There is a great deal to learn when one studies the martial arts and perhaps nothing is more important than what you learn about yourself. In this article we will cover some of the things you will want to keep in mind as you expand your martial arts knowledge. Many of these topics will allow you to remain aware during a conflict situations, but many others will help you maintain a positive outlook and offer you things to keep in mind as you advance toward Shodan.
Self-awareness is a multifaceted concept that has many applications in the martial arts. We will explore several of these applications in this section.
When a person attacks you then you may elect to use neutral stepping patterns for the first few seconds in order to quickly assess the general skills and abilities of your opponent. It won’t take long for you to determine if the person is a skilled or inexperienced fighter. As you move to escape the person’s next attack you can do this in an anxious and tense manner, or you can stand essentially erect and calmly move while carefully scrutinizing how the opponent behaves. The first strategy is essentially event awareness and you will likely find you are somewhat crouched and leaning inward. You respond to an event and are aware only of the event. The latter case involves self-awareness. You are aware that you are scrutinizing and monitoring the opponent’s behavior for a specific purpose so you will naturally have an erect and somewhat detached bearing. Because you have a purpose you will likely be more relaxed and will therefore move more effortlessly.
Being self-aware is also quite important when you wish to see without looking. Being aware of every part of your body and any associated pressures or movements against your skin will help you better understand what your opponent is attempting to do. You should ultimately not allow any contact point to go unnoticed. It is an input sensor of the highest magnitude.
Another aspect of self-awareness is how your body is positioned. Here is a somewhat convoluted test you can perform that demonstrate this idea. Find a viable space and then do a forward roll, allowing yourself to press forward after the roll and to stand upright as a continuation of the rolling motion. You might elect to do a jump-spinning kick of some type as an alternative. After regaining your feet freeze your position and then use your right and left hands to point in the same direction as the middle toe of each respective foot. Your right hand points in the same direction as your right middle toe. Your left hand points in the direction of your left middle toe. Now look down to see how accurately you predicted these locations. When you first try this you may find your accuracy is not stellar.
The above test is designed to make it difficult to track your movements and to rely more on sensing your accurate position after the fact rather than tracking the position through a series of movements. The important thing is can you, after a series of movements and at any moment in time tell exactly where your feet are pointed? What about your elbows? Are they in by your side, flared out somewhat, pointed down, or pulled up so that your ribs are exposed? Where are your knees pointed relative to your center? How are your hips positioned? Are they level and horizontal or is one side higher than the other? Do they help define your true center, or are they out of alignment with the remainder of your torso? Do the hips tilt forward or backward? Is your head erect and level, or is it tilted to one side, leaning forward, or turned in some way? Are the muscles in your shoulders tense and taught? Do you have similar tensions in your torso or legs?
None of these questions suggest your body should be in any specific or particular orientation. You may legitimately adopt any of the positions mentioned above at various times. The point is that you should know the precise location and orientation of every part of your body at any instant in time. This is not easy, but you need to know how your knees are oriented so you will know the best way to move should your opponent perform some unexpected action. This is a critical aspect of self-awareness.
Mental self-awareness is another critical aspect of this concept. You cannot let circumstances dictate your actions completely. While you will react to circumstances and take advantage of any opportunity that presents itself you must have some form of strategic plan. Do you plan to escape? Do you need to ensure some innocent person nearby is not injured? Do you feel it is necessary to physically disable the person attacking you? These are all things you must consider when confronted with a possible conflict situation. While your motives may change during the course of a conflict you will want to have a purposed and planned outcome immediately. You will then want to work toward that outcome until either it is achieved or you feel you must abandon it in favor of some alternate outcome.
Another aspect of mental self-awareness is knowing your strengths and weaknesses. If you have had difficulty throwing people then don’t assume you will have a sudden flare of throwing success during a conflict. Knowing where you are less skilled will allow you to prevent situations from arising in which you would need to rely on those skills. Instead, work to ensure a situation evolves so that you can always utilize those skills with which you feel most comfortable and capable. Know what skills you can do nearly instinctively and what would require thought and nearly perfect conditions for you to perform them accurately. Avoid getting into a situation where you would need to rely on the latter.
Dealing with Self Conflict
We all experience periods of self-doubt, indecision, or internal conflict that can cause us stress, discomfort, and confusion. This is a natural human condition. Whether we have misgivings about some prior action or uncertainty about a future decision, we all experience periods where our mind finds itself in conflict or turmoil.
It is no different in the martial arts. You might be concerned you do not have the innate skills to advance to a higher rank. You may feel you will never win in a sparring match against another practitioner. You may feel you will never master a skill that is particularly difficult for you. All of these feelings can lead to self-doubt and a lack of confidence.
In most cases these will be temporary problems. You will eventually master even skills that seem insurmountable. You will find that you may not be able to win against a sparring partner, but you can easily master them when grappling. You will eventually master all the skills in your current belt and achieve advancement to the next rank.
So in most situations these self-conflicts resolve themselves naturally. It may take some time, but in most cases the doubts are found to be baseless and you work your way through any obstacles. It helps to understand that most of these issues simply melt away with time.
There are some issues that can be quit troubling to people. Two of the most significant are 1) whether you would be able to use your skills to physically harm someone if necessary, and 2) whether you would be able to use your skills to not harm someone if possible. These are more serious self-conflicts because they involve moral questions and questions that can only be answered if you are placed in a situation where you are forced to confront the issue imminently. Let’s explore each issue in turn.
The first question, whether you would be able to harm someone if needed, is a common undercurrent of self-doubt that most people experience while training. There are two aspects to this question. The first is whether your skills would be sufficient to harm someone if necessary, and secondly, if you would have the mental willingness to actually harm another person.
As you gain in experience and practice you will, in all likelihood, conclude that you are sufficiently skilled to harm someone if necessary. You may not yet be at that point, but with additional time and training you will convince yourself that you have the requisite skills to harm someone if the need arises. So the remaining question is whether or not you are willing to take that step. Only you can answer that question. It is absolutely something to consider carefully. Self-preservation and protection of others you care about will be major factors in your deliberations.
Some people will not recognize this as an issue at all. They wonder why anyone would need to ponder whether they would harm someone if the situation called for it. These individuals are already sure they would be willing to harm someone if their survival depended upon it. They do not question their willingness to perform in this manner.
If you are one of these individuals then the second question is the more relevant question. If placed in a situation where harmful force is a possible outcome, are you willing to not harm another if that is an outcome you can effect? Often it is more difficult to avoid harming another than it is to succumb to the gratification that can be achieved through “winning.” But this question requires just as much soul searching as the first question. Again, only you can answer this question, but it is a question you must consider. In many ways this is a more serious self-conflict than the first situation.
As you become a more advanced and therefore more skilled and dedicated martial artist you will often encounter these types of mental and moral conflicts. Some of these conflicts are minor while others are more fundamental, going to the core of yourself as a person. In each case you can decide the issue will work itself out naturally over time, or spend some time thinking the issue through carefully. Always be ready and willing to reconsider earlier conclusions you may have reached. With time and experience you may find your position or insights have changed. That is part of maturing as an individual and as a martial artist. Additional information will provide you with new perspectives. Be willing to reconsider your position on these and other issues over time so that you can evolve as both a human being and as a martial artist.
Do Not Become Overbearing
People with superior knowledge can become truly tedious. More junior students will, because of your rank, begin to think of you as a source of information and knowledge. If you are asked for assistance please feel free to provide whatever assistance is needed. But strive to not provide information that was neither requested or that is beyond the ability of the student to yet fully comprehend.
You may also begin to assume that junior students are somehow inferior to you. This is a dangerous attitude to adopt. With this line of reasoning how should more senior practitioners view you? Students who are junior to yourself are not inferior in any way. They simply do not yet possess some of the knowledge that you possess. If the junior student is a Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, then it is unlikely they are inferior to you. Nor are you inferior to him or her. Everyone is striving to understand and learn as much as possible while studying Tensoku Ryu. Do what you can to encourage that learning and avoid developing an air of superiority.
This is an important concept in Tensoku Ryu. It is why we do not have titles such as Grand Master, Sifu, or Hanshi. These titles serve only to inflate one’s ego and suggest that everyone else in somehow inferior. That is not something we wish to promote within our art.
Avoid Belt Envy
As you gain experience in the curriculum in this belt material you may find yourself comparing your skills with those of higher ranking individuals. It is a purely natural and often healthy practice. If you examine advanced students and seek to understand how they have more advanced skills in some areas, then this is quite healthy. However, if you examine more advanced practitioners to justify your belief that you are more capable than they, then this is something less than healthy.
This latter behavior might be called belt envy. When engaged in this behavior a person is seeking to justify that they are more capable and experienced than another person of higher rank. This then leads to the false conclusion that either the more advanced person should not hold their current rank, or that you should hold at least a rank equal to theirs.
Belt envy is detrimental to both yourself and your Dojo. It is detrimental to yourself because you are spending time and energy on something you cannot directly control, and on something that you may not be considering accurately. You are much better off using that time and energy to work toward your next advancement.
This envy can also be harmful to a Dojo. It belittles the achievement of higher-ranking individuals and can lead to a feeling of malcontent among more junior practitioners. In some cases this can lead to a complete breakdown in respect for more advanced practitioners. This is the beginning of the end for a Dojo.
It is natural to notice differences between your skills and those of a more advanced practitioner. In some cases you will be correct that you have more advanced skills in some area than another person. Not everyone is great at everything. You may be discounting the fact that the more advanced practitioner has better developed skills in other areas. But, since everyone is different you will find that you do some things better than others. Congratulations. Keep that to yourself and focus on those skills which are both necessary for advancement and which warrant improvement. That’s better for everyone involved.
When working with a student I may ask him or her who is the best teacher in the room. On those occasions when other instructors are nearby the student may quickly scan the room to consider the possible options. Usually after a brief moment of reflection they come to the correct answer. The student is the best teacher in the room.
As an instructor I can only provide guidance, suggestion, and insight for a student. The student can learn only by taking these suggestions under advisement and applying these bits of information to the learning process. Students must, over time, learn not to rely solely on the instructor but to realize and understand that they are in fact teaching themselves. Understanding this will help a student appreciate that learning is a self-directed and lifelong activity. One learns not by being taught, but by seeking knowledge. As a mid-level student in the martial arts it is now time for you to seek out information rather than relying solely on your instructors to provide it. Learn by exploring and not by passive absorption.
Go to Tournaments
Some practitioners enjoy participating in tournaments. They feel good testing their skills against others or performing in front of other people in the hope of winning recognition for their effort and dedication. We encourage anyone who has this interest to participate in tournaments whenever possible.
Some people are not inspired to perform and do not wish to endure the pressures of training for and then participating in a tournament. We think that is fine also. But if you are one of these people you should still go to a tournament. Not necessarily to participate, but at least to watch and observe.
By going to a tournament, whether you participate or simply observe, you will be able to compare your current skill level with others. You will notice participants who do very well and exhibit characteristics you may wish to emulate. You may also notice participants who exhibit behaviors you do not admire. In some cases you may see some of your own behavior patterns mirrored by some of the participants.
When you go to a tournament you have an opportunity to learn and to be inspired. You will notice many things beyond simply the performance of participants. You may notice patterns of performance or behavior exhibited by different martial arts systems or schools. It is likely you will detect different Bunkai being considered by students when performing kata with which you are familiar. You may notice how the tournament is organized and run. You may notice the demeanor and behavior of the judges. You could see differences in etiquette between various styles. You could also appreciate how some styles are good at some skills but not as capable at others.
You will learn a lot from going to one or more tournaments a year. Attending multiple tournaments increases both your rate of learning and the number of things you will come to notice and comprehend. There is a lot going on at any given tournament and innumerable opportunities to learn something new.
Watch Other Styles
You can learn a great deal by watching other Tensoku Ryu practitioners, especially more senior people, as they practice or demonstrate movements. But this should not be your only source of input. Many styles do not want you to watch other “inferior” styles because they do not want to deal with alternate views about martial arts theory or movements. Tensoku Ryu is different. We encourage students to study other styles to see what they do in a similar manner and what they do differently. Both are instructive.
As you watch practitioners from other styles, either in person or via video, notice how they move and if possible try to ascertain what they are thinking as they move. What is their Bunkai for the movement? What skills are they utilizing to perform the movements? What are they considering that you had not? What are they not considering that perhaps they should? All of these questions are relevant. These are all part of the ongoing effort to broaden your understanding of the martial arts.
While Tensoku Ryu has much to learn and understand don’t assume that Tensoku Ryu needs to be your only source of martial arts understanding. Even someone ambling across the street can teach you something about the martial arts. Other styles have much to teach us so take every opportunity to learn from them.