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.

Where Loyalty Lies

In part, the appeal of Japanese Budo is its pursuit of higher ideas that transcend an individual era or practitioner, a philosophy or ethos that dictates an endeavour beyond the mere physical demands of the practice. These ideals can be summarized by the principles of Bushido (武士道, the way of the warrior). 

Historically, these tenets were actually articulated during the denouement of the samurai in the Edo Period—in periods of frequent war, they were too busy fighting to survive to spend time on introspection about the deeper implications of life and death[1]—but they serve the purpose of romanticizing the way of the warrior beyond the scope of the samurai’s utilitarian role in feudal Japan.

The seven principles of Bushido

One of the defining principles of Bushido is 忠義 (“Chugi,” loyalty), exemplified by the samurai’s unquestioned willingness to die—even by his own hand—for his lord. Today, thankfully, the stakes are not so drastic, but the virtue of loyalty is often espoused within the Dojo as a vital aspect of Japanese Budo. 

In today’s epoch, what does loyalty in martial arts truly mean? How does the modern martial artist remain steadfast in allegiance to the true pursuit of Budo without being corrupted by the politics and propaganda that taint the industry?

Not to a Style

Many insist on blind devotion to a single club or style, particularly within the realm of traditional martial arts. This thinking can easily be extrapolated into a cult-like following, where practitioners are susceptible to falling for wildly impractical teachings or simply are taken advantage of—financially and psychologically—to put their instructors on a pedestal.

There is a certain resistance to cross-training amongst many traditional martial artists, perhaps in part because of sunk-cost fallacy. Only focusing on a single martial art or style is portrayed as a virtue, but the reality is that many are not sticking to a single system out of loyalty; they are doing it out of fear that another system might expose the weaknesses and flaws in their own training methodology.

This doesn’t mean that you should jump ship at every opportunity; it is important to train long enough to get more than a superficial understanding of a system or style before exploring other avenues. However, the best martial artists and instructors that I’ve had the privilege of working with have multiple black belts or instructor accreditations in several martial arts.

As a driver, you have to learn to check your blind spots when changing lanes; as martial artists, we have to learn to do the same as we progress along the way. I’ve always found cross-training extremely helpful in identifying where I need to focus my future efforts, and to spark interest in new concepts or situations that my previous training had not addressed in sufficient detail. I’ve also had my students join other Dojos and be exposed to different teachings, and guess what—they come back as better, more well-rounded martial artists every time.

Not to Lineage

Ya think?

Particularly in Karate, many insist on deifying the founding fathers of their traditions. I’m all for acknowledging your sources and paying homage to your roots, but the reality is that we probably wouldn’t be impressed by the skills of many past masters if we could transport them to the 21st Century.

Coming from an “authentic” lineage is not a qualification. There is always a gap between what is taught and what is learned, as I’ve discovered from a decade as a language instructor and almost two teaching Karate. Furthermore, generational and linguistic barriers between ourselves and the pioneers of Okinawan Toudi make it virtually impossible to know whether our current efforts would make them proud or have them rolling over in their graves.

Besides which, trying to make dead masters proud is not the point. Many traditionalists want historical authenticity, but which era do you choose? Most “traditional Okinawan” Karate Dojo wear Gis, belts, and use Japanese terminology—none of which would have been in existence in 19th Century Okinawa. 

In addition, narratives show that early martial arts teachers were not altruistic or egoless. Many initially denied their students entry, forcing potential candidates to perform menial tasks—as illustrated by The Karate Kid—without the payoff of it developing into actual skill. Some threw hot tea in the faces of their prospective students to test their tempers[2], asked for months of labour without pay before teaching them[3], or deliberately taught them wrong to maintain superior skill within their own families[4].

Honouring the heritage of your practice is very different from being stuck glorifying the past. I believe we are beholden not to preserving the past, but to making traditional teachings relevant and meaningful today—which is the best way to ensure they will continue to be perpetuated in the future.

Not to Curriculum

Many justify their allegiance to a single organization or instructor not based on tenure or leadership, but on the content of the practices therewithin. In other words, they justify their loyalty because they are practicing the “best” stuff around.

The issue is that content does not make someone an elite martial artist; training methodology and dedicated practice does. You can find the majority of curriculum content for virtually every martial art and style on YouTube these days, but most instructors would agree that studying those videos is not sufficient to make someone competent.

In order to develop skill, you need both a methodology within your training that supports continual improvement, as well as an instructor and training partners who have a selfless attitude towards your skill acquisition—which brings me to the next point.

To People? Kind of.

Surely, if nowhere else, your loyalty should lie towards the people with whom you’ve shared blood, sweat, and tears, right? Partially. 

I’ve made many of my closest friends through martial arts, including role models, peers, and students. Some of my fondest memories are moments shared on and around the mats, where you build an instant camaraderie that most Muggles cannot possibly begin to understand.

The problem is that people change. Their priorities shift. They evolve in ways we don’t choose or like. They outgrow one another. They fail to live up to our expectations and the ideals that Budo dictates we pursue.

Regarding people, I believe we should remain loyal towards what they have given us. We should be grateful for the time spent in the presence of mastery, and for the memories that make us want to continue chasing the impossible. 

However, we also have to remember that we can’t expect those memories to perpetuate themselves indefinitely. Every phase of our training and lives is finite, and eventually, we find ourselves at a fork in the road where we are forced to reassess our journey, say goodbye to the companions we’ve had on it thus far, and find new compatriots who are going the same direction.

I’ve found many martial artists, citing lack of loyalty, are burdened with bitter feelings towards former teachers, peers, or students that they’ve had fallings out with. Of course, the Dojo can be an intense atmosphere, but once two people’s paths have diverged, I fail to see the value of fostering such bile. I much prefer to let go of the negative and appreciate the years of support and productivity spent in one another’s presence. 

Of course, this is easier said than done.

To Principles

The part of martial arts that will survive indefinitely, without question, bias, feeling, ulterior motive, or ego, are the principles and concepts that define success in all of our respective art forms. Aligning your practice with those principles is “the dispassionate aim”[5] of every practitioner, teacher, style, and curriculum. It is the aspect that will ultimately transcend all of us, regardless of how much or how little we accomplish in our careers.

This is why, despite the fact that it arguably contradicts the Bushido tenet of 礼 (“Rei,” respect), I have a certain admiration for those who call out practices and teachings that are impractical or unsound. Even though some might perceive it as rude or disrespectful, we need people like McDojo Life in our community to hold us all accountable to the reality that not all martial arts are created equal or implemented effectively.  Matsumura Sokon explained it this way: “To all those whose progress remains hampered by ego-related distractions let humility, the spiritual cornerstone upon which the fighting traditions rest, serve to remind you to place virtue ahead of vice, values ahead of vanity and principles ahead of personalities.”[6]

Ultimately, no matter who you are, what martial art or style you practice, who taught you, or what you call the techniques you practice, you are responsible for answering the question, “Does my training align with sound concepts and theories?”

As cold as it may sound, our only unwavering loyalty can be towards the principles of our practices. They are what all of us have in common, all of us can relate to, and all of us strive to conform to during our brief, fleeting, beautiful, doomed pursuit of the impossible.


[1] Kammer, Reinhard. Zen and Confucius in the Art of Swordsmanship. Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 1969. Pg. 7-9.

Leggett, Trevor, trans. Samurai Zen: The Warrior Koans. Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd, 2002. Pg. 33.

[2] Bishop, Mark. Okinawan Karate: Teachers, Styles, and Secret Techniques. Tuttle Publishing, 1999. Pg. 60.

[3] Miyahira, Katsuya. “Recollections of Motobu.” Karate: My Art. International Ryukyu Karate Research Group, 2002. Pg. 34.

[4] Clark, Christopher M. Okinawan Kobudo: A History of Weaponry Styles and Masters. Clarke’s Canyon Press, 2013. Pg. 55-56.

[5] McCarthy, Patrick. “Sometimes you don’t know how to fit in until you break out.” <http://www.koryu-uchinadi.org/KU_HAPV.pdf> 2005.

[6] McCarthy, Patrick. “Beyond Physical Training.” International Ryukyu Karate Research Society Blog. <http://irkrs.blogspot.com/2013/12/beyond-physical-training.html> 1994.