Smaller statured men and women often encounter many challenges in the martial arts related to their smaller strength, weight, height and reach. More often than not, they frustratedly struggle against their limitations, which frequently leads to their giving up early on in their career. Or if they stick with it, they sometimes settle for less with themselves, accepting that there are some things they will simply never be able to do well in the martial arts. This is what happens when you focus on your weaknesses and the liabilities they present. Over the past 20 years of training as a smaller statured woman, I’ve learned that the best way to compensate for so-called liabilities is to focus on developing my personal strengths and the unique opportunities they present.
The Liability of Lack
When people grapple with people who are larger than them, for example, they are often at a strength disadvantage, especially women. If someone were to focus on this disadvantage, their response might be to spend more time trying to increase their strength as much as possible, only to find themselves still at a disadvantage against people who are considerably bigger, no matter how strong they get. That’s not to say I deem strength development pointless and recommend forfeiting all resistance training for a person in this position. I do plenty of resistance training in my home workouts and make the best out of the strength I have, I just don’t focus on it as a primary strategy in my development as a martial artist. The same goes for when I deal with people who have a reach advantage in sparring. I have a couple of techniques for maximizing the minimal reach my body affords, but as soon as people who are taller with longer limbs start using those same techniques, it sets me right back to square one. So if it were my primary developmental focus, it would always be at a loss against people with the reach advantage. Compensation primarily by minimizing disadvantages is a self-defeating strategy, a losing proposition that always puts the ball in the other person’s court, whether you’re grappling, sparring or defending yourself.
Capitalizing on Your Strengths
When I face a grappling partner who’s a lot bigger than me, I don’t look at myself as being at a strength/weight/height disadvantage, I see myself as having the speed/agility/flexibility advantage. Whether the person is trying to hold me down, pass my guard, or submit me, I seek to capitalize on my speed, agility and flexibility to get the better of the situation. The same goes for sparring. If I were to use the same types of strategies as someone with a significant height and reach advantage, it would likely result in my getting constantly pelted. Instead, I focus on developing sense of distance and timing in ways that I can better capitalize on my speed and agility. Animals instinctively do this when they fight. When a cat faces a dog, it doesn’t try to use the same tactics the dog uses, staying standing, lunging and biting. It uses its claws, timing its attack as the dog lunges in, springing over its bite with its quick and powerful hind legs. This approach is not only more efficient, it is also mentally empowering in your training. It feels good to use approaches that come more naturally to you, to discover your body’s inherent gifts, allowing you to “do what you do best.” You enjoy your training more, which means you do it more thereby sky-rocketing your development.
An Honest Look at Yourself
You may have some areas of weakness that truly deserve your attention, areas in which you may have let go for so long that you’re no longer operating at your optimal capacity. Perhaps you’re overweight for your size, or you’ve worked a desk job for so many years that your body has become overly stiff with a limited range of motion. Or perhaps you’ve lost strength or mobility in a limb due to an injury. It is easy to ignore or overlook these types weaknesses because the training required to get past them can seem daunting so people will instead try to focus on what they’re good at so they don’t feel as bad about themselves, which at best leads to an endless plateau in development or at worst injuries that limit training and therefore development even further. Sometimes you just have to admit you have a physical liability that needs your attention, then suck it up and swallow the necessary pill so you can use your body optimally, allowing you to fully explore its strengths.
The Bottom Line
Everyone has strengths and weaknesses, areas of opportunity and limitation. We shouldn’t ignore our limitations, but we shouldn’t define ourselves by them either, both in the world of martial arts and in every day life. I can’t think of a more frustrating, demoralizing way to train or live! So focus on capitalizing on opportunities using your strengths, while minimizing your limitations by improving on your weaknesses sensibly and efficiently. In doing these things, you embrace your body and mind’s unique lens with which you can enjoy your own unique experience of the martial arts and the world around you.
In what ways have you learned to develop your strengths to overcome your body’s unique limitations? Please share your experiences in the comments. 🙂