Martial arts has the unique opportunity to teach a person how to truly get back up after being knocked down. First, because you literally get knocked, thrown, tripped, or taken down by your friends in the gym or dojo. Second, because everyone, every single person who trains, has bad days. We do. There are days where nothing works. Where you know you have skills far above where you are performing that day. Days when every move is, or feels like, the wrong one. And these rough patches are made even more so by the simple fact that we are actively engaged in a sport with physical ramifications to our actions.
If you dodge the wrong way, you get a shiner. If you turn the wrong way, you get thrown, taken down, or have to tap out. If you try a risky escape or counter to a choke, you very well may be taking a nap for a few seconds. Even though we are practicing with our friends and everyone knows to pull the punches, let go when they tap, and spot your partner so they don’t slam the mat, there are accidents and any martial art is a very physical sport. Even the best of the best have had their fair share of bad days training. It is something that everyone has to confront and move past.
You fall down, you get back up. 100 times in one night. And, the next day you are right back there doing it again. Almost everyone I know that trains in any martial art admits, maybe only when no one else is around, that they get frustrated on days like that. It happens. You’re trying your best and it just isn’t coming together the way you know it can. Frustration is a natural part of this process.
So is anger. A lot of coaches will try to skirt around this one because they want to encourage their students. Which is the right thing to do. You don’t want to bring them down when they are already feeling borderline vulnerable. But trust me when I say that sometimes you get downright fuckin’ pissed. Especially if there is nothing you can do about it. When I feel powerless to change the fact that I’m not performing at my peak, it sets me off.
Case in point, I have asthma. It sucks. Most of the time it is just a minor annoyance that I can easily manage. Sometimes, a few times a year, it decides that I am done with an activity and calls it quits. It says, “I know you’re not even warmed up yet, and you’re super excited to get your sweat on, but right now I need a little TV time. Soo… screw you.” Sometimes it is the full-on, Hollywood style, asthma attack with the wheezing and coughing and theatrics. Most of the time, it is a subtle loss of oxygen. It sneaks up and takes away my strength. I get weaker and weaker, more and more dizzy, until my chest is tight and I am shallow breathing wondering what the hell is going on. It’s like a boa constrictor settled around my chest and hugged a millimeter at a time until the discomfort was enough to force my attention to it.
The truth is, when I am working hard, and especially when I’m grappling in jiu jitsu, I don’t notice the slow depletion of oxygen. I just think I’m working really hard, because I am. It’s only when the round stops and I can’t catch my breath that I realize I’m in trouble. At that moment, in that brief second when my brain finally understands what my body is saying, I get insta-pissed. I am embarrassed, humiliated by my body’s weakness, livid that I have to stop doing something that I love, and all these emotions make me so frustrated I cry. Yep. My tear ducts are hardwired to frustration and anger. Which, naturally, exacerbates the situation. In case you’re curious, trying to catch your breath in an asthma attack while crying is extraordinarily difficult.
At this point you are probably wondering what an asthma tangent has to do with martial arts teaching you perseverance. Well, when you are at your lowest point, when your body no longer functions in one of its most basic tasks, you are completely vulnerable. There is nothing you can do to defend yourself physically and emotionally. Enter the dojo community. These people you have already established a system of trust with, have your back. Most of them have no clue what is going on, but they rush to your side anyway. Your coach knows, and takes action. I may be sitting there ugly crying in my humiliation, but these guys aren’t going to tease me about it… well, not until I am breathing again and can take a joke.
No matter how bad an attack is, no matter how frustrated, or angry, or injured, or tumultuous a training session is, the real triumph, the real test of strength is how soon you jump back up. It may take a few tries. It may take a few days, even a few weeks. But eventually you lean on the stubbornness training and uncoil from your puddle of pain and misery and self-loathing. Beaten, scratched, swollen, and bruised you stand tall and proud to say, “that was fun. Let’s do it again!”