Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The biggest key to success in Karate: Find your Fun

[This post meanders, for which I apologize in advance.]

For my style's 40th anniversary extravaganza (which is starting as I type this!) the participants are being divided into teams with meaningful names related to our art - Team Egoless, Team Empathy, Team Hope, you get the idea. We'll compete in a bunch of fun, not terribly serious events, a lot like color war in summer camp.

Given the name and theme of this blog you'd think I'd want to be placed on Team Fast Twitch Muscle Fiber or Team Burpee or Team Cardiac Output (I made those up), but to my delight I have been placed on Team Fun.

Now I've tended to be the kind of person who takes my martial arts training somewhat seriously. My primary goal was to be better and more skilled, not to have the most fun (or get promoted the fastest). When picking a school and evaluating my training I have not tended to look at the fun factor. I'm pro-tradition and anti-McDojo.

Part of the problem with "fun" in martial arts is that all too often people associate the word 'fun' with 'easy.' Sparring might be fun, but not as much fun as obstacle courses. Pushups are even less fun than sparring. Pushups on your knuckles on a concrete floor does not meet most definitions of the word 'fun.'

And there are teachers and schools where this apparent dichotomy is emphasized. I'm sure we are all aware of martial arts instructors (even if we only know them from movies) who make a point of being grim, humorless, and stern at all times.

On some level there is some merit to that line of thinking. If 'fun' means horseplay and lack of order, the class can be less productive. You don't want a 'fun' class where the students horse around all the time and never train.

But  you can work hard while cracking jokes (trust me, this is my standard state of being). You can make your obstacle courses challenging, you can make your hardest workouts enjoyable with a little personality and a little creativity.

Exactly what that means and how it pans out for someone training is probably going to be different for different people. I don't like sparring to the point of injury - it's not fun for me. Other people obviously get a lot of joy out of that kind of challenge. I don't mind a grim, hard nosed instructor, but other people find such people intimidating.

If you can find a martial art that is fun FOR YOU there are tremendous benefits. You start to look forward to class instead of dreading it. You train more when you don't have to. You're less stressed (meaning, more towards the parasympathetic nervous/hormonal state, which is good) about the training.

When you train not because it's fun but because you think of it as some sort of obligation, or even if you train to achieve some goal (getting a black belt, becoming skilled), life is just hard. I suspect that's part of the reason so many people who train for a belt/promotion end up quitting after they get the belt. If they haven't discovered the fun in the training itself, they don't have a good enough reason to continue.

If your training is fun (to you!) you will:

  1. Train more diligently;
  2. Train harder;
  3. Be much more likely to continue over your lifetime;
  4. Make better friends;
  5. Ultimately be more skilled, because of all of the above!
The key, and it isn't terribly difficult, is finding YOUR fun in your martial art. Like to drink a lot and socialize? Find a school with plenty of adults. Love the crossfit style workout where you almost puke at the end of each session? Find a school where that happens. Don't like that? Find another school. 

Wherever you train, a couple of tips to making it MORE fun for you (without undermining the school's philosophy or structure):
  1. Be better prepared. Being in good shape makes hard classes a lot more fun.
  2. Carefully track your progress. Try filming yourself periodically doing your kata, so you can see over time how much better you've gotten. Skill is fun!
  3. Don't be afraid to back out if it ISN'T fun. If your teacher starts emphasizing the kind of hard sparring that leaves you injured all the time, it might be a sign to find another place to train. If your teacher forbids all contact, and you really enjoy mixing it up a little, it might also be time to change things up. If you train someplace that just can't be fun for you, try to fix it (maybe just take a different class in the same school).
On some level, the question, "Should Martial Arts Training Be Fun?" seems ridiculous, like the studies that attempt to show reasons why we should be having more sex (isn't more sex enough of a reason?) But we do glorify hard, grueling training, and, perhaps especially in traditional martial arts, we tend to perceive 'real' 'authentic' training as grueling, difficult, and humorless. As if fun training is somehow inherently less effective, because we think that the effectiveness of a workout has to be proportional to how much suffering it entails.

Instead, workouts should be fun. Maybe grueling humorless training is fun to you - maybe not. But regardless, find a way to make martial arts fun for you, and you'll get far more out of your practice.

And if you see me at Go En please say hi!


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