How to Get Out of a Martial Rut

If there’s one thing I’m confident in claiming I know about martial arts, it’s how it feels to be stuck.

As a Beta learner, I often go through long plateaus or regressions in training before (if?) I improve my skills. These periods are challenging from the perspective of motivation: when you’re not seeing concrete signs that the sweat, blood, and tears are achieving anything, the negative voices in your mind start to question why the hell you’re doing this at all. 

As one of my BJJ instructors said, this is where you need discipline to replace motivation. Motivation ebbs and flows, but discipline keeps you on the path even when the desire to continue is waning.

However, if you’re feeling like you’re in a prolonged rut, there are other hacks you can try to break the cycle of spinning your wheels.

Change Something

“Change what?” you might be asking. Something. Anything. 

Work with a partner you haven’t trained with before. Experiment with strategies or techniques you don’t usually use. Try a new colour of Gi. Get a new haircut. Do anything you can think of to freshen the experience.

An unpopular suggestion would be to try out a class at a different school. Yes, your current instructor will probably not like that concept, but when something is not working, you can’t simply continue doing the same thing and expecting different results.

Citing loyalty, a lot of school owners would encourage the opposite—just stay the course, show up to class, renew your membership—but they have an ulterior financial motive. You have to question whether these platitudes are in the best interest of the instructor or the student. 

I’m not saying to jump ship every time you hit a rough spell; plateaus and regressions are natural, and you need to work through them. However, every outstanding martial artist I know has gained experience from multiple styles and instructors. When your improvement has flatlined, it makes sense to do the same thing that your instructors did, doesn’t it? 

Cross-training—whether between different martial arts, different styles of the same martial art, or different instructors within the same style—is quite illuminating. Sometimes having the same technique or concept explained in a different way helps the lightbulb go on.

Exposure to a new martial arts experience can broaden your skillset and approach, as well as reveal any training scars you might be developing, but it can also remind you what it is that you value about your usual training regimen. Sometimes window shopping only serves to reinforce that you were in the right store in the first place.

Get Perspective

Judging your own level of skill and ability is nearly impossible to do objectively. Some perpetually overestimate themselves (as social media proves routinely), and some perpetually sell themselves short.

Remember to take the long view of your martial arts career. A few weeks of stagnation is a blip, not a long-term trend. If you examine your ability over the long run, it is likely that the overall market trend is moving upwards. If that is not the case, then you need to re-examine your training habits and that annoying discipline factor I mentioned earlier.

It can be good to talk with your instructors as well about how you’re progressing. You may feel as though you’re struggling to get better, but your teacher might be able to illustrate exactly where the silver lining is.

Find Enjoyment

Martial arts are more fun when you’re performing well. Getting knocked around in sparring or tapped out ten times consecutively are inherently not enjoyable experiences, although you need those growing pains and reality checks in order to ultimately improve. Every martial artist must be able to grit their teeth and endure failure until they can figure out how to succeed.

For most hobbyists who are pursuing martial arts for recreation rather than as a profession, the main reason for being there is fun. It’s supposed to be enjoyable to train. Remind yourself what you like about the martial arts experience and find ways to nurture that.

Personally, laughter is extremely important in my training experience. Every martial arts school I’ve stayed at, the students and instructors have a sense of humour. We take the training seriously, but not ourselves. Getting tapped out ten times in a round is not so bad if everyone is smiling and joking while it’s happening—assuming they are laughing with you, not at you.

As Motobu Choki said: “The art (i.e. karate) of someone who is too serious has no flavour.”[i] If you keep what you love about martial arts in focus, the periods of stagnation and struggle will pass.

Conclusion

You’re supposed to face adversity as part of the journey; it is a necessary step towards the goal of becoming your best martial self. However, just because adversity is part of the process doesn’t mean you should take it lying down.

When you’re in a rut, analyze where you are in the process, and what, if anything, can be done about it. You can’t completely avoid the bumps in the road, but you can exercise some control over how long they last and how much damage they cause.

Ultimately, all of us enjoy training when we’re succeeding more than the opposite. If the failures are not leading us to greener pastures, than what’s the point of enduring them at all?


[i] Mizuhiko, Nakata. “Collection of Sayings by Motobu Choki.” Karate: My Art. International Ryukyu Karate Research Group, 2002. Pg. 31.

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