One of the biggest challenges students face in martial arts is staying engaged over time. The thing that can make us great in martial arts is the same thing that can bore us out of our minds. Repetition of technique is the hallmark of martial arts practice. “Don’t practice until you get it right. Practice until you can’t get it wrong.” Practice by repetition works as long as you practice with good form. The challenge can be overcoming boredom and loss of focus.
Either skipping drills because they are boring or performing the technique poorly because you have poor focus does not help you improve. Not seeing improvement and being bored can then lead to quitting. We need to keep ourselves challenged and focused if we are going to stay engaged in martial arts. I have seen many ways that martial artists stay engaged. Here are a few of the techniques that I have seen work:
Meditation through movement: I use this technique to stay engaged all the time. The repetitive movements allow me to free my mind. Repetition is a great way to facilitate meditation. We see it in repeated mantra (OHMMM), prayer beads, deep breathing and other meditation techniques. Using kata or individual techniques to help clear one’s mind of stress is effective and helps build the muscle memory we are trying to achieve through drilling.
I even use a mental version of this when I am having trouble sleeping. I visualize myself performing my kata or techniques in my head. Each step is sharp and intense. I even pattern my breathing with it. As I progress though my kata, my mind forgets what was keeping it up and before I complete my kata set, I usually find myself waking up in the morning.
Lastly, I use the mental technique to get my mind off something else. For example, when I am doing a plank that I need to hold for more than a minute, I will perform kata in my head. This technique really forces me to focus on the techniques since my abs are screaming ‘pay attention to us!’ This not only helps the time pass faster during an unpleasant physical task, the intense focus I need to use to keep my mind on track really imprints the technique on my mind.
Bunkai: This is a technique that I really need to spend more time on. A friend of mine is a Gojo Ryu practitioner (he would yell at me if I called him a master). He has been training for over 50 years and he remains engaged in the art because of bunkai. He analyzes each piece of a kata to learn the moves between the moves. We need to remember that these kata were developed to teach an entire martial arts system to students without giving away the secret sauce to outsiders. Kata are blue prints for martial arts systems not dances to be performed in front of judges. Digging into the intricacies of kata can be very engaging and useful in furthering martial arts knowledge.
Mixed Martial Arts: Learning multiple styles of martial arts and integrating them into your own style is another way to stay engaged. My re-immersion into the martial arts as an adult was through a mixed style. I have had traditionalists challenge the validity of a mixed style but I have embraced it. I find that the variety and range of techniques are stimulating and effective in defense. Being able to subdue a minor threat, like drunk uncle Bob at a wedding or address a true threat on the street is easier when you have a larger technique toolbox. Roundhouse kicking uncle Bob in the face at your sister’s wedding will probably be looked upon unfavorably. On the flip side, trying to peaceably subdue a knife wielding assailant has a good chance of getting you killed. The mix of stand up and ground; strikes and holds; along with throws and break-falls prepares the practitioner for a lot of situations. This mix of styles has led me to explore each style more deeply which has been an enriching experience.
Competition: Tournaments can be very stimulating. Putting your talent and endurance up against someone else’s is very stimulating. I have competed in several styles and have had great fun with it. If you choose competition as a source of engagement, it is important to keep in mind what competition is and what it is not. Competition is a show. It is not self-defense. The siren’s call of competition can lead the best away from the true goal of martial arts, being able to defend oneself. If you blitz a knife wielding attacker or if you throw your weapon up in the air while defending yourself, you will probably not get the results you are seeking. Having fun with martial arts, adding in some creative license, and changing technique to better apply to competition are fine if it helps you remain engaged in martial arts. Just be sure that you don’t do it at the expense of your ability to defend yourself.
As a martial artist, it is your responsibility to keep yourself engaged. Your teacher can’t do it for you. Your mind is either in it or it’s not. That is not to say that you will be highly intense and engaged for your whole martial arts career. There will be times that you are bored, frustrated and disengaged. You need to find the techniques to get you through those rough spots. Work with your teachers, do some experimentation on your own and find the method that keeps you engaged and focused.
When you find your rhythm, you can expand this method to your conditioning and even your work life. (do you think I am always motivated and inspired to write these articles?) Being engaged and focused will help you do most things you do better. Try out these techniques and let us know how they worked for you.