This is a useful yet very nerdy analogy that’s aided me when I’m teaching. It may help you when you’re trying to explain a new or complex technique to someone that you are worried won’t get it.

In video game programming, the level of detail of an object decreases as it moves further away and increases as you get closer. When something is partially concealed, they only render what you can see. Programmers can get away with this because they figure you won’t need every detail when something is far enough away (or not even in sight) and you can’t tell the difference.

You’ve likely seen this if you play video games. A tree across the map is just a blotch of green, then as you run forward it turns into a lumpy green pyramid, then it gets branches and finally it’s a complete tree. Or you see the tip of spaceship sticking out from around a corner, but as far as the game is concerned, that’s all there is to it and it’s not worth dealing with the rest yet.

Where this applies to teaching is in figuring out how much to simplify and when to add greater detail and complexity. When someone is a beginner or new to a technique, you can overload them by showing every detail and variation and counter and re-counter. These will be ignored or forgotten since they don’t have any foundation of experience to build on.

So what you do is scale it back. Teach them a simplified version of the technique. Give them the bare bones to start getting a feel for it. It may not be “the best” way to do the move but it’s what they’ve got to learn before they can process more details. Once they’ve got that level, move up to the next and flesh it out further.

Think of the students brain as a computer processor. It can only handle so much at once. You’ve got to give it the most important information first and make sure it’s in chewable amounts, otherwise it overloads and chokes. Start simple and ramp it up as needed.

You can visualize it by taking a technique and making an abstraction of it. Imagine there is an perfect way to do a move, in a Platonic idealism sense. Now imagine your perfect technique as an object, a sphere. You could have a progression of increasingly accurate representations, like this:

Levels of detail

(These spheres also lends themselves to a diamond polishing metaphor: you’re starting with a crude rock and through progressive refining and polishing you get the desired form.)

To give a specific example of this concept, look at how an armbar from mount is taught to a beginner versus how it’s done by someone with experience. With the beginner, you have their training partner stick their arms straight up into them. The beginner posts both hands on the chest, slides a knee up to the head, steps up with his other leg, stands to pass his leg over the head and falls back with the arm.

Is anyone with experience going to straighten both their arms like that? Are you going to want to be that loose and slow when you spin around the arm? Are you going to get that high to pass your leg over the head? No, but that doesn’t matter. At this point the beginner is still just learning the gross body movements and how to shift his weight and move his hips. Once he gets that, you can do a second pass and clean up the technique, making it tighter, smoother or faster and adding details.

A personal example is the difference between how I teach the reverse omoplata and how I do it. It wouldn’t make sense and they’d get information overload if I showed them my way. Instead I teach a simpler version first. That gets them familiar with it. They’ll have success with it for a bit but they’ll also start running into problems. Now that they have experience with it, I can give more details and they’ll see where they fit in, whereas before they wouldn’t have had the proper context.

What you started with and what you ended with may be very different beasts and yet they are fundamentally the same move, based on the same principles. What got you there was working up through lower levels of detail and complexity until you’re as close to the “ideal technique” as you can be.

Image from Level of Detail (Wikipedia).