Use It or Lose It

Now that we know how to practice and how to get feedback, we circle back to practice, practice, practice.

You’ve all heard it before: use it or lose it. You’ve got to keep at a skill to stay sharp.

Every Spring before I get back on the bike, there’s that brief moment of readjustment before I hit my stride and really take off. I know several motorcyclists who took a decade or two off their bikes, then caught the bug again. They remember how to ride, how to shift, but the little things like looking through the turn (something you don’t have to worry about in a car) take conscious effort to bring back.


Not that we'd ever forget our first ride

I know several people who took martial arts as a kid or a teenager. Ask them to demonstrate a kata ten years later and they have no idea. Some barely remember how to throw a proper punch. It’s no different from people who took Spanish in high school, never had cause to use it, and now don’t remember a word.

It doesn’t take decades to lose it, either. A good friend and fellow karateka missed a lot of class time last year due to injury and a return to college. He remembers the basics, but when he performs one of the more recent kata for his rank, he’ll stop in the middle of it and get that blank “oh shit” stare as he tries to remember the next step.

Karate Moleskine

The knowledge is locked away, waiting to be rediscovered

My instructors use a phrase frequently: “Practice makes permanent.”

On the motorcycle or in karate class, muscle memory will often take over. I don’t think about shifting gears, it just happens. If I consciously think through the steps of a kata, my body will often be three steps ahead already. I’ve learned to relax my mind and let the body take over.

In a sense, this works for writing, too.

Staying in the habit of writing makes it easier to slip into the groove. Your mind knows “this is writing time” and things click into place. Some writers need a trigger, like a walk around the block or a song playlist. Others have a specific time of day to write, such as right before work or after the family goes to bed. Full-time writers may have a set routine; Richard Laymon said he wrote in the morning, had lunch and a nap, wrote in the afternoon, and spent the evening with his family.


Even brainstorming flexes the creative muscles

Practice brings routine. I ride the bike to and from work. I have class three times a week. I write… well, I’ll admit that routine is often shaken up by my schedule. But now that it’s warmer, if I sit outside with a cigar and the iPad I’ll be able to produce some serious word counts again.

Writing in a write-when-I-can method means taking a few minutes to shake off the rust, even if it’s just been a few days since my last session. I fiddle with iTunes, scroll through email, maybe open up Instapaper and see if there’s a short article or piece of flash fiction I saved. I have to find a trigger. If I sit outside on a warm night, though, all I have to do is light a cigar and connect the keyboard and I’m off to the races.

We learn a skill or take up a craft for a reason. Keep using it, keep learning, keep practicing.

Stay sharp.

About Mike Oliveri

Mike Oliveri is a writer, martial artist, cigar aficionado, motorcyclist, and family man, but not necessarily in that order. He is currently hard at work on the werewolf noir series The Pack for Evileye Books.


  1. Mark Cummuta says:

    So very true Cous! I used to be a competitive runner – marathons (3:23 best), triathlons, 20k & 10k – and had a scheduled set of workouts each week that kept me sane (& fit … 6% body fat).

    Then we had our triplets, I transitioned out of the the Corps (USMC) to work & college. My life’s priorities change from me to us.

    Now that our kids are in college, I’m working to shake off the rust & get back to a modicum I shape again. I tried last year & quickly injured my knees, back & shoulder. Guess what? I’m not in my 20s-30s anymore. So after recovering, this year I started with a more modest plan to slowly build up.

    So I have two rules this time.
    (1) don’t get hurt – roughly translates into, don’t be stupid, don’t push yourself (yet)
    (2) stick to the plan

    And success in both is born from exactly your point – practice, build & rebuild, reconnect those neurons that used to love running and exercise. And eventually it’ll all come back (I’m realistic…I doubt the 6% body fat is ever coming back! ;-p

  2. Noah L says:

    Even if you are training similar skills you will lose specific things if you don’t include them–I can perform all of my empty hand kata for Shuri-Ryu and Shorin-Ryu, and I’ve learned Shorinkan yakusoku kumite sets, but I can only remember two weapons kata (one bo and one kama) and the first 5 ippons and 2 taezus, and I’m so fuzzy on the kihons that I need somebody to walk me through them all again.