What are the attributes of a person that becomes a truly amazing martial artist? I am going to start with three myths and assumptions that I regularly run into among students (and sometimes, even teachers).
- You must have physical strength, power, and fitness.
Most people really only have about 15 years or less for youth to make a difference in martial arts training. Bodybuilding and strength fitness probably doesn’t hurt (if not taken too far), but it doesn’t really help in the long run. Especially in Western society, we admire big muscles and sculpted bodies, and we take for granted that people with buff bodies are also martially impressive. However, the act of lifting and putting down weights provides absolutely no insight into dealing with conflict, life, aggression and stress situations. In fact big muscles certainly won’t help your golf game or sword cuts, and they will probably get in the way of good martial art performance. I think that some of the most amazing martial artists I’ve encountered in my life can be best described as either “wiry” or “ropey”. I can’t tell you how many times I heard the phrase “I just need to get in better shape before I start training.” In my opinion that’s really getting it backwards.
- You must have started under a legendary teacher.
Hollywood teaches us that the best way to becoming astonishing martial artist is to be indentured under kung fu immortal Pai Mei, or be born into an ancient ninja clan. Don’t get me wrong, there are some absolutely ineffable martial artists out there, each of which is more amazing in their own way than what you’ve ever seen on the big screen. I am lucky that I have had the privilege to train under some of the best in the world. But those individuals are encountered along the path of the martial artist, and are almost never the originating source. Good training will give your the perception to recognize those rare, impressive teachers when you come across them.
- You must be a natural-born genius.
We look at the most skilled people we know, and we say “there is genius.” We assume that they had that genius from birth. It is hard to imagine, but at one time even O Sensei was a clumsy beginner! Over time and through hard training, genius can be given a chance to blossom or be revealed, but it is certainly no requirement. I have trained with dozens of individuals over the years who made me jealous with their ability to instantly pick up techniques and skills that took me months or years to painstakingly develop – but I can tell you that none of those people went very far, or are training today. In fact, many instructors believe that genius can be a detriment to long term growth, because humans do not tend to value what comes cheaply.
So, if youth and fitness aren’t the recipe for ‘amazing’, and innate genius or waiting for the legendary secret teacher won’t get you there, what will?
In one word, determination! Or, more accurately, simply the decision to still be training and seeking mastery 10 years later, and finding the “stick-to-itiveness” to see it through. And then to do it for another 10 years, and another 10 years after that. “Discipline” shows up along the way, and out of a deep enjoyment for what you are doing. Personal vision and commitment is more important and a more dangerous weapon than all the other attributes put together.
There is a famous study of West Point and US Military Academy graduates, many of whom drop out every year because of the grueling and punishing nature of the training. Year after year, the study found that strength, endurance, intelligence, patriotism, or any other characteristic you might think of had nothing to do with whether or not a person dropped out, or stuck through to graduation. The only thing that made a difference is something the researchers called “grit” – a passion for and focus upon a long-term goal.
You cannot decide to be young, or to become a natural genius, or to be born into an ancient secret warrior clan. You can, however, decide to have grit and perseverance. That means that if you really want to, you can decide to become as amazing as any martial artist alive today.
What does your blueprint look like?