Capability vs Ability – How to Learn Any Skill

Learning new skills as an adult is challenging, to say the least.

But, really, whether or not you can learn a particular skill comes down to your capabilities and abilities.

In this episode, Ryan and Andy explore the difference between capabilities and abilities, and explain how you can use those to help you learn any skill you want.

Here’s a snippet of Andy’s discussion on the matter:

Either strength training related or, you know, World of Warcraft related, or whatever… [learning a skill] can basically be broken down into a few different patterns.

Here’s what this episode covers:

(02:13) One arm handstand training vs. training in any environment and seeing(05:27) The two aspects of learning any skill(07:48) Example of a capability vs. ability.(18:35) Something to keep in mind when learning a new skill.

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Resources mentioned

3 Rings Workouts: Build Strength, Conditioning, & Core StrengthHow to Do a Handstand: A Complete Guide to Getting You Upside DownUsing Animal Movements to Build a Broad Base of Skill and Strength

Transcript of Capability vs Ability – How to Learn Any Skill

Andy: Some might say that maybe we should shut up now. We’ve said everything there is to say. But you know what? I’m a narcissist. I’ve always got more to say.


Andy: Welcome to the GMB Show.

Ryan: How have you been man? It has been a while. We haven’t done this …

Andy: Yes, these things have become pretty sporadic. I think this is episode 72.

Ryan: I don’t even remember.

Andy: Seventy-three. So we’ve got a good topic. Today we’re going to talk about how to learn any skill and the skill could be like playing guitar, doing a handstand, doing a back flip, doing one-arm chin-ups, anything, any skill, any kind of physical performance of a motor task whether it be strength training related or World of War Craft related or whatever. It could basically be broken down into a few different patterns.

But first, I’m going to totally spring something on you Ryan. Some people had asked and so this is a good time to talk about it. You’ve on your Facebook been posting a lot of pics and videos of you. You’ve been practicing parkour lately.

Ryan: I love it man. It’s great.

Andy: Yeah.

Ryan: Yeah. Something that you brought up to me. I think it’s probably four years ago was when you first told me, “You’ve got to be doing this man,” and at that time, the timing was off because we’re working on the programs and trying to make sure the curriculum was on track.

Andy: Yeah.

Ryan: So now that that’s completed, I step back and I was like, “Hey, you know what? I think it’s time to get into parkour.” I’m loving it. The Tapp brothers have been very, very helpful in giving me some tips and some advice about how to train or what not.

It’s just I love it. My son Shion is really into it as well so this has turned into kind of a family deal. It is nice. It’s really nice and the one thing that I really like about it – there are many different things but the one thing I like is that there’s so many options when you actually look or take a step back and look at what’s out there.

So a good example is when I was working on the one-arm handstand. I was so myopic in my training, which is not a bad thing, not a bad thing at all. But it’s refreshing now to be able to go out literally anywhere you are and look at the environment and see how you can play with it. I think that is – it’s fun. It makes the training a lot more fun. It gives a lot more options to be honest and as long as I’m doing it safely, not screwing up anything. Yeah, I’m sure I’m going to be progressing. I’m not doing any crazy stuff like jumping off buildings or what not. But it is cool.

If there are any of you out there doing parkour, which I’m sure there are a lot of you out there doing it, maybe if you want to give me some advice, that’s cool. Just don’t laugh at me because I’m very sensitive about it. Ha-ha! Whatever.

Andy: So I mean also it probably begs the question a little bit too. We’ve got strength, flexibility, motor control, a bunch of different things and you’re mostly now practicing parkour pretty much most of the time. You’re not dead lifting or anything. You’re not doing …

Ryan: No, actually I’m not. I still strength – do my strength training. I actually am still using rings for part of my strength training. A lot of legwork. And then what else? There are still times when I’m doing a little bit of maintaining of things.

For example, a couple of days ago I did handstands again. I haven’t really focused on handstands too much but it was really raining and I was like, “You know what? Let’s just do some handstands.” So I did some handstands. A little bit of Planches or Planches. I hate saying that.

Yeah, man. But my main thing is parkour and seeing how I can get a little bit better at that and learning something new. That’s really what I’m about right now, just learning something new.

Andy: That’s a great thing. I mean you spent several years working on a certain curriculum of things and doing rings, parallettes, doing a lot of bodyweight stuff, handstands and some basic tumbling and things. So it’s good that you now get to learn something new.

Ryan: Yeah, and the great thing is, is everything that we’ve done up until now and that I’ve done is actually built up for this. So now I have the skill set to be able to learn these new things faster. This is what I’m – we will probably talk about this here very soon. But it is good and it’s like anything. You need to have this base down and I’m not just jumping into something and thinking that I know what I’m doing and just going for it. The Tapp brothers have given me some basic stuff to work on.

I’ve taken my ego and put it to the side and gone right back to the basics of parkour and just working on simple, simple vaults, learning those in the safe manner and then trying them in different places so that I feel comfortable doing them anywhere. Then of course we do a lot of locomotive stuff in GMB but taking that and seeing how I can apply it to different obstacles, different walls, railings and things like that. It’s a lot of fun. So it’s a good carryover because I do already have that base to be able to allow me to practice.


Andy: Yeah, and I think that’s actually a good kind of transition into this how to learn skills thing because I really think that any kind of skill you want to learn, there are really two aspects to it and I think a lot of the frustration people have with learning how to do anything is that they try to address one side of it but not the other.

Ryan: Yeah.

Andy: Right? So basically what those two things are is there are a lot of ways that you could break it up. But I call it capability and ability, right? And a lot of people have a lot of capabilities that they’ve developed through different kinds of training. But they haven’t developed certain abilities to be able to express those capabilities, right?

So I guess I should define these a little more clearly before really getting into it. So a capability is kind of like your physical or mental attributes, right? That would be like the amount of strength you have, flexibility, endurance, the amount of motor efficiency you’ve developed in a number of things, right? It might be your mental toughness. It might be your reaction time or your balance or your visual acuity or any of these things especially if you’re looking at something like parkour or a combat sport like martial arts or something where you’re having to react to an environment or an opponent.

All of those things like balance and visual acuity can be the difference between winning and losing pretty easily. But the other side then is the ability and that’s given the capability to do the thing, given the requisite levels of say strength, right? Then the ability would be knowing how to actually do the thing and one example might be when you’re learning to write the alphabet as a child, right? In the beginning, your hand gets tired from holding the pen all the time, right? Because you haven’t built up the muscles to – the endurance to hold a pen for a long time and press it against the paper, right?

You’re also – at the same time, you’re building the ability of writing the letters and ability, what that really boils down to is in the brain, you’re creating new neural pathways for every movement, every skill, everything that you do. Those abilities are hardwired into your brain as you learn them, right?

So the ability – the capability would be being able to hold the pen, right? Being able to have that hand strength and dexterity that you develop and it grows as you practice the skill too. But the ability itself is being able to write the letters.

So later on, the first time that you grab a piece of chalk and write on a chalkboard, you’ve probably got the capability there and you’ve got basically the ability too from having practiced, so you can transfer the skill from one place to another because you have both the ability and the capability.

Ryan: Now even going deeper with that – or with that example, both you and I speak Japanese and so we have the capability of writing letters. We have the capability of drawing lines. But we didn’t have the ability to just write away, start writing Japanese characters. But thanks to that capability, and us having learned the alphabet and taken the time to hold the pen and do that, we’re able to actually learn it faster as an adult.

So if you look at a child, they’re actually coming in and my daughter, your daughter as well learning Japanese, how to write Japanese is different because they have to work through that capability, get that capability as they’re growing their ability to do that. So just kind of taking it out and looking at it a different way.

Andy: So in that case, we can already write English characters but then to learn to write Japanese characters, well, I mean in that case it’s almost the ability is – a large part of it is just memorization at that point.

Ryan: Absolutely, absolutely.

Andy: Right? And then understanding the language. So a lot of times ability could be straight up cognitive, right? Or it might have to do with developing more motor capabilities and refining your current abilities.

So it could be a lot of different things. But I think one of the things that really frustrates people and – like so we have this handstand tutorial video on YouTube that like 600,000 people have watched or something like that and we get comments on it every day and a lot of them are like hey, this is great, whatever.

I mean not whatever. I mean we’re grateful to those people that enjoy it and learn from it, right? But there are always a couple of comments almost every day. They’re like, “I watched this and I still can’t do it.”

Ryan: Yeah, because it only takes one. You only need to do it once, right?

Andy: Yeah. Just being able to see the thing does not confer on you the ability without having the capability to back it up. That’s the thing that people miss is that the capability is composed of having developed the balance. Yeah, obviously. Also strength, wrist, shoulder mobility, core strength, learning how to – and then the ability itself comes from being able to make those adjustments and do the thing, right? But it comes out of practice.

Ryan: Absolutely.

Andy: But there are a lot of abilities and capabilities – I’m sorry. There are a lot of capabilities that are missing from a lot of people when they try to develop that new ability, right?

Ryan: Just try and jump to that.

Andy: Yeah. It’s the same thing with pull-ups or on the rings. A lot of people that have done other training before think they’re very strong and they may be very, very strong. But then you do something on the rings and they’re not stable and so you haven’t developed that, right? If you then start trying to do things like levers or start trying to work up to iron cross or something like that that you don’t have the tendon strength for, your joints can’t handle. You have some of the capabilities. You may have the strength but you don’t have the joint integrity.

Ryan: Exactly. A good example is something that we’ve used in one of our challenges before and that was a movement looking at the bent arm stand and a lot of people will look at the bent arm stand and for those of you who don’t know what a bent arm stand, basically think of a handstand but then you bend your arms to lower yourself as if your head were going to touch the floor but you stop there. So it’s kind of a halfway point in between the handstand and having your head on the ground.

So you’re keeping your head off of the ground. Your arms are bent and a lot of people have trouble with this. Well, instead of just jumping up and trying to do this bent arm stand, instead what we did is we looked at, “Do you have the capacity?” Not the capacity but the – well, the capacity – the capability to be able to do this and so rather than just doing that, we looked at a movement that you could use every single day that’s going to build that strength.

It’s going to actually work on getting you to a point where your body understands what needs to happen so that your ability will be increasing as you work on that capability. But we went down and looked at the basics of how to do that. We just used the bent arm bear walk to do this and so that was just another example and so like you were saying Andy, a lot of people will look at the handstand and then I tried it once and I couldn’t do it. Well, it takes a little bit more than just doing something once, especially if you don’t have that capability to be able to do it.

So going back and looking at how to learn a new skill, that’s really what it comes down to. Do you have the capability to do it? And another thing too of course is, “Do you understand what has to happen along the way to get you there?”

Andy: Yeah. So I think maybe to drive some of the point home a little bit more, let’s use learning Japanese again as another example to take it away from exercise. But instead of writing, let’s talk about speaking, right?

So I’m sure you’ve met a lot of people like this and I met a lot of people when I lived in Japan too that actually maybe tested at the Ikkyu level and if you don’t know, that means that you’re functionally fluent, right? You can read and write better than most Japanese people, right?

Their Japanese was very technically good but they couldn’t hold a conversation in Japanese and so they had the ability. They had all the ability. They had everything up in their brain, all the instructions that they needed to do it. But maybe they didn’t have – that doesn’t mean that they had all the full capability to be able to speak well in Japanese because they don’t know how to have a conversation. They – or I’ve had another thing where people understood a lot of words but they couldn’t pronounce them very well because Japanese has some sounds that aren’t in English.

Ryan: Yeah, and this is a very good example. So, I did test and pass Ikkyu and I had to have that for way back when, when I was at university and then as well as when I was working in a company. The interesting thing, when I tested for Ikkyu, I was one of the few Caucasians in the room that was testing.

Now predominantly, in that room were Chinese and Koreans. Now they had only been studying Japanese for a very short period of time. They needed the Ikkyu test in order to go to university. So what they did was they crammed all of the information in there as fast as possible just in order to pass this paper test.

So just like you were saying, it doesn’t necessarily mean that their level of conversation is there so that they can properly communicate and survive in the Japanese community. But that’s just fine because on the Ikkyu test, there’s no conversation, listening portion of it. It’s just a written test.

So is that good? Is that bad? It doesn’t matter. We’re just looking at right now is that they – sure, I’m sure they passed and I’m sure great, they got into university but there’s that big difference in being able to actually use it because you spent the time working on that capability and learning how it works within the culture compared to just passing a written test. Same thing you could say for driving, right? Same thing.

Andy: Yeah, yeah. Everyone has got the capability to press a pedal and turn a wheel but it doesn’t mean they have the ability to drive well.

Ryan: Exactly.

Andy: By the opposite side of the coin though, then like look at like in The Matrix, right? Where they like download kung-fu into Neo’s brain, right?

Ryan: Dude, I know kung-fu.

Andy: Whoa.

Ryan: Yeah.

Andy: So in that case, it’s like downloading the ability but it doesn’t hold up because – I mean granted this is all in The Matrix. So it works because it’s a movie but even if we could, even if we could have that technology to zap handstands into your brain, right? If your body did not also have the capabilities necessary to do it, even having those neural pathways would not allow you to be able to do that skill.

To take the analogy again, let’s say if I swapped your brain with an NFL quarterback. Do you think you would be able to play as well? You would have no way to control that body.

Ryan: Right.

Andy: Right? It would be extremely, extremely hilarious to watch somebody get their brains swapped into a quarterback and try to control that, right? So that’s what the difference is between capability and ability. I mean capability is kind a prerequisite for a real ability but …

Ryan: Yes.

Andy: But as you build capabilities, you can practice related abilities that are – perhaps that are lower level of complexity. So for example, if you’re looking at like the Planche or something, you can’t just do a Planche, right? It takes time to build up to it. But as you’re building those capabilities, you’re also practicing related abilities.

Ryan: Absolutely.

Andy: Related skills and so it’s not like you have to take time off of practicing the Planche and just work on your strengths and your elbows and your shoulders and all of that. You develop those capabilities as you practice other related abilities.

Ryan: So a lot of people, this is where they – they might refer to it as a carryover skill and that straight arm strength that you’re creating while training for the Planche obviously is going to work well for other related skills. So again, you’re building both. You’re building that capability to be able to jump into another skill and have the ability to do it faster because you’ve built that proper straight arm strength in the case of a Planche.

So which is a very cool thing. A lot of people unfortunately though don’t see that. So when learning a new skill, think of things that relate to the particular skill that you want to learn, the new skill. Have you already learned something similar? If you have, what are some of the capabilities as well as the abilities that you have from that, that can carry over to that new skill? That’s a good way to learn something a lot faster.

Andy: Yeah, definitely. I think we have to be careful too with this as well because I know some people are probably going to listen to this and they’re going to say, “Well, my goal is the muscle-up,” right? And I am strong but I know that I’m missing some capabilities in order to be able to do the muscle-up. It’s not just a matter of practice. Like I’m limited in – muscle-up isn’t really a great example because there are not too many capabilities besides strength you could be limiting.

Let’s say handstands then because let’s say you’ve got plenty of strength but your shoulder is messed up. You say, “Well, should I never practice the handstand anymore until I spend six months working on my shoulders?” Right? Should I stop everything and work on this one capability and then try to work on hand balancing again? Well, no, because as you’re working on building your capability, there are other abilities you can work on and related abilities. You might not be able to get your arms fully overhead to do a straight handstand.

But you can still work on wall handstands. You can be working on all kinds of different hand balancing drills even if you might not be as straight as you like. You can work on a bent handstand. But you don’t need to stop handstands while you fix the shoulder issue. So we can say that capabilities are prerequisite in some ways but don’t think that you need to stop working on abilities. So build the capabilities and then go back to it because that’s just going to make you get really, really frustrated with life.

Just because we’re talking so much about Japan, I’m going to bring this up. It reminds me of being an apprentice to a sushi shop and so basically what you would do is for a minimum of one year, all you would do is you’re in charge of making the rice and that’s the way it used to be. Same with everywhere in the world. If you were – it really doesn’t even matter but basically you would just focus on one thing and then once you’re …

Andy: Yeah, I spent a whole summer cleaning pipes.

Ryan: When you’re doing plumbing, right? Exactly.

Andy: My father was a plumber and I helped out, right? I wasn’t allowed to do anything else. So that’s how it is.

Ryan: Now if this is going to be your job, if this is something that is going to be your trade, I actually think that’s OK. I think you and the – the both of us, we come from a martial arts background. When I was growing up, that’s kind of how it was too.

Andy: We’re stoics.

Ryan: Yeah, we’re stoics. That’s how it is. But I mean there are certain things and especially with what we’re doing in GMB. We’re going back to the handstand. If you are looking at using the handstand as a trade in order to bring in the money for you and your family, then there’s probably other ways that you should be doing it.

But for where we’re going with it, now if you’re working on the handstand, if you still have problems with your shoulders, because of a limited issue, it doesn’t mean that you can’t still work on the handstand as you’re gaining that capability and ability.

So yeah, it’s a tough call and again like you said Andy, there are a lot of people who might disagree with us. But you know what? Everybody is correct and everybody is wrong. It just depends on how you look at it.

Andy: Yeah. Well, but just to be practical to kind of wrap this thing up though is that just remember that if there’s something that you would like to be able to do, there are two parts of it and you can’t just download the ability into your brain without building that capability and those attributes into your body and that’s why we have our kind of assess, address and apply model and we say we break everything down. You’ve probably seen the little triangle, right? Strength, flexibility and control, those are the three attributes that are most commonly missing in the kinds of skills that people ask us to teach. We’re not saying they’re the only important ones. Endurance is not covered, right?

But if you’re a distance runner, endurance is a lot more important to you than say motor control or flexibility maybe, right? I don’t know. So I could be wrong on those. But the point being for the skills that people ask us to teach, the capability they’re missing is usually one of those three things.

Ryan: Right, right.

Andy: And they can’t build that ability without building those three capabilities. You can practice related things but you still need those capabilities. So if there’s something that you’re trying to do, understand that yes, there’s the ability and there’s capability and you probably need to be working on related skills to learn the ability and to address your capabilities, there’s probably one of those three things that is the weakest that you should spend most of your training time trying to develop.

So that’s a practical application of this. Work on ability, work on capability and approach it with an intelligent model that takes those things into account rather than just continuing to slam your head against the wall until you reach mastery of whatever. Mastery is not going to come unless you’ve got the constituent pieces.

Ryan: Good way of summing it up there. Yeah, I have nothing to add. That’s great. That was wonderful. If there is something though that we talked about within the show today that you’re still having a little bit of trouble getting your head around, contact us. Contact us because we love talking about this kind of stuff. So let us know if you have any questions and maybe it will lead to another topic that we can discuss on another show that we do in the next six months. So …

Andy: If you ask questions, I promise it won’t take us six months.

Ryan: Yeah, exactly. Thanks though for listening. We always appreciate you putting up with us because we’re so difficult to listen to. Ha-ha! Keep those questions coming if you do have questions. Hopefully we can do another show pretty soon and yeah, that’s about it. We will wrap it up.

Andy: All right.

Ryan: Until then, be cool.

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