The martial arts have always been a big part of my life. Tang Soo Do, Muay Thai, Amateur MMA, Judo, BJJ… I’ve been lucky enough to try a whole range of different styles with some great people. I’m certainly no expert; but I’m enjoying the journey.
Aside from the physical benefits: the increased strength, flexibility, endurance, and the ability to defend yourself; if you put in the hard work and dedicate your time, the martial arts can repay you with some valuable life lessons.
Over the 8 years I’ve been training, I’ve learnt some interesting things that have helped shape who I am today. And I believe they can help you too, so I would like to share them.
In many of the martial arts, especially the grappling kind; there is a big focus on sparring, where you compete against your training partner with the aim of making them submit or ‘tap out’ to a joint lock or chokehold.
In the midst of battle, it is nearly impossible to be thinking about anything other than what’s happening before you. Forget about that looming work deadline or your evening meal plans, there’s someone trying to stop you from breathing!
Your mind is focussed solely on the present moment, and if you stray from it, you’re likely gonna get submitted.
Over time, the more you practice sparring and spend time in this mindful state, the more you start to become mindful during your everyday life. The more you notice what’s going on around you. The more you reside in the present moment, rather than worrying about the past or future, and the more enjoyable and meaningful life becomes.
Occasionally, a beginner will turn up to a martial arts class, confidence brimming and ego spilling; ready to prove their mettle. Most of the time however, they leave at the end of their first session with a very different feeling…
During sparring, they will likely come up against people much smaller, much weaker than they. But they will likely lose, again and again. They will be forced to submit to the little guy or the small girl. Over and over.
This experience can be the start of a shift in consciousness. It reveals a taste of reality.
It’s pretty difficult to make it through countless more session of conceding to defeat without experiencing a change in your thought patterns.
The fear based ego is dissolved. The chip on the shoulder is repaired. The fog is cleared and the path to the truth is revealed. Humility ensues.
When you are humble, you realise that not every training session is a competition. Your training partners are there to help you improve, and for you to help them do the same. Without each other, you would get nowhere. You would stagnate.
Sometimes we treat life as if it’s one big competition, but it needn’t be that way. You can only truly reach your full potential if you learn to cooperate and collaborate. The most effective people are not completely dependent on others, but they also don’t always act independently.
They find greatness by becoming interdependent – combining their strengths with the strengths of others to create even better results.
4. Embrace failure.
If you train martial arts regularly with the right people, you fail regularly. You are forced to submit or you get caught with a few punches you shouldn’t have. Week after week, year after year; you make mistakes and you lose. And if you’re not failing often, then you may be training at the wrong place.
Over time you realise that the major difference between you and the black belt, is that they have simply failed more. Every time you concede to defeat, you brush yourself off, pick yourself up and go at it again. You stop seeing failure as a negative thing, and instead recognise that it is an absolutely necessary stepping stone to success.
In life, like in the martial arts; you simply cannot succeed without failing many times before. The world’s most successful people have got to where they are today because they failed often, but then learnt from it and kept going. Not many of them got it right first time.
From my experience with martial arts (especially BJJ), it seems that you are often thrown into the deep end early on. Sparring can be an intense experience, and sometimes things can get pretty uncomfortable.
You’re thrown into the ocean with the sharks, and you haven’t even learnt to swim.
Your neck is getting cranked. You feel claustrophobic. All you want to do is breathe dammit, but you’re pinned and left gasping for any small pocket of air available.
At first, being stuck in an uncomfortable position, exhausted and unable to escape; you’ll probably start to panic (which is understandable). It seems like there is no way out. These situations are quite common in martial arts, but over time, you can begin to relax.
You learn the importance of keeping calm under pressure. You can control your emotions, rather than them controlling you. If you can keep a clear head, you’re more likely to solve the problem in front of you, whatever it is.
The beauty of martial arts is that the person with superior technique can use their opponent’s strength against them, regardless of how big the opponent is or how much they can bench. They don’t waste energy resisting against the superior force, they instead work with it. They let it flow.
Sometimes in life we come across obstacles and events that seem immovable. Rather than resisting against them, causing undue stress and getting nowhere; we can choose to flow with them like water. We can be flexible with and adapt our approach, until they are no longer an issue.
At the same time, we can also begin to accept those things that we cannot change, those that are outside our sphere of influence.
7. Enjoy the journey.
For me, martial arts practice has always been about the journey. Yeah the new belt promotions and tournament trophies are pretty cool too, but what I have always enjoyed most is the training. The discovering and practicing of new techniques. The gradual process of improvement. The lessons learnt the hard way…
In life we can easily slip into the mindset where we focus only on the rewards, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The next salary increase. The few weeks off at the end of the year. We lose sight of what’s directly in front of us, because we’re always peering into the distance.
Instead, I suggest that we turn our attention more towards the journey we’re currently experiencing. Surely it would be better to focus on enjoying each moment, in the present, rather than wishing our lives away into the future?
We can be patient and take things as they are, rather than always being in a rush to get everything done as quickly as possible. Enjoy the process, without fixating on the results.
Although you definitely need your training partners and instructors to progress in martial arts, a lot of the responsibility lies with you. Only you can make sure you turn up, listen and work as hard as you can. I know that if I don’t put the work in, I won’t ever progress, and it’s no one else’s fault but mine.
Sometimes on life we are quick to shift the blame elsewhere for the situations we find ourselves in; for our shortcomings or our unhappiness. “If only my boss would treat me better”. “If only they didn’t always bring me down”. “If only the weather wasn’t so bad”.
We can sometimes be tentative to accept the responsibility for where we are in our life. In reality, we are all completely responsible for how we feel and how we react to any given circumstances. We can choose how external forces affect us, rather than letting them control us. Once you discover this, you realise that you have the power to do great things and live life the way you want.
The importance of hard work can never be underestimated. Quite simply, if you show up and train properly twice a week with all your effort; you will improve. After a few months or years of regular training, when you look back to see how far you have come; you realise that if you really put the time and effort in, you can achieve whatever you want to.
In life we often put limits on ourselves. I’m lazy. I’m rubbish at sports. I can’t do maths. We define ourselves by our past mistakes.
In reality, we are not our past. We exist in the present moment with unlimited potential. If you really do want to achieve something, as long as you can dedicate yourself too it, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be able to get there.
Go after what you are drawn to, and work hard at it. You have a lot more power than you think.