Over the years, I’ve had a lot of people ask me a bunch of questions, but one category of questions always comes back: how do I become a better martial artist? I always try to give them an answer but most often, I’m not terribly satisfied with whatever I come up with. Simply because they want something short and precise and I don’t think there’s such a thing.
During our podcast interview, Kris Wilder asked me to give one piece of advice I thought would be important. As always, I was left with that feeling of not having done a really good job. That’s what triggered me to write this “15 ways to become a better martial artist” post.
So what can you expect? A bunch of things:
- I’ll touch on various subjects I feel are important but I don’t place one above the other. I think they’re all relevant so don’t assume the numbering is meant to convey a sense of hierarchy.
- This list is by no means complete. But I had to limit it one way or another so I chose 15 as the cut-off number or it would turn into an epic-length post. I’ll add more later in a follow-up post.
- The topic is “becoming a better martial artist”. That means something very specific to me but might mean something else for you. So we’re bound to have a difference of opinion on some things. That’s fine. Discard what you think doesn’t apply to you and I hope you still find a couple of useful ideas.
- These are things that have worked for me, my students, and clients. In other words, I know they work because experience taught me so. That said, they still might not work for you, no matter how hard you try. So I propose you view this list as a bunch of ideas to try out or as an inspiration to make your own list. But it sure ain’t no gospel, as a buddy of mine likes to say.
That said, let’s get to it.
1.Train every day, if only for a couple of minutes.
For some reason, most martial artists have this notion that you need to train non-stop for at least an hour for it to be effective training. They then use that as an excuse not to train because they don’t have the time to get in those 60 or 90 minutes of training on a given day. I think that’s nonsense. Even five or ten minutes per day is better than nothing at all. If you keep it up for twenty years, it all adds up and helps you become a martial arts expert in the long run. Of course, it’d be better if you could train longer every day but that’s not in the cards for everybody. Just do your best to get some training in every day, no matter what and no matter how long.
2. Slow down.
Another myth is that you need to go full speed, full power to learn anything. That’s even more nonsense. Try to relax and slow everything down if you want to make progress. Why? Because that’s how you learn and perfect movements. When you learn something new, you do it slowly until you have basic competence. Only then do you speed things up a bit. When you make mistakes, you slow down to correct them and then speed up again. And so on until you can go at full speed and power without major mistakes. Fast forward a few years. You now do those same techniques but a lot better than at first. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have to slow down your training anymore. The truth is, you still make mistakes but they’ve just become a lot smaller. So they’re easy to miss until somebody points them out to you or you make a video of yourself and review it in slow motion. When you slow down your training again, you can correct these errors better.
3. Use technology.
When I started training, we had VHS tapes and books, that was it. Instructors used this to promote their art and as a student, I used those things to learn. Today, things are different. You have DVDs, Blu-Ray (with loads of detail), MP3 podcasts, E-books, blogs, video on demand, downloadable files, streaming video, on-line training, YouTube, etc. There has never been so much information readily available. So use it in your training, all of it. You’ll probably find certain things more practical than others so by all means, drop whatever doesn’t work for you. But do use those that can help you get better. One caveat though: technology will not replace training. No matter how much you might know, that doesn’t mean you can also do it.
4. Your goals, and therefore your training, will change throughout your life.
When I was younger, I wanted to be a bad-ass competitor so I trained really hard to compete to the best of my ability. When I stopped competing, I started shifting towards a more practical and self-defense oriented training regimen. I still train for full-contact competitions because I believe the training has value. But the self-defense part is equally important now. As I get older, the competitive-type stuff holds less and less of an interest for me and my training reflects this. My evolution is by no means unique, on the contrary, and you’ll probably change too. So if it happens, don’t worry about it. Even if it means abandoning an art you practiced for years. Just keep going with whatever new one you feel is right for you.
5. Don’t focus on just the short term.
This is perhaps one of the toughest ones on this list when you’re younger than 30-35. Because it’s usually about that age before you start feeling your body age, get used up and it starts breaking down. Being able to do certain techniques (like jump spinning back kicks and other such funky stuff) was something you took for granted and then suddenly, it takes an effort. Other things slowly become impossible. In other words: you’re no longer 18. Here’s the thing: you can do a lot of permanent damage to your body in your twenties but only start feeling the results of that in your thirties. But by that time, it’ll be too late and you’ll spend the rest of your life trying to minimize the resulting problems or work around them. Been there, don’t that, have the T-shirt and am forced to wear it every day… So when you train, consider the long term effects of that training and then make up your mind if they’re worth it or not.
6. The harder you train, the more you need to care for your body.
As I write this, I’ve been having back problems for the last 6 months, my arthritis is flaring up again and that’s just the least of my problems. So let’s just say I’m talking from experience here… The less you take care of your body and neglect it, the worse a price you’ll pay later on in life. It’s a cliché, I know, but it’s also very much a true statement. I remember being 18 and going out all night, sleeping a few hours, and then train at a seminar all day. Sure, I was a bit tired but that didn’t stop me from training hard all day long or from going out once again that same night. If I try that crap today, I’ll be worthless at the seminar and aching for days afterward. Taking it one step further, if you train hard every day and don’t build in rest phases every 4-5 weeks, the cumulative damage will only begin to show after you turn 30-35. And then you get to spend the rest of your life in pain… So think about recovery, rest, good nutrition, supplements, physical therapy, and the like the harder you train. Not only will you keep your body in better functioning order, but you’ll also be able to train at that intensity for a lot longer.
7. Learn to relax.
It seems a contradiction but in reality, it isn’t: to move faster and with more power, you need to learn how to relax. A simplistic explanation (there are loads of factors involved) is this: your body works with opposing muscle groups/movements. The quadriceps straightens the legs, the hamstrings bend it. The triceps straighten the arm, the biceps bends it. Again, it gets more complicated than this but it’s an easy way to understand what I’m talking about. Here’s the thing: for the triceps to straighten out the arm explosively like you do in a straight punch, the biceps has to relax. If it doesn’t, it acts as a brake, slowing down the extension and robbing it of its maximum power. This principle applies to all your movements and not just straightening your arm. As a result, one of the best ways to improve the quality of all your movements is to learn to relax your body so you can control your muscles to the point where they relax sufficiently when needed.
8. Learn about anatomy and kinesiology.
If you don’t know how your body is built, how can you expect to master it? If you don’t know how the human body moves, how can you expect to master your movements? Sounds simple but it’s one of the things I’ve seen neglected over and over, even by long-time practitioners. Why is it important? Because the older you get, the less your body will do everything automatically. When you’re young and healthy, training is easy: you have loads of energy and can train hard every day even (or perhaps especially) if your technique sucks because you can power through. But after a few years, this becomes more difficult; your body starts to become less flexible, energy levels go down, cumulative injuries hinder your training, etc. It’s called “getting older” and we all go through that process. Here’s the thing: the more you lose your youthful energy, the more you’ll need to replace it with something else to get the same results. That something else is technique. Good technique is based on your knowledge and understanding of anatomy and kinesiology.
9. Distinguish between what you feel and what is actually going on.
This ties back to the previous point and I’ll illustrate it with an unrelated story: for a few months already, I felt really bad after every meal: tension in my abdomen, difficulty breathing, pain, etc. It wasn’t fun but it was manageable and the MD I went to couldn’t find anything, even after doing a gastroscopy. About half a year into this, I was on a weekend holiday at the coast with friends. It was fun and relaxing but I went to bed with the same symptoms after dinner. Though this time, they were off the charts: incredible chest pain and feeling suffocated. I was afraid I wouldn’t make it until morning, so I was rushed to the hospital in the middle of the night… 60 min. later, I left the hospital and slept like a rose. What happened? The emergency doctors checked my vitals, prodded me left and right, stuck needles in me, etc. Their conclusion: there was nothing medically wrong with me. Then they started asking questions about work, life, etc. 10min into that talk, they gently explained I’d been overexposed to stress for the last 6-7 years and my body was telling me to cool my jets. My heart was fine, my digestive system was fine, but my mind wasn’t and it was wreaking havoc on my nervous system. Then and there, I decided to change my life and the symptoms vanished in a few weeks.
The point of this story? It felt like I was going to die but I wasn’t. I’d have sworn my number was up but all I needed to do is relax more. Pretty big difference… So what you feel, regardless of how intense that feeling is, is not always a reliable indicator of what’s actually happening. This is true in many regards: you might feel as if you’re throwing a powerful punch but in reality, it might be weak as hell and vice versa. For the karate guys amongst you, try this: throw your best straight punch a couple times in class, wearing a gi. The snap of the gi makes it feel like you’re punching with Herculean strength. Now take off the gi and do it again. No more snap of your sleeves and the punch feels less powerful. Now go outside, still no gi, and do the punch with the wind blowing at you hard. It’ll feel even less powerful still. Your punch was probably just as hard the first time as it was in the second and third example, but it didn’t feel the same. With a little bit of effort, you’ll find tons of similar things happening in your training: you feel one thing but something else is happening, something you don’t know about. Don’t let that delude you, either positively or negatively. Just keep on training to get better.
10. Distinguish between time-spent and time-practiced.
This is something I realized many years ago but only got to appreciate more as I got older. There is a significant difference between the time you’ve spent training in martial arts and the time you’ve actually practiced it. I’ve been training for over 25 years, that’s the overall time I’ve spent studying the arts. In the last 21 years of that time-spent, I’ve trained an average of 1-3 hours each day, 6 days a week. That’s my time-practiced. I’m not saying this to boast, nor is it anything special (lots of people have way more time-practiced than me); I’m only stating facts here, trying to make a point which is: both have their own value.
Time-practiced is important as it’s what gives you experience and understanding. No practice = no skill. For more on that, again please read my “How to become a martial arts expert” post which I can summarize like this: train, train, train, and then train some more. If you don’t train, you don’t even get to step onto the playing field. In contrast with that is time-spent, which looks at the big picture. It is an indicator of which level of skill and expertise you can realistically have at that stage in time. Meaning, if you only train 90min. twice a week for ten years straight, you can hardly expect to call yourself a uber-mega-ultra-grandmaster when compared to somebody who trains 2 hours a day, every day for seven years in a row. Sure, you have three more years of time-spent, but he has way more time-practiced. The opposite is also true: Train four hours every day for one year and then compare this with the skill of somebody who’s trained one hour every day for twenty years. Then the latter is more likely to have a surplus in skill and experience. Here’s the thing: I believe you need a balance between both. Some things, you only learn by training hard every day. Other things only become apparent after you’ve trained for a long time. You need both to become a better martial artist. So when you look at your own training, ask yourself these questions: have I trained hard enough? Have I trained long enough? Whatever the problem you’re facing in your training, the answer can often be found in these two questions.
11. There is no end-level.
Everything, especially martial arts, has levels of depth of knowledge and understanding. Meaning, there is superficial knowledge and on the other end of the scale, extreme in-depth knowledge on any given subject or topic. Having superficial knowledge is great but it’s only the first step if you want to become a better martial artist. In-depth knowledge is where it’s at but that puppy is an elusive one: it takes years and years of dedicated training to get it (see #10). It’s also impossible to have in-depth knowledge of everything. Barring the occasional genius, people rarely specialize in more than one or two fields and become world-class level in those. Don’t let that bring you down though. Like the cliché says, it’s not about the destination but the road traveled. Which is just another way of saying you have to squeeze everything out of whatever potential you have, regardless of how much or little that is. The point I want to make is this: when I say “learn to relax” or “learn about anatomy and kinesiology” there are levels to that (and all the other things I wrote here) as well. Which is wicked cool because it means you can always learn more. But it’s also a warning to avoid getting lost or trapped in your training: when you think you “know” something, it should sound the alarm bells because there’s a real danger you’ll stop going for those deeper levels of understanding for that specific thing. This is often not really a conscious decision but something that just happens: you “know” so there is less of a need to keep on digging. Notice I didn’t say your knowledge is wrong or anything like that. That isn’t even relevant. I am saying knowledge is not static, nor is it ever complete. So just keep on learning and training.
Like I said, this list isn’t finished and when I wrote the original article, I stopped at 11 ways. Here are a few more so now we have 15:
12. Record and analyze your training.
Cellphones are cheap, almost everybody has one nowadays and the cameras are more than good enough for your needs. So record your training and then review the footage to learn from your mistakes and to keep on improving. Why is this so important? Re-read #9: what you feel may not be what is actually happening. It might feel like you’re keeping your back straight when you punch, but the video will tell you for sure that you’re actually leaning forward. It might feel like you pivot your hips all the way in a kick, but the video might show you’re falling short of that goal. The only way to know for sure is to record your training and the, analyze it. That is more difficult as it sounds as you have to be objective and honest with yourself. A good way to view this is to ask yourself “what can I do better” when you review the footage. It doesn’t matter if it’s only a small detail, look for it and the train to correct it. Do that consistently over time and you will become a better martial artist. If this concept works for multi-billion companies, it can work for you too… If you don’t know how to start, here is a guide on how to make good videos of martial arts training.
13. Don’t learn the same thing twice.
Many years ago, I read an interview with a martial arts master who trained in about 10 styles. The reporter asked him how he could possibly remember all of it. The master answered, “Don’t learn the same thing twice.” That was a lightbulb moment for me. I was also in the process of practicing more than one style and any help I could get was more than welcome. Following this advice lead me on a path of discovery of how things worked, which in turn helped me learn about the structure of martial arts. And that helped me to train better and improve faster. Not long after that, I received another piece of advice: the differences are just as important as the similarities. I wrote about that in detail in this article on how to never stop improving in your martial arts training. The combination of these two concepts has done more to help me become a better martial artist than anything else I can think of. Mind you, it wasn’t easy, but it gave me a mindset that was more analytical and focused, which is essential in making progress.
14. Learn from other styles.
After about five or six years of training, the head instructor of the Tai Chi Chuan style I teach told me something that stuck with me: at a certain point, you want to look at how other styles do things to still make progress in your own. If you do so, in particular when combined with what I explained in #13, you will make progress. Because though other styles will have similar techniques to yours, they will accentuate different aspects and have other reasons for them. By discovering those differences and understanding why they exist, you can view your own style through a different lens and increase your understanding of it. This doesn’t mean you have to start studying that other style or radically change your own. Instead, think of it as looking at your style from a different perspective. Not a better or worse one, just different. By changing your point of view, you will inevitably discover new things and therefore improve your skill as you explore the ramifications.
15. Commit for the long haul.
I’m 48 as I write this and have been training for 35 years now. It’s been a long road, but it’s not over yet. There is still so much for me to learn and I still enjoy training. However, life came at me hard too, with injuries, problems in my professional and personal life, and many more hurdles I had to overcome. Not just once, but repeatedly. Looking back, there were plenty of reasons to give up. Even though I didn’t always train at the intensity I would have liked, I did what I could and kept going. But when I look around at the people who started when I did, I’m the only one left. When I look at how many students I’ve trained, but then stopped for a variety of reasons, I’m in triple digits. Over time, I ran into several of them by accident and more often than not, they confess regretting they stopped training. Invariably, my response is that they know where my school is and they are always welcome. Hardly ever does one of them come back… That is fine; I don’t fault them for it, but if you want to become a better martial artist, the most important thing is to never stop training, no matter what. Life will trip you up too and there will be more than one occasion for you to stop and focus on other things. Don’t. Scale back your training if need be, but keep going. Because the older you get, the harder it is to start up again. Not starting over will be much more alluring than dusting off your gi and wrangling your body into shape again. So just keep going.
You can only become better if you keep on training. And for that to happen, you can’t stop, ever…
That’s it for now. I hope you find this list useful for your own training. Perhaps try and implement these tips one at a time and of course, feel free to adapt them to your specific circumstances.