Trust but verify.

When Ronald Reagan said, “Trust but verify”, he was quoting a Russian proverb right back to the Russians, about whom he was speaking during the cold war. The expression was certainly catchy, suggesting a tough, cautious form of diplomacy. Recently I have been using these words in the entirely different context of my martial arts. They are a helpful motivator when I have doubts about what I am doing. They also provide a key for overcoming those doubts and continuing training.

Trust your style, your school, your instructor, and your lineage. Trust that there is a logical reason for everything you have been taught, even if you can’t see it at that moment. Trust that some things are best learned in a slow and progressive manner and you have to “do the work” before you will see, or be shown, the next step. Trust that even the most superfluous aspects of dojo protocol are important. Trust that your decision to train in any particular style is the right decision for you at this time.

But don’t trust blindly. Verify what you have been told by challenging yourself at every turn. Test your techniques in different situations, with different drills, and different training partners. Don’t alter the fundamentals of your style to make things “work.” Instead, assume fault when they don’t work and dig deeper into what your style wants you to be doing. Verification often means remembering the little things you were told, and forgot. Look at every type of combat in the dojo as nothing more than a training exercise. It doesn’t matter who “wins” or “loses” in these situations nearly as much as what each person can learn from them.

I bring up training partners here because those of us who train alone need to find opportunities to work with other people. The challenge in training with people outside you own style is not doubting your approach in the face of someone who claims to know more than you. Arguably, sometimes they do. But, if you have watched as many self-proclaimed “masters” on youtube as I have, there is a lot of misinformation out there. And, even someone who has some knowledge may not recognize the value of what you are doing. This is particularly true when you yourself are still working out the answers and not yet doing things correctly.

Which brings us back to trust. When you can’t make something work, or you are faced with a seemingly overwhelming argument for doing something a different way, trust that your style has an answer to the problem and you just don’t know it yet. Then verify by finding that answer, by reassessing what you have been taught, by going back to the fundamentals and looking for the place you went wrong.

When you are new to a style, trust is more important than anything because so many answers can only be learned through dedication, repetition, and time. However, as you progress, and train more on your own, verification is increasingly a critical tool. And, it is entirely possible that you determine that your style is not what you thought it was and cannot give you the skills you want to have. In such cases, you may choose a new teacher and another way to train with the confidence that only comes from having dedicated yourself fully to what you were doing. And it won’t have been a waste of time. The experiences you will have had and the questions you will have developed will all help you learn faster and better the second time around.

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