I have a hard truth for you.
At some point, everyone, including the great Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris, was horrible at martial arts.
No one has ever been born knowing how to do a perfect front kick. Nor do children at play naturally fall into front stances and punch from their core. In fact, everyone feels pretty godawful when they start.
Much like life, really.
Martial Arts is an entire system dedicated to making your body move in strange ways for (at the time) obscure reasons. It’s inevitable that it will feel strange, and it will continue to feel strange until you get used to it. And that could take anywhere in the neighborhood of 6 months to never.
Individual experiences may vary.
Nobody is good at anything when they start. When I was learning how to read I would look at the pictures of Bert and Ernie running around the garden and make up a story that I thought was a pretty good approximation of what might be happening. My Mother, while she found it slightly humorous, quickly became exasperated. The fact that I decided to “read” her a story at 7:15 on Saturday morning might have contributed to it. Though it was better that than going to see what all the buttons on the VCR did or try to cook breakfast.
I was an active child.
However, I remember having a vague disappointment when I was found out for making my story up. I probably added too many dinosaurs. And then I actually had to start doing the work on memorizing things and figuring out sounds.
But, after 25 plus years of reading, I feel like I got it down.
Karate isn’t any different.
We all start out making up what we think it should look like from all the movies and various things we’ve seen throughout our lives. We will quickly come face to face with several hard facts and realize we have to actually start from the ground level.
There are no shortcuts.
We learn how to stand. How to walk, how to breathe, and eventually, how to hit things. It goes without saying we’re horrible at all of these.
But slowly, just like we start to recognize words and phrases, and no longer have to think about how to pronounce “serendipitous” we begin to stop thinking so much about what we’re doing, and more about where we’re going.
This is also known as “progress.”
It takes time, as does everything worthwhile. But with hard work and patience, you will earn a belt that signifies you now know how to walk, stand, breathe, and occasionally hit things with something resembling proper technique.
There’s a saying I heard somewhere, and I thought it was perfect.
A black belt is not the end of the journey. Rather, it marks the beginning.
Once you know how to read, the world opens up in amazing and wonderful ways. Once you know the basics of a martial arts system, you then begin to learn the application, the theory. Instead of knowing a low block is just a block, we discover it’s also a strike, a break, a redirection. Chambers become parries and there are an endless number of ways to think about every technique in every form you’ve ever learned. The curriculum becomes a playground, and you get brand new toys to try out.
That’s all a black belt means. It means you’ve spent years working on all of those phrases and words and now you can get through the chapter book. Now you’re ready to start exploring the great world available to you with your crisp, clean, and rather stiff new belt.
And so, with all of this in mind. You should never feel like you’re “good” at karate. There will be things you feel confident about. There will be favorite techniques and a kata that just feel good. But it should never feel like you’ve arrived at the mythical “I’m good” mountain.
That’s a dangerous place.
Those thoughts and ideas lead to complacency and entitlement. The path of martial arts becomes a location and soon you find yourself believing you’re the best. And if you’re the best, why bother learning anymore?
It’s an attitude that leads to ridiculous videos like this one here.
(Disclaimer: Chi and chi techniques are a very real and respected tradition. Masters, however, do not go and make videos like this.)
The thing that I love about martial arts is it’s impossible to know it all. In February I’ll have been practicing for 20 years and I barely feel like I’ve scratched the surface. I’m still thinking about the right way to punch and checking my stances in the mirror. In fact, I still feel like I’m not good at karate.
So I practice. And I learn. And I talk to people and hear six different theories on how to throw a punch, I train with different and varied instructors and styles and try to keep my mind as open as possible. There is no “my way” or “right way.” There is only “the way” and I want to learn as much as I can because that’s how I get better. That’s how I become a better teacher, a better competitor, a better karate-ka.
So to all of you who feel like you aren’t any good at karate – Welcome to the club, we’re glad to have you.