Friction in the Dojo: How It Can Move You Forward

Friction. . .

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It can be the thing that helps drive you forward. . .

It can be the thing that slows you down. . .

As yellow belts, my friend Tracy and I had a silent competition against each other.

Our Sensei told us that the only person we should compete against was ourselves.

“Os! Sensei!”

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In lip service, like so many still do, we professed to one another and our instructors that this was always our goal, to simply be better than we were the day before.

A selfish attempt to be more idyllic than the other.

When we stood next to each other in line, our eyes would always glance to the other.

Watching, sensing, checking. . .

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“Is her horse stance lower than mine?”

“Did she do more push-ups than I?”

“Did the Sensei compliment her and not me?”

As these thoughts and insecurities arose in me, I later learned that she thought the same.

It was the unspoken friction that propelled us forward.

For everything she did well, I was committed to doing it. . .

better,

faster,

stronger,

than her.

And with that, Tracy would double her efforts in return.

In the presence of one another, our efforts were exponentiated. Our skill improved through the silent desire to be the best in the dojo, better than the other.

But. . .

One day, Tracy stopped attending classes. So, I was left  alone to to find another “Frienemy” to silently compete with.

As the years passed, there would be others. . .

Watching, sensing, checking. . .

Better, stronger, faster. . .

Wash, rinse, repeat. . .

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But, they would all eventually leave as well.

By the time I achieved my Shodan, there was no one left to compete with.

The Senpai above me were so far ahead, there was no competition there.

And, my students were not close enough yet to truly challenge me (although, I look forward to that day).

Without this traction, I could feel myself slowing down.

For the first time in my life, I had no one to compete with but myself.

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Where I once targeted my critical eye on those around me, I was now forced to point it at the one person I could neither defeat nor be defeated by: myself.

It was in that moment I understood what my Sensei was getting at when he said, “You should only compete with yourself.”

There is, of course, value in silently competing with those around you, as a type momentary motivation to challenge your physicality and fitness.

But, in the long run, you should define your success on your own terms. Each individual in the dojo has their own unique objectives. Sometimes people pursue martial arts for fitness, others for camaraderie, or just because they find it fascinating.

Would you want to compete against someone who is purely interested in the history of karate when your interest is biomechanics?

Of course not.

In this sense, it’s not so much about competing, but defining your unique objectives. Give yourself the recognition that you deserve. Observe the distance you’ve gone to achieve your goals. Have enough self-awareness to ask “Can I do better?” and to answer “I will do better”.

Now, when I step in line and look in the mirror, I sometimes see the gawky, awkward, teenage, yellow belt I once was and I wonder. . .

“Is her stance lower than mine?”

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Martial Arts & Swimming Alone

As a child, I was afraid of swimming in open water by myself; the vastness frightened me.

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I was afraid that the weed that tickled my feet would be the thing that pulled me under.

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I was afraid that if I turned away from the endless horizon that the shore that once harbored me would be gone.

I was afraid with no one there beside me I would slowly sink into the abyss, no one to hear my cries for help, no one to help me re-emerge.

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For many, the martial arts generate this same fear.

You could spend a lifetime exploring its depths and never fully understand it all. There is SO much to learn; the knowledge is vast. It’s easy to feel insignificant, treading water, struggling to keep your head above water against its swells.

There are many who have changed styles of martial arts because of one reason or another. Perhaps the politics and drama was too much, you outgrew your teacher’s skill, or you just didn’t see its value anymore. In these moments, you must turn away from the shore, the place from which you came—often with uncertainty—and swim towards a new horizon.

In each of our dojos, we have to fight through the metaphorical weeds: an impatient student, an overbearing mother, a self-absorbed instructor. At first, these things can seem like a threat, but the energy lost trying to avoid these weeds can be better spent by simply swimming forwards.

When you enter these open waters you can jump feet first, or you can dive right in.

But, when you do, remember . . .

No matter the distance between you and the shore, it will always be there to harbor you.

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No matter the depth of the abyss, there will always be a hand to reach to.

And, no matter the weed that tickles your feet, it will never break the surface.

But once you face this vast ocean on your own and swim further away from your shore, you’ll realize that all those who walk the path also swim the same ocean and reach for the same horizon.

But know now, the rewards that lie on the horizon just beyond your reach and your fear…

Will. Be. Glorious.

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The Road Less Travelled Is Not Always A Road

“There are many paths to the top of the mountain. . .”

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One night, I had a dream that I slid down a mountain and I was about to fall into the ocean. Before I hit the water, I caught onto something and started to climb back up. At this point, there were other people around me—most of which were people I loved and respected—and they were climbing faster than me and with bigger loads on their back; some were even carrying other people as they climbed upwards.  I was constantly losing my footing and slipping; I was afraid to fall, anxious to get to the top and frustrated that everyone else was doing better than me.

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Then, I noticed a river flowing down the mountain beside me and a long time friend said to me, “Let’s swim up, it’s easier that way.” He jumped into the river and swam up, reaching the top before anyone else.

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I was afraid to follow because the current flowed downwards, but because I trusted him so much, I jumped in anyway and began to swim. I wasn’t sure in what style to swim in, because my friend reached the top with front stroke, I tried his way, but I went further down. So I started swimming doggie paddle; still didn’t work. Then, I went with breast stroke and found that I reached the top before everyone else.

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Although unorthodox, I realized that by jumping into the river, I didn’t have to be afraid of falling anymore, because one cannot fall while in water. And even though I had to fight the current in the river, it was easier to flow upwards than if I had followed the methods of the people around me and I need not compete with them, because it is only through my own technique that I may reach the top of the mountain.

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“. . .But there is only one moon to be seen for those who achieve its summit.”- Chinese Proverb