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The #1 Mental Skill Which Helps Transform Amateurs Into Experts


Jay-Z may have said the wisest words that could ever land on a martial artist’s ears. No, I’m not talking about having only ninety-nine problems.

“Go and brush your shoulders off.” You don’t have to be a pimp to benefit from remembering to brush the metaphorical dirt off of your shoulders. In fact, experts in many fields expound this very same idea. There's a fable about a donkey who fell down the well that was about to be filled. The farmer who owned the donkey saw it happen and spent many hours trying to help the donkey get out of the well. After some time had passed, he started to question if the effort was worth it however. Deciding that the donkey was too old and that the well still needed to be filled, he continued to shovel in dirt and fill the well. Though at first the donkey cried out in distress, he quickly grew quiet. Figuring that was the end of his livestock, the farmer kept shoveling the dirt in until, to his astonishment, the donkey appeared from inside and simply hopped out of the well. With every scoop of dirt that came down the well and landed on the donkey's back, he shrugged it off and took a step skywards. Rather than be buried by what could have killed him, he shook it off and used it as an opportunity to better his situation. If you accept defeat, you will become defeated. Period. If, however, you don’t stop and instead simply keep shrugging off the dirt–the pain, the stress, the excuses, the challenges life throws your way–you’ll be able to progress towards the “impossible” goals. Develop the resilience to overcome the challenges of the world and also the struggles that arise in your martial art training. Shake off the uncertainty, the boredom, the concerns, and the problems that pop up, and keep stepping skyward. Mind you, the story also goes on to say that the donkey then turns around and bites the farmer who tried to kill him, causing the man to get an infection and die from septic shock. I suppose the lesson from the story could also be that when you do the wrong thing and try to cover your ass, it’ll come back to bite you. Regardless, the story is pertinent to us martial artists.

An Immovable Mind In traditional Japanese arts, there is the concept of fudoshin, or the immovable mind. Spoiler alert, life happens and it ain't easy. When the winds of struggle and everyday life come blowing, it takes a strong mind and spirit to stay resolute and rooted in your principles and convictions. This is just one of the important mindsets every martial artist should cultivate within himself, however this is one that is especially important in the beginning of your training journey. When a martial artist starts training in their style, they are faced with many challenges. Like friction sanding an object down before it can be polished, these challenges can be the best preparation for positive change. By overcoming them, we unlock new strengths and experiences to draw confidence from. Something positive can come after something problematic. This is true whether you are facing fear and uncertainty in starting a new endeavor, impatience and frustration while progress is slow, or sheer boredom from repetition of fundamental movements. The only way to achieve the results we desire is to keep a steadfast mind. Maintain the necessary self-discipline and remain resolute in your decision to act or improve.

Corrupted Conviction The human mind is nosy and noisy–it particularly loves to listen in on the thoughts you allow to form, even briefly. When we waver in our conviction, we are entertaining a narrative which says that sometimes we give up, sometimes we say things that we don’t intend to actually complete. The more our brain hears this story, the more it believes it. The habit becomes more ingrained and harder to break. Consciously or unconsciously, it becomes our belief system. We begin to negotiate with ourselves as soon as motivation dips slightly–we say that we don’t want it that bad, we’re too busy right now, we can train at another time or another day, or that the conditions for working out aren’t ideal at the moment.

Stop that. Author Jim Kwik said “With great responsibility comes great power.” No, that's not a misremembered quote from a Spider-Man comic. It’s the evolution of an idea.

If we always blame others or come up with excuses, we are outsourcing our strength and ability to control our environment and circumstances. It is your life and it is your improvement, only you can actually make the decisions to work towards excellence and accomplishment.

Once we take responsibility for our actions, or lack thereof up to this point, then we also reclaim the power to change them for the better.

Once you set your intention, let your sense of responsibility and conviction carry your actions until completion. This is just as true for techniques and tactics as our personal goals. If we begin to initiate a block or strike, and then become afraid of a potential counter attack from our sparring opponent, our action will be decidedly weaker.

Our spirit will be consumed by our opponent in no time.

The times when you are punching and kicking are not the times to have commitment issues. Bring your focus to the highest level and keep your composure as things change around you. People punch back and change positions. Accept that without undue energy.

Life is unfair and throws curveballs at inopportune moments. Accept that without undue energy as well. The moment you hold this skill in your heart and in your mind, it will show in your every action. A quote attributed to famed swordsman Tsukahara Bokuden reflects this philosophy well, stating “Mental bearing, not skill, is the sign of a matured samurai” Whether you wield a sword or not, these wise words are important. Confidence grows alongside competence. If you are living inside your comfort zone, too afraid to try something new, you are disallowing important growth for yourself. Outside that circle of ease you have leashed yourself to is a world of skill that will allow and accelerate your progress like nothing else. Growth requires discomfort and we must face it with an unfettered mind. Don’t stop. Don’t waver. You’ve got this. Go and brush your shoulders off.

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