Mental representation

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Dr. K. Anders Ericsson wrote a very interesting book called Peak.
It details the process of 'deliberate practice' and emphasises the necessity of developing a good 'mental representation' of whatever subject/topic/field you are exploring.
We strongly recommend buying the book

What is a mental representation?

In simple terms it is your understanding of a given subject. Your mental model of what it constitutes.

Mental framework

Imagine a bookshelf in your mind filled with books, folders, resources and information about tai chi... The more densely filled your bookshelf is, the more relevant and useful new information will seem.
You will be able to cross-reference, discern, add to existing knowledge and challenge any preconceptions or misconceptions.
Ideally, your bookshelf wants to be filled with anything and everything that might conceivably have a bearing on tai chi.

Tai chi

When a person is thinking about attending a tai chi class they have certain ideas/notions/opinions in mind concerning 'tai chi'.
These may be the outcome of media, friends, books or things discovered on-line.
How the individual approaches a tai chi class, what they expect to find and whether or not they like the experience will largely be shaped by their mental representation of tai chi.

When you say "I know" you are on the path of non-intelligence; but when you say "I don't know", and really mean it, you have already started on the path of intelligence.
When a person doesn't know, they look, listen, inquire.



In any subject, the more comprehensive and detailed a person's mental representation is, the greater their understanding. This is a crucial point to grasp.
e.g. a new starter has very little understanding of the art; and this lack of knowledge and skill creates a bias
. But what is the bias based upon? What criteria can a new starter possibly be applying?


A mental representation enables an individual to see how pieces of knowledge fit together. There is a framework.
Rather than amass random unrelated titbits of trivia, there is structure, context, meaning, purpose, connections and associations.
The person can see why things are done a certain way and what the goal is at a particular stage of development

Lower grades

Tai chi beginners have very little sense of the art and are still largely operating on misconceptions that they had when they started class.
An obvious illustration is that most beginners still use the term "tie chee" - which is (of course) an incorrect pronunciation.
Students at this level of study are mainly concerned with 'what' is happening; they are memorising patterns, sequences and routines designed to provide a crude introduction.
Usually they think that they know far more than they actually do.


Experienced students have laid the foundation of knowledge and skill. They see tai chi from a very different perspective.
Instead of being overly concerned with what they are doing, the student is principally exploring 'how' they are doing it.


The later stages of training are about 'why' things are being done in a particular manner and this informs both what and how.
With a comprehensive mental representation of tai chi, the more advanced exponent can examine the constituent parts and better understand their relationship to the whole.


The importance of building a highly detailed mental representation of tai chi cannot be overstated.
It is also fairly easy. You simply need to be enthusiastic... read, practice and explore the art. Get a real sense of what 'tai chi' is.

Poor understanding

People who posses a poor mental representation draw the wrong conclusions, make assumptions and often train for many years without really understanding the art.
Some even go on to teach...

Making decisions

If a student has a poor mental representation, then their capacity to make good choices in tai chi is limited indeed. This is not a matter of intelligence.
The student simply lacks the necessary information and wherewithal to make good use of what they encounter.
They read situations wrongly, make poor decisions and flounder. Physically, their untrained bodies cannot perform the required skills correctly.

Wrong direction

A poor mental representation
is the outcome of a shallow investment in learning tai chi. Satisfied with a cursory, superficial mental representation, the student remains on the periphery of the art.
They are quite content to stay within their 'comfort zone' irrespective of the cost.
This may seem harmless enough, but training long-term at a low level of skill deprives the student of any real benefit from tai chi.

Drowning in shallow water

The main problem with failing to develop a good mental representation is that the student never quite 'gets it'.
They spend years thinking that tai chi is 'one thing' when in fact it is 'something else' entirely. Rather than discover the true nature of the art, the dilettante is content never to leave the paddling pool.


A novice student should not limit their study to just what their teacher recommends. It can be immensely useful to cast the widest possible net.
Attend other tai chi classes, other martial arts classes, watch YouTube videos, read websites, watch DVDs, read books by various authors.
See for yourself what is out there, discover first-hand what people think of as being 'tai chi' and combat.

Waste of time?

Isn't it a waste of time to be indiscriminate in your exploration? No. A novice doesn't possess a particularly robust mental representation of tai chi. It is more inaccurate than correct.
Do something about this. See what a massive range of people are doing, saying, practicing. Examine their reasons, arguments and interpretations.
You can learn from everything. Even a poor example teaches you what not to do. Most importantly - you become capable of understanding for yourself.


Once a student starts reading the Taoist classics, The Tai Chi Classics, Sun Tzu, Miyamoto Musashi etc and begins to deepen their sense of tai chi, the art becomes incredibly fascinating.
Insignificant seeming exercises and drills make more sense. Add martial application, human biomechanics, meditation and combat... and tai chi is no longer a slow motion exercise class
The student becomes capable of determining what is relevant, useful and necessary. They become more active in the learning process; taking the initiative and gaining a better sense of tai chi.

Knowledge gap

A student with a detailed mental representation is thinking about lines of force, pressure, leverage, groundpath, centre, peng, jing and whole-body movement.
Meanwhile, the novice is trying to figure out how to mirror section 1 of the first form in the syllabus... There is a gulf of knowledge and skill between the novice and the experienced student
It is more than years of attending lessons or showing an interest in tai chi.
For the student who has invested in cultivating a better mental representation there is a comprehensive process of growth taking place.

Most people have never attained a level of performance in any field that is sufficient to show them the true power of mental representations to plan, execute and evaluate their performance in the way that experts do. And thus they never really understand what it takes to reach this level - not just the time it takes, but the high-quality practice.

(Anders Ericsson)

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Page created 18 April 2017
Last updated 16 June 2023