Letters to a White Belt: You Suck At Martial Arts… And That’s Okay

Dear White Belt,

You suck.

Sorry.

I’m not trying to be mean, but it’s true. You don’t know what you’re doing, you are all thumbs and left feet. You go left when Sensei says go right. You immediately forget what Sensei said, and have to ask for the instructions AGAIN.

Or, you get this expression when asked a question you know the answer to, but can’t recall on the spot ➡️ ➡️ ➡️ ➡️ ➡️ ➡️ ➡️ ➡️ ➡️ ➡️ ➡️ ➡️ ➡️

Whatever happens, however you screw up, you just..

…SUCK.

Here’s the thing, it’s totally okay to suck, be imperfect, screw up, or go left when you’re supposed to go right.

Seriously, IT’S OKAY.

Because I’m interested in your continued practice, despite the sucky-ness, I’m going to take a few minutes to explain why.

To begin with, “to suck” is to be alive. We don’t come out of the womb with all the martial knowledge and wisdom ever created by man. I mean, that would be…weird. Imagine you, as a baby, karate chopping your loving mother in the face as she feeds you your five thousandth bottle. Sucking at something means that you’re trying. Whether it’s a martial skill or drinking that milk your mother is trying to feed you, if you’re doing something that requires patience, practice and skills, that means you’re a living, breathing human being.

Congratulations on being alive.

If we want to garner any skills at all, we have to work at it. We must spend as many hours as it takes repeating the same motions again and again.

An even greater need than putting hours of work into a single motion is having someone to guide you, a teacher. I can’t count how many times it took for one of MY Sensei to tap my dead toes back to life before I sucked less.

See, sucking less is the goal. Some of the great masters, those who’ve been at their art for decades, who’ve endured brutal training, who’ve practiced and practiced, will tell you they still have so much to learn. They understand the principle of being perfectly imperfect in their skills.

We aren’t naturally coordinated with sword or Judo throwing skills. Heck, we can’t even walk till our body evens out its proportions enough for our head to NOT be the center of gravity.

No one gets anything 100% of the time. Perfection is an unobtainable pipe dream; it doesn’t exist. But we can come close to it. We can hone, sharpen, and drill. We have the gift of time and instruction. But we can never get to perfection.

So, stop trying.

Let yourself suck. Be okay with mediocrity. Celebrate those two left feet and that plethora of thumbs.

But don’t give up, because it is possible to get better at what you’re doing. Time, patience, and perseverance do get results. Before you know it you’ll go left when you’re supposed to, and you’ll only have TWO thumbs instead of fifteen.

I know this because I’ve been where you are now. In fact, I keep experiencing the suck again and again. Every time I think I’ve arrived or got something down, my teachers throw a new thing into the mix. Sometimes its a variation on a theme; other times it is a higher level understanding of basic skills. Whatever is coming my way, I have to start over and learn something new.

I have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. I have to let myself be moved in a new way. I need to submit to the idea of being a “new” student, a beginner at what I’m doing.

Something I love about Budo and the martial arts is how well the concepts and principles apply to general life. Take this whole idea I’ve been writing to you about. How can we apply this knowledge to work, family, hobbies, and all the other aspects of life?

For starters, stop being so hard on yourself. Again, did you walk out of the womb able to perform with god-like precision? That hobby of yours, those close relationships, are people really expecting exactitude in all of your ways? Can good enough just be, well, good enough?

Just Keep Flinging, Just Keep Flinging, Fling, Fling Fling

If you apply the principle of just letting yourself suck at things, not in a lazy way, but in a “just keep swimming” mindset that keeps you going, and keeps you moving towards your goals, then you’ll get closer and closer to doing what you want in life.

Eventually it gets better, and you find that you suck…

…less.

And that’s the goal kids, sucking less, being better at anything you set yourself to do.

So, get out there and fall on the floor, go the wrong direction, wrangle your herd of left feet, and ask your questions. Do it, just try, and all the other mamby-pamby other patronizing things we say to each other to get motivated.

White Belt, get out there and do your thing.

Your Sucky Friend,

Budo Bits: The Care and Keeping of Your Uke

We, the martial arts players of the world, have two significant roles in our practice: Tori and Uke. Granted, I am using Japanese terms because I study a Japanese style; you are free to insert whatever terms you use that are relative to mine. For clarity’s sake, the tori (取り) is the “defender” who uses prescribed movements (kata), responses if you will, to an attack perpetrated by the uke (受け) in a very specific manner.

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Monday’s Martial Madness: (Don’t Wanna Ninj) All by Myself- A song parody collaboration with Foo Foo Head.

In the age of COVID, many a ninja finds themselves practicing all alone at home. Ninj-ing (a new verb for the Oxford Dictionary) is no fun when there’s no one to ninj on. We NEED each other. One lonely ninja, the dear and lovely Foo Foo Head poured out her heart’s cry for someone to ninj with one October day when she, our friend and sister Bun Bun-chan, and myself (a.k.a. Weirdo) were chatting on the FB messenger. I filled in a couple of verses, and Voilà! We have a song for the ages. We’ve provided the sound track below to help you sing this out for yourself.

Verse 1
When I was young, 
I never shuto’d anyone
And kamae was just for fun
Those days are gone

Verse 2
Kicking alone
I think of all the friends I've thrown
But when I seoi nage alone
Inside my home

Chorus
All by myself
Don't wanna ninj, all by myself, anymore
All by myself
Don't wanna ninj, all by myself, anymore

Verse 3
Hard to be sure
A little sparring won't secure
And give the ribs a new contour
There's no allure
 
(Guitar Solo)

Chorus
All by myself
Don't wanna ninj, all by myself, anymore
All by myself
Don't wanna ninj, all by myself, anymore

(Very Looooong Orchestral Interlude)

Verse 4
Now that I’m old
Ya know I just can’t be so bold
Omote kote lost its hold
Because you’re gone!

Chorus
All by myself
Don't wanna ninj, all by myself, anymore
All by myself
Don't wanna ninj, all by myself, anymore
All by myself
Don't wanna ninj, all by myself, anymore
All by myself
Don't wanna ninj, all by myself, anymore
All by myself
Don't wanna ninj, all by myself, anymore
For the love of all things ninj, get this guy a training partner!

Monday’s Martial Madness: Fortune Cookie Wisdom

It’s that time again boys and girls for that magical, mystical ride into the untold wisdom of the Cookie of Fortune. Not to be confused with the Wheel of Fortune of course. You can eat a cookie, but a wheel won’t work out for you because a rolling wheel will gather no floss…or something. Let’s see what the Magical Cookie Makers have to say below…

Continue reading “Monday’s Martial Madness: Fortune Cookie Wisdom”

Letters to a White Belt: Failure is Your Friend.

Dear White Belt (WB):

I’ve decided it’s important to delve into the topic of failure. You see, failure is a key component of martial arts training. I want you to allow yourself to fail, and not feel bad about it. As is with most martial arts training, there is nuance in the term failure many don’t understand. As you walk into the dojo today, I want you to take this tidbit with you and consider it as you fall and stumble your way through training today. Let’s start with the actual definition of failure, shall we?

failure

feyl-yer ]

noun
  • an act or instance of failing or proving unsuccessful; lack of success: His effort ended in failure. The campaign was a failure.
  • nonperformance of something due, required, or expected: a failure to do what one has promised; a failure to appear.
  • a subnormal quantity or quality; an insufficiency: the failure of crops.
  • deterioration or decay, especially of vigor, strength, etc.: The failure of her health made retirement necessary.
  • a condition of being bankrupt by reason of insolvency.
  • a becoming insolvent or bankrupt: the failure of a bank.

Sounds pretty grim. Why, dear WB, would anyone want to fail, let alone be friends with failure?

I’m so glad you asked.

There’s a Japanese proverb used frequently in the martial arts: Fall down seven, stand up eight. While this seems mathematically impossible (like, if you fall down seven, don’t you stand up seven???), it does speak to the concept of failure and resilience. The kanji for the saying is 七転び八起き (Nana korobi ya oki) and is transliterated as “seven falling down eight get up.” There’s some disagreement on what the transliteration and kanji mean, suffice to say, the proverb is speaking to not giving up.

Failure as a concept is feared and dreaded by many. People go to great lengths to avoid failure. Some will do anything to succeed, even when dishonesty gets them there. Some will avoid anything that smells of the possibility of failure, not wanting to look foolish. Perfection, the unobtainable goal of many leads many down the path to destruction. Popular memes constantly talk about failure as an abstract, something to be conquered. We must FIGHT! and keep climbing that proverbial mountain for the prize at the top. Which is presumably attaining a goal. Sounds great, doesn’t it? Who wouldn’t want to sucker punch Failure in the face?

Failure as your friend seems odd. White Belt, you might ask why would I expose myself to ridicule and negativity? Isn’t failure like a slime mold, content to keep mucking up the works? That depends. I like to say that perception is key. How your brain filters incoming data about a thing, processes it, then spits out options for action determines whether something is good or bad, not how the thing itself behaves. We can see this difference in people who’ve been stung by bees that are now deathly afraid of any flying thing with black and yellow stripes, and beekeepers. Bees are doing what bees do. They aren’t capable of malice (no matter what the movies say) and cannot plot one’s doom. Beekeepers will mess with their hives, nonplussed about being contact with the bees. Years of experience and knowledge guiding their hands and actions. The others? Definitely freaking out. What if you’re allergic?? Bees are a mortal enemy. The circumstances determine how one thinks about bees.

Let’s ride this wave into the martial arts WB. As per the definition above, failure is the instance of something failing or proving unsuccessful. How does on fail in training? Let me count the ways:

  • Not completing kata
  • Falling down to soon, or not soon enough
  • Punching your training partner in the face
  • Dropping your weapon mid-strike
  • Smacking your hands
  • Smacking your partners hands
  • Missing the target
  • Failing a test
  • Failing to rank
  • Doing the opposite of what Sensei says
  • Forgetting your manners
  • Forgetting to kiai (my specialty)
  • Never coming back

I could go on. But, I’ll move on to proving my point, White Belt, so you can go back to your day.

All but one on the above list are kinds of failure, in a moment of weakness, but aren’t ultimate failure. The only true failure in that list is stopping. Prodigies are rare, and even they have to practice their inherent talents and gifts to polish up their technique. The rest of us don’t have the luxury of inborn skills we can fully rely on, we have to work at it. So what is work in the martial arts, and how is success won? It’s learning and practicing, WB. Practicing being the key element in this success formula. If we were computers and were coded correctly, we’d do everything perfectly from our programming on the first go. But, we aren’t computers, so we rely on our neurology to help us our learn and get better. Practicing something sets us up for growing new, or connected related, neural pathways in our brains. The amount times something is repeated reinforces, then stores as memories, our “programming.” If it truly takes 10,000 repetitions to fully automatize a technique in our brains, then practice is how we get there.

WB, You may have noticed that in the beginning, a new technique is awkward. We miss the target, we step the wrong way, forget to put our hips into it, or whatever the techniques requires for full strength. Or maybe, the new technique runs counter to what was previously learned. Many people experience this when asked to do the movement on the other side of the body. After learning that whole thing on the right side, doing it on the left side is like starting over. Repeat efforts to obtain the movement instinctively starts to smooth out the flow of the body. Your brain is signaling your muscles (some call this “muscle memory”) again and again to move on a certain path. As time marches across the Eternal Mats, you stumble less and move effortlessly. You can’t get there if you don’t allow yourself to fail hundreds of times during the transitions through Shuhari (a discussion for another day, but here is a link if you want to read about it). It’s nearly impossible to complete the journey without failure as the key component. Because that is a universal truth, a wise person befriends that which causes stumbling when viewed as an enemy. Getting chummy with failure means you will allow yourself to ebb and flow with the tides of hard-earned sweat. Attempting to stand against the waves will bring you down.

I hope you find the pearls of wisdom here White Belt, and apply them to your training, and your life.

Your Friend,