So, unless you are one of my students, you may have seen the title, understood that I'm a martial artist, and so now expect some sort of exhortation to push harder, to do more, to give it your all.... and then some.
But that's not it. What I want to say is that, while progress in martial arts is often – and very rightly – associated with commitment and dedication, pictures of people on Twitter dripping in sweat with motivational words about going the extra mile are more often put there by people who want to motivate themselves, or want to fill their gyms, than by people who have decades of martial arts experience. How can I say that? Because martial artists understand about balance.
Yes, of course, that includes balance in the sense of being able to stand on one leg and not fall over, but I want to talk about balance in the sense of life. To progress to an exceptional level in any martial art – and I include non-combat Tai Chi here – it really does help to be a bit of a nerd. A bit obsessive. You've got to want to do it a lot. You've got to want to never give up. So, that's 110%, right? Well, no.
Pushing yourself to your limits is a great thing to do. Going beyond what you thought were your limits is incredible. So to everyone I would say: yes, do get that experience, and if you can get it often. But not every day. Pushing yourself to get to classes regularly does help you progress - in fact, it’s essential. Pushing yourself to your limit and maybe beyond now and again helps inspire you. But pushing yourself to and beyond your limit every day does not help you progress. It helps you get injured. How many martial arts schools are half-filled with incredibly willing and dedicated students who are there wrapped in bandages to keep them training through their latest injury? Ever been in a TaeKwonDo dojang and seen long standing instructors who can't walk properly because their knees are shot?
You have to know when to stop. When you stop, your body recovers. When you rest, your brain has a chance to catch up with your learning, analyse, assess, question and store. So it’s important to know when you have done enough, and stop. Here’s a simple analogy. Eating is good for you. It makes you healthy, helps you to grow fit and strong, and stay in good shape. If you don’t eat enough, you’ll be in a bad way, so it’s important to eat enough. But eat too much? We know where that leads.
Now the interesting thing about balance is the balance. Sounds odd, huh? Well you’d be surprised how many people, when they talk about getting some balance in their life, they mean giving up on something that’s tough. Exercise less and, well…. lie on the couch all day. Drink a glass of wine each night, and, well… drink another glass. And maybe another. Balance is not about giving something up, it’s about balancing it. Sometimes, the quest for balance can become more like running up and down a see-saw: at one moment you are totally at one and, and the next you are at the other. That time when you are in the middle is so fleeting the two sides never become still.
Being balanced isn’t about giving one thing 110% to the exclusion of all others. It’s also not about giving everything up and doing nothing. But here’s another thing: it’s not about giving up one 110% and replacing it with another. You’d be surprised how often people who were very committed, let us say over-committed, to their martial arts suddenly give them up altogether, in order to be just as over-committed to something else. They talk about needing to find some balance, but they don’t they are running from one over-commitment into another. It’s just running up and down the see-saw. There’s no balance in that.
I was reminded of a typical example of this when the exam results came out for teenagers in the UK this month. You might be surprised, and you might not, at just how many teenagers who have real potential in martial arts, and are really committed, just give up because they feel they have to work extra hard for their exams. Commonly, they do this at the beginning of the academic year when their exams kick in, eight or nine months before the exams are actually held. They aren’t using the time freed up from their martial arts as part of a plan to balance their life; they are just giving all the time over to studying. And that means they move from quite a lot of time studying already to a very great deal of studying. As if this is going to help. Which it isn’t. Studying is like everything else: too much of it is not going to make you better, but instead will make you worse. Our brains work better when released from long periods of concentration, when allowed to change gear and do some physical activity. As I saw quoted somewhere recently: things seem to work better if you unplug them for a while - including you.
Okay, so you want to say now, “that’s fine for him to say, he hasn’t taken an exam for over thirty years and he doesn’t need any more qualifications and he wants people not to give up martial arts.” Well that’s all true. As is the fact of Myles Langley’s exam results. Who is Myles Langley? He’s an assistant instructor at LCTKD in England, where I teach. He’s 16. This year was his exam year. In this year he became a Black Belt in TaeKwonDo and a started his programme as a probationary Instructor, and he even learnt some Tai Chi. His Instructor didn’t expect him to put in his usual class time right in the middle of the exams, but she did expect him to attend a reasonable, and of course not injurious, amount through most of the year. In his GCSE exams he got 10 A*. If you are not a familiar with the English exam system, that’s the very highest possible marks it’s possible to get. Thank you, Myles, for making my point so succinctly - and congratulations, by the way.
Like me, you might think exams are a joy which has long passed, and so this isn’t something that matters greatly to you. I do see, though, the same thing in my students of more mature years. It happens most particularly in respect of their work. They think they had better work harder to get that position, impress the boss, go for promotion. They put 110% into that, and because they have no time left, they give up on the things in their lives that are actually good for them - not only martial arts, but family, friends, rest. In the years when I actually obeyed the instruction so often given to George Thorogood in his great song, “Get a Haircut and Get a Real Job,” I found that working harder and spending more time in the office was almost always something the bosses wanted you to do, but almost never the route to a pay rise. Balance is a better option all round.
So summer’s over, and you are looking at the year ahead. If you are thinking of making a resolution to give anything 110%, don’t. Plan for balance, and life will be so much healthier, happier, and more productive.