“The student who enters into this state of weariness shows that he actually does not understand and appreciate Karate. Therefore, if he does quit training and gives up Karate with only a superficial understanding of it, it can properly be said of him that a little knowledge was a dangerous thing.”
– Funakoshi Gichin
Burnout, depression, and anxiety are often seen as strictly contemporary issues, but while there is evidence that these occur more frequently in today’s world, the quotation above points to the fact that battling burnout in martial arts is not exclusively a modern issue, and that many generations of instructors and students have had to deal with the consequences of mental and physical exhaustion.
Even for those who are passionate about martial arts, especially for those who teach them for a living, training can reach a point where it becomes overwhelming. Any time put in beyond that threshold is not beneficial. Many times we show up to class simply out of habit, when truthfully our minds or hearts are invested elsewhere.
While Budo requires dedication and commitment to maximize efficiency under duress, there can be such a thing as too much training. The body can only handle so much; build-up of minor injuries or failure to recover from them can be a sign that physical burnout has set in. Harder to treat can be the mental and emotional fatigue that sets in, especially because denial is tempting for many who define their identities largely based on their passion for this art.
The following are some tips that have assisted me in avoiding and/or treating burnout from prolonged training.
It sounds obvious, but most often I see this with students who have been recently promoted. The recognition sparks renewed interest, and then suddenly the student goes from training a couple times a week to being at the Dojo daily. This usually lasts for a few months before the unsustainable pace becomes apparent, and in some cases the person ends up quitting altogether.
It’s important to remember that a martial arts career is a marathon, not a sprint. Slow and steady leads to long term progress and retention of skill, as well as a more stable and sustainable dedication to training.
I had a recent conversation about this with a fellow BJJ student who is preparing for a tournament. His approach is basically to carry on as usual. A lot of people drastically increase their reps or intensity heading into a competition, but martial arts is not like an exam that you can cram for the night before. There are going to be some natural peaks and valleys in the process, but a steady pace is the best way to get ahead in the race.
Burnout is often not a result of training, but specifically teaching. Leading a class–the planning and preparation of lessons, figuring out how to best explain and demonstrate the material, as well as dealing with people–can be exhausting. Even the people that you like can be draining when it’s the same personality quirks and egos in the room day in and day out.
If possible, delegating some of the teaching responsibility can take the pressure off. Of course, the main instructor is the one primarily in charge of running things, but that doesn’t mean the club will fall apart if a single class is instructed by someone else.
Also, don’t be afraid to take a few extra days around holidays when the classes are going to be poorly attended anyways. From a business perspective, there can be pressure to run as many classes as possible, but most established owners that I know have become comfortable shutting down on long weekends and taking a week or two off around Christmas and New Years.
Train Something New.
Cross training is always a huge opportunity to expand on your skill-set and knowledge base. It is refreshing to be a student, go into class with an open mind, and have someone tell you what to do. This reminds instructors of the joy and frustration that their own students are experiencing.
Cross training also provides valuable input, which is a critical source of creativity. One sign of burnout is boredom or lack of interest in an area that previously was a source of passion. In some cases, that might simply be boredom with teaching or training the same curriculum day in and day out. Changing pace by practicing a new style or approach can reignite that passion, and integrating those concepts into training can freshen the mood or attitude if your usual classes become stagnant.
This is another element that sounds obvious, yet we frequently fail to do. The challenge here is largely mental. Personally, I have trouble giving myself a day off; if there is a class, I feel like I should be there, and unless I am physically incapable of training due to injury, I feel guilty for missing class. Peer pressure can also be a powerful factor that motivates us to train when we aren’t going to get the most from the experience.
The discipline of martial arts dictates dedicating yourself to a higher ideal–of course, no one can live up to that vision of perfection. We are not machines. It’s okay to skip a workout or a practice when mind and body are not going to be invested in the process. This is a slippery slope; it’s important that rest is the exception, and doesn’t become the rule. But once in a while, you just need a day off.
It’s a hot topic. For some, this means doing yoga or meditating on a mountain. For others, it might be doing art or reading a good book by the fireplace.
I have a pragmatic approach. Once in a while, a beer and a football game are needed just to unwind and recharge. Self-care is supposed to look different for every individual, but it is significant because if you fail to look after your own physical and mental well-being, it is impossible to positively impact those around you.
Taking these steps can help both prevent and recover from burnout. If you’re dedicated to fighting arts, you will likely reach a point where you experience these feelings. The important thing is to recognize they are occurring and have a strategy to address them. Admitting that you are exhausted is not a weakness, provided that you have an effective method to recover. If you do, you can get back to training at full force and with contagious enthusiasm as soon as possible. If not, you risk becoming Funakoshi’s prototypical quitter, for whom a little knowledge of martial arts was actually detrimental.
 Funakoshi, Gichin. Karate-do Kyohan: The Master Text. Kodansha International, 1973. Pg. 37.