One of the greatest influences in the Martial Arts world has been Bruce Lee. There are, of course, naysayers that like to focus on his lack of a prolific professional fight career that many MMA stars benefit from today.
To argue what Bruce Lee could or couldn’t do in the Octagon is really a moot point. It reminds me of the comparisons of the Michael Jordan Chicago Bulls team versus today’s best teams. All that we really know and can prove is who is the best in their day.
That said, one of the best at promotion and creating excitement regarding the Arts in his day was Bruce Lee. Bruce captured the audience’s imagination and wowed them with his skillset at his formal introduction to the American Martial Arts world via American Kenpo Grandmaster Ed Parker’s Long Beach International Karate Championship. His impact then and through the remaining years of his life was so profound that we still discuss him to this very day.
One of Lee’s greatest contributions to the Arts wasn’t based on his physical talents. Rather it springs from his philosophical views and the establishment of the proper mindset for the ultimate benefit of our studies. Together with you, I would like to explore a few quotes from Bruce Lee and see how they can serve as guideposts for our training.
Let’s dive in.
“Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless, like water. You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup.”
Whether you are an experienced Martial Artist or a brand-new beginner, establishing a proper mindset is perhaps the most important thing you can do to prepare for success. When approaching something new or different, we frequently use past experiences or fabricated beliefs which falsely shape what we are about to learn. As Bruce points out, it is vital to clear the mind and be willing to assimilate and be shaped by what we are taught. When we submit to this idea, we are prepared to learn.
“Don't speak negatively about yourself, even as a joke. Your body doesn't know the difference. Words are energy and cast spells, that's why it's called spelling.”
As you train and work to be like water, the temptation for self-talk is unavoidable. As Bruce points out though, what you tell yourself is of the utmost importance. Speaking negatively about oneself may happen for several reasons, but it doesn’t do anything positive for us in the long run. We should use caution and make sure what we tell ourselves during training is positive. Build yourself up rather than tear yourself down.
“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.”
As you’re working to assimilate knowledge with the proper mindset and positive self-talk, focus your training in a way to maximize your results. The continual temptation for Martial Artists is to spread themselves so thin that they do a lot but master nothing. As Bruce talks about the man that practices one kick 10,000 times, he seems to be purporting mastery of a few skills rather than dabbling in a multitude.
“Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.”
Take the skills you develop through much practice and make them your own. Bruce then says to reject and get rid of that which you find useless IN THE MOMENT. This jives with his thoughts on the one-kick ideology but allow me to suggest a simple possibility. That which is “useless” for you today, may not be useless tomorrow. Furthermore, it may be helpful to someone you’re teaching in the future with a different natural talent base.
For this reason, even when applying Bruce’s philosophical ideas to my training, I like to return to the beginning mindset and approach my training with an open and clear mind.
“The ego boundary is the differentiation between the self and the other. It is not a fixed thing. If it is fixed, then is becomes a character or an armor like the shell of a turtle.”
On the flipside of focusing on little rather than exposure to much, Bruce talked about the ego. This is a humbling warning reminding us not to me overly confident with that one kick that has been practiced 10,000 times. Yes, focus and build a strong skill, but always be willing to be humbled and learn something new. Your ego may tell you to identify as a turtle, but that may be holding you back. To survive in the wild, you may need to evolve into something other than a turtle.
For a real-life example, look at the evolution of MMA and the fight game over the last few decades. You can’t deny the evolution of the fighters, and the skillset changes over even that short period of time. What would have been enough to be a champ in 1990, may not be enough to even make the UFC roster today. I don’t want to get too far off-topic with combat sports. My main point is that our skills must evolve with the real-life threats of today, and we can’t let our ego hold us back from learning something new.
“Punch when you have to punch. Kick when you have to kick. Forget about winning and losing; forget about pride and pain. Let your opponent graze your skin and you smash into his flesh; let him smash into your flesh and you fracture his bones; let him fracture your bones and you take his life!”
When push comes to shove, and there is no referee to make sure a fight is fair, you must be willing to do what is necessary. Bruce expresses that you should be ready to take some damage and deal with pain. But he also makes it abundantly clear that you must have the fortitude and skills to take it one step further than any attacker you may face. You must be able to push through adversity and unquestionably defeat anyone with ill intent toward you or your family.
“Don't think, FEEL.”
If you find yourself in the situation where you must exercise your skills for self-preservation, you will be well served for having practiced extensively with intensity and intention. For in the moment of battle, you can’t spend time thinking. You must feel and act on the instinct you have developed through your years of directed preparation in the dojo.
Bruce Lee brought so much to the Martial Arts world. It was not only his physical skills, but his philosophical views which are some of his most significant contributions. I hope you’ll consider these guideposts from Bruce’s quotes and use them in shaping your studies to develop a training approach that helps you become the best Martial Artist you can be.