Is there a secret behind the success of everyone who ever developed real ability in martial arts?
A single attitude that you can model, and almost instantaneously see improvements in your performance?
Fortunately, the answer is yes, and not only does this key to success exist, but you probably already know what it is. So why did I write this article, if you already know about this crucial attitude? Simply because, as with so many things, there is a huge difference between knowing about something, and functionalizing that knowledge. In this article, I want to explain the secret but, much more importantly, I also want to provide some insight into how to apply it.
The secret is engagement with the material. With the nature and content of the activity. This is where many people run into difficulties without even realizing it, because many martial arts training environments provide a model of engagement that is, frankly, rather shallow. Of course, some people rise above the training they have access to, but those are often the people who would have become good no matter what. As a coach, I do not have to worry about those people. I still want to help them fulfill their potential as efficiently as possible, but extremely, I know that even if they were left to their own devices on a desert island, with no resources of any kind, they would still become good. I am much more concerned with the opportunities available to the average martial artist, who may be severely underestimated by the educational approach in his or her training environment.
Since this is an article, and not a novel, I will not bore readers with a list of the ways in which many training environments fail to encourage specific engagement. Instead, I will simply ask a question:
How much did you learn today, about the application of a skill you have ‘understood’ for years?
To illustrate the point of my question, I will give you an example. I was recently working with one of my coaching clients on the Muay Thai neck clinic. At the moment, these skills are experiencing something of a resurgence in MMA, probably as a result of UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva’s devastating use of the neck clinic. I have made these skills a huge part of my personal game in martial arts over the last decade, not only because of their general efficiency, but because they suit my body type and fighting style very well. In fact, I would say that they are the centrepiece of my game. Whatever else I am working on in my own training, I devote some time every day to further developing my understanding of this skill set. Now, having worked with these skills so much, and in so much depth, you might think that I would have exhausted the potential for technical variation by now.
Not even close.
In fact, in the course of explaining certain concepts and principles to my client, I came up with several new ways to refine my own use of the neck clinch – ideas which I have since integrated into my game. Nor is this experience unusual. No matter how small or subtitle the insight, I never fail to learn something new in this area every time I train. These minute refinements can combine synergistically to create a comprehensive overall improvement in effectiveness.
Now, forget about neck clinches or any other specific skill area, and focus on the concept of engagement. It does not matter what you are working with, there is as much depth and sophistication in the skill as you are willing to reach for. As with any other artistic endeavor (and we do call it martial art, after all), insight sometimes seems to happen effortlessly, almost by magic, and at other times you have to focus, do battle with the material and ruthlessly rip the insight out . However it happens, the important thing is that it is possible. This is only true, however, if you are engaged with the material.
In other works, I have commented on the limitations of the technique-based approach to martial arts training, which is particularly common in classical martial arts. One of my main criticisms of this approach is that it almost totally eradicates the potential to strive for more depth and sophistication in your engagement with the technical material. If mimicry is the purpose of your training, and you train simply to copy some ideal ‘form’, then you are engaging with the material, but at the most below level possible. By comparison, the conceptual approach to training offers the most potential for engagement, and that for development and growth.