I was supposed to suck at martial arts

A friend of mine just posted a Henry Rollins video on Facebook: I loved it.

First of all, I like Henry a lot. Not just his music and movie work but also his work ethic and uncompromising attitude to life. And he likes to lift iron, as do I. So for all those reasons, I think he’s a pretty cool guy. In this video here, he talks about the decision that changed his life. The one thing that altered the course of his life.

Before I go one, take a look at it first:

 

There are a couple of things that stand out for me and I’ll get to these here below but I’d like to cover the key one first. Henry says:

“I don’t have talent, I have tenacity, I have discipline, I have focus. And I know without any illusion where I come from and what I can go back to.”

I can relate to that.

I’m the same in my field.

I was supposed to suck at martial arts

I wasn’t supposed to be any good at the arts because I really didn’t have the talent for it. When I tell people this, they don’t believe me. They claim I have natural ability. It’s very kind of them to say so but I was there when I started training and they weren’t: I was stiff, slow and uncoordinated:

  • I had no natural flexibility. I spent a lot of time stretching both in class, but even more so at home before I managed to pull off high kicks. I spent hours and hours in my room in pain because my leg muscles refused to relax when I stretched. I took every opportunity to stretch just to make some progress, to the point of flipping on the light switches and opening doors with my feet. That eventually gave me functional flexibility but I discovered I had to work hard to maintain it. In the mean time, I saw tons of people with natural flexibility who didn’t need to do all that work. So I know the difference.
  • I was slow. One of my training buddies from when I started was quicker than me. We’d often train together during Summer break and one time, we practiced by punching holes in cardboard boxes. Let me rephrase that, he punched holes in them. I only managed to punch the box away from me, much to his amusement. That was a key moment for me: I decided to become faster. I trained hard at it, for a long time, with progress being pretty slow. But eventually, I was faster than him. I held back during sparring because I didn’t want him to feel bad but basically, I could beat him to the punch whenever I wanted. I didn’t stop there though, I decided that I would try to have fast hands forever and never stopped training towards that particular goal.
  • I moved like a pregnant yak. I was not well-coordinated when I began training. Forms were difficult for me and whenever I learned a new technique, I had to do hundreds of reps before I understood how to move my body to even begin getting it right. Then it took thousands more reps before I could do it more or less correctly without having to concentrate so much. Many of the other students seemed to pick it all up so much faster than me and I often felt like I’d never be any good at martial arts. More often than not, I felt like everybody saw how much I sucked but was just too kind to tell me.

All things considered, I wasn’t really meant to be any good at the arts.

The only thing I had going for me was strength, due to working in construction as a child. But other than that, I had to earn everything the hard way.

But strangely enough, it never felt like work. I had and still have a passion for the arts that motivated me to try and get better. I would come home after class, dead tired, and repeated what I learned because (being a slow learner) I was afraid to forget it.  I trained at night in my room when the rest of the family was sleeping whenever I thought I was close to figuring something out. I trained in the garden and kicked and punched the old apple tree my grandparents had planted because I didn’t have a heavy bag (the tree is still there by the way.)

For more than fifteen years, part of my training schedule was this:

  • Monday: 15x 3min + 1 min rest against the heavy bag.
    • Round one: 10x jab, 10x jab from a right lead. Repeat until end of round.
    • Round two: 10x cross, 10x cross from a right lead. Repeat until end of round.
    • Etc. for both hooks and uppercuts.
    • Round seven: 10x jab-cross, 10x jab-cross from a right lead. Repeat until end of round.
    • Round eight: 10x cross-lead hook, 10x cross-lead hook from a right lead. Repeat until end of round.
    • Etc. until round fifteen.
  • Tuesday: 15x 3min + 1 min rest against the heavy bag.
    • Round one: 10x lead push kick, 10x lead push kick from a right lead. Repeat until end of round.
    • Round two: 10x rear push kick, 10x rear push kick from a right lead. Repeat until end of round.
    • Etc. for round kicks (low, middle and high, one level per round), side kicks, spinning kicks, etc
    • Same for combinations with kicks and punch-kick combinations until round fifteen.
  • Wednesday: repeat from Monday.
  • Thursday: repeat from Tuesday.

Like I said: for about fifteen years, four to six times a week that’s what I did.

There’s more to my training as this was only one part of it, but this gives you the right context: I didn’t get anything for free; I trained for it, a lot.

Mind you, I have no illusions of grandeur. I have some skill; I better have after all that time and effort. But when I look at my teachers and others who put in the same amount or even lots more work, I can only come to two conclusions:

  • I have so much more work to do.
  • I’ll never be as good as those guys.

I’m fine with that. That’s just the way it is for me personally. That said, it’s been a pretty good life for me so far, which brings me to the next quote from Henry’s video:

It’s your shot?

Yeah.

Take it.

 

I remember people telling me I would never make a living teaching martial arts. They said I was a fool and should “get a real job” instead. That was 20 years ago. Since then and up until now, I’ve been doing what I love as my main job. I don’t see it changing any time soon. On the contrary, I’ve been getting more and more business opportunities thanks to my martial arts training and teaching. Opportunities those naysayers can only dream about when I see where some of them are in their lives.

They were right about not getting rich though. Being a martial arts professional has not left me starving but it also didn’t make me a wealthy man. In part, that’s my own fault for not being business savvy enough when I was younger. In part, because of a couple catastrophic financial events that I’m still paying for to this day. But I’m crawling my way out of debt, one day at a time. And I’m loving that I can still do the same job to get there.

So in many ways, I’m “taking that shot” every single day.

Which is a whole lot more than most people can say.

 

Become a Patron and get access to unique content: my newsletter, instructional videos, violence analysis and much more!

Comments

  1. Two things:

    To paraphrase a running coach I know: “Most people never work hard enough to know whether they have natural talent or not.”

    Second, I wish I hadn’t needed to get fired in order to take my shot, but that’s what has happened. The courage to quit is sometimes as important as the tenacity.

  2. Old Bull Lee says

    Thank you for this!

  3. I’m the kind of person who pays more attention to the things I can do, as opposed to the things I can’t (or people tell me I can’t).

    Life has so far worked out pretty well for me.

  4. Hi Wim

    Really excellent blog post. I am inspired by your determination and persistence.

    Thank you for sharing a small bit of your journey.

    Cheers

    Charlie

  5. Thank you for giving a great article. Thank you for letting us know you are the “average joe”.

    I have tried to communicate to a friend of mine how much inherited gifts mean when learning something. That some people are just good at something. Not that they don’t work at it, but that their work pays out more than for someone who is not a “genius”.

    Thank you for acknowledging both your own hard work and that some are born with a knack for certain things even if they work hard anyway.

    • Thanks Michael. I agree, sometimes, people who are gifted don’t realize just how much of a difference that makes. And those who watch those gifted practitioners sometimes forget that not everybody is born that way.

  6. Kevin Keough says

    I was supposed to suck at everything. Kind of. I don’t think I am “gifted” in any way—except perhaps “sitting with people”.

    I was not expected to make it through college. I hated school and had no academic talent. Any talk of becoming a clinical psychologist was mocked or dismissed—my HS grades weren’t impressive and I didn’t “get it” until the end of my sophomore year in college……when I realized I would have to get an A in every class if I hoped to get into graduate school.

    I didn’t know how I was going to do it I just knew it had to be done(I pulled it off and in grad school finished with a 3.85). Like you and martial arts I was not made for the academic world. I had to put in twice the time of my peers to match their grades. In graduate school and internship in clinical psychology I skyrocketed……………heads were turning. My only secret was perseverance and purpose and meaning. And I detested school from 1st grade on. No one believed in me, there were no supporters, there were only well-intentioned people telling me all the reasons I would fail
    .
    Naturally this pattern continued…..upon graduation….”you can’t do private practice, work with the police, and so on. I learned that I had developed a skill to turn lack of belief in my ability to do anything as motivation and energy. If you tell me I can’t do something—rest assured it will be done.

    Same with martial arts—I played football and basketball in high school—I was okay—well I was an outstanding “hitter”. However I struggled with every aspect of martial training. I was okay with flexibility. I was terrible at learning forms. I decided I would not pursue or think in terms of belts. Like in Wing chun—you get a certificate when you complete the system but no belts, no fancy outfits. I realized I was coming from a different world as compared to my peers. I didn’t “spar the right way” because I didn’t think—just responded. My peers were many belts beyond me though they seemed to rush through requirements to get belts vs. learning the fundamentals. I have never stopped with a focus on fundamentals. I am not one for grace, glitz, and finesse.

    Truthfully, my work in psychiatric hospitals (so many take downs each shift I could never tell you how many times……we would subdue, contain, and hog tie patients). We could not inflict pain or hurt them in any way. Somehow I learned “psychiatric admissions unit Psycho-fu. I only got clocked once—guy nailed me as I helped him up—he used the momentum to put some power in the punch—my head banged into the wall —thump thump thump. Anyway, I just picked him up and put him in the seclusion room.

    I felt at home in these places—it was my job to keep things safe and secure for all, contain agitated and combative patients, and accomplish this without any equipment except restraints…..2 or 4 point restraints. Dealt with mutinies and multiple combative patients

    .Living in a crime invested city keeps me on my toes and invariably presents innumerable “martial situations”…..eye contact and presence determine whether things will get physical.

    Riding with the police for a decade also was outstanding martial training. I was allowed to thump bad guys…like I no longer had my hands tied behind my back—so I loved it. “Losing” or “being overcome” were not options. Because I had more experience and training working with violent people I would often end up as point man.
    Maybe I didn’t suck working in psychiatric hospitals or doing ridealongs with police or sitting with people. I earned genuine respect and became viewed as a valuable member of a team.

    Formal martial arts training has helped in so many ways. However, crossing the threshold to kill (prepared, trained, instinctive, and natural) came from life on the street and certain work situations.

    But I have always struggled with forms and specific movements to the point it is humiliating. I don’t look very good during training. Perseverance has saved me. Perseverance, humility, and perseverance Maybe I had another “gift”—awareness of and comfort.in dealing with violent people….but that was hard won.

    Anyway, I am a slow learner. Someone once told me that the people that learn things quickly end up in the middle in terms of skill, whereas the guy stuck learning the fundamentals has a chance to move well beyond the middle. So I have made peace with not being a star, not being the best, Truth is I consider myself a beginner. And I am okay with that. It isn’t a game or an accomplishment. It is something essential to my life—and I survive because I am a slow learner that keeps hitting the fundamentals.”” No one special Nobody from Delaware”

    Well, this post struck a chord with me. Thanks. I see myself in what you describe—–not your accomplishments…..just the slow moving hard won skills and instincts you describe. And having mentors and teachers nearby and in cyber-space.

    Thanks Wim and apologies for running long.

    • No worries Kevin, glad to hear my post resonated with you. I don’t think my story (or yours) is unique in any way. Loads and loads of people go through the same thing, but they’ don’t all have blogs like me. :-)

      • Kevin Keough says

        Agreed on all counts. We are common men. “Fanfare for the Common Man” has a fascinating back story. It is a favorite of mine. Actually I heard him play at the University of Delaware circa 1980.

        Anyway,I believe many people including you are associated in my mind with Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man”

        It’s a big deal because I sharing an American music classic with a European—a guy from Belgium. It is a gift of sorts—a musical gift. If you don’t like it you can request a $ 19.00 USA. refund.

        https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4NjssV8UuVA

  7. Hi Wim!

    Thank you for this Post that shows that sometimes Hard work beats natural Talent.

    I have almost the same problems with Flexibility and Speed as you in my Martial Arts Training (Taekwondo).

    Can I ask you what was or is your specific Trainig to get your Fast hands? Tubes? Lots of Push ups?

    Greetings from Stuttgart Germany
    Tino Carta

Speak Your Mind

*