Guest writer Joel Snape talks martial arts and the philosophical benefits of being punched in the face.
I’ve done quite a bit of fighting (well, martial arts) in the course of my life: from the not-very-useful (Capoeira, Wushu, Wing Chun) to the super-practical (boxing, Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu). Styles differ a lot, but what you find in all of them is the same: the men (and ladies) who are good at them also tend to be good at other things, because once you’ve learned to fight, most other things are relatively easy. Miyamoto Musashi, legendary Japanese swordsman and part-time calligrapher/flower-arranger, knew this better than anyone, as exemplified in his most famous line “If you know the way broadly, you will see it in all things.” Just in case you don’t fancy letting dudes try to punch you in the face three nights a week, though, I’ve assembled the basics of what you learn from two decades of fighting – in a five-minute read.
Fundamentals are fundamentalWhen you first step onto any kind of mat, everything is new and exciting, from the basics of throwing a punch to the intricacies of an armbar. It’s the same with lifting weights: when you first get into it, just doing a proper squat or pullup is enough to give you a warm, comforting glow of achievement. Unfortunately, at some point everyone’s natural urge for novelty kicks in, and this isn’t enough: and so begins the never-ending search for novelty that means you get distracted with ‘secret’ moves from YouTube, and ridiculous pull-up/squat variations that promise ultra-rapid results. Spoilers: these almost never deliver.
Stick at it long enough, though, and the process goes into reverse: you realise that what gets results is the basic stuff that everyone good does. That’s when you go back to it, and get good at it: tightening up your armbars or smoothing the edges off your squat technique, putting in the reps and hours until the thing you learned on your first day becomes your most valuable weapon. The trick is, when you do martial arts, you learn very quickly that it works with anything. It’s one of the best ways to teach yourself that putting in time on the basics pays off faster than almost anything else.
If you do the moves right, they work
Ultimate Fighter winner Ryan Hall puts this better than me: “I don’t believe in me, I believe in the moves.” This takes a while to really understand: when you first start most martial arts, you do the moves badly, or you miss things out, or you try them at the wrong time. When you get more experienced, though, you see the truth of it: if you’re a white belt, sitting on top of a black belt in the mount position, you are in a vastly superior position to them. There’s nothing magic about their neck or limbs or anything else - if you do all the steps of your choke correctly (however unlikely that is) they’ll have to tap out just as badly as if they were rolling with a world champion. It isn’t that you’re the best: it’s that the system works.
Once you see this in action, you see it in every system: and it’s a tremendous confidence booster, because it takes ‘you’ out of the equation. You are not ‘good’ or ‘bad’ at jiu-jitsu: you either do the moves correctly each time, or you don’t. You aren’t a good or bad writer: you either follow the basics of good writing (punctuation, structure) and learn to apply the more complex ones (avoiding cliches, sentence rhythm), or you don’t. Every black belt in a sparring art has to defend their belt every time they step on the mat, just like every novelist has to start fresh every time they start a new book. How do they avoid freaking out? Because they understand that there are rules to success, and they follow them.
You will never be perfect
Training in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu - or any martial art, really – is like climbing a mountain that goes on forever. After the foothills, it’s slow going. There are steep cliffs, loose footing, dead ends, plateaus that you just can’t see a way forward from. There are plenty of moments where you stop and consider why you’re doing this in the first place.
Occasionally you look down, and see how far you’ve come. You see all the wrong turns you’ve taken - if only you’d had this perspective during the climb, it might have all gone so much faster, so much easier, so much better. You didn’t need to be so aggressive, so obsessive, so over-the-top. Sometimes you were your own worst enemy. But the view from wherever you are is always better than it was further down. Most days you can barely even remember what it was like to be struggling down at the bottom of the mountain, but occasionally the clouds part, and you get a glimpse of those foothills, and it all comes rushing back. Hopefully, you can use those memories in the next big push.
Nobody gets to the top. Nobody can ever rest, satisfied that they’ve perfected the art or learned everything it has to offer. The ascent never ends. And it’s the same with everything else.
That’s why you have to enjoy the endless climb.
Joel Snape is an editor at Men’s Fitness magazine, writer for broadsheet newspapers The Guardian and Telegraph, as well as author of 5 books. As a dedicated gym warrior and general polymath, Joel has a flair and interest in activities such as bouldering, snowboarding, skiing, surfing, swing-dancing, gymnastics and Capoeira.You can find out more about Joel and his pursuits by visiting livehard.co.uk or following @JoelSnape on Twitter.