crucible point where their progression becomes difficult, no matter what level they are at. Hopefully this has shed some light into the mind and intentions of your coach, and why they want their athletes to invest in learning. Because, a good coach, is much better than most athletes at anticipating this crucible point in their athlete’s journey. We want you to be prepared; to be the conductors of your own journey.

So when some athletes think that certain activities are a distraction from their ultimate goal, that “distraction” might actually be the very thing that they need to break through a plateau or rut they have been stuck in. Michele Letendre used this mentality in her last year of CrossFit Games training by enrolling herself in a pottery class.

“Learning is why I fell in love with CrossFit, there was just no end to the new knowledge available to me. At the end of my career though, I needed something really novel, something I had never done before. Art is my background and enrolling in the pottery class allowed me to use my body AND my patience in a different and fresh way. It gave me time to focus on my hand eye coordination and also feel a sense of accomplishment that I hadn’t felt in a while. It was a positive experience that inspired me and had an immense effect on my mood.”

Her example can allow us to see the reality of how specific learning breeds more general learning. We see many athletes use different learning methods outside of their “specific” expertise that actually act as a catalyst for their development. Is there something you currently do that is specifically unrelated to your goal but you feel moves you towards it? We’d love to hear from you.

Kevin Bowles

Kevin Bowles is Owner of CrossFit Oshawa and coach at Deka Comp.


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