In the martial arts, you meet all kinds of people who take up your time without training at all. These individuals tend to fall into nice little categories. Last night, one such woman stopped by after class was, thankfully, finished. She is what I call a Glory Days Talker. The Glory Days Talkers have done martial arts in the past but do not currently practice. They all want to talk about the good ole days, which naturally are both different and better than today. This woman came in and asked what we do. We showed a bit of knife tapping, but she didn’t want to see that. She wanted to see jiu jitsu, and one of my training partners is a blue belt demonstrated some moves for her. Starting off, she was a bit rude and overly demanding, but as the conversation progressed, I began to feel sorry for her. It was clear that she loved jiu jitsu and wished that she was training it again. Her memories of training were special to her, and it was easy to see that she cherished that time. This woman had obviously had a few adult beverages and was intoxicated. She had her own thing going on and left before we could encourage her to start training again. I hope those few moments last night reignited her passion for jiu jitsu and that she seeks out a qualified instructor. If she does, I would give her or anyone coming off a long layoff the following pieces of advice for returning to training.
Remember that the martial arts journey is an individual one. There is no one correct path or one correct destination. While we take this journey with friends, we cannot compare our progress with those same friends. Our lives are unique, and our progress is unique. Sometimes, we will move along the path quicker than our training partners, and sometimes, we’ll have a detour that takes us backwards. Both are okay. Sometimes we have to pause our journey, and that is okay as well. We often hear about times to a certain belt. In Counterpoint Tactical System (CTS), there are minimum mat times for rank but no maximum. It takes as long as need be. In Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ), it’s quoted that the average time to black belt is ten years. But that’s an average. In the martial arts, time is irrelevant. Skill is all that matters. Take the time to develop your skill in the manner that is best for you. In my CTS journey, I took longer than the minimum time to the second class brown belt. I added a year to the minimum mat time because I wasn’t ready for the test at the first opportunity I could take it. Come the second opportunity, I skipped that as well because again I wasn’t ready. Taking that extra time was what I needed, and I’m better for it. So, if you’ve had a long layoff and are just now coming back to your art, be proud that you did start again.
Normally, I say compare yourself to the person you were yesterday. But in the case of a long layoff, this can be disheartening. I’ve heard from students and training partners, “I used to be able to…” When this type of thought enters your head, remember that the martial arts is a skill that needs constant maintenance. If you are not maintaining your skills, they will decrease. You will have to start at a point that you once had passed. Again, that’s okay. Think of it as a chance to study these techniques from a different angle. Recognize that the prior week you weren’t training at all, and this week you are. This week, your technique is better than last week. And guess what? Next week, it will improve even more. Being in class is better than sitting on the couch.
At the end of class, pick one thing you can improve upon, and focus on that. The material taught during class tends to have many, many details and many, many nuances. You will not pick it all up the first time, and when returning from a long layoff, you will recognize a lot of the details. It can get overwhelming because you recognize more while not having the skill to do it correctly. So, pick one thing to work on. It can be something generic like a footwork pattern or as specific as correct hand form during a strike. This gives you a specific target instead of an overwhelming cloud of improvements. As you get back into a regular training schedule, you can start focusing on more than one improvement. Start with small incremental improvements to see that progress is happening.
Also pick one that you did well in class. Be proud of your performance at that aspect. Watch beginners in class because they will do a hundred things wrong, but the one thing that they do right lights up their face. Seeing a new student get something and say “That’s so cool” is the most motivating part of the martial arts for me. As we go along our journey, we lose that enthusiasm somewhere. We focus on progress and what we need to improve instead of how far we’ve come. It’s especially bad for someone returning after a layoff because they know their skill has decreased. So, consciously pick one thing you did well – even if it’s just that you showed up to class. Find that small victory, and be proud of it.
Training in the martial arts is a lifelong journey as unique as each person. Occasionally, non-martial arts life will put up challenges that require a pause in our journey. Accept that the pause happened, and take that first step back. A good school will welcome you back and celebrate your return to training. Be proud of yourself for resuming your journey because it is difficult to start over. Recognize that the skills you want only come through training. Once you get on the mat again, once you wrap the belt around your waist again, once you pick up that stick again, you’ve ensured that the real glory days of your martial arts are ahead of you.