Majoring in the Minor Details: A Good Thing?

That’s “Great White” at Horse Pens 40. One attempt, I was able to stick this unique match move. It was clumsy, I barely held on, and biffed an easier move afterwards. I was cool with it, because I had figured out the hard move, and I would send next go.

I still haven’t done the problem, or even repeated that match move.

Success on a new skill or movement goes so much deeper than sloppy success one time.

“Most people fail in life because they major in the minor things” -Tony Robbins

Years ago, I hear about Tony Robbins in an episode of Family Guy. He eats Peter Griffin in that episode, so clearly it was a serious, thoughtful take on the information Tony Robbins offers. Tim Ferris interviewed Tony in a episode of his podcast, which was significantly more informative. As a self-help guru, businessman, and philanthropist, Mr. Robbins has helped countless people improve their lives. The minor details are annoyances and focusing on those small items can only make your performance worse. But wait..


Sure, stressing about minor details will lead to some issues in life. When you consider skill development and performance, the opposite is true. Pretty early on in your training journey, being mindful of minor details is critical.

Motor Learning

Let’s explore motor learning with a very broad brush

Motor learning is the process in which we acquire skills. These skills include skipping, playing the piano, putting a ball in the hoop, or doing a super sick drop knee to gasto-cling dyno sequence.  Many experts break Motor Learning down into three stages: Cognitive, Associative, and Autonomous

Cognitive Stage

This is the first stage of learning a new movement. The stage requires conscious thought; clumsy performance of movement components, and inefficient energy use to achieve the task. Think about your first attempts at driving a car. Remember the astounding finesse you had stomping pressing the brake pedal? Think about your first attempts clipping a bolt. Anything but smooth, right? This early stage of movement practice isn’t fun, graceful, or confidence-building, but we live in this awkward stage as we develop familiarity with a novel movement.

Associative Stage

“Early, crude success should not be accepted as good enough”-Eric Horst

Often times, it only takes a few attempts to execute a novel move or skill successfully. That does not mean the movement is mastered. We’re usually not even close to “owning” that movement. Thus begins the Associative, or Motor stage of learning, where we start to refine our technique. The basic details of the movement (not letting our feet cut, not letting a car roll into oncoming traffic at an intersection, keeping our back straight during a deadlift) are well known. During practice, our conscious effort goes into refining and eliminating wasted energy to perform efficient, graceful movement. Internal sensations and cues are helpful. A conscious awareness of tension areas, weight placement, and fluidity of movement are common areas of focus in this stage.

Autonomous Stage

The stage of mastery competence. Movements that have reached this stage require little thought, minimal or no feedback, and are completed successfully 100% of the time barring extreme circumstances. Think about your last commute to work. If you’ve had the same job for a while, it’s quite common that it will be hard to remember any specific detail about the drive. Barring a ten car pileup or an unexpected detour, this originally complex set of correct turn selections, speed limits, and traffic laws are now a complete unconscious action. You’ve done it so many times, you know how to get there.

Don’t Rush to the Final Stage

It’s easy to look at the final stage of motor learning and try to get there as fast as possible. The middle, cognitive stage is just a stepping stone, right?

This stage is where some of the most important learning occurs. It’s where we take advantage of both our internal and external sensations. Be patient in this stage. Actively search for the subtle details that enhance performance and efficiency, in any motor skill.

Making Smaller Circles

Josh Waitzkin is a chess prodigy, world champion martial artist, and all around elite learner. His incredible book, The Art of Learning, describes his process of learning that puts a large emphasis on the associative stage of learning. He describes this process as making smaller circles. A big circle consists of the basic components of a proper movement. Each smaller circle lives withing a larger one, becoming more specific and detailed. Think about zooming in on a satellite image. Details present in a close-up are indistinguishable or even invisible in the zoomed out view. Find those details.

How deeply can you magnify a movement? What are the subtle sensations you need to feel? How do you know you’re performing a movement correctly? How do you know you’re performing a movement incorrectly? Dive deep into the sensations, weight shifts, and external cues of a movement.

Training Applications

What minor details am I majoring in when training? It depends on the discipline, so let’s examine strength training, climbing, and Jiu-Jitsu. For everyone out there more experienced in Jiu-Jitsu than I am, feel free to laugh at my ineptitude. I’m very much a white belt, so these may be some basic concepts that are second nature to you. However, that brings up a good point: As we get better at certain activities, minor details magnify or warp into larger concepts, complex sets of movements, or entire disciplines in themselves. We can always get better.

  • Strength Training

Let’s take a look some minor details I’m currently focusing on in movements I have done countless times, but can always improve.

Kettlebell Swing

-Am I “T Rex-ing” my swing?

Turkish Get Up

-Are both my shoulders in the proper alignment, especially during the “Tall Sit” stage?

Barbell Snatch

-Am I getting my hips all the way through on the 2nd pull?

  • Climbing

-Am I being precise with my foot placements and weight distributions on top outs, or am I wedging myself in a crack, clawing through leaves, and ending up on top of the boulder facing outwards and terrified? (This is oddly specific for a reason. I do this a lot)

-Am I grabbing holds correctly the first time, or do I need to readjust and waste energy?

-Am I breathing when I need to, or am I needlessly holding my breath?

  • Jiu-Jitsu

-Am I maintaining posture when I am in someone’s guard?

-When passing someone’s guard or transitioning to a better position, am I utilizing a “placeholder” sequence? Do I make sure never to relinquish a control point without making sure I have a strategy to get back there should I lose position?

-Am I protecting my neck on shots and takedown attempts?

These are just tiny examples of what I personally am conscious of and attempting to polish at this point in time. There are many more items I’m working to improve, and the number of micro facets to your discipline that you can improve is infinite.

What are you working on? How are you sharpening your skills?