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The Greatest Skill I Ever Learned In Martial Arts
Twenty years of training, the key lesson.
Is the most critical skill the spinning back kick? The leaping dragon fist! The Falcon punch?! No. In my opinion, the most significant ability in martial arts is much more humble than this. Depending on which gyms you frequent, if you are in a good one, now and again, you will come to training relaxed, at peace, cool as a cucumber, and your coach will try and kill you. He will present you with some horrendous mountain of labour which you have to climb, which seems to be wholly impossible. Still, in the gym, tasks are non-negotiable, you do what you are told, so this begs the question, how do I proceed into the unknown and the impossible?
This situation happened to me a long time ago, probably when I was twelve or thirteen in Ninjutsu, and I was grading for my 7th kyu. After hitting the pads, doing circuits, sparring, pull-ups and dips, my Dad says, 'right, you're going to do 300 of each kick.' In Ninjutsu, we have three main kicks, a shin kick, a front kick and a knee. So that meant I had to do 900 kicks. I didn't believe that was possible in my current state of exhaustion and probably in general, but my Dad said to break it down into sets of 50. So I started on my sets of 50 and low and behold before I knew it, I had done 900 kicks. I had done what I thought was impossible? But how?
David Goggins talks about this mentality when he broke the world record for the most pull-ups done in 24 hours. When you hear of 4030 pull-ups, you think holy fuck no way! But what Goggins did was he broke the challenge down; how many pull's ups every hour, every minute and for how long? In approaching the problem in this manner, you get a smaller goal, which you can begin with that will help you achieve your broader goal. Rather can we do it? The question is, how can we do it!
Jordan Peterson has another interesting example from the world of psychology. A practice that is called Habituation. I listened to him describe one case of an older bedridden man who had chronic pain and depression, and his head bent over his chest. He was unable to get out of bed, and when you have chronic pain, the best way to treat the pain is to begin moving again, so he needed to get out of bed and mobile, but the man maintained that he couldn't do it. Dr Peterson asked him if he could get out of bed to which the answer was no, could he lift a leg out of bed? No. Could he lift an arm out of bed? No. Could he read in bed? No. Could he lift a magazine from the nightstand beside the bed and read the front cover? Yes. This small step was a success, raising the magazine constituted a real improvement toward the goal of getting out of bed. However, low the level was, in a matter of weeks, the man was able to get up and walk around the hall outside his bedroom, which was a lot better than he could do before.
So if you have the guts of a thousand kicks in front of you, you have to start with one, if you are becoming a doctor, that might begin with going to the library today. What you learn is to structure your short term, smaller goals, to achieve the broader, more abstract, future goals. If I want to be a professional writer, that is a vast and abstract goal. However, a smaller, achievable way of managing that goal might be to write for three hours today. Maybe I am procrastinating, going on Facebook, scrolling Instagram, and not doing my work; this means my goal is not the right one. Maybe if I broke the three hours down further into 1 hour of editing some projects, 1-hour writing new material, and one hour of reviewing what I had done already, I would be more likely to engage. The trick to overcoming procrastination is to lower your ambitions until you can reasonably move forward, differentiating your workload into achievable tasks is one way of doing this. Say you want to start reading again? Can you read a chapter a night? If this is too difficult, one page a night, if this is too easy, increase the amount to two, if you are doing more than you did yesterday then you are working towards your goal, and you start to feel more positive emotions, which in turn makes achieving your task easier. Previously, I struggled to organise even basic tasks in my life, like messaging the dentist or having a doctor's appointment, now what I do is I write them down on my phone. When I write the task on my phone, this means I will complete it. I may have to do this a couple of times, but writing down a job, constitutes a more meaningful step forward than just thinking or agonising about doing the task.
In a circuit training, sparring, or a fight, this is a microcosm of life; you are using the same conceptual structure to choose a goal, make a plan, execute and achieve it. So if you are struggling to achieve and maintain your goals in the short run, you will struggle to keep the goals in the long term also. If you have made a routine of climbing mountains in the microcosm, sports, and exercise, you can apply the same principles to the macrocosm of your life. Dopenminergically we are wired for completing goals, and the process is addictive, so renegotiating the wanting to bake the best fruit cake in the world to just making a fruit cake might be the step forward that changes everything for you.
They say, how do you eat an elephant? The joke is one leg at a time. The truth is there is no right answer to this riddle, except breaking the elephant down into smaller and more manageable chunks. Whatever the goal is, 100kms, 1000 push-ups, becoming a baker, a writer, the trick is to divide the larger goal into smaller, more manageable, more modest goals that can be achieved as part of a concrete plan to meet your highest. So the most significant skill I ever learned in martial arts is how to take your larger goals and break them down into smaller, more manageable, achievable chunks. What is the most significant step forward you can take in your life that constitutes a genuine improvement? What part of the elephant are you going to eat today?