"WHY DO I SUCK AT THIS?" Are you frustrated with your progress?
I want to take a few minutes today and try to shed some light on this obscure 'suck zone' we go through, and perhaps offer you some perspective to help you not only get through it, but optimize your progression.
- "Arrrrgghh!!! Why Can't I Get This!?!?!"
- "Why is that person getting this so much faster than I am?"
- "Why do I feel so stupid, or uncoordinated?"
These are common questions I hear, or see, as a coach/mentor/instructor. In order to understand why martial arts, or any new activity requiring physical prowess [other sports apply here] is giving you a hard time, we have to look at the human brain. I have taught highly intelligent people over the past decade and a half, that can't tell you where their arm is located if they don't stop and look down at it. I have lost count of the amount of times I have corrected someone and had them look at me incredulously and state - "I am?!?!?!"
What many people fail to recognize in themselves, or cut themselves slack for, is their level of physical activity going into the arts. So maybe you played sports in high school...then you went to college, got a job, and realized at 35 you haven't been active in 17 years and need to so something, anything.
Maybe you are 16 years old and have lived in front of a video game console your whole life; never really using your body. Maybe you are 65 and deciding to take up Tai Chi to stay active, but you spent a bulk of your life parked at a desk job since you were 35. There's a common thread here from the brain's perspective.
The human brain is incredibly conservative. If something is not being used, then the brain ignores it. Don't exercise? Your muscles atrophy. Don't stand/walk put a load on your skeletal system? Your bones atrophy - after 18 hours on a molecular level; it doesn't take long. The brain does the same thing.
We have pathways connecting neurons in our brain, and each pathway connects from one piece of information to another, to another; creating connections, or a web of connections. This happens with physical activity as well. Compare it to your high school Algebra. That thing you said you would never use in life. Say you were right. Now try to go do Algebra at the age of 25, 30, 35. Doesn't work so well does it? The same thing happens with your body and physical movement.
When you have a group of common connections with shared threads, it is due to your brain building relationships. Connecting one neuron to another neuron, to build a 'network'. Think of it as a power grid; transmitting electricity from node to node. If one node goes down, other connections still exist. Except...this power grid shuts down lines that are not being used in order to save energy.
Unfortunately, if you stop using it, the brain starts overwriting these connections it no longer deems relevant. Pathways grow dormant, and new information that is relevant to whatever you are doing in your life NOW, is what is going to take precedence.
If physical activity is not at the forefront of your life, then atrophy sets in; physical AND mental. The brain does not waste time and energy trying to keep things 'alive' that are not useful to it's purpose. If you were a star athlete in college, you will still have pathways for those actions in your prior sport, but they have faded, and continue to fade over time. If you return to the sport in your 30's, you will probably stumble a bit in the beginning, but will likely pick things back up relatively quickly after the initial grind.
The Neural Network
Our brain is full of billions of neurons. When we start training in martial arts, we may develop a neuron for a block, or a punch we learned. We practiced the block, we know the block, and it is now a reflexive part of us. We practiced punching for hours on end as well.
Now, when someone punches us, we block successfully, but we don't punch, or there is a delay before we punch. Why? No connection...yet.
After practicing for a while, and seeing similar circumstances, one day we are comfortable enough with our blocking, and punching, and someone in class takes a familiar swing at us. We suddenly match up an opening we see when we are offensively punching, with the opening we see after blocking. We then throw a counter punch. Now our brain creates a connection from the punch neuron, to the block neuron and we become accustomed to seeing that opportunity in the future, and responding that same way the next time. Voilà!
Now let's add a piece. The person punches. We block. We counter punch, but suddenly our punch misses. The person slips the punch. Now we stand there for a second unsure what to do next. Why? We don't have the connection laid yet. We have to build it. It is like trying to cross from Boston to San Diego in your car, but there are no roads to connect you there.
Grappling example: You learn how to do an armbar. Neuron is mapped. You learn how to Triangle choke from guard. Neuron mapped. Now you are fighting with an opponent in your guard and you go for an armbar. An armbar that you are quite successful at and have trained thoroughly over and over.
Your opponent pulls the arm before you can secure it. You lose the submission and have to start over with something else. Or instead, you take that triangle choke you practiced a thousand times and learn how to snap that on as they counter the armbar. You have successfully mapped a connection between the two submissions, and your next response is to immediately counter their counter with another submission. Something that is impossible to do when you have not mapped out either neuron, or built the connection between them.
The more we train, and the more experiences happen to us in the arts (failures most importantly), the more neurons we build connections to as we find solutions. Eventually we get a web of connections, and when faced with unfamiliar stimuli, we have a wider net to catch it and formulate a response. The better we get, the more likely we are to have a 'proper' response to this new threat or action.
When I was studying Artificial Intelligence, we learned about neural networks. One of the early mistakes made by pathfinders in the field, was to try and code every outcome into the machine.
They quickly found it was impossible to train every single scenario/outcome that can happen; even some of the simplest tasks would take years of coding, and massive amounts of storage that was impossible for hardware at the time.
The solution was to go from trying to program every response possible, to building neural networks - nodes, pathways interconnected so the computer could train as it goes through a series of pass fails - what is now known as 'machine learning'. Learn through added stimuli, the same way we learn as humans - trial and error.
The supercomputer residing inside our skull would take 100's of years to try and calculate all the possible responses in fighting. Instructors training students that way would result in absolute disaster. Instead, we train principles, and we train with randomness and variability, and the results we get are far superior.
This explains why someone becomes more proficient the longer they train. They see more options, form more connections, and become more and more adaptable.
"Your left foot. NOOOO!!! YOUR OTHER LEFT FOOT!!!"
From a coach's perspective, it can be extremely frustrating to tell someone to move their left, or right foot, and have them unaware of where their leg is. I have been in schools where teachers have thrown out students and told them - "This is not for you."; completely giving up on them due to their lack of coordination.
I wholeheartedly disagree with this approach, even though at times I confess to in the past, watching students and wondering if they were ever going to get it. We never know where someone is going. Sometimes they turn out to be the hardest workers because of the struggles they faced early on.
They could be the next coach, mentor, or champion. The next to pass on the art. If we turn them off of martial arts for good, because they didn't get it right away, then the loss of potential is immediate, and sometimes everlasting. Encourage, guide, support.
Patience, understanding, and empathy are easier said than done, but they are necessary tools when teaching our art to ALL those who wish to receive it. Someone with long periods of physical inactivity, is going to take longer to get up to speed with basic movement than a seasoned athlete. We each face our own struggles.
MILITARY TRAINING vs. CIVILIAN
The drill instructors in boot camp have a hell of a job to do. 8 weeks to turn goofy, uncoordinated, immature, head up their a$$ teenagers, into lean, mean, fighting machines.
This is not an easy task, and our lives, and the lives of those around us, depend on getting it right. Quickly. However, we are a captive audience; by choice, or not.
When teaching adults/civilians, who are not REQUIRED by some threat to stand there and take our bull$%&^, we have to be somewhat flexible in our demands. We can do this by drawing out the timeline for success. We can't just scream, degrade, and humiliate them until they get it (flashbacks of boot camp). Unless we are training people for combat in a condensed period of time.
In that case, we likely are not teaching in-depth martial arts that require years of training and skill. We would be focused on simplified fighting systems like Xing-Yi, Krav Maga, or someother streamlined hand-to-hand combat system. Simplified, and meant for short training, not mastering high levels of skill.
High Skill Competition Training
If we are training competitively, or training a team to compete, then this can also change the game. Pushing people, and people wanting you to push them, become an interwoven dynamic to increase performance, and achieve higher gains.
This process is voluntary on both sides, and usually involves a higher degree of focus and effort on the part of the competitor. Skills increase over time, and people compete at the level/age bracket they are currently at. As they gain higher skill and aptitude, they move up in rank and compete against more advanced opponents.
The Long Term Approach
If we are teaching out of our garage, do not need to sustain ourselves from a vibrant school, or we are trying to train people as quickly as possible, then we can cherry pick our students, and kick out (directly, or indirectly) the one's that won't get up to speed fast enough for our taste, or goals.
But...if we are interested in creating a strong community of martial artists that help one another grow and learn to a high level over time, a group that accepts people of all skill and talent levels among their ranks, then we need to keep in mind that not everyone has been training for these arts their entire life. Some will need more time and patience in the process.
One approach I like to use in thinking about this, is drawing. When we want to draw a human face, we don't start by drawing every freckle, line, or hair. We start with a rough circle for the head, and rough circles for the eyes, nose, mouth, ears. Then, we begin to create finer and finer circles and lines. Adding more and more detail as we go, and erasing/removing unnecessary lines. Martial Arts is no different. We don't need to feel like our ROUGH DRAFT is supposed to be the final MASTERPIECE.
All black belts are not created equal. All black belts are not created in the same amount of time.
There really are no secrets. The solution is simple, but not easily achieved. The longer we train, the more we surround ourselves with other people who train, the more we watch; the more we read, ponder, discuss; the more 'consumption', will directly affect the pace at which we move up the skill ladder.
This obviously takes other traits and behaviors such as discipline to keep showing up, perseverance to get up after each failure and try again, and overall grit to stick through the lows and not just ride the highs. Combine this with continuing to build that neural network, and you have the recipe for success. Eventually creating a web in your brain that is ready to catch anything that flies through it.
Many people come and go from activities. If we keep showing up, keep training, we will keep evolving. Sometimes the successful people we see in various fields, were not the best at what they do, but they are the one's that kept showing up.
Stay the course. All will be revealed with time and effort.
Buonomano, Dean. Brain Bugs: How the Brain's Flaws Shape Our Lives. New York: W.W. Norton, 2011. Print.
"The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science Paperback – December 18, 2007." The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science: Norman Doidge: 9780143113102: Amazon.com: Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.