The external lessons of the martial arts are obvious. Use a jab to strike an opponent in front of you. Practice kata to polish your basic techniques and movements. Lift weights to build your strength. You probably know them by heart because you’re exposed to them every day in the dojo.
What you’re not exposed to as often are the deeper, more esoteric lessons — the ones your instructor acquired after years, even decades, of training. Black Belt polled 23 martial arts masters to learn their secrets. Presented below are the most inspiring ones.
^Learn Which Techniques Are Appropriate for Which Situations
“Mixed martial arts for competition and mixed martial arts as a form of self-defense are two different problems, but you use a lot of the same techniques. Mixed martial arts for sport is an intense one-on-one situation in a static environment, but it’s very intricate in the one-on-one.
“A self-defense situation is much bigger. You have to observe the room constantly because there might be more than one person. You have different environmental concerns to address: Where’s the furniture? How can I get to an exit? However, it’s usually not as intricate as competition. Usually, you’re not going to try to pull a deep half-guard in a street fight because your opponent’s friend will kick you in the head.
"Knowing which techniques are appropriate for which situation is very important.” — Greg Jackson; MMA coach for Holly Holm, Georges St-Pierre, Jon Jones and others
^Know Why You’re Training
“This sounds obvious, but some martial artists train in a way that doesn’t at all match their stated goals. They say they’re training for self-defense, yet their teachers emphasize things that don’t reflect the realities of fighting.
“Know why you’re training. Does it give you a sense of adventure? Are you seeking self-perfection? Do you simply enjoy the thrill of competition or relish a challenge? Is it because you get to spend time with inspiring people?
"If you’re clear as to why you train, you’ll be more likely to find the best teachers and lessons.”
^Explore Your Mind
“Be clear on what you want out of the martial arts. Some people want to be a kicker, while others couldn’t care less about kicking. Some want to do forms but don’t care about fighting. Some prefer to concentrate on weapons. You have to understand yourself because to be successful, you have to develop the right mindset.
“When I was competing, my mindset was, if you were going to beat me, you were going to carry me out of the ring. I’d say to my opponent, ‘You’re fighting a losing battle already — you can’t beat my mind.’”
— Bill Wallace, kickboxing
^Have Patience While Mastering the Basics
“Learn the fundamentals and perform them to the best of your ability before moving on to more advanced techniques. The basics — stances, punches, kicks and blocks — form your foundation.
“If your foundation is weak, whatever you build on it will collapse. For example, you must be able to hold a perfect horse stance to be able to move in and out of it or to perform hand techniques from it.”
— Karen Sheperd, wun hop kuen do
“The martial arts aren’t a form of recreation; they’re a way of life. After a month or two of lessons, don’t expect to conquer the world. Plan to stay with your style for the long haul.”
—Lisa King, muay Thai
^Know That Reality Isn’t Open to Interpretation
“If you don’t understand reality, it will work against you. Although everyone can have a point of view, there’s only one reality, and it’s not open to interpretation or personal preferences.
“Someone may believe he can fly and talk all day about flying. He can discuss various theories on how to fly and even jump off an 80-story building and ‘fly’ for the first 79 floors — until reality hits. Resistance separates reality from fantasy. Reality-test everything before you adopt it.”
— Richard Ryan, Dynamic Combat
^Study the Most Likely Attacks
“It does little good to learn defensive techniques to counter moves that your opponent may never launch. Know how a street criminal attacks, how a mentally ill person attacks, how a terrorist attacks and so on. Seek that information from people who’ve been there.”
Bolster Your Determination
“Through the testing processes that are inherent in the martial arts, you learn humility. Losing does that to you. However, every loss should push you to train harder so you can be better than you were. Don’t dwell on losses; learn from them.”
— Lisa King
^Keep Your Hands Up
“This is obvious to anyone who’s been kicked, punched or otherwise whacked in the head. But if you haven’t fought much, you need to make an effort to remember it.”
^Learn What It’s Like to Be Hit
“Become familiar with being struck. Condition yourself through drilling with a medicine ball, striking a makiwara and engaging in impact sparring with kicks, punches and grappling maneuvers.”
^Don’t Get Hit
“The most important skill you must have is the ability to avoid getting punched during a fight.”
— Rorion Gracie, Brazilian jiu-jitsu
Get Intimate With Your Moves
“Don’t just do a technique; mechanical repetitions have no meaning. To truly own it, internalize it. Realize its potential, especially if you plan on relying on it.
“Connect to each technique’s rhythm and nuances until you find the sweet spot, that place where its power crackles and pops. You’ll know it when you feel it.”
Know Your Body
“In fact, know all its capabilities. You can make your mind strong, but if there’s something wrong with your hips or shoulders, it will limit your performance. Of course, you might be able to work around the problem.
“Another example: You might think you can start training at age 50 to become a competitor, but chances are you’ll lose a lot because the other guys will have much more experience.”
^Contemplate Your Navel
“More precisely, contemplate the region just below your navel. Lower your center of gravity and move it into your hara. It translates as ‘belly,’ but the word denotes your physical and spiritual epicenter of power. It’s the source of and connection to the primordial life force. Practically speaking, it’s your center of mass.
“By lowering your center of mass and cultivating hara, you develop an internal, shock-absorbing base of power. That helps you hit harder, remain calm under fire and move economically with purpose and speed. It also shortens the rise that naturally occurs when you’re surprised or threatened.”
— Melissa Soalt
^Master Your Technique
“Martial artists often sacrifice technique for power and speed, but power and speed are no good without technique. Technique gives precision to your hand strikes and kicks. It also leads to better control, which is essential to the philosophy of the martial arts.
“Technique and philosophy are the qualities that differentiate you from a street fighter.”
“As you practice, think about art, sport and self-defense. It’s easy to get carried away with just one aspect of the martial arts. Too much focus on sport or fitness will slow your thinking about the practicality of things on the street. That can create an error in judgment.
“Likewise, too much focus on the artistic part of your style can cloud your mind and keep you from seeing other things.”
— Julius Melegrito, Filipino martial arts
^Be Aware of Your Surroundings
“Know where you are and if that man who’s approaching you is likely to ask for directions or jack your wallet. If it’s the latter, look for escape routes or begin doing what you need to do to stand your ground and fight.”
Remember That Ability Is Knowledge Applied
“In other words, knowledge plus repetition equals training. To achieve greatness, first acquire realistic knowledge, then put it to work through repetition. The more reality-based knowledge you acquire and the more you work at it, the more skilled you become. Once you have a firm grasp of reality, you need to work at it to become good.”
— Richard Ryan