After over twenty years actively engaged in training and teaching martial arts I feel safe in saying that I have learned a few things. Of course, what I have learned pales in comparison to what I still have ahead of me but I also know now that this is a life pursuit. As I look around at the endless variety of schools and styles today, I see certain common symptoms in many martial arts students. Everyone starts off in somewhat the same place, emotionally and physically engaged in learning something new in a class setting. The learning curve is quite steep in the early months and years and it is easy for students to stay excited about each week’s lessons. For many students, martial arts classes become a hobby or sport, to be pursued a few times a week with fellow classmates in a sheltered environment such as a dojo or gym. As one trains harder for a tournament or an upcoming belt test, he may throw in a little home practice to refine some technique but, overall, training is restricted to class time.
This type of training is fun, social, and completely satisfactory for these students as long as the status quo remains in place. However, things change. Instructors retire. Students move away. Or, in many cases, the student reaches a point where she feels that there is nothing more to be learned from that class. The learning curve has reached it’s first major plateau and the student is restless and increasingly bored. It is not my place to say whether this is due to misperceptions by the student or a true lack of deeper knowledge on the part of the instructor. I have seen both, many times. For the purposes of this blog we will assume that the instructor still has more to teach.
When any and all of these situations arise, students act in predictable ways. If they are still able to attend their regular class, they may augment their core studies with additional instruction in other arts. In some cases they may changes schools or arts entirely, often right after achieving a personal goal such as receiving a black belt. If they move away from their school (or it closes) they will often seek out something different at that point as well. Sometimes they are able to find the same style being taught elsewhere but, with the flattened learning curve, the excitement is often diminished. Many simply quit and pick up other hobbies. What seems clear in most cases is that they lack the skills or will to train themselves and continue their growth in their core art. Solo training and the introspection that comes with it, is the heart and sole of martial arts and, for so many, this lesson is never learned. In the end, martial arts becomes a hobby they once did when “they were young” or “had the time.
If I have described you or people you know in the previous paragraphs, do not be discouraged. We have all been there at one time or another. The goal of this blog is to help individuals break the cycle of needing “new” things, grow within their core martial art, and make their studies a fulfilling life pursuit. And I believe that, at the heart of achieving all of this, is learning how to train by yourself and for yourself.
I had been studying martial arts in a class environment for about five years when I began serious solo training. You might say that that was when this book began to write itself. Certainly I had done plenty of weekend workouts to improve techniques or specific kata. I was actively competing a great deal at that time and the extra practice helped. Yet, for the most part, the goals were external and the progress was superficial. In the spring of 1995 I was preparing for a test for my first dan (1st degree black belt), when I decided to move away during the upcoming summer. In my mind, this seemed a natural time, after I had tested and achieved this important goal. I had every intention of continuing my martial arts but no real plan for how that would happen.
Two weeks after telling my sensei of my post-testing travel plans, she and the other black belts sat me down and told me that she had decided not to test me after all. She had not given out that many black belts and felt strongly that she needed to know, above all else, that I would continue training after I received mine. To say that this seemed unfair is an understatement. I was heartbroken. After years of work, I was being punished for an unrelated life choice that I felt had no bearing at all on my martial arts. Friends and family were equally upset but the decision was final and I agreed to continue training on my own with the goal of returning in six months/one year to be considered for testing.
What seemed like a punishment at the time has since proven to be the greatest gift that any instructor could have given. I do not know whether she knew this at the time or simply was concerned about my staying power. Regardless, the solo training she set in motion has been integral to my martial arts for the past thirty years. I spent the next six months training 4-5 days a week in parks and fitness centers. Although I “played” with a few other schools, I always saw that as secondary to developing my core art. I returned to train with the class after six months and successfully tested the following Spring after a solid year on my own. Two years of solo training later, she did not hesitate to award me a second degree black belt. In that time I learned the value of training by myself, of refining movement and technique in a way not possible in a class, and of becoming my own martial artist.
Later on this same sensei introduced me to some of my current instructors who do not live close enough to see regularly. With her encouragement I switched disciplines but did so with only occasional class instruction and lots of regular solo training. Not everyone will be forced to find the value of such training in this fashion but I believe everyone can benefit from reading this blog. Regardless of whether you are simply bored with your current class or have moved away, the real lessons in martial arts come not from always seeking new, outside information but from digging deeper into what you have already been shown. By sharing my experiences, and those of others, I hope to give you some tools and inspiration for that excavation.
It is not the intent of this blog to undermine the value of good, regular class instruction. For most of us, our sensei is years ahead of us and the ideas he or she teaches are important to stimulate our growth. But at some point the serious martial artist has to step back and explore these ideas alone, without distraction for that growth to really take hold. I have no doubt that there is a lot more to your chosen martial art than you currently are aware of. And there always will be. There is also a lot more to you than you know no matter how hard you think you have pushed yourself. Solo training is the key to discovering the real “secrets” of martial arts. Let’s get digging!