The Secret to Mastering the Martial Arts in the Least Time Possible

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The real secret of the martial arts: You’re doing it wrong.

A common feature of martial arts psychology, especially in those who are drawn to the traditional martial arts, is believing that there are secrets that, once learned, will enable a student to progress rapidly on the road to mastery. There is.

After two decades of training martial arts, and one of those being Yin Style Bagua (a traditional combative art par excellence), I’m quite sure that I’m qualified to tell you the secret, but first I want to talk more about a kind of martial artist who, essentially, poisons the martial arts community, especially in the traditional arts. That kind of martial artist is a secret collector.

Some people who train martial arts, like I said, believe that there are secrets, sometimes believed to be mystical, that will enable mastery of the martial arts. Their belief often takes the form that without those secrets, a student will never gain mastery, and the mysterious true masters retain those secrets from undeserving students. The belief usually runs that the master will secretly divulge the real secrets if the student proves worthy, and not otherwise. It’s a kind of elitism that may have some historical precedent but is worse than a farce today (often manufactured by manipulative instructors wishing to main a cult-like following and secure income, whether they’ve deluded themselves similarly or not).

Historically, it was sometimes, maybe even frequently, the case that secretive masters would withhold crucial details until the student was proved trustworthy or hard-working enough to be told. There were relatively good reasons for that. Students might attempt to overthrow their teachers, splinter off into their own sect, or do damage to the reputation of the art by professing levels of skill that they did not have. Even a hundred years ago, at least in Asia, this would have been occasionally a matter of life or death, but it was also a matter of honor and shame, which carried nearly as much weight (or more in some honor cultures). The notion of “inner-door” students who got more accurate teaching and “the secrets of the martial art” isn’t completely without historical grounds. These beliefs inform (or misinform) the secret collector, who often has buried the martial arts under a mountain of mystique.

There is the additional matter of failing to understand that Asian pedagogy can be somewhat different from many Western pedagogies, at least where Western secret collectors are concerned. Pedagogy means an approach to teaching. Asian pedagogies often rely heavily on giving the student enough information to start figuring it out without giving away all the details, and Western pedagogies often tell the whole story up front (often with far too much detail). It’s fairly obvious how a secret collector’s delusions would be fueled by misinterpreting this teaching style. Certain people are getting shown things that are appropriate to what they’re doing that apparently result in their progress, whereas nearly everyone feels as though they’re getting far less than the full story. That mental comparison (he’s got something that made him way better, and I know I didn’t get the full story) fuels the belief that there are near-mystical secrets.

Secret collectors proceed with their training according to a constellation of beliefs that there are high-level secrets to be obtained, and that without them, there can be no true mastery. This rather stupid set of beliefs often also includes the idea that once the secrets are obtained, the road to mastery is both quick and paved. Some of the old masters may have encouraged this delusion in many students as well by making remarks like, “when I was accepted as a full disciple of my teacher, this was the first exercise I was shown.”

Thus, secret collectors often believe that the long years of training martial arts are mostly an act of deferentially and penitentially paying one’s dues until the day when, deemed worthy, the master essentially hands masterhood over on a silver platter. These beliefs are probably as narcissistic as they are delusional, and those who hold them will, in all likelihood, never attain a high level of skill.

Well, just as the best lies are half-truths, so too are the firmest delusions. Secret collectors aren’t completely off-base in their speculations. There are subtle and refined details that are needed to take one’s skill to a higher level, and without them, there will not be much improvement. These aren’t the kinds of secrets that secret collectors are after, though.

Like everyone training under a competent enough “master” of the martial arts, these kinds of “secrets” are being given effusively. They’re a majority of what is taught, in fact, after initial phases of familiarization with gross movements or other remedial exercises. The issue, for the secret collector, though, is that these insights don’t match the content of their delusion, and so they’re dismissed. They’re not the real secrets (often believed to be some kind of exercise that, once learned and perfunctorily trained, will make a master out of a student over little more than the rough duration of a montage scene in a martial arts flick). These insights do not produce game-changing realization or outright mastery in a short time. Discouraged that the “secret” bestowed didn’t produce mastery, the secret collector often strengthens his delusion and his frustration. As a result, the secret collector may train even more poorly than before!

So, secret collectors and, more importantly, serious students of combative arts, I’m going to tell you the secret of mastering the martial arts now. There is only one, and it applies universally to anything are you may be training.

The One Secret to Mastering the Martial Arts: Know what you’re doing, get organized, and train hard to specific goals. (And, it’s not coming quickly.)

Let’s break it down.

Know what you’re doing. There are a lot of things you need to know to master a martial art. You must master the skills and their technical content, your understanding of their use, your understanding of fighting circumstances, the appropriate times and opportunities to apply your skills, and the sensitivity and experience to make it all work dynamically against someone who doesn’t want it to. You have to know what you’re after and why you’re after it, and then you have to know how to create paths from where you are to where you want to be. You have to recognize that fine details matter, but so too do broad themes (say, in how to use force, position, leverage, and so on). Obviously, you must then also know how to walk those paths and know how to do what it takes to undergo the hard road that they represent. Most of all of these, though, you have to know how what you’re training applies to what you want to be good at (which is probably fighting if you’re training a combative art of any kind).

If you don’t know what you’re doing, you’ll never get good, much less mastery. I’m not one to tell people how to spend their time or choose their hobbies, but martial arts might not be the best use of your time if you can’t get straight on what you’re doing (and why you’re doing it).

Get organized. Once you know what you’re doing, you need to be able to assess how to train to improve your skills. Is your goal to find or refine the accuracy of the technical content in your techniques? Get organized on that point so you can train it. Do you want to hit harder? Get organized on that point so you can train it. Do you want to improve your physical conditioning, range of motion, flexibility, strength, or any other athletic component that could facilitate applying your art? Get organized on those points so you can train them. Do you want to get better with what you already know in a fighting capacity? Get organized on that point so you can train it. Do you want to know you’re making progress? Get organized enough to know what progress looks like, and then you can measure it.

If you fail to get organized, to understand not only what you’re doing and why but also how to capitalize upon that knowledge, you cannot train effectively and will not master the martial art you’re training. It’s not possible because mastery is too high a bar for disorganized training. Your training will simply be too scattered and sloppy if you can’t get clear on what you’re doing and organize your training around that vision of your objectives.

Train hard to specific goals. If you’re organized, the last part of this imperative, to specific goals, is simply achieved; organization means having specific goals that you’re working toward. (“Mastering your art” is not a specific goal, by the way!) Once you know what your goals are specifically and have an organized plan of action for achieving them, you have to train hard. It doesn’t come easy, and it doesn’t come fast. High-level skills are not easily attained. Progress is incremental, and thus your goals must be incremental too.

You cannot merely train hard, though. Certainly diligence, effort, perseverance, and the rest of those “train hard” qualities are needed to succeed, but you must also train intelligently. Even getting clear on what you’re doing and organized around your goals isn’t enough. You have to know how to refine what you’re doing and apply that skill constantly. You will make mistakes. You will always have room for improvement. If you want to get better, you have to learn how to identify your mistakes and have a strategy for correcting them. You have to learn how to find mistakes that aren’t even really mistakes, they’re just subtle oversights to deeper content in what you’re working with.

There you have it, then. Know what you’re doing, get organized, and train hard is the only secret to mastering the martial arts. Now you don’t have to keep looking, and you can get to doing it.

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