This article originated as a post by Bill Mattocks on an online forum, and is used here with Bill’s consent. See the end of the article for more information about Bill.
I sometimes speak with discouraged newer students. They believe they lack natural talent, or that they are not coming along fast enough, or that they are just not ‘getting it’. They feel that they are not progressing in martial arts and that they are not going to progress. Some of them are thinking about quitting. I am sure some do quit, without telling anyone. This is most unfortunate.
This is what I tell them…
In my experience, if you look around the dojo at the high-ranked students who appear to perform their exercises and kata effortlessly and well, with speed, precision, and power, what you do not see is the work that went into those capabilities. What you do not see is that when they started, as white belts, they lacked that ability, and in fact, many of them were about as uncoordinated, inflexible, and out-of-shape as it was possible to be. When you see a statue, you do not see the block of granite it was carved out of.
It has also been my observation that many of the most naturally-talented martial artists I have seen have quit before very long. I never understood why, perhaps they didn’t feel challenged, or perhaps they were just bored, but they didn’t stick around. When someone walks through the door and within days they are executing beautiful kicks and nice solid punches, I sigh and wonder how long it will be before they are gone. I wish it was not the case, but this seems to be what happens quite often.
I have seen one and only one secret to martial arts success, and that is to keep training. Train until it becomes a habit, and then keep training. There is no goal, no end-date, no moment in time when you will not have to train anymore. But don’t be discouraged; good training is like a powerful drug; you’ll want to train, you’ll miss being away from training, you’ll long to get back into action. And this is a very good thing.
So you suck at martial arts? You have no natural talent? Your balance is pathetic, you have no breath control, you are stiff and uncoordinated? That’s terrific!
Go ahead and suck. I suck too. Everybody sucks. The question is not whether or not we all suck, the question is what we suck at and how badly we suck.
So you see a lot of students wearing black belts and they don’t seem to suck. Trust me, they suck too. You just don’t see all their mistakes, because your eye is not accustomed to looking for the details where they reveal their suckitude to their instructors.
What matters here is that we accept that we suck. It’s OK to suck. Be awful, be useless, embrace it!
But keep one goal. As we train, we try to suck a little bit less each day. Not huge strides, small gains. It will sneak up on you, you will not notice it. Or you may notice tiny little differences one day and go “Hmmm, I used to not be able to do that…”
So we all suck and it’s OK to suck and we’re going to keep sucking.
Just suck a bit less each day.
Keep training. There is no one in the dojo who thinks you are the worst they have ever seen, because THEY were you a few short years ago. They have the benefit of hindsight which you do not yet.
But if you keep training, one day some new student will look at you in admiration and ask you how you got to be so good, or they’ll come to you and sadly confess that they don’t think they are ‘getting it’ and want to quit, and you will have to tell them the same thing I tell you now. You will tell them that when you started, you were not very good at it, and they won’t quite believe you.
Yes, you suck. Keep training, suck less.
And we’ve all got your back. We all support you. We all sucked just as bad if not worse than you. And we just kept training. All you see when you look at the dojo floor is people who sucked but kept training.
Do that, all will be well.
Addendum by Gerry Seymour:
The longer you train, the more things you get a chance to suck at!
Bill Mattocks is currently a nidan (2nd degree black belt) instructor at Holloway’s Isshin Ryu Karate School.
Gerry Seymour is the founder of the Self-defense Academy of Western NC, in Hendersonville, NC.