Back in my college days, I took Japanese Jiu Jitsu classes with a really cool Bulgarian black belt who started a gym just blocks from campus. Several friends and I would attend several classes a week. We went because we wanted to learn the cool stuff, like flying arm bars or over the shoulder throws, but Sensei Gerov made us spend countless hours practicing fundamental moves like rolling out of falls and slapping out falling backwards. We didn’t see value in that, we only saw it as a necessary step to get what we really wanted, the really cool moves.
About six months into this, I was riding my bike back from class in the dark, and I was just flying through a campus path that led back to my dorm. It was a nice ride and I was enjoying the speed and wind flowing through my hair (I had hair back then). As I came up to my dorm, I passed between two stone pillars that marked the end of the trail and it’s right at that moment that I remembered the black metal chain that connected the two posts.
My bike stopped abruptly.
I went flying headfirst, about 3 feet in the air at full speed, completely unaware that somewhere deep inside my subconscious, a series of pattern recognitions and reflexive actions had already been triggered. My mind, being unconsciously competent through the process of 6 months of massive repetition, took over and without ever “thinking” about it, I locked on to a spot on the ground, angled my body slightly and shoulder rolled out of the fall, finishing on my feet. My bike, 9 feet behind me, had a collapsed front wheel and a bent frame from the impact with the chain. All of Sensei’s drilling on fundamentals paying off.
Learning things is NOT enough. Learning gives you knowledge, but it does not give you the wisdom of practical experience. Would you prefer a surgeon just out of medical school, or one that has 100 surgeries of experience? Yeah. Me too.
Repetition is the mother of skill. There are NO SHORTCUTS. Anyone offering hacks or tricks to replace repetitive practice is a seller of snake oil.
Role play. Role play some more. Role play more with different people. Try new things in role plays, then try them on real calls. It is an act of faith, because day to day, you won’t necessarily see the impact of all that role playing and practice. That amazing computer in your subconscious mind however, is taking notes, creating pathways, and programming your muscle memory. The day you ride your bike into a metal chain at 20 mph, it will save you.
Every, I repeat, EVERY real expert at something has hours and hours of practice.