11 Lessons From 11 Years as a Martial Artist

This is part of my recurring series on more philosophy/reflections on life. I’ve included more of my work at the end of this article. If you liked these, definitely check out the others. Until then. Enjoy your read.

When I was a child, my parents enrolled my brother and me in a martial arts academy. My father had been attending for a short while, and my brother followed not too long after him. I was about seven when I joined the academy, and I had no idea that this simple, quiet dojo would become my home for the next eleven years of my life. Throughout my childhood and adolescence up until I packed my bags and left for university, I was there: it’s where I trained, where I grew, where I succeeded and where I failed. Over those eleven years, I learned lessons that I have carried with me throughout my entire life. From wise tidbits of knowledge passed down through long conversations during practice, to moments of insight during gruelling conditioning workouts. That dojo, and the lessons I learned there, have made me who I am: and I want to share some of those lessons with you if you’ll indulge me for a little while. Below are eleven lessons I learned during my eleven years as a martial artist: may they serve you as well as they serve me.

1. If you don’t maintain it, you’ll lose it.

After the warm-up and conditioning portion of our class, we always stretched out. Upper body, lower body, hips, shoulders, arms, calves: you name it, we had a stretching session for it that we would go through. Sometimes stretching sessions were easy: 30 seconds each side, a few exercises, and bam, we’re on our way. Sometimes it was brutal: I vividly remember the pain of holding near full splits for 15 minutes. It didn’t matter whether it was a quick routine or a full-blown class: we always stretched.

Now I was naturally flexible, so these routines weren’t the WORST thing to go through. Yes, they sucked sometimes, but most of the time I could reach the farthest position and be somewhat comfortable.

My Sensei noticed this, and would periodically remind me that while it’s great I’m naturally flexible, that won’t last forever: and it’s important to stretch frequently to make sure I stay flexible.

I didn’t think too much of it, especially because it came so naturally to me. Plus, if I keep stretching, I’ll stay flexible. Right?

Boy was I wrong.

Over the years I noticed my body slowly tightening up. My 180 degree splits closed into 150. Then 120. Each stretching session was increasingly agonizing and painful. Anytime my Sensei noticed me wincing in pain, he chuckled and said: “I told you so!”

Despite this, my flexibility kept up enough. Yes, I lost my splits, and some range in my movements, but overall I could maintain positions pretty well. When I started lifting weights, I noticed I could easily pick up movements like squatting, pullups, or snatches. I wasn’t restricted to limited ranges of movement, which shortened the learning curve for new exercises. Not only did my weights increase steadily over time (since I didn’t have to worry about learning how to hit proper positioning), I felt much safer when I worked out.

Needless to say, the past few years I’ve been taking this lesson to heart and introducing regular yoga and stretching into my daily routine.

2. When you do something, do it with your full attention and effort.

Some classes were extremely repetitive. We’d spend upwards of an hour doing the same kata’s, same strikes, or same movements. Each repetition was scrutinized and studied by the instructor, looking for potential weaknesses and strengths. Whether you moved onto the next movement or not was dependent on if you & the instructor both felt satisfied with your performance.

What we were on the constant lookout for was a subpar effort. If you half-assed your task, it showed, and you’d be requested to do it again. Now, this differed from exhaustion: a trained eye can tell the difference between a lazy punch and a punch from a tired fighter. We were trained from an early age to do each task with our full attention and effort. Inevitably, the tasks we completed with our full effort and attention we could give were accepted, and we’d move onto the next task at a faster rate.

It’s a small lesson, but the most profound one. I was fairly lazy and half-assed my work most of my life (and I still do sometimes), but after consciously applying this lesson to my life, I’ve seen quite a change. Learning new skills, going all-in during intense workouts, and meditating deeply are some examples of where I’ve applied this lesson. In each one, I’ve shifted my focus into my task as best as I can. The results have been promising thus far: a higher rate of completing tasks, better clarity, and more enjoyment in what I do. I’ve also noticed my relationships with others improve as well: I give each person I’m speaking to my full attention and put effort into the conversation.

Developing the skill of focus and attention control is simple, but not easy (hence the reason there’s thousands of books, articles, and talks on the very subject). What it boils down to is this: remove any potential distractions, and pay attention to what you’re doing. If you get distracted, guide yourself back to the task. Repeat until done.

Seek to develop this as a fundamental skill in your life, and I promise you that everything will change.

3. Pursue unity and harmony in your mind, body, and soul.

Much of our study was about the relationship between the three parts of the individual human existence: the mind (how we think, our emotions, the way we process information) the body (our physical nature: strength, mobility, striking, etc.) and the spirit (our willpower, the fighting “spirit”, our effort, our sense of self). All training was in some way related to these three aspects of our existence. Anything else was removed.

As we grew throughout the ranks, our understanding of the relationships between these three aspects changed. At first, they were separate: you trained your body, you trained your mind, you trained your soul. As time went on, you learned of their interconnectedness: how mastery of the mind enables your body to accomplish more, how your soul gives your mind freedom. The reality was that our education changed with us: the mind, body, and spirit were always connected but were taught in separate for us to truly understand each part.

With Martial Arts coming heavily from Eastern culture, philosophy, and religion, it’s easy to draw parallels between the unity of mind, body, and spirit with Buddha’s Nirvana. It also draws parallels to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s research on Flow (something many of us experienced in our training). In Csikszentmihalyi’s Flow, the performer loses themselves in the task, forgetting their sense of self and committing fully to their task. Performers who enter flow often report a better sense of identity, more effort in their task, and more enjoyment. With distractions removed, performers focus solely on their tasks.

In Martial Arts, the same criteria are there. We practice each strike, kata, and movement to our greatest capacity over and over again until we don’t need to think of it: we just do it. This allows us to let go of our thoughts and let our minds work at its highest capacity without distraction. And with obstacles removed, we’re able to commit fully to our task: finding meaning, mastery, and expression in it.

4. Live a simple life.

Part of a series of lessons written in our budo pass, this lesson stood out as the most confusing. Why would I want to live a simple life? Isn’t life supposed to be exciting and enjoyable? Why does it need to be plain? That’s booooooring.

And how did I live my life? I’m 25 years old now, so you can guess what I’ve done. Gotten myself in trouble, put myself in complicated scenarios, overspent to get new shiny objects for clout that I never use, lost sleep over confusing relationships, pondered deep questions like “what’s my meaning” and “what’s a life well lived”.

Now I don’t regret any of this. All of these experiences have made me who I am, and I am forever grateful. But looking back on my short life, I’ve noticed how many of these complicated and stressful scenarios I’ve been in didn’t need to happen. I didn’t need to go out chasing a bunch of girls, or buying expensive clothes I’d wear once, or drive a new car, or go on lavish trips just to post on Instagram. Because everything I truly need, I already have: friends, a healthy(ish) body, work that mattered. I have nice clothes that fit and are appropriate for every scenario (fancy dinners to casual Fridays). I read books I’m interested in and watch TV shows that intrigue me. I go on trips because I want to, not because I need to.

I stopped chasing after confusing girls because I realized I didn’t need the drama. I’m much happier spending time with my friends, or with someone who isn’t going to make me lose sleep or my mind.

My life has slowly simplified over the years as I’ve taken this lesson to heart. Yes, I still have multiple things on the go: work, volunteering, writing, exercising, friendships, family, learning a new language, etc., etc., ad nauseam. At first glance, my life looks complicated (and I admit, it still is to a degree, although much less). But I’ve put away pointless complicated things and focused on what I need out of life to feel fulfilled, and equally as much to look for fulfillment in what I do. Now, everything I do is through this lens: what is important to me?

5. If you can’t explain it to a 4-year-old, you don’t understand it.

When you reached a higher rank, you were invited to help out with the beginner classes if you had the time. You could lead warm-ups, be an extra set of eyes during practice, or teach the class yourself. This inevitably puts you in the entertaining situation of explaining something to someone who may just be starting out and not know what a kata is or how to punch properly. But you still have to explain it. And you were shown very quickly how much you didn’t know that you thought you did, especially when you’ve got a 4-year-old staring up at you repeating “I don’t get it” to everything you say.

There’s no easy way of fixing this. After admitting defeat and asking the lead teacher for help, we’d go back to the drawing board in our classes and practice. We’d discuss different ways of explaining concepts, studying the movement’s details meticulously until we knew every inch of it. We simplified our language so whatever we said we knew the kids would understand. When the time came to teach again, we did a much better job. Teaching others, especially younger kids and new members helped us improve as well, as we gained a much better grasp of our practice.

In every speech I give, blog I write, social media post I create, or conversation I have, this has been a mainstay. Whenever I’m communicating with other people, I live by this principle. See to it that you master your subjects to the point where you can explain them easily to different people in a way they understand.

6. Understand each part and its relation to the whole.

During our Tai Chi classes, we practiced the forms from start to finish (some taking up to 15 minutes, some taking 40). If you didn’t know it, you stayed closer to the centre and followed those on the outside who knew it. After finishing the form, you’d break off into sub-groups where you practiced a small portion bit by bit until it came naturally. The next class, you’d integrate that into the full form, looking to the others once you reached a point you weren’t familiar with. Each break-out session you learned each movement individually and its purpose, spiralling upwards: the small portion, larger portion, and eventually the whole form.

Differently, we developed the same habit with our self-defence, sparring, and striking. We studied the anatomy of human beings to determine where pressure points were, why they were sensitive, and how to exploit them. We learned areas of the body (like the top of the foot) that were weak and could be struck to cause pain in the event of an attack. We studied the best ways to punch or kick, so we could be safe, or what we could realistically do in a confrontation (IE: don’t punch someone in the head, skulls are tough. Punch them in the nose. Their eyes will flood with tears and it’ll make it harder for them to see.)

In either case, we alternated between intensely studying the details, then integrating them back into a full picture. This process is known as “chunking” and is written extensively in The Talent Code by Daniel Coyle. Learning new skills and subjects will require you to know smaller pieces, but the missed step is how they fit together cohesively. You want to achieve fluidity in whatever you’re doing as if it comes naturally. But you need to know how each part works, and why. When you focus on that, learning and application come easy.

7. Expect the unexpected.

This is one of the lessons that was told to us time and time again. “Expect the unexpected” was a comedic line that came out of the chaos of the kids classes, when we were running between exercise stations and a new chaotic rule was brought into the game (like having to block dodgeballs tossed at you while exercising, and if you got hit anywhere other than your arms you had to do 10 burpees).

As we grew up, this lesson stayed constant. Every class was an opportunity to prepare for the complexities of life, where the rules aren’t written fairly and you have no idea what’s coming around the corner. Need to defend yourself but all you have is a pen? Left leg hurt and now you have to learn to move with that restriction? All different curveballs were thrown at us, and we had to excel despite them. The curveballs always had a sense of excitement to them, no matter the frustration. They taught us to be quick on our feet and sensitive to the moment but to prepare as best as we can for the “black swans” that will come our way. We have no idea what will happen tomorrow or in scenario A or B (or worse, C or D or E or F). All we can do is prepare, and to do so with a flexible and open mind. And prepare we did.

I didn’t notice the power of this lesson in my life until much later. In the past few years, I’ve met CEO’s, Executive Director’s, and other notable figures who have commented on my skills such as public speaking or communications. Those conversations have made all the difference in my life: they’ve led me to new jobs, new opportunities, and new faces. But I didn’t plan to meet any of those people. Those conversations always happened in passing, briefly mingling at meetings or events. But I spent so much of my time studying, practicing, and honing my skills. When those unexpected events appeared, all that preparation paid off.

So, expect the unexpected. Embrace that paradox of preparing for uncertainty. It won’t make sense at first, but I think you’ll find it makes more and more sense as life goes on.

8. Your mind breaks first.

Our Sensei & Senpai were known for their mind games. Yes, they’d put us through brutal workouts, jumping between kata’s, intense conditioning, grilling us on Japanese history. But what was more difficult than any of this was how easily they got into your head.

“So… How’d you feel about that kata?”

“Good!”

“Just good?”

“It was great.”

“Why didn’t you say that the first time?”

These mind games were a mainstay in the dojo, and they came on full force during your grading. The goal was always the same: to test your resolve, to make you trip up, and to confuse you. To make you second guess yourself.

What was interesting is that you were asked this regardless of how you did. If you didn’t do a good job on your kata or test, you were told afterwards that you needed to redo it. If you did a great job, you were still questioned. And sometimes, they made you think you didn’t do it right. So you did it again.

We experienced this differently during our conditioning classes. Workouts were long and brutal, as they were designed to strategically push you to your limit, no matter your skill level. Exercises known as “suicide runs” (sprinting back and forth between lines), burpees on one foot (my personal favourite) or wall sits for 3+ minutes were some of the many methods of torture we endured. At first, none of us thought we could complete what was being asked: yet we somehow did. And that was pointed out to us time and time again: that our mind is often the first thing that quits on us, not our bodies or our spirits. We think ourselves into problems or out of our capabilities.

The mind is a tricky beast: it often buckles under the pressure before the rest of you do. Your body is resilient, and your spirit is one of the most indomitable forces that exist in life. But your mind? Well, that can be manipulated easily if you’re not prepared for it. So, prepare your mind. Through meditation, exercise, and reflection. Steel yourself against your thoughts. You’ll conquer more than you think you can.

(For anyone about to scream “this is what causes imposter syndrome!”: see next lesson.)

9. Martial artists view everything as an extension of themselves.

After a certain rank, students were introduced to weapons training, as it was part of the martial arts education. In this class, we began learning and practicing different forms and methods to use a wide variety of weapons. While our core focus was on weapons from Okinawan history, we had a mix of different styles included. Bo staff, nunchaku, and tonfa were included: but we also trained escrima (known as kali or arnis to some), sai’s, bokken training (wooden samurai sword), as well as self-defence against some of these weapons. What was unique about our weapons training was the goal behind each weapon: to understand it so well that we can use the tactics and methods with other objects. We’d often spend classes drawing parallels between using an escrima (a wooden stick, typically the length of your arm) and say a book. How could one use a book to defend themselves if they were attacked? How you answered that often depended on how well you understood the weapons you were using.

The underlying lesson in our weapons training was an aspect of mastery that’s often overlooked: that a weapon is not a weapon, but an extension of yourself. A relationship so is interwoven into you that you can tap into it in a moment’s notice, because you fully understand it and can bring out whatever you need in a moment, regardless of if you have the ideal conditions or not.

Seeing the weapon as an extension of myself helped me blur the lines between myself and “the other ‘’ and fully connect to what I was doing. It removed mental barriers that impede my ability to fully embrace my weapon, and through that, I slowly mastered each form, strike, and self-defence. When you do this, you start to notice some trends: you identify where your opponents may slip up, how they may use the same weapon, or how to maximize your usage of it. It also makes you a better fighter, as you stop thinking of the weapon as the sole object: you also use your fists, your knees, kicks, throws, etc.

Mastery of a craft or skill requires this. To understand something so fully that is not something you engage with: it is an extension of you. All masters of their craft (be it physics, warfare, writing, or theatre) have a command over their tools to the point that you can barely tell when they’re using it vs. when they’re not.

This lesson has benefited me greatly in my pursuit of skill development. It’s not enough to memorize facts or understand concepts. I now seek to internalize every skill I set my mind on, to the point where it becomes part of me. Doing so has allowed me to wield those skills to greater ends. I have used this thought process to develop my public speaking skills, interpersonal communication, self-education, and more. I hope it helps you in whatever you seek to learn.

10. Confidence comes from repetition.

We would spend the whole class repeating the same movements: the same punch, kick, stance, kata… If it was a part of our training, you bet we spent hours repeating it over and over. Those classes were LOOOOONG. Each repetition was intensely scrutinized and analyzed for areas of weakness, where we were compensating, or what we needed to improve on. If we were weak punchers, guess what we would practice regularly? You guessed it. Punches. Spinning kicks? Yep. Feedback was frequent and extremely specific.

(If you got dizzy you had to take a second, refocus, and go again. Then again, if you were always getting dizzy, you weren’t doing it right)

Round after round, class after class, we’d practice the same movements. If you half-assed one… Well, you learned pretty quickly not to do that.

(Note: by half-ass, I mean sloppy performance, not exhaustion. If you were exhausted, you still performed as best as possible.)

Over time, our skills slowly improved. We got better at our strikes, our kata’s, and our movements. We started putting force behind our actions, moved faster, and hit harder. We stopped wincing at the possibility of awkwardly striking the very rough heavy bag because our shins or knuckles toughened to the point it didn’t hurt that much, and we knew how to strike so we didn’t damage ourselves. We were able to learn how to transfer this to sparring and self-defence, the “real life” application of these actions. Our hand pad and heavy bag work reflected the effort we put in. Everything came naturally, without worry.

You could see on our faces and in our actions the increased confidence that came with this practice. Each training session sharpened our skills, and by extension, our belief that what we were doing was correct. There was always something to improve upon: but we got closer and closer to perfection, and that progress showed.

With every new skill I’ve learned, I’ve applied this rule: weightlifting, public speaking, skating, talking to girls I’m attracted to (okay this one I’m still struggling with), meditation, and virtually every other endeavour I partake in for the rest of my life. I am confident in what I do, because I practice often, and I practice well.

11. There’s a lesson in everything if you learn to look for it.

At the end of every class, my Senpai would ask us the same question. “So, what did you learn today?” It didn’t matter your rank, age, or what class you were in. If you participated, you were asked this question.

This question is easier to answer if you’re a lower rank, as each class is a new usually an experience that you haven’t been through yet. When you’re a black belt helping out in a beginner’s children’s class? Much more difficult. But, the question was still posed to you. And you had to answer it. If you didn’t have an answer? Well, no one left until you did. We’d wait. The parents were patient.

You learned pretty quickly to figure out some lessons from the class. It didn’t have to be grand or complex, or revolutionary: sometimes relearning a lesson was all you needed. The point of the question was to remind us that doing something for the sake of doing it: “going through the motions” wasn’t only pointless, it wasn’t necessary. There is always a lesson to be learned. You just have to be paying attention to see it.

This last lesson has had the most profound impact on me. I used to mull through the requirements of the day or task and not ask much of it (and I admit, I still do). But over time, I started paying attention. I started seeing new patterns, learning new lessons, and improving my capabilities with each new day. I started writing down insights in journals, making sure to document whatever I learn as I go. And each time I do, I’m reminded of my Senpai’s question, and how grateful I am that she always asked it.

To conclude…

These 11 lessons are some of the many that I learned during those 11 years I called that dojo my home. I owe much of my success to the principles I learned during my time there. Self-discipline, personal unity, and the fighting spirit are integral parts of my identity, and I am grateful to my teachers and the martial arts I had the privilege to study.

Oh, and one final lesson, and the reason everything I learned has stayed with me years after I moved away: once a martial artist, always a martial artist.

Class dismissed.

Hey everyone! Thanks for reading this, I really appreciate it. If you enjoyed this, please leave a comment and let me know what you liked! And check out some of my other posts if you liked this one:

Saying Goodbye To An Identity
5 Personal Reflection Exercises You Can Do During Lockdown
Expression Vs. Passion

Poli Sci grad, Comms Strategist, great at remembering names and terrible at pronouncing them. I write on a number of different topics!