MASTER AN ART? TRAIN ALONE
When you join a dojo to learn a martial art, you pay your dues and join a group of individuals with similar goals: learning self-defense, fitness, self control and a variety of other reasons. The advantage of training with a group is social support, camaraderie, and maybe even competition.
However, if you want to get really good, training with a group may not be enough. The classes may only be a few times a week, so what do you do the rest of the week? If you have two, two-hour sessions a week, that’s only four hours of practice. That gives you the other 164 hours of the week to forget everything you’ve learned. One step forward, several steps back.
The answer is practicing by yourself. However, you must be highly motivated and disciplined to do this. You can improve your concentration, be more creative in learning and applying the techniques, plus there is a lower level of stress. You can take your time and really concentrate on techniques that are giving you trouble. A downfall can be getting bored doing the same thing over and over again. How do you prevent that?
When I was introduced to the martial arts nearly 50 years ago, I knew this was for me. Although I was never a national competitor, my training has been pretty consistent over the years and I have studied several arts, primarily judo, karate, some jujitsu and now aikibudo jujitsu.
After I had about a year’s experience, I went away to college, started a judo club, and kept up training in karate. While away at school I would practice alone but soon realized that my practices weren’t as good as they should be. I was working hard, but not working smart, and although I worked up a good sweat, I was bored.
Fearing that my “career” might be done, and not wanting it to be, I visited my sensei on one of my school vacations, and told him my problem and asked what I could do to make the practices more meaningful. It turned out to be one of the most important lessons I ever had and it was only a five-minute conversation.
He said that the samurai would go up into the mountains to get away from distractions and would take a technique, like a sword cut, and focus on that one technique, doing it over and over until it was perfect, so that when it was needed, the sword automatically was drawn. He told me to take a karate punch, seiken, drop down into one stance, shiko dachi, and throw that punch over and over, slowly, making sure that the punch was delivered correctly, the stance was good, the breathing was good, and in essence, being my own worst critic to make sure all parts were working properly.
Then practice the left hand punch. Then do this with all the other techniques I had learned, right and left side. The idea was to build up the muscle memory to the point where, if an attack occurred, the technique would respond without conscious thought. The same concept is in archery, where the archer does not shoot the arrow. The arrow shoots itself.
Strangely enough, this simple explanation on how to train alone was a key moment. I went back to school, and on Saturday mornings when most other students were sleeping late, I ran out to a nearby park and started throwing my punches, slowly, and critically. I examined all parts that are necessary to throw a punch, and then did the same with blocks, kicks, strikes, throws, etc. I never really had any problems with practicing alone ever since.
In fact, there was one five-year period when I didn’t belong to any dojo and I trained solo the whole time. This enabled me to at least keep my skill level up to a certain level until I found an acceptable dojo, and another martial art. That constant practice helped me learn the new art much faster than if I had been a new student with no training or had stagnated over the years.
This concept is not new. The samurai did it hundreds of years ago. Judo students do hundreds and thousands of uchikomi practice to build muscle memory and reflexes. Our instructor Rich Moser earned his shodan in judo in Okinawa, and when he came back to the U.S., he enrolled in college and continued his judo training. He threw his belt around a tree and did his uchikomis, much to the curiosity of university students and employees.
Karate students do hundreds and thousands of repetitions seeking perfection, musicians practice thousands of hours on basic techniques for their instrument, and athletes in all sports to the same thing to master the fundamentals of their particular sport – each day!
When you think about it, fundamentals is all there is. One school of thought is that there is no such thing as an advanced technique – just a couple of fundamentals or basics put together in combination. Master the fundamentals and most everything else takes care of itself.
I often stress to students that the majority of your training should be done alone. That’s where the mastery happens. Occasionally I’ll get the remark, “I’m afraid of doing it wrong or making a mistake.” Of course you’ll make mistakes! That’s why it’s called practice. Do it anyway. When you get back to the dojo, it’s easy to make a correction. Then back to practice.
This training goes on forever. Perfection is never obtained. It’s been said that even if you have practiced a technique a million times, you have only just tasted it. Instructor Doug Pichen and I once trained on just three throws for a year, both together and alone, and we are still refining them. He taught me the steps of a sword kata 11 years ago and with our Senior Martial Arts Advisor Jean-Luc Moreau’s modifications and conceptual changes, we are still working on the same kata – for 11 years!
Skill is perishable and must constantly be refreshed. So even if you are not “competitive” any more (age does catch up with you), you can still be functional.
This is critical because someday you may find yourself without a dojo or instructor, but your training can continue. The training does not stop when you are not at the dojo. Just because you may miss a class does not mean you miss a practice.