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.

Training Scars

I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.

I first heard “training scars” a few years ago from my one of my coaches, who threw it out there casually as if it were a commonplace martial arts term. However, after a quarter century of Karate training, I had never heard it before then.

For those like myself who might not be familiar with the phrase, it simply means habits that emerge from training which do not translate well to “real life”—whichever outside context you apply your skills in, such as self-defence or competition. The reality is that we have different priorities and outcomes in day-to-day training than we do for either of those contexts, and so it makes sense that we develop habits which are conducive to success in our most common environment, but not necessarily when other variables change.

Here are some common examples of training scars that might develop as a result of your average class.

Pulling Punches:

When I was growing up in the Dojo, “control” was one of the most frequent words used by my Sensei during the training process. I remember practicing exercises, either with a target such as a shield or a partner, where we tried to punch with as much power and speed as possible without making contact. In hindsight, this seems like a weird training methodology—creating the habit of not hitting things, instead of the reverse.

Of course, in sparring, we don’t want to injure our training partners, so pulling back is standard practice in any striking art—especially for those of us who are hobbyists with no interest in fighting full contact. The problem is that, when it comes time to turn it on and hit hard, a lot of people have trouble making the leap.

This guy doesn’t seem to have trouble making the leap . . .

Point sparring (again, common in Karate, though luckily not in the Dojo where I started) also has a serious drawback in this aspect. Fighters get used to stopping after a single shot lands (and screaming to signal their success), which, as we know from full contact competitions, is certainly not a guarantee that the fight is over. In self-defence, stopping to admire your handywork rather than pressing the advantage you’ve gained could be disastrous.

Missed it by that much.

Unfortunately, some form of this training scar is hard to avoid without risking injury. Even those who do fight full contact can’t practice that way on a daily basis. You can simulate the process by impacting focus mitts, heavy bags, or BOBs, or by taking the power out and doing some touch sparring with appropriate protective equipment, but there is no real substitute for hitting someone as hard as you can. You simply have to train with the correct intent and mindset behind your training, and hope that, when the time comes, the simulation has prepared you well enough.

This is one of the major advantages of grappling-based martial arts—you can come very close to the “real thing” in your training environment, whereas with striking, it is nearly impossible to do so without injuring or alienating your training partners.

Tapping Out:

The “tap out” is the grappling version of pulling a punch. There are anecdotes[1] about the phenomenon where, in self-defence situations, one person has clearly bested the other, established a dominant position, and is about to put the attacker out with a choke. Then the attacker taps and the defender releases the pressure, which allows the attacker to escape and continue their assault.

As with the previous one, this training scar is hard to avoid. I certainly do not advocate for ignoring when your partner taps and taking the technique to its conclusion. Besides being potentially dangerous, this is certainly not a good way to make friends.

If nothing else, this speaks to the power of habit. Though I am leery of those who espouse “mental training,” as it can lead to potential BS, it is relevant in this case. In the context of the gym or Dojo, you should let go and soon as your partner submits, but it is important to remind yourself that for the context of self-defence, you can’t let up until you’re certain the person is no longer a threat to you.

Handing a Weapon Back:

Again, I’ve only heard anecdotal evidence regarding this, but these narratives seem to be frequent or powerful enough that some martial arts have modified their practices to avoid this training scar.

Many instructors who teach disarms encourage that, even in training, you should never hand the weapon back to your partner. The reason for this is that, apparently, some practitioners have successfully disarmed their assailants in real situations, then absent-mindedly given the weapon back to their assailants, simply because that is what they are used to doing in training.

I have no idea as to the validity of these stories, but there is certainly no harm in practicing removing yourself from the situation, or clearing the weapon away from the attacker, rather than casually handing it back. Sometimes throwing the weapon away and making your partner retrieve it might seem like a dick move when you’re standing within arm’s length, but it is the correct protocol for self-defence training.

Flow Drills:

Flow drills are fun, dynamic, intense, and an excellent methodology to create automatic reactions to stimuli (often called “muscle memory,” though that is technically inaccurate). In Koryu Uchinadi, flow drills are the primary method used to summarize and review various areas of technical expertise, such as strikes, joint locks, takedowns, chokes, etc.

So do I hate flow drills? No, of course not. However, I would be remiss if I wrote about training scars and didn’t point out their drawback—the notion of flow, by definition, means allowing your partner to defend your technique successfully. That is the only way that the “flow” can continue.

Flow drills have their benefit in practice, no doubt, but they can’t be the lone training methodology either. You also need to experience what it’s like to finish techniques without allowing any potential defense or continuation from your partner. In KU, we often call these exits—where you can leave the continuity of the flow drill and practice how to finish the fight once and for all.

Karate Aesthetics:

Both fortunately and unfortunately, I started my martial arts career in “traditional Karate,” which is another misnomer—traditional Karate was developed in Japan in the 1920s and 1930s, making it relatively modern when compared with its much older Okinawan predecessor (Toudi). The emphasis on Kihon and Kata, two of the three pillars of “3K” Karate, instill a number of good qualities (snap at the end of techniques, breathing, hip rotation, stability), but also several bad ones.

This is an accurate overview of the technical guidelines for traditional Karate I was taught as a child.

As illustrated in the above video, I was taught to keep my chin back and up, chest lifted, and my shoulders down and even with each other when doing basics and Kata. According to most Karate authorities, these are the correct technical components. In addition, there is also the habit of keeping the technique extended after the point of impact, even when working with partners. It is a typical and frustrating element of many traditional Karate Dojo, where the partner holds the technique out like a robot and allows their partner to follow up with a series of counters that, truthfully, would not work if the other person simply moved or responded at all.

I’m sure someone will point out that the training methodology above is intended to develop skills that are beneficial in more practical exercises, rather than be directly applicable to self-defence. However, I wonder why you can’t build the skills more effectively by actually practicing the scenario you are preparing for.

Ironically, in writing this, I’m realizing that traditional Karate develops two opposite training scars: pulling punches early, and keeping them extended too long.

However, we do many of these things differently when it comes to the third pillar of 3K Karate—Kumite (sparring). The gap between the technical requirements of Kihon and Kata vs. Kumite, when many practitioners are told to do the complete opposite of what has been ingrained, is one of the biggest challenges that Karate faces in the 21st Century. Many noted instructors now are innovating and pushing the envelope to address specifically these issues.

The sad reality is that many of these “traditional” preferences seem to be based more on aesthetics than functionality. Ask any boxer: they’ll tell you to tuck the chin down and forward, lift the shoulder up to the protect the jaw when punching, and retract your strike as quickly as you throw it. However, my classical Karate gyaku-tsuki still sometimes shows up when I’m sparring, leaving my head unprotected. Funny enough, this is exactly how the controversial knockout happened in the gold medal Karate finals at the past Olympic games.

Despite attempts to move away from the arbitrary and often ineffective standards of traditional Karate’s Kihon and Kata, I still find that this particular training scar flares up every once in a while.

Nice Guys Finish Last:

I was recently corrected on two rather innocuous habits in my groundwork that I had never given much thought to, but my coach immediately caught as potential training scars.

The first is when setting up guard in order to practice. I had the habit of posting my hands on the mats when scootching my hips in close enough to let my partner close their guard, before proceeding to set up the correct grips for the technique. My coach immediately caught this as giving up an opportunity for a Kimura, even though we “hadn’t started” training yet.

The other, similarly, was my straightening my legs to let my partner get into mount, before posting my feet flat on the floor. Of course, you can’t bridge with your legs straight out, so even though my intention was just to be nice to my partner, this is a habit of doing something incorrect before doing it correctly. In other words, trying to make life easier for my partner was detrimental for myself in these cases.

Breaking these habits is still a work in progress, but I am at least aware of the fact that you can’t claim these things “don’t count” because you’re doing them in the set up of the technique rather than the training itself. Any and everything you do on the mat is training, even how you get into the position where you’re going to be working from.

Conclusion:

The term “training scars” is a nice phrase for a concept that every martial artist should be familiar with. Of course, depending on the martial art or style we practice, we all develop habits that can be bad outside of that particular training environment. The main thing is to develop an awareness of these habits, to try to minimize the damage that they might cause if we ever need to apply what we learn. Cross-training is an excellent way to expose these areas because a new instructor or training partner might pick up on these habits and show you why, in a different context, it is an error.

The cool part of any kind of scar is it tells a narrative about how you became who and what you are now, and training scars are no exception. Though I would certainly be happier with fewer bad habits in my training, I am grateful for the scars that I’ve developed; they are mementos of a long, challenging, and still-evolving martial arts career, full of colourful characters and a large number of wonderful memories.


[1] Miller, Rory and Lawrence A. Kane. Scaling Force. YMAA Publication Centre, 2012. Pg. 244-245.

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.