Karate class
Shutterstock / Likman Uladzimir
I’ve been a lot of things in my life (musician, writer, entrepreneur, martial artist, etc), but success at any of them was never easy. Before being a martial artist I was a musician, and nothing would make me angrier than when someone said I had talent. That may sound odd to some, but talent refers to someone having natural ability. In other words, a person with talent could practically roll out of bed and do a great job. In contrast, to spend hours a day, for years at a time, working to improve upon something, only to have it chalked up to talent, could be really galling. However, I understood what they meant, though it was misidentified. They admired the result of all that time and effort honing my craft through the only real means of mastery: repetition.

…And Again

Coming from a music background, I was surprised to learn of so many similarities between music and martial arts. Both have fundamentals to be practiced repeatedly until they are fluid and second nature. The highest form of expression in each is improvisation. In music, that means being able to play whatever you feel as it comes. In martial arts, it is the ability to react to the rhythms and ever-changing circumstances of a match or fight and express your movements without hesitation. In each case, my teachers said the same thing: “Practice, practice, practice.”

To build muscle memory, we need to do something many times. How many? Many. Thousands upon thousands of times. The good thing is that this is a simple concept and it applies to just about everything. The bad thing is that it is not easy. It is a war of attrition that we fight with ourselves, as the proverbial wisdom goes, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Matthew 26:41)

Strategy for Success

As one grows in their art, their practice should change as well. For example, you shouldn’t be training the same way you trained as an orange belt when you are a black belt. That doesn’t mean you don’t train the same things, it means that you don’t train them the same way. It is an important distinction. Training, by doing repetitions of a particular skill, should always seek to hone the skill and take it to a higher level. The following tips are things that I have found useful:
  • New material should always be practiced slowly. 10 times is a good number to start with. Three sets of 10 are usually good for memorizing a new skill.
  • Isolate problem areas. If there is an issue with something, like where your hands go on a rear-naked choke or transitioning between two postures in a form, etc, then zero in on those things and just practice those movements, repetitively, until they are fluid. This will maximize your time and build muscle memory faster.
  • Vary your practice. Most arts have a variety of skills that need to be studied and improved. Work on one skill for some time, a week or so, and then rotate in something else. Take a kick, for example. Practice it in a variety of forms: from your traditional stance, from your regular standing posture, or while standing on one leg. Do the same with other kicks, etc.
  • Question why and what you are doing repetitively. The idea is to get better, so ask yourself if you are working on material that needs improvement, or just doing what you like to do. There’s nothing wrong with doing what you like, but practicing what you’re already good at may not be the best use of your time. Time is going to be better spent on something that needs improvement.
  • Use technology. Back in the covered wagon days when I was first starting, it was a big deal to use a video camera to record yourself. Now, obviously, that is not a problem. Everyone has a camera on their phone, so use it. Record yourself at different angles and really study what you are doing. I had a teacher that used to say, “If you see what I am seeing, you will fix it faster.”
  • Set goals, both short and long term, and push yourself.
  • Remember that repetition is merely the method to improve. The goal is not repetition itself. It serves no purpose to just do something many times, so you can say you did it. If repetition of something is not bringing progress, then it should be questioned and changed so that it is effective. The concept is similar to achieving rank. A rank is awarded in recognition of one’s abilities, but the goal is the ability, not the rank.

Comparison, the Enemy of Progress

It can be difficult when you are working diligently, practicing, and improving your skills, often alone, and yet the results seem distant or illusive. The temptation is to compare yourself to others. For myself, I have found that comparison to others is the quickest way to unhappiness. Unhelpful thoughts pop into your mind, such as: so and so have already progressed passed me, why should I continue? The logic on its face is flawed, however, it is striking how often we humans fall for it. The success or failure of another person has no impact on your own success or failure unless you let it.

The words that bring success are tenacity, persistence, and resilience. Nothing can stop the unstoppable. Be unstoppable, Keep pushing. Break it down, and do it again and again, until you’ve got it.

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