Tuesday, 25 March 2014 00:00

What If? Reflections on a Relevant Phrase

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I have trained in martial arts for some time, and was a self-confessed fitness junkie for a very long time before I met Sensei Noah Greenstone - a true Jujutsu master and all-around martial arts expert of the highest level. Noah is a wise, kind and gentle Sensei (ok, sometimes not so gentle…) who always giggles as he twists us into pretzels and who has a Kiai that makes the walls shake. This is a blog about one of his favorite sayings, which has shaped my learning and that of all of his students.

Before I go into the rest of this story, allow me to explain something about myself. I am that student that always asks questions - every martial artist knows the type. I do this not because I am trying to be smart aleck or be the teacher’s pet, but because I have an incredibly inquisitive mind and I want to learn as much as I can in every class. During my first few months of training, as much as I loved Noah’s classes, there was one thing that used to drive me crazy. It was the following sequence of events, which happened in nearly every class:

- Noah would demonstrate and explain a technique.

- We would try the technique. 

- One of the students - usually me - would ask a ‘what if’ question. What if the guy resists? What if it doesn’t work? Etc.

- Noah, calmly and with a smile, would always giggle and say one of the phrases that have become etched in my mind and which I now use to drive all of my students crazy with:


The answer to every ‘what if’ question is ‘do something else’.


The first (and second… and third…) time Noah said that, I thought it was a cheap way out.  I repeatedly asked myself what’s the point of learning a technique if I can only use it under perfect circumstances? At the core of the problem, years later, I figured out that what really bothered me was a simple fear:


What if I don’t know how to do anything else? 


Do I fail to defend myself? Do I forfeit the match? I wanted a quick fix to a problem that takes time to solve. This resulted in me often trying, unsuccessfuly, to force techniques on opponents or training partners who were stronger or more experienced than I was, which only added to my frustration. 


And this is where this simple phrase, to me, embodies many of the beautiful things about martial arts and how they tie in with life outside of the dojo. 


Learning and practising the art is a journey, and as you progress on that journey - especially at the start - you will not know all of the answers, and you will not always find them quickly. That’s exactly the point. If you try something and it doesn’t work, then try something different. If you don’t know what to do, then spend time thinking and finding a solution instead of wasting your energy and time trying to do something that doesn’t work. You will also find that those who tend to rely solely on forcing techniques will generally have shorter careers and diminishing success rates over time as exhaustion (short term) and age (long term) set in. It doesn’t matter if you refer to sparring, grappling and self-defence, or if you are talking about increasing productivity at work, changing your diet or dealing with relationship problems - these principles still apply. The old adage of ‘work smarter, not harder’ is the epitome of this idea. 


Albert Einstein famously said that the definition of insanity is to do the same thing over and over and expect different results. Maybe deep down he was a samurai too. So the way I see it, the next time you find the metaphorical locked door - in or outside of training - you have two options;

You can keep banging your head against it.  It may break, but it probably won’t. And though you may have a very well conditioned face, you probably won't get very far. 


The other option is to 'do something else' - spend time learning how to pick the lock, make a key or find a detour so that you can keep moving on your journey. 


Stay tuned, stay safe. 








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