The Slight Edge Applied to the Martial Arts

I’ve been reading a book called The Slight Edge by Jeff Olson (see links below for more info). It’s a personal development book based around the concept that our success in anything, in our careers, relationships, fitness, skill acquisition, in life, is based on the little things we do or don’t do every day. The idea is that making big gains usually involves working toward a goal incrementally over a long period of time. The good thing about this is that these increments are small and easy to do on an ongoing basis. The bad thing is that they are also easy NOT to do.

When you make the time to do the small incremental task on a day, you don’t immediately see some massive change. Change is happening, but it’s so small that it’s unnoticeable. On the other side, if you don’t do the task, you don’t immediately see any negative side effect, making it easy NOT to do. You can easily justify in your mind that not doing it one day is not such a big deal. But according to the author, there is no such thing as coasting along with no change. You’re always either moving toward greatness or away from it, however small those movements may be. I recently experienced an example how powerful these small incremental movements can be if you keep them going.

The Slight Edge as Applied to Martial Arts

My Step from One Plateau to Another

I was teaching a particular joint lock during class the other day. As I performed the technique in front of my students I found the lock coming on so smoothly and effortlessly, without thought or consciousness of how I was doing it. I had started out explaining the usual points about the lock, where to grip, what angle to keep the arm at, etc, all the while noticing that those details were peripheral to these tiny structural movements I was making with my core structure to connect up the joints of the arm through the connection point on my body, where I was holding the hand to my chest. I was performing the lock and controlling my partner simply by maintaining that connection point, and was able to do so without doing many of the peripherals that people usually focus on, including torquing the wrist to get pain compliance.

I articulated this feeling to my students, adapting my lesson plan to what I was noticing in my own application, eliciting a few quizzical looks. The students couldn’t see the things I was doing. So I took the time to work with each group and apply the lock on them so they could feel what I was doing, at which point they were able to feel it even if they couldn’t understand it. I encouraged them to focus on maintaining good structure and posture and make tiny movements initiated from the core, hips and legs but expressed through the connection to the hand then into their parters joints locking up their structure, from wrist, to elbow to shoulder. I explained it as being a little like stirring a pot from inside your core, and that the difference between right and wrong is tiny, milimetres of movement. They didn’t necessarily get it then and there, but they certainly left the class more aware of what they’re striving for.

The Internal Workings of the Slight Edge

This concept isn’t something I just woke up and was able to do. I realize that it’s something I’ve been incrementally working on for a long time, in training with a number of martial arts instructors who pay attention to internal concepts, including styles such as KoKoDo Jujutsu, Taichi, Filipino Martial Arts to name a few. These instructors gave me concepts, tools and information that I’ve been gradually working into my own training. Sometimes these applications have been conscious, sometimes unconscious.

The internal concepts that have had such a profound impact on my training are all related to the use of posture, structural control, and alignment. But it was never a matter of being just told the info and immediately being able to do it. These instructors simply shone a light on the concept. It was up to me to take that and keep working on it over the long term every time I trained in any context.

The Problem with Internal Training

Honestly speaking, sometimes these internal concepts leave students feeling unsatisfied. Because they’re not able to immediately apply the internal concept demonstrated, they can feel frustrated with themselves or the teachings. It can be very easy to just dismiss the concept as being hokey, preferring to focus primarily on the external workings of techniques that are easier to understand and apply, though often limiting in terms of ubiquital application. But this runs the risk of causing one’s martial arts career to stagnate in the long run. Once a student has learned those external concepts, perhaps even over years of training, the student then finds themselves wanting. They stop making major improvements, simply learning more and more techniques. Without developing the internal workings of their techniques, progress is stalled. It’s not that you can’t learn internal concepts simply by practicing techniques. Some people are able to acquire it just by keeping their training going and making efficiency adjustments based on their successes and failures to do techniques. People who are smaller, who are unable to rely on strength to do techniques, are more likely to do so. But for those who could easily rely on size or strength, one must give the concepts their conscious attention to yield results.

Martial Arts Mastery and the Slight Edge

Ultimately, if you want to be the best martial artist you can be, you should be prepared to give it your attention over the long term. It doesn’t mean you have give up your day job and train 8 hours a day. The small incremental things you do may simply be attending classes twice a week, and doing some solo training or visualization training 10 minutes a day, while paying attention to the greater lessons that lie behind the techniques of your style. I can’t tell you what your slight edge will be. All I can say is that if you can find your own forward momentum that will keep you going, you can put yourself on the road to mastery.

Now over to you. What are your own personal “slight edge” edge activities that you maintain in your martial arts development? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

The Slight Edge: Turning Simple Disciplines into Massive Success by Jeff Olson is available at:

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