What is the goal for your Martial Arts career?
Is it to earn the right to wear a black belt?
If so, when you get it, is that the end of your training?
I have seen many students work very hard for a long time to get the highly coveted black belt and I am sad to say that a majority of them stopped training after getting it. This seems very counter-intuitive to me. It seems a little like prepping everything for an amazing meal, gathering the supplies, marinating the meat, turning on the cooking surface, and never cooking anything. While you are a black belt you learn how to combine all those spices (punches) and veggies (kicks) and bacon (stances), it’s not an amazing meal without bacon, to create the masterpiece and only after that, do you get to reap the rewards and eat.
The plateaus will come, in no small part, because the black belt is similar to an independent study. Your teacher is there for guidance, but if you are going to progress, it is on you to think about what you already know and apply it to life outside the dojo. The ability to stand in a balanced position, ready to react to anything has more than one application and it is up to you to find them. The better you understand these other applications of basic concepts the more efficiently you can use them both in and out of the dojo. Being a black belt is about being a lifelong learner.
Cross-Training helps too
When was the last time you were paired up in class to work with a partner? If your school is anything like ours, it was probably the last time you were in class. So, why do martial arts schools use partner drills so much? It is because partner drills can be extremely effective at improving your self-defense when done properly. I say “can be” because this method relies on the students, as much as, or more than the teacher to make it effective. Your partner is not an opponent to be defeated but a friend to be assisted.
A good partner could mean big strides toward your understanding, while a bad one will only help your ego or test your patience. You must push each other to better your techniques. Not enough resistance gives a false sense of security while too much can destroy confidence; it is the balance that determines progress. One example of this is if you are practicing a sweep and your partner just sits on the floor without actually being taken down, it might make you believe you would have succeeded on the street. On the flip side, if you actively try to deflect the technique by making it too difficult for the partner to take you down you might still believe you would have failed, both beliefs being false. Working with a partner to learn the balance in each technique allows each person to master skills at an individual pace while still working together.
Working with a partner is great for helping you judge distance, angles, and control, of your opponent as well as yourself, building the confidence to allow you to deal with a scary situation. Practicing in a safe environment with a partner you trust can help lower your anxiety while also allowing you to effectively react to the situation. A good partner will raise awareness while lowering fear.
Why do so many Martial Arts Instructors force their students to practice dance routines? They call them Forms or Kata but we know the truth, they are dances. The Instructor will drill every move into their students, forcing them to repeat the sequences over and over and over … and over. So, Why?
Tradition! That was always the first thing I was told when I asked the question, but not all traditions are worthy of being continued. My father, Uncle and their children go camping every Father’s Day. For a long time, the tradition was for it to rain, soaking us to the bone. It took DAYS to dry out. The past few years we manage to break that tradition … for a little while at least. On the other hand, some things become a tradition for good reason.
After a lot of PURPOSEFUL practice, the forms begin to introduce something else as well. They start to reveal abstract ideas about whichever art you are trying to learn. The better you understand those ideas the more proficient you become in the application of your art. This can take years or decades to uncover though.
Combinations Are defenses against a punch, choreographed responses to different types of attacks. They have many names across the martial arts but (in my experience) every art has a version of them. This makes them different than forms because there are plenty of martial arts that have no forms. What makes there partner exercises so universal? Why practice a specific response when (in reality) timing, type of attack, size of the attacker, and a hundred other factors will make it so you never use that entire choreographed response? And finally, how can we practice for a real defense situation and avoid injury at the same time?
The last question is a question of safety. If we practice for the sake of reality we need to replicate reality. How do we prevent injury while doing so? When it comes down to it, it’s about building trust. We start slow and learn to trust that we have control over ourselves. We learn to trust our partners have control as well. In more time we learn to trust our control over our partner and (a little scarier) we learn to trust our partner’s control over us. In the end (with a lot of practice) you can move are full speed, tossing your partner, and being thrown without fear of injury.
Combinations are universal for a reason; they are practiced so they can be dissected into their parts, and we stay safe by starting slow and building trust. As with everything else in the martial arts, combinations have many reasons behind their practice and execution.
When starting the search for a martial arts school to begin your training you may think that all schools and styles are created equal. This is not true! Every style has a different focus, result, and method of teaching. Instructors of the same style will also present the information differently depending on how they think about the material, how it was taught to them, and even how they like to practice. For all these reasons and more, it is extremely important that when beginning your study, you find the school and style that best suits your wants and needs. Know what you want, Try it, and click with the teacher. These are the three tenants that will yield the best results in your training.
The first of the tenants to finding the correct school is Know what you want. This will help narrow your search, from the infinite number of schools within a half hour of your home to a manageable number that can be easily vetted to find the perfect martial arts experience. Knowing what you want has multiple facets.
The first and foremost is your end goal. Do you want to be a tournament competitor? Or be able to defend yourself in the dark parking lot after work? Is martial arts an interesting way for you to cross-train for another sport? Is it your dream to see the inside of an MMA cage some day? If you want to be the next Randy Couture or Chuck “the Icemen” Liddell you will start on a very different path then if you would like to get back in shape or increase your flexibility. Looking into the different styles offered near you and deciding if they will help you achieve your goal is a great first step.
Some other things to think about before starting at a martial arts school can include how much time you want to devote, how much you want to spend, and whether or not sparring or mock fighting is something that you want your training to include. Have the answers to all these questions before you start visiting schools so you know what questions to ask.
The next tenant is Try It. I can think of zero schools that expect someone to sign right up without trying a class. The trail period is important because watching a class and participating in a class are very different. Exercise is easy when you are looking from the outside in but when it is you in a horse stance punching and kicking you feel just how tiring it can be. Try as many classes as you can before making your decision. This could mean the difference of being on the fence to loving it or push you from loving a school to knowing that it is not for you. The more you try the better you can determine if they are what you want.
Click with the Teacher
The last tenant is Click with the Teacher. Make sure that while you are investigating a school you have a conversation or two with the person that will be teaching you. Most schools are relatively small and you will talk to them often but some you may have to try a little harder to make this happen. If you don’t click with your teacher you won’t ask questions, stay and talk after class, and you will be less likely to want to pursue the art further. I consider my teachers of the past 16 years to be close friends as, hopefully, you will too.