My favourite pre-training song is Belt by Say Anything. It has the right tempo, it literally expresses a training montage, and also has the most important phrase I’ve ever had to apply to my training:
This is something I have to do for myself.
Martial arts is one of the most solipsistic things in the world. It all boils down to self-discipline, which means a lot of different things to different people. For some people, getting up at 5am to get to the dojo by 6am to start a training intensive on a Saturday morning is the very hardest thing in the world. They’ll read and annotate every martial arts book ever written from cover to cover, but they will fake illness to come to training that little bit later when the sun is up. Personally, I don’t mind beating the sun to the horizon as long as I am well rested.
My biggest, biggest struggle with martial arts is fighting the braying demons that keep telling me to give up because I’m just too useless and uncoordinated for words. All my other problems stem from that one.
I am fortunate enough to be in two dojos with really top-notch instructors. In Goju Ryu, I am surrounded by some amazingly dedicated and talented students who are much younger than me and who inspire me to train harder. But the little demon (and sometimes not so little) laughs at me when I’m a half-step behind on a kata everyone else is doing perfectly. It is also particularly vocal when someone asks me what grade I’ve got in Aikido, and I have to mumble fourth kyu. How long have I been there? Umthreeyearsmurfle.
I know its not about the belts, and it shouldn’t be. Gradings are just a tangible way to measure progress. They’re milestones, not goals. I know this, I really do. But I struggle with the whole ‘no accolades’ thing. We all know I’m an arrogant fuckhead sometimes (let me not lie, I’m an ass all the time) who thrives on having distinctions and badges and slightly thicker pieces of paper with some nice writing on it. I’m that shallow, I’ll readily admit it. That’s the part that keeps me up at night when it comes to my training. There are days when I really, really feel like I am wasting my time to keep trying. I feel like I haven’t made progress for two years. For someone who needs the pat on the head, who desperately needs to stand out by achieving, it kills me that I have nothing physical to show for all the hours I’ve put in. (A conservative estimate of hours over the last 5 years and including the training this year gives me about 1540 hours. For the number crunchers, this was the calculation:
4 lessons x 2 hours = 8 hours a week
8 hours x 4 weeks = 32 hours a month
32 hours x 10 months = 320 hours (aprox how many months a year I trained at uni)
320 x 4 years = 1280 hours
That’s university training hours, not including intensives, weekend seminars and personal training time put in. A conservative estimate of that would be about another 100 hours. (4x grading/seminar weekends a year for Goju, about 4x grading/seminar weekends for Aikido, plus Winter School and Summer School plus Sunday training most Sundays for three years with Goju seniors. It’s a few extra hours.)
That takes us up to 1380 hours over university alone. Last year, training was not so hot. I missed three months for reasons that embarrass me, and I didn’t settle into a dojo until about February. To be fair, let’s say I trained about 50% of what I managed at university over a year. I rarely managed whole weeks of training. That means I can add about (32×5) 160 hours over the whole of last year.
That brings my grand total up to aprox 1540 hours over 5 and a bit years. As far as the 10,000 hours required to be good at something, I only need 8460 more hours of training. I am willing to bet that the black belts in my dojo are close to that.
But then, there’s the part of my personality that I am proud of, and it kicks in 99% of the time. There’s the part of me that never gives up, not even on myself. And its strangely liberating to have a journey as long as the one I have set for myself. With work, I have to be good now. With driving, one has to get it right within a few months. With cooking, you can’t eat crap for five years. But with martial arts, it is truly okay to take a long time. It’s okay to not get a kata truly right for twenty years. And while I sometimes struggle with that generous time schedule, there’s that really irritating part of me that simply cannot handle not getting it right NOW.
It all stems from my association of praise with love. If I do things well, or right, people praise me. They must surely like me if they do so. The more I achieve, the more praise (and therefore love) I get. I don’t know if it is the human condition, or me being both unfortunate and awkward, but it’s something that I’m not sure I can change. It feels pretty hardwired. I mean, one of my most vivid memories is being praised in front of my nursery school class at the age of 5 for not colouring in the gap between the farmer’s arm and his body. I remember beaming with pride and showing my parents how I had been the cleverest in class that day. Strangely, I don’t remember their reactions. Ever since then, I have always thrown my energy into anything I’d get praise for. If I didn’t do well in a subject, I stopped trying. If I got praise in another, I would do my very very best to get more delicious adulation. This explains why I did crappily in Maths, Afrikaans, Science, Biology, Geography, Drama prac, Art, Accounting, French, PE and Design and Technology, and did astoundingly well in Drama Theory, English, Computers, Classical Studies and History.
(I started doing better when I didn’t have so many fucking subjects. Wow, we were overworked.)
In any case, that’s the monster within. That’s why sometimes I walk away from training with a spring in my step and ready to headbang and sing along with the radio all the way home. In fact, there’s nothing better than the drive home after training. Joburg is really beautiful by night, and so very peaceful. And then there are times when I want to burn my gi and never go back.
It is something I have to do for myself. I have to remind myself that no one expects me to be brilliant. Only I expect that, and I expect it unfairly. On top of everything else going on in my life, I should be proud that I make it to training at all.
It’s all part of the journey I have set myself. I think that stepping into the Goju Ryu dojo at Rhodes nearly 6 years ago exactly is what kept me sane throughout the rest of my university career. Whatever else happened, I always had the dojo. I had my keys, and I had somewhere I could retreat to, somewhere that felt safe and was, in some very tiny way, mine. I knew that I could go to training and my friends would be there. Goju Ryu is where I met Graham. Aikido is where I learned to meet the planet with my body and not die. Writing is something I do to keep my imagination busy and off the streets. It will always be my primary voice, far better developed than my body. After all, I have been writing seriously since I was 8, and only training since I was 19.
But you know, I think martial arts is the best thing that happened to me, because its not all solipsistic on closer analysis. Without it, my ego isn’t kept in check. Without it, my body becomes slow and slack. Without training, without the camaraderie, without the wisdom and time of others, and the trust people show me when they allow me to use their bodies in my training, I truly think I would be a great deal more stunted than I am now. I like to think that martial arts, which is still an arena that I can be a real bitch-brat in, has helped me grow up and learn some humility.
It is with that in mind that I would like to thank the Senseis I have been so fortunate to learn from, past and present. They know who they are, all five of them. They have shown great kindness and patience in training me. The same goes for anyone who has trained with me for longer than six months. I deeply appreciate all the hours invested in me by other people. I can only hope that I am a better training partner than I think I am.
So, here’s to training, and to learning, and growing. I can only keep trying, and doing my best. Perhaps the biggest lesson to be learned here is that it is perfectly acceptable to make mistakes, and that no one is going to abandon me if I do. That I am still loved, even if I don’t succeed.