Circus Arts, Performance Science, Learning

Strange bedfellows you may think, but the circus has been around for a long time, and what circus people know about learning skills is worth paying attention to.

Circus Arts

Learning circus skills involves a standard process:

  • Learn the basics (body conditioning, strength, endurance, balance, flexibility)
  • Learn specific techniques from experts
  • Train (just) beyond your current ability level
  • Get feedback from experts

‘When developing training programs it is very important to remember that the basics cannot be skipped over too quickly … A significant challenge is how to design a training programme that facilitates muscular and neurological adaptations whilst respecting the healing rate of the body’s tissues and maintaining safety of the individual.’ (Instruction Manual, Theory, Guidance & Good Practice for Training European Federation of Professional Circus Schools (FEDEC))

Echoing Vygotsky’s idea of the proximal learning zone, and Bjork’s idea of desirable difficulty, learning a new circus skill involves training stimulus that is beyond the current level of expertise, building on existing skills and mental representations, causing adaptation and improvement.

‘If the training stimulus remains the same or insufficient to challenge the adaptation threshold, no improvements in performance will be made.’ (Instruction Manual, Theory, Guidance & Good Practice for Training European Federation of Professional Circus Schools (FEDEC))

Mental representations of skills play an important part in training. It is common to see circus performers pausing before attempting a new skill to visualise the specific movements that they are going to attempt. When training and learning a new technique, skills are broken down into their components in preparation (muscles used, body positioning, timing, sequencing) and then ‘reassembled’ into the final activity.

‘The key change that occurs in our adaptable brains in response to deliberate practice is the development of better mental representations, which in turn open up new possibilities for improved performance’ (Peak, Ericsson and Pool)

Circus skills typically require use of both ‘sides’ of the brain. This stimulation of activity has the potential to strengthen learning ‘… every complex cognitive function is a result of the engagement of a network of multiple regions, distributed throughout both hemispheres, acting in coordinated ways.’ (Exploring the Left Brain / Right Brain Myth. Melina Uncapher). Circus skills are also typically fun, releasing endorphins and serotonin which aid in strengthening neural connections and in wellbeing!

Performance science

How is it that that some people are able to develop complex skills to a world-class level? This is the question explored (and answered) in Peak (Ericsson and Pool), the first book in the AITD book club.

The authors of Peak argue that, subject to some genetic/physical predispositions, any person can learn any skill using the right practice techniques. What many regard as a special ‘gift’, unique to that person, is a gift that we all have – the adaptability of the human brain and body. Their research with extraordinary performers from the fields of sports, music, memory, chess (and more) indicates that all effective practice works the same way – abilities can be developed through training and (deliberate, purposeful) practice.

Purposeful practice has well-defined, specific goals (against objective measures of performance and an agreed body of knowledge) and a baby-steps plan. It requires full attention, feedback, getting out of one’s comfort zone, hard work and ongoing progress monitoring. It involves breaking out of the typical learn-a-new-skill process: a bit of training, practice, a bit more training, practice, limited mastery on autopilot then plateau, noting that ‘automated abilities gradually deteriorate in the absence of deliberate efforts to improve’ (Peak, Ericsson and Pool)

For the skills required in most workplace situations, good enough is often good enough. The 10,000 hour rule (to get to world-class performance) is even recognised as extreme ‘I would think a willingness to practice the same thing for ten thousand hours is a mental disorder.’ But given that ‘Contrary to expectations, experience doesn’t lead to improved performance’, considering how to apply the principles of deliberate practice to turn normal business opportunities into deliberate practice can give a competitive advantage to those organisations who use this approach.

Bringing it together

Every role requires skills. Hard skills. Soft skills. They vary according to industries and organisations. Following an intentional, research-based process for skill development through deliberate, purposeful practice, working on an agreed body of knowledge, with training and feedback from experts will deliver more successful and enduring skill development than any other approach.

We can learn from circus performers and other world-class examples of skill development and apply those training techniques against the everyday skill development needed in the workplace.

It’s a case of performance science meets not-rocket-science.


‘Circus as Education’ Reg Bolton – Australasian Drama Studies, Vol 35. Oct 1999 (Poi and aged care) (Circus skills for corporate team building) (Circus skills and Austism Spectrum Disorder)

#circademics (Twitter, Facebook) (intersection of circus and academic research)

Peak. Ericsson, A. & Pool, R. 2017 Vintage


Special thanks and shoutout to Rachel and Andy from Roundabout Circus

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