My Sensei breaks the learning spectrum down into three distinct categories: 30% are the Alphas, the physically gifted specimens that acquire and assimilate skills within a few reps. 40% are the Betas, who are governed by the law of reciprocity—the results they see are roughly correlated to the effort, time, and diligence of their practice. The last 30% are destined to below-average performance, regardless of how hard they try.
It should be noted that, as a spectrum, these categories are subject to standard distribution—that is to say, some learners might be at either end of the extreme, and some might be on the cusp between two of these classifications. Amongst scientists, there is actually some debate about whether Alpha-ism is a real phenomenon is human beings.
In animals, that trait is actually a social quality rather than a physical one, but whether it exists or not in humans, we can simply say from empirical evidence that some athletes are particularly talented or possess natural qualities that predispose them to success in martial arts. On occasion, I have been mistaken for one of these individuals by my peers, students, and, on good days, instructors. The truth is that those moments represent the Renaissance ideal of Sprezzura—the concept of “effortless effort,” or working your ass off behind closed doors to be mistaken for a gifted individual.
Unlike my Renaissance predecessors, I don’t conceal my work ethic. Any success that I have in martial arts hasn’t come as a result of natural talent. I am not an Alpha learner. For all of those who, like me, are not particularly gifted athletes, here are some tips and tricks to keep up with the real elite.
Fitness is the Poor Person’s Talent:
Fitness is often mistaken for athleticism, so if you’re not a gifted athlete, a good strength and conditioning program works in your favour. It will fool some people, and possibly even yourself at times.
As a martial artist, your body is the toolbox that you need to develop hands-on skills. Alpha athletes can be slightly out of shape, and still get away with it because of their raw, innate physical qualities—speed, strength, stamina, balance, and an uncanny “feel” for how to execute things correctly. They don’t necessarily need to work on these attributes; they can just roll out of bed in the morning and they have them.
As a Beta athlete, these qualities need to be developed meticulously. That means not only putting in your training time in on the mat, but working hard outside the martial arts environment to build the physicality required to keep up with the Alphas.
A balanced conditioning regime should improve stamina, strength, and flexibility. It also requires enough variety so your body doesn’t get accustomed to doing the same exercises all the time, and so you don’t grow bored or demotivated to maintain the routine. That’s how to keep the tools in the toolbox sharp and in good working condition.
The Expectation Horizon:
Alphas can accomplish great things in a condensed time frame, receiving promotions, winning competitions, and developing skills far faster than the average martial artist would. As a Beta, you can still expect solid results, but you’re going to have to be patient.
A lot of people in martial arts worry about their “time in grade,” or how long they’ve been “stuck” at the same rank. Instructors often give estimates about when people will move up based on their previous learning and experience, with the corollary that it depends on maintaining consistent training habits in the future.
Here is the truth that very few people want to admit: the learning curve in martial arts is different for every individual, and it is not a steady, upward process. You might plateau for months. You might have a breakthrough and excel. You might be like me, where you often need to get worse before you get better. I don’t know why, but when I get exposed to new skills and strategies, I usually get my ass kicked for a few weeks before I can integrate that new input into my existing repertoire.
In a short time frame, progress is not correlated with effort. It’s unfair, but true. Especially as a Beta athlete, you will sometimes see Alphas surpass you in skill level with less time and effort. Just remember that your success is not what happens today or tomorrow. It’s in the distance, on the far horizon.
Outwork and Outlast:
If you are truly passionate about martial arts, one day you’ll look up and find yourself at or near the front of a line that you used to be at the very back of. A training partner of mine once commented, “I don’t feel like I got that much better; it’s just that everyone else left.” And that is exactly the point.
Consistency is the key for Beta learners. Taking a month or two off is like starting from scratch. It’s not so for the Alphas. For example, they can get away with taking a month or two off, cramming for a couple weeks before a grading or competition, and still put on an impressive performance. They only need a few classes to get back in gear.
As a Beta, you can’t afford prolonged breaks. It’s what you do when no one is watching that really makes the difference. In my Dojo, I am usually the first to arrive for class and the last to leave. That work ethic is what keeps me afloat, what allows me to outlast many others who have already called it a day.
The old expression is “Hard work beats talent if talent doesn’t work hard.” You can’t necessarily change the cards you were dealt when it comes to the perspective of athletic inclination and natural physical attributes, but you can change how you play the hand.
The other critical factor is that you have to enjoy the process, not only the result. Alphas are used to seeing tangible results—belts, trophies, awards, or recognition. Many of them lose interest or grow frustrated when these don’t continue piling up at the rate they once did, and they sometimes quit because of it. They see the learning process in martial arts as a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.
As a Beta, you are liberated from these concerns. Sure, the results and recognition is nice, but not necessary. Sometimes you win, sometimes you get your butt handed to you. Maybe it takes you twice as long as someone else to get that next belt. But the reality is, if you are a true martial artist, it doesn’t matter. Win, lose, or draw, you’ll be back the next day to do it all again.