Saturday, November 2, 2013

Managing Your Willpower

One of the greatest paradoxes of human nature is how much attention and effort people spend on goals that they are capable of achieving, but never do.  I'm not talking really hard achievements like becoming a billionaire, or an Olympic caliber athlete.  I believe achieving goals like that require a special blend of talent, persistence, opportunity and luck, and are simply not possible for the majority of the population, no matter what.  What I'm referring to are the perennial New Years resolutions, always made, rarely fulfilled, and yet eagerly attempted again when the next year rolls around.  Lose weight.  Quit smoking.  Get to the gym every day.  Stop drinking.  Stop overspending and pay down your debts.  These goals are within the reach of almost every person who attempts them.  But they are achieved by only a small percentage.  Multi-billion dollar industries have been created towards helping people achieve these goals which, on the surface, don't seem to be that hard.  What's going on here?

The most common problem is a failure of willpower.  Willpower is a subject of deep concern to any student of the martial arts.  It's needed to get to class each night, when it would be so much easier just to sit in front of the TV with a cold beer.  It's needed to persist in training in the long term, when you're feeling discouraged and frustrated that you're not improving as fast as you think you should.  It's needed to keep punching the target with everything you've got, even when you're really tired.  It's needed to keep fighting, even though you're sure you're outclassed and it feels like it will just hurt too much to go on.  Willpower should be studied more thoroughly than any technique or kata.

And yet, for all the importance of willpower, people know remarkably little about it.  Or at least, our knowledge of it doesn't impact the way we treat it.  Willpower is often seen as similar to muscular strength, which is a pretty good analogy.  And yet, a failure of willpower is often seen as some kind of character flaw.  We don't think a person has a character flaw if they are unable to bench press several times their weight, or if they get tired after a long workout.  Why do we think it's different if a person can't muster the mental energy to do something really difficult, or can't stay focused after a day full of distractions?

We also consider it perfectly reasonable to exercise to improve our strength.  For some reason, we don't necessarily treat willpower the same way.  There seems to be a disconnect here.

Increasing amounts of research point to willpower as having all the properties mentioned above.  Using it all day leaves you with very little by the evening.  Exercising it can make it stronger.  Saving it for when you really need it can make a world of difference when it comes to succeeding at key tasks.

When you plan how you are going to improve at the martial arts, managing your willpower should be a key element in your plan.  How will you conserve it during the day?  Remember that decisions require less willpower when it's easy to make them.  If your bag is right by the door, it's easier to grab it and get to the dojo than if you have to go hunting for it in the basement.  If you're going to really push yourself for a hard exercise in class, do it early in the evening when you still have the mental energy.  Peer pressure is a powerful motivator.  Do you have a martial arts buddy to inspire you to go even when you don't feel like it?

How are you working to improve your willpower?  Working out is a start.  Is it enough?  Do you need to supplement it with meditation, or some other discipline of willful focus?

Willpower is not an accident.  It is an attribute you develop over time.  Make sure you make an effort to cultivate and manage it, and you will be more effective, not just in the martial arts, but in all aspects of your life.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Cultivating Student Spirit

I love practicing martial arts.  I've been at it for a couple decades, a constant in a life in which almost every other detail of location, vocation, diet and philosophy has changed.  There's always something new to explore, something new to learn.

And yet, every once in a while, I feel like I'm getting just a little bit burnt out.  I'm in a rut, not progressing, and not enjoying the process.  It usually creeps up on me quietly, so that I don't notice until I suddenly realize that I'm looking for excuses not to go to class, or practice, or whatever.

Whenever this happens, I usually discover that I've lost my student spirit.  Student spirit is a magical and fascinating thing.  It's the bright eagerness to learn and to make progress in an activity.  It's what you felt before school started when you had all your new supplies laid out and they just made you want to do something with them.  It's what you feel when you get a new gym membership and you're just itching to swipe that punch card and hit the stair-master, knowing that it will make your body hurt and you're looking forward to it.

Student spirit comes naturally.  It usually doesn't last- witness the difference in how many people are exercising at the gym in January, versus how many are still at it in May.  But the great thing about student spirit is that it can be cultivated, and regenerated.  I've found a couple of techniques that work for me.  They may work for you, or spark additional ideas for how to recharge your enthusiasm for being an eager student again.

Keep a Journal
If you're going to be a student, then really be a student.  Buy a journal, and don't use it for anything but your martial arts practice.  (Depending on your life, you might have multiple journals to track different activities and projects.)  At the end of class, write down what you've learned.  It doesn't have to be a fantastic insight, it might be finding a new combination that is effective against a single person in sparring, or a slight variation on a technique that is worth exploring later on.  Make a note of things you don't understand or want to get better at, and make a plan for how you will address these items.  Rate your skill in various areas, and track it over time.  You may prefer to keep things chronological, or you may prefer to organize it by topic.  Make it your own.

Empty Your Cup
Stop focusing on what you already know, and try to find something to learn from every situation.  Maybe somebody is demonstrating a technique you already know.  Is it EXACTLY the one you know, or is it a slight variation?  What are the pros and cons of that variation?  Watch the people around you - what are their strengths and weaknesses?  Even if you can out-fight somebody every time, is there some small aspect of their sparring that you could learn from?  Take the attitude that every moment has an opportunity to learn something, if only you have the eyes to see it.

Stop Judging Yourself
Stop getting down on yourself because you're not as good as you want to be.  Stop congratulating yourself because you've achieved so many of your goals, or are better than some of the other students at your school.  Lose yourself in the moment, keeping your focus only on what you are doing and what you are learning.

Aim Your Compass
Stop every once in a while and take a realistic assessment of where you are and where you want to go.  Are you learning the right things?  Are you progressing the way you want to?  Is this still the right school for you?  I'm not suggesting you constantly jump from one style to another, but you should definitely make sure you know what your goals are, and that you are headed towards them.  Set your goals, and then make a plan to get there.  And then execute.

Ask For Help
If you have questions or concerns about how you are progressing, or need guidance on your path, ask your instructor or one of the senior students at your school.  Chances are, they'll be eager to help out, give you an outside perspective, and share what they have learned.

I wish you the best of luck, and hope to see you on the mat soon!

Friday, August 30, 2013

In Search of the Perfect Technique

"Tom swung his leg backward, and in an improbable, ungainly arc.  It was a downright ugly maneuver.  Graceless.  Something that would have had him laughed out of his dojo in Stanton Oklahoma.  But it worked.  Father Thomass boot crashed into the shades stomach."
Seventh Son: Descent, by By J.C. Hutchins

Some of my favorite moments in the martial arts have been learning what a huge difference the exact right technique can make.  More times than I can remember, I've struggled to apply a wrist-lock, escape a grab, throw a person, finding myself straining my muscles against a larger and heavier opponent, only to find that a small correction in my technique makes all the difference in the world.  Getting just a little lower makes my opponent hurl easily to the ground.  Sliding my wrist just a bit inwards lets me easily escape a crushing hold.  Knocking my assailant just an inch off balance makes them unable to resist my attack.

This is reflected in the way I teach.  I hassle the details, make my students practice the same thing over and over until they get it just right.  I have to make allowances for the different lengths of people's attention spans, but left to my own devices, we'd work just two or three techniques over the course of a full class.  On a few occasions I've done this with a particularly dedicated student, and they've always been pleased with the results.

This becomes even more critical when dealing with somebody who has limited flexibility, or limited strength, or an injury that prevents their full range motion.  Sometimes a certain technique will simply be infeasible for a given person, but sometimes I find it will still work, and work well, but only if they master the detail with far greater precision than the average student.  Most people can make a sloppy technique work if they muscle it.  When that isn't an option, it has to be perfect, or nothing.

So I'm definitely a fan of getting the details of a technique exactly right, and I spend a lot of time and attention on that point.

And yet...

The world is a strange and complex place.  Sometimes things go awry in the oddest ways.  People move the way you'd least expect them to, or you fall to the ground despite your best efforts to stay stable.  A solid punch bounces off your assailant harmlessly, or an insubstantial tap knocks them off their feet.

The important thing is to not stand their like an idiot, wondering "What just happened?"  Keep moving.  If it was bad, recover.  If it was good, keep going.  If you're finished, don't stop, scan your environment, be ready for the next attacker, or somebody on the ground who maybe isn't quite ready to stop moving.

Expect the unexpected.

I love great technique.  But the perfect technique?  It's whatever works.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Work with what you have

"Why?  My fat friend asks me why?  He sits there on his world-class ass and has the nerve to ask me why?  Yeste.  Come to me sometime with a challenge.  Once, just once, ride up and say 'Domingo, I need a sword for an eighty-year old man to fight a duel,' and I would embrace you and cry 'Yes!'  Because to make a sword for an eighty-year old man to survive a duel, that would be something.  Because the sword would have to be strong enough to win, yet light enough not to tire his weary arm.  I would have to use my all to perhaps find an unknown metal, strong but very light, or devise a different formula for a known one, mix some bronze with some iron and some air in a way ignored for a thousand years.  I would kiss your smelly feet for an opportunity like that, fat Yeste."
-The Princess Bride

Are you fit enough to learn martial arts?  I've talked to many people who have an interest, but something is holding them back.  They're concerned that they're too out of shape, or not flexible enough, or have an old injury that prevents them from moving the way they think they should be able to.  Maybe they think they're too old.  Maybe they think that they'll be able to start in a few months, when they've solved their problems and everything has magically come together.  In my experience, that day almost never comes around.

Sometimes, a new student will come into our school who has everything going for them.  This person will be strong, limber, and have a good visual, audio and kinesthetic memory.  It's fun to teach these people.  But it's the former group that really gets me engaged, not the latter.

Because the martial arts are not about mastering the platonic ideal of the perfect technique.  They're about learning to use what you have, in the best way that you possibly can.  Maybe a knee injury prevents you from kicking well with one leg.  Great, lets spend our time focusing on your other leg.  (Bill Wallace did fairly well with this strategy).  Or maybe you're too short to effectively kick your longer-limbed opponents.  Let's focus on bridging the gap and fighting in close where your opponent can't kick at all.  Or you have a shoulder injury that prevents your arm from having a full range of motion.  OK, lets not try to force your arm past that limit and risk exacerbating your injury.  Instead, lets see what you can do with that arm inside your comfortable range of motion.

We have a lot of different techniques at our school, and while we want everybody to learn all of them, we are mindful that not every one will work well for every student.  We ask students to learn each technique well enough to demonstrate it (and eventually teach it), but then to figure out which of those techniques really work for them, and focus on maximizing their effectiveness with those techniques.

Not everybody has it in them to be a championship MMA fighter.  You need a unique combination of physique, talent and drive to achieve that goal.  But anybody can learn to maximize their own resources and talents, both on and off the mat.  In my mind, that's what the martial arts are really all about.

(Btw - you can stop wracking your brains now.  You're not recognizing the quote above because its from the book, not the movie.)

Sunday, August 11, 2013

What are you doing here?

A few years ago, a friend went to a ground fighting tournament, and told me about the challenge he had with one particular opponent.  This person started the match sitting down, legs spread apart, and waiting for an incoming attack.  It was effective strategy at this tournament.  My friend was unable to engage without getting entirely wrapped up.  Hearing about this left me feeling disgusted, but it took me a while to figure out why.

I eventually realized that it was because my goals did not align with the goals of this other person.  I'm interested in the self defense aspect of the martial arts.  To me, sparring and tournaments are useful insofar as they develop and measure skills that can be used in a self defense situation.  While I recognize the need for rules to keep these activities safe, I worry that they might result in a blind spot that could prove fatal in a confrontation on the street.  I combat this tendency by mixing things up, moving from one type of practice to another, focusing on the attributes I'm trying to develop, and keeping a healthy distance from any technique that depends on a particular set of rules.

Of course, this is the exact opposite of what you should do if your goal is to win tournaments.  My friend's opponent was relying on the fact that he couldn't be kicked in the face, and as a result had developed a position that gave him quick control of a grappling situation.  Muhammed Ali famously leveraged the "rope-a-dope" technique to defeat George Foreman, taking advantage of the very specialized terrain of a boxing ring and the fact that kicks and strikes to the groin are not allowed.  Many Tae Kwon Do practitioners will execute a quick series of kicks and then move in for a clinch, waiting for the referee to separate them, safe in the knowledge that throws, knees and elbow strikes are out of bounds.

None of these things are "wrong", as long as your goal is truly to learn to win tournaments.  Where I get concerned is when people begin to spend their things unrelated to, or perhaps even contradictory to, their real goals.  Perhaps they saw something neat on youtube and never thought about the context and utility of that particular move.  Or, much more insidious, they might be imitating a more senior student who has a different set of goals.

This can be an even more difficult syndrome to avoid when it comes to intensity, rather than techniques.  A lot of people practice martial arts for a little exercise and the comradeship.  Going through the motions in a half-hearted way is just fine for them.  But if that's not your goal, it can be really hard to constantly push yourself to the breaking point when nobody else is doing it.  The pressure to conform can be hard to avoid, even for adults.

You don't need to have exactly identical goals to everybody else in your school.  But it helps to remind yourself periodically what your goals are, and make sure you're moving in the right direction.  As they say, if you keep traveling in your current direction, there's a terrible danger that you'll arrive at your destination.  Make sure that destination is yours, not somebody else's.