How Martial Arts helps give you the skills to make the hard changes in your life
By Brian Peterson
Discipline is one of the benefits most expected from people when joining a martial arts academy. Unfortunately, prospective students don’t truly know what that means or what the result should look like.
Before we can understand what the final result will be, we should take a look at the definition so we know what we’re speaking about.
To my mind, discipline is the ability to deal with discomfort because the result or reward is a better option. The problem is, doing this is not easy. It appears in a number of forms including: Commitment, Avoiding Temptation, Physical Self-Control, Developing good habits & goals, Mind over mood, Enjoying the challenge, the Ability to Move Forward, and Satisfaction with Self.
“Is the juice worth the squeeze?” That’s a common question, but one that is not looked at from every angle. When most people ask this, they are asking if the reward is worth the effort – which is true, but usually external – asking ‘if I work the extra hours then I can afford my new car or those concert tickets.’
What we very seldom see, is people asking the internal side of that question – ‘if I change myself or don’t engage in this behavior, will the result be a better me?’
There are many avoidable circumstances in our society today, if we only take the option to improve ourselves instead of using the “band-aid”. For instance, something as simple as your health could benefit from discipline: “If I eat the wrong foods, I could end up with a health concern like high cholesterol or diabetes.”
Then I have a choice. I can continue my behavior and take medication to mitigate the symptoms, or I can change my diet and fix the root problem.
I won’t tell you which choice is right for you. That’s a personal choice. However, I can tell you that one is easier than the other, and one provides better results with no negative side effects. They are not the same option. Either way, they require commitment. You’re either accepting that you’re going to take a pill consistently, or that you’re making a change to what you choose to eat. Neither of these is a short-term decision so you have to be alright with the choice you make, at least until you can monitor the results.
The key with commitment is focusing on the result or the reward. It has to be worth it to “level up” and attain that status. It must be important for you to avoid that negative result in order to endure the discomfort that you’re about to put yourself through consistently. If it is not, then you won’t be disciplined about whatever change you make, and you won’t ultimately be successful.
In martial arts, enduring the training tends to be the mark of commitment. It is easier to sit at home and watch television or play video games. It is easier to not accept valid critique of your progress. Yet, it does not benefit you to do those things. The way to change and improve yourself is to go through the process. It won’t always be easy. People have different strengths, so some things come quicker than others. But staying the course when it gets uncomfortable is where the progress comes. As long as you are moving in the overall right direction, and the environment is not toxic for you, it’s going to help you grow.
Your commitment to a new ideal, a new level or status, or not slipping lower is the foundation for starting your discipline journey. Avoiding temptation is your staying power. There will be times when you want to quit or slip back into your old pattern. This is hard after all… and it’s supposed to be. If it wasn’t difficult, it wouldn’t be changing you.
There are a few common ways to avoid temptation from dragging you off course though:
Put the result front & center every day. If you put a picture on your phone or computer or mirror (somewhere you always have to see it), the constant reminder will give you motivation to keep going. It’s the same idea as a fighter pilot putting a picture of their loved one in the cockpit – you know what you’re fighting for.
Get rid of distractions. If your goal is to eat more healthy foods, but all you have is a cabinet of cookies available, you’re going to have a hard time. Take a trash bag and put the cookies in the bag. Then take out the trash. Replace the cookies with good, quick, clean snacks that you can rely on. It may pain you to get rid of the cookies that way, but you’re making a change for the better and they don’t line up with your new goal.
Find support. Teams work because people can rely on one another to pick up some of the slack. We’re human. It happens. You will mess up. You need to give yourself some grace. However, you need to have people you trust around you to get things back on track or to avoid a mis-step in the first place.
Exercise that muscle. Avoiding temptation, and discipline in general, gets easier the more you do it. Once you conceive of making a change, it takes a ton of effort to actually take the necessary steps – but you haven’t felt different yet. Once you feel different, you start to understand what you are capable of and that you can make this happen. After you make it happen, you realize you don’t want to go back. This is all about showing you that you are more capable than you realize – and then making you realize it.
Although martial arts is an individual activity, the group that trains with you provides an amazing level of support toward keeping you disciplined. Whether you are making friends with the other people in your class, or aspiring to be like the higher ranks, these things push you to see the result of your efforts. If the school has a good culture, the other students should have your back both when you have success and when you need a boost.
For younger students, there should be systems in place to help celebrate smaller goals and achievements. As the “discipline muscles” get stronger, those systems will become less necessary, but you can always go back to them if needed.
There is an on-going debate between which organ is stronger – the brain or the heart. But regardless of which one you favor, one thing is indisputable… they couldn’t do it without the body to help.
You must be physically able to handle making changes to your life. Your stress level needs to be controlled. Your physical systems have to be able to withstand what you’re going to do. Your body can’t go from zero to 100 without some preparation. Granted, not all goals require you to be as fit as a world champion athlete, but all change will require something.
Physical self-control is the ability to mechanically do the things you need to do in order to meet your goal. This can be anything from flexibility to strength, dexterity to endurance. Find an exercise program that helps you develop the parts of your body that your goals will benefit from. Martial arts is a wonderful form of exercise because we develop literally everything – and as a result can help toward any goal.
The bonus here is that the more you exercise, the more practice you get implementing your new-found discipline and you’ll see tangible results – which will motivate you to continue.
Developing good habits & goals
“If you aim at the wrong target and hit it, you still missed.” – Eric Thomas
Having the commitment and the physical self-control is fantastic! You’ve set yourself up for success by avoiding temptation as well; Wonderful! You’re going to do well at whatever it is – but is it the right thing? Are you aiming at the right target?
There’s a simple way to make sure you are on the right path. SMART goals are:
Something vague will not give you enough direction to start out. “I want to be better” doesn’t tell you what to practice. “I want to be better at kicking” gives you a clear direction of what to work on. To add the motivation component, say why. “I want to be better at kicking to improve my score at the tournament.” Now you have a clear understanding of the result you’re seeking.
We’re on a great path. But how do I know if I’ve succeeded? If you say you want to be the best in the World, well only a few people can reasonably do that right this moment. If you make it incremental though, you can certainly accomplish this achievable level. Perhaps, your first goal is to be the best in the ring at your next tournament. Now we’re looking good.
Ideally, being better at kicking is great, and getting the highest score in your ring is very achievable, but why? Why put the effort in? Are you going to count your ultimate success as being a State Champion? If so, then working to be the best in your ring does get you toward that goal and is relevant. If your ultimate goal is to be a champion in sparring, then maybe you aren’t really worried about your score. Going for the top technique score would be aiming at the wrong target. Bottom line: it must be relevant to what you will consider success.
Finally, the goal has to be trackable. How much better are you than when you started? Is your score 3 points higher? Did you lose 15 pounds? Maybe you’ve become proficient at a certain technique by a certain date? Pick a metric at the beginning of your journey and use it to track your progress. This is the only objective way to be able to say you’ve improved.
If you follow this pattern for making goals, you’ll get it right almost every time.
Habits are a remarkably simple concept in this framework. Habits are nothing but the consistent daily activities that get you to each new level of your goal. The things you actually physically do every day to make progress. Take our sample goal. Your habit may be throwing 500 quality kicks every day on your lunch break. Like brushing your teeth or making your bed, it’s just a quick action that you do repetitively that gets you tiny bits closer to where you want to be – and it adds up over time.
For a martial artist, a goal can have many different shapes. It may be a new belt, mastery of some piece of material, a competitive title, or a million other things. Discipline both makes these things possible, and gets reinforced by their pursuit.
Mind over mood
So you’ve done all the planning things, but man this is hard. It doesn’t seem like any fun. It’s uncomfortable. Nobody else is doing it. Why should I bother?
That’s the common process, right? And we’ve all been there. We all have bad days. The key is to not let these moods hijack the process. As much as your physical self-control depends on your body’s systems and ability to support you, your mental systems are just as important. Mentally, you have to be strong enough to combat and overcome any negativity you encounter in your own head.
Things like your stress level have to be managed.
Focus has to be on your new level of achievement, not on how uncomfortable the journey is.
And you need to reinforce your self-esteem to support you.
Are you listening to material that builds you up? Are you watching shows that empower and inspire you? Are you talking to people who are supportive of your choices? All of these things feed your inner voice and make it easier for you to succeed with discipline.
They are also the same things that will make that inner voice stronger for during the tough times.
What you’ll see (if you feed the voice correctly) is that eventually you are mentally resilient and can overcome some pretty strong urges to procrastinate or submit entirely. Mastery of that inner voice is something that needs to be constantly maintained by small challenges on a regular basis – even if they aren’t in search of a bigger goal. Once you achieve mastery however, it will be truly life-changing. Things that you could never before conceive of, become possible.
Enjoying the challenge
This new disciplined life can be scary. At least at the start, it isn’t very comfortable either. Not surprisingly, that’s why most people don’t do it. Of course it’s not fun.
Then something begins to happen. It gets a little easier. Progress becomes more visible and motivating. The internal voice starts to cheer you on, instead of urging you to stop. It certainly isn’t as scary anymore and you start to wonder exactly how much you can accomplish if you stay the course. Here is where you start to enjoy the challenge.
A new mindset has developed. Yes, this is difficult to do, but you’ve already done so many difficult things. One more won’t hurt so much. No, “normal people” don’t do this, but you aren’t “normal” in that way anymore. You’ve done other things that you would normally think couldn’t be done. Being honest with yourself, you can see a way with little adjustments, you can accomplish this other result, and it will entirely be worth it.
Now you are on the attack. It makes more sense to look at the steps to your goal clearly, and to go after them with vigor. Someone has done this same thing in the past, why can’t you? Hey, maybe I can follow their path. If not, at least it can give me a hint on how to do this thing. Has nobody done this before? Oh that means I get to create my own path! Alright, let’s go! Now you’re enjoying the challenge. The best way to visualize this is the moment when a simple snowball rolling down the mountain turns into the avalanche. You’re reaping the rewards of consistent discipline.
Ability to move forward
Just when you think it’s safe.. here comes trouble. It’s that unexpected moment when the universe decides to challenge you and you end up at a birthday party with nothing but cake and ice cream. For athletes, this is where you get an injury and get sidelined for a few weeks or months. Or maybe you don’t. Maybe you go compete and don’t do as well as you’d hoped.
Remember this, it is just another challenge. The momentum is diminished, but not gone. You are being given an opportunity to get creative with your solution, analyze where you are and adjust your plan. An unexpected new goal, if you will, to test your commitment.
It’s okay. You can handle this. You’ve actually done much harder stuff if you think about it. Even if you slip a tiny bit, you still have the benefit and reward of everything you’ve done until now. You may not have achieved your final goal, but you have come very far (and there’s still more to do). Rely on your support systems again to get you moving in the right direction. Remember why you started. Look at how far you’ve come to here, and know that when you finally achieve your goal it’ll be worth it. Listen for people saying things along the lines of “you aren’t the same person you used to be” and be grateful for the compliment. You’ve grown and this was just a speed bump.
Satisfaction with self
This leads us to the last, and maybe most important, piece of discipline. Once you’ve decided to make a change to the course of your life, you need to be satisfied with it – at least for a time. You can take pride in the fact that you’ve done hard work, that others were not willing to do. You’ve moved the needle on becoming better, even if it’s just a little. Giving yourself this kind of grace and real satisfaction will make it much easier to keep your change permanently. The alternative is to beat yourself up about what you could have done better or in a different way, but that isn’t healthy.
As a martial artist I’m never satisfied with where I am because I know I can be better. But I work to be satisfied with myself and the effort I’ve put in to progress to the level I’ve attained. If you climb a mountain, and only see another mountain, you’ll be diminished by that regret. However, it is extremely important for a million reasons to remember that once you’ve climbed a mountain, you have actually done something worthy. You are no longer on the forest floor. And not everyone can say they’ve seen the view from where you stand. Be satisfied with your efforts, and they will fuel your future endeavors. Enjoy having the experience, living through the challenge. Then when you are ready, start looking ambitiously toward the next mountain.
Wrapping it up…
Discipline is the understanding that your life is your own to decide. Once you master the ideas and techniques behind discipline, anything can be possible. Black Belts are not given unusual power and ability through divine intervention, they work for it – hard. They put themselves in situations that most people would find uncomfortable and off-putting. In reality, they are doing the things that are necessary to make a change in their life for the better, regardless of how uncomfortable it seems at the start. A Black Belt has much less to do with the fabric, and much more to do with the new mindset and internal skills you have achieved.
Raritan Valley ATA (RVATA) in Branchburg, NJ is a proud member of the American Taekwondo Association. We offer classes to children ages 3 & up, teens and adults. An important part of our curriculum is our Leadership training program. If you have any questions about RVATA’s programs, please feel free to reach out at any time to email@example.com.