Martial Arts Skill Development: Settling for Less or Striving for More?

Martial Arts Development: Settling for Less or Striving for More?Over a lifetime, we learn a lot of different skills, some are practical, like typing, cooking, and car maintenance, ones that we expect to use on an ongoing basis throughout our lives. Others are ones that we simply enjoy with minimal “practical” value beyond the way they make us feel, like visual arts, performance arts, or various sports like golf or tennis.

Whatever the skill, we only have so much time to dedicate to our various pursuits. As such, we sometimes settle for what we consider an “acceptable” level of skill to get by. When we reach this point, we either consider ourselves to be good enough at the skill that we’ll be able to call upon it when needed. Many people do this for skills such as bike riding or swimming. Or we’re happy enough to continue enjoying the activity at that level without feeling the need to stretch ourselves to keep improving our ability. This is often the case with inter-sports like softball or sports that people only occasionally enjoy like golf or skiing. We don’t necessarily want to increase our level of ability to perform at more competitive levels. We just want to be good enough to be able to do them enjoyably in a certain context.

The martial arts are different, however. If you’re learning it for self-defense, there is definitely a level you can get to gives you the basic skills and mindset necessary to call upon the skill when needed in the most common types of attacks. But it goes the other way too. If you’re training for general interest in them as an art form or as something that offers a challenge while keeping you in shape, they can also be something enjoyable to train in over the long term. If you see the martial arts as the latter, it is important to examine your training patterns so you don’t find yourself settling for lesser levels of technique over the long-term.

Embracing Struggle

If you see yourself as a long-term martial artist, for the most part, you should be focused on continually improving your techniques. If you come across a technique that challenges you mentally or physically, embrace it. These techniques are often the ones that offer you the most growth as a martial artist and as a person. Because of the difficulty, however, you might be tempted to only reach a level of ability with the skill that’s only enough to get by, but it’s not really true to the spirit of the technique. Resist this. Do not settle for less. It will come back to haunt you if you’re in it for the long term. It’ll either hamper your ability to do more complicated forms of the technique, and then you’ll likely have to re-learn it properly, which will be harder to do later as the habit will have become ingrained.

Settling for an Acceptable Level

Some techniques may be less suited for your body type, making them impracticable for use with many situations or with many training partners. Perhaps you have a mobility issue in your hips that prevents you from doing high roundhouse kicks. This may mean that you have to settle for doing the kick only for lower targets. If it is possible to improve your situation, by all means, you should do so as much as is practical, but you should also know that some times you may have to settle for doing well-executed roundhouse kicks at the height that makes sense for you. Be sure to discuss these kinds of limitations with your instructor, however, so you don’t end up settling when the issue can be resolved in some other way. Sometimes they’ll be able to fix your technique. Sometimes, they’ll swap the technique for one that makes more sense for you.

Kaizen: Ongoing Progression

Mastery is never truly achieved, so there really is no “acceptable” level in which improvement in your chosen martial art is no longer necessary. I discussed this point in last week’s blog post, Being Process-Oriented vs. Goal-Oriented in the Martial Arts. I also talked about it in The Only Person Worth Competing Against in the Martial Arts.¬†You just keep raising the bar. As you get better, you’ll find that you reach plateaus in which it seems like you don’t improve for a long time.

If you find yourself getting bored during a plateau, try to find ways to mix things up. In your solo training, maybe this means trying new combinations or working with new equipment. In partner training, try to find new ways to challenge yourself, like making attacks more adaptive, or by doing more “live” training. Be sure to talk to your instructor if you want to do this sort of thing during class though. She might have a specific agenda for the class that makes these kinds of changes prohibitive. Or she might have other ideas that will challenge you that will work with her plan.

If you keep your motivation and interest up, you’ll keep training through the longer plateaus that are common at higher levels. And at some point, something in your overall technique shifts and you reach a whole new level, kind of like the “AHA!” moment discussed in my one of my recent blog posts, but at the macro level, affecting a greater variety of techniques. These realizations are awesome and what makes long-term training so satisfying.

Now over to you. Have you ever had to “settle” for an acceptable level for a particular technique? How have you kept your interest levels up during longer plateaus? If you had any experiences that might help others in their training, please feel free to share in the comments.

Comments (1)

One thought on “Martial Arts Skill Development: Settling for Less or Striving for More?

  1. Good points! I’ve had to adjust my training to accommodate knee and shoulder injuries. There are some moves I just can’t manage, but Sensei always seems to find an alternative move that will accomplish the same goal. Since I train for self defense, to me it’s more about being sure that I will succeed in an encounter with violence regardless of the approach. Giving up is NOT an option.

    I’m grateful that I’ve found a dojo that permits me to explore adjustments to techniques instead of holding my progress hostage to a specific set of moves. It motivates me to keep training and keep opportunities open for success.

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