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It's You Vs You, Part 1: Martial Arts Mediocrity, Excellence and Success

I want you to go through the following exercise in your head:

Imagine you’d spend your 20 years training in a martial art with the belief that you’d be able to defend yourself, but have never tested it out under extreme or real conditions or outside of your dojo. Imagine you would then have someone challenge you to try it on a fully resisting opponent, one whom you don’t know and does not respect you and your martial art. You try it, and it doesn’t work. Not even close – you get your butt kicked thoroughly.
Alternatively - imagine you’d been training to compete in a tournament, and have been beating everyone in your class easily. You arrive to the tournament and your opponent, someone who is less experienced than you, beats you comprehensively in no time at all.

Are you on the path to mediocracy or excellence?

The answer depends on how you answer the following question: Thinking about the scenarios above, what would you tell yourself once you lost? Be honest!

Is your answer to admit failure or defeat, recognise that it’s not the end of the world, critically analyse what precisely didn’t work and why, and then seek out solutions, and continually repeat the process until the test is passed or the objective is achieved, and then seek out a different test, or a harder one, and repeated the process? If so, well done!

But guess what – most people won’t do this. They won’t do this in their jobs, they won’t do this in their relationships and they won't do this with regards to their martial arts. We see examples of people not daring to step out of their comfort zones all of the time, whether we recognise this or not, and are often unaware that we do it too. 

Over the past 3 months, my training routine and understanding of my own path in the martial arts have gone through a fundamental change. Suffering a serious elbow injury, grading in Krav Maga back in Israel, being back in Israel after not having been back for 17 years and seeing friends and family I have not seen in that time, and having the opportunity to train with some of the world’s best martial artists as well as talking to them extensively. Last but not least, celebrating 5 years since Combat Arts Institute of Australia first open

One reoccurring theme throughout the training, seminars, grading and talks was the idea of stepping outside of one’s comfort zone as the key to growth and self-development, as a martial artist as well as a human being. There are many reasons why this is so important:
- It helps us to redefine and recalibrate our own benchmarks
- It helps us expose our own bias and tendencies
- It forces us to solve new problems and overcome new difficulties
- It encourages experimentation and creative problem solving
- It forces us to be ‘in the moment’ when training, instead of allowing us to tune out and just go through the motions

This is by no means a comprehensive list, and there are many more benefits that can be listed.

The Samurai believed in something called the Musha Shugyo. This is a type of pilgrimage or quest, in which they periodically engaged in order to grow. This could involve completing a quest or an order for a daimyo or shogun, engaging in duels outside the protection of their dojo, or performing other tasks which would challenge and enhance their growth, skill and reputation. This was considered a key to becoming a better samurai and martial artist. Similar concepts are found through most cultures and martial arts systems, again highlighting the fact that the concept of stepping outside one’s comfort zone has been recognised as pivotal to growth throughout history. The beauty of martial arts is that it does force us to deal with leaving our comfort zones.

So why is it so hard to step out of one’s comfort zone?

The answer is fear of cognitive dissonance. This occurs when we hold ideas or beliefs that are contradictory, and which we try to avoid or get rid of. This is expressed as avoiding or attempting to explain or reason away the ideas or beliefs that are not consistent with one’s ideal view of the world or themselves. Or, in this case, their view of their martial art, they’re progress and their place within the system.

If we think of our initial example at the top, this is the difference between our belief and the reality – the difference between the belief that your martial art will help you defend yourself, and the experiential proof that it won’t. It’s the difference between the belief that your training will allow you to beat your opponents and the experiential proof that you are continually losing. It’s the difference between the belief that you will start running every morning and the experiential proof that you hit the snooze button and go back to sleep more often than not.

What usually happens then is that we try to get rid of this cognitive dissonance, of those contradicting ideas, by rationalising towards out comfort zone or shifting blame to someone or something else:
- Failing a pressure test repeatedly and saying “my sensei said that real attacks don’t happen like that anyways”
- Losing a competition or sparring round and saying “If I would have been trying harder I would have won”, “I let him win” or “I could have easily got out of it, but I tapped out early cause it wasn’t worth it” (there’s a time to tap out early – speaking from experience of serious injury – but it’s not every time!)
- Not giving 100% in class or doing the drills and then complaining that the class was too easy
- Not going for a run in the morning and saying that you’ll make up for it tomorrow, even though you know you won’t

It’s important to say that I’m not trying to point fingers. These are observations from my own experience as well as things I have seen as a teacher (in martial arts but also teaching in university and in schools). I feel that it’s extremely important to mention that we all go through these.
However, the difference between great martial artists and everyone else is the ability to critically analyse your own performance and bias, and do what you can to improve.

And guess what? While this sounds like an easy thing to fix, it’s not. Simple, yes, but not easy. It takes mental fortitude, critical thinking and humility. You have to be able to admit that you have failed in order to learn form the failure.

I’m also not saying you should do this all the time. It’s important to have a comfort zone because it gives us a base and a safe place to come back to and helps us develop our fundamentals. It’s also incredibly important to celebrate and give yourself the pat on the back that you so richly deserve when you do challenge yourself!

So a few quick thoughts to wrap up:
1. You are what you repeatedly do – excellence and mediocrity included.
2. You are what you do, not what you say you’ll do
3. ‘Simple’ and ‘easy’ are not the same
4. Knowing is not enough; you must do
5. Excellence learns; mediocrity blames
6. The only time you lose is when you don’t learn from the experience
7. If it scares you, it might be a good thing to try
8. Give credit where credit is due – yourself included!

As we celebrate our 5-year anniversary at CAIA, I’d like to invite you to think about your next Musha Shugyo, your next adventure, your next challenge. Where in your training (or your life) do you feel that you have become too comfortable or have let comfort stop you from improving?
Seek it out. Conquer it. Celebrate your achievement.

Stay tuned, stay safe. 

Osu/Oss

Last modified on Friday, 30 June 2017 17:03
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Ron Amram

Co-Founder and Co-Director of Combat Arts Institute of Australia. Nidan Gendai Ryu Krav Maga & Jujitsu, Shodan Danzan Ryu Jujutsu, Brown Belt Dennis Hisardut, Krav Maga Instructor, Cert IV Training & Assessment

Website: combatartsinstitute.com.au/
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