Western society is a often characterized with a spirit of ambitious go-getting. The people who are often thought to make the most of life are the ones who set goals and work diligently toward them. You see this in the martial arts too, especially with regards to the belt system. As a white belt, a student looks to learn all the techniques on the yellow belt system. Once they have developed the required proficiency at those techniques, they’re tested and usually promoted. Lather, rinse, and repeat until life takes you away from the art or you get bored.
But life isn’t just a series of goals strung together seamlessly. There are peaks as well as valleys when it comes to learning. Sometimes, you struggle with a mental block and just can’t seem to learn to do a particular technique. Worse yet for some, maybe there is no drama whatsoever as you go through the dreaded plateau in which you don’t see any obvious progress for a long time as you work on a technique. Some teachers or motivators will say that you should never take a break from trying to achieve your goals. You should always be actively striving.
Well I say nuts to that.
Breaks have their place. In fact, they can even propel you further toward your goals. This may seem counter-intuitive, but it’s true all the same. There are a wide variety of different types of breaks that can help you learn something better or become more productive, but they generally fall into these 3 categories:
1. Shift in Focus. This is a short form of break that can help, usually with smaller issues, but sometimes bigger ones too. You may be working on a particular problem and struggling to figure it out, like the answer is there in your brain or body, but somehow just out of reach. This is akin to those time when you have a certain word or a person’s name just on the tip of your tongue but you just can’t spit it out. In martial arts training terms, it may be that you know a particular sequence, but for some reason, you just can’t pull it out of you. This is when a shift in focus can help. You’ve already tried to solve the problem with your conscious mind to no avail, so you put the idea on the back-burner to simmer while you work on something else. Now that you’ve shifted your focus, it’s the unconscious mind’s time to do its job. Then out of nowhere, the answer just comes to you.
2. Planned Break. This can take many forms, from a 15 minute coffee break at work, a day off (my Dad used to call these ‘mental health days’), a vacation in which you go away to relax and experience a change of scenery, or a “rest” day, when it comes to physical pursuits. They all have the same things in common. It is time in which you give your mind or body a break from the work or activity you’re pursuing. These can have a wide variety of benefits. When it comes to the mind, you give it time to wander, to enjoy other activities, to clean your slate (I find meditation particular effective for this), to spark your creativity (you often get your greatest ideas when you’re doing things completely unrelated to your goals, like showering or riding on the bus, or reading a piece of fiction), and so on. As for the body, it gives your muscles a chance to recuperate (every serious weight lifter will tell you how important rest days are). If you engage in other physical activities like the martial arts, it can help develop different physical perspectives and sensitivities that might be eluding you in your primary activity. Bruce Lee himself was an avid ballroom dancer. Read about some of my favourite cross-training activities for martial artists.
3. Forced Break. These often come because a person failed to take the breaks they needed earlier on. Not always, but often. These come in the form of injuries, mental health issues like stress, anxiety or depression, relationship problems (which often come as a result of the mental health issues), etc. They are often seen as a major setback keeping a person from focusing on their goals, but they shouldn’t be. There is opportunity in every crisis. Yes, you may have to completely stop a certain type of work or activity in order to get past the hurdle, but you can come back stronger for having done this. Learn from the mistakes that led to your forced break. Was it a technical error, a lack of focus due to overwork, or was it something that happened as a result as a particular attitude you might have? I’ve seen martial arts students get injured because they push themselves too hard through a problem they’re having. They think that if they put extra effort, then they’ll push past the problem. Sometimes the opposite is true and they need to be like water to find a way around the rocks. Read 6 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t “Force” It in Martial Arts Training. Forced breaks are a good time for personal reflection so you can learn from your mistakes then come back with a new, improved outlook or approach that will make you learn faster, be more adaptive, more productive, etc. Bruce Lee himself seriously injured his back doing certain weight training exercises. According to the Bruce Lee Foundation biography, he was ordered to complete bed rest and told that undoubtedly he would never do gung fu again. For the next 6 months, Bruce stayed in bed, but he also used this time to re-define his goals and develop his writings on the martial arts, leaving a written legacy for the world.
What things have you learned from different types of breaks? Please share your experiences in the comments.