I was passing through the downtown core of a major North American city a few years ago. I had 40 minutes to kill, so I went for a walk and quickly came across a martial arts club I had heard about but never set foot in. So into the club I went, to check it out and introduce myself.
I was immediately struck by two contrasting impressions…
The first thing I noticed were the inspirational posters and sayings painted all over the walls. Most of these quotes were about the benefits of training and self discipline, like “A disciplined mind leads to happiness,” and “A man who conquers himself is greater than one who conquers a thousand men in battle.” It was good stuff, the sort of rhetoric that makes parents sign their kids up for multi-year black belt programs.
The second thing I noticed was the school owner himself. He was behind the counter, absolutely losing his mind and screaming into the phone at the top of his lungs:
“What the f*** do you mean that those m*****f****** T shirts aren’t ready yet?!? I ORDERED THEM LAST WEEK AND YOU G** D*** TOLD ME THAT THEY’D BE READY TODAY!!!!! You are a complete A*****!!!”
In other words, he was having the kind of meltdown that only a three year old with the vocabulary of a sailor should be able to pull off.
It was funny, disturbing and embarrassing, all at the same time.
And it’s the exact opposite of what I want to talk about today.
Martial arts training has many benefits, including health, fitness, camaraderie, confidence, and the ability to kick butt in self defense situations.
But the biggest benefits of training are emotional resilience and self discipline.
Even if you’re training every day of the week then you’re probably still spending the vast majority of your time outside the dojo. Therefore what you take with you off the mats, into your ‘regular’ life, is actually more important than the skills you’re developing on the mats.
Live training develops emotional resilience, and the discipline to stick to a plan.
Let’s say you’re rolling in jiu-jitsu class and you get mounted by some big, strong dude. It’s a terrible position, but you don’t give up and you don’t panic. You know what you need to do: keep your arms in, protect your neck, establish defensive posture, work for the escape and stay alert in case your opponent makes a mistake and gives you a way out.
Training through bad situations develops emotional resilience (i.e. not freaking out) and self discipline (i.e. making a plan and following it under pressure). These are important skills on the mat, but even more so in real life.
And sometimes things don’t work out – you do everything right but your opponent still taps you out with a vicious collar choke. That’s OK, there are no guarantees on the mat. Getting tapped out is no big deal, but you’ll also get to work trying to figure out how to stop him from doing it again the next time.
It’s the same thing with life, where the only thing that’s guaranteed is that your plans will fail at some point. When that happens, no problem; it’s not the fact that you failed, it’s how you deal with that failure. If you’re in a terrible situation then keep working, planning and hustling. There probably is a way out of your conundrum, but you’ll never find it if you just lie down and die. You may not score a goal with every shot, but as Wayne Gretzky said, you miss 100% of the shots you do not take.
Keep a level head. Wallowing in self pity, wringing your hands, and running around ineffectually in all directions doesn’t get you out of the mount position, and it rarely solves any problems in life either.
Martial arts are a microcosm of the real world. You get beat down and crushed, but also celebrate many small victories along the way. The bottom line is that we don’t train because it’s easy: we train because it’s hard!
I’m not just pontificating about some theoretical points here. The last year – 2014 – served up some insanely difficult challenges for me.
Maybe some day I’ll write about it in detail, but in the last year I held my mother’s hand as she died from ALS, people close to me slipped into addiction, three separate friends tried to commit suicide, there were real estate deals gone terribly sideways, and a multi-year romantic relationship ending suddenly. All in one year – like I said, it was a tough one.
But I’m doing OK, I really am. In many ways I’ve managed to take the negatives and turn them into positives. For example, my mother dying was incredibly tough, but she got to go out on her own terms – at home and surrounded by family. Would that we could all be so lucky. And, as always, a death is a gift, because it kicks you in the balls to remind you that life is short, that there just isn’t time for stupid stuff, and not to waste a single day.
For the most part I managed to remain pretty calm during my annus horribilis, my year from hell. Staying calm, coming up with layered contingency plans, and then trying to put those plans into action kept me sane and stopped me from completely stalling out.
How did I manage this? Well, in large part I have to give credit to my 3 decades of martial arts training. Staring adversity in the face on a regular basis in a controlled setting (the dojo) made it possible to stay effective when the adversity dial got turned up to ludicrous levels for a while.
Thank you to my teachers and training partners: I’m sure you had no idea how kicking the snot out of me all those years was going to end up helping me in the long run.
Click here to read the related article called Self Defense, Competition, and Performing in High Pressure Situations
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