Why train?

In the martial arts, we have a tendency to valorize long-term dedication to training.  It is true that getting really good at the martial arts (or anything else) takes a lot of time and hard work.  I’ve been studying the martial arts for over 30 years and at a very rough estimate have put somewhere around 7000 hours of actual training into the process.  For all that, I view myself as only semi-competent and feel like I still have several lifetimes worth of potential study ahead of me.

Given all that, it’s reasonable to ask: why?

If you view time and effort as a fungible resource, my time spent training in the martial arts represents 7000+ hours (and many 1000’s of dollars) that I could have spent practicing my guitar or earning money or volunteering to help the homeless or any number of other worthwhile pursuits.  I have a limited lifetime and limited energy.  What makes the martial arts so important that I should have spent and should continue to spend so much time and energy on their study?

Once upon a time, I might have said that the answer was self-defense. I was the sort of scrawny, unathletic, socially-unaware kid that is an easy mark for bullies.  Honestly, that answer doesn’t hold up so much anymore.  For the record, here is most of what you will ever need to know for self-defense if you are an adult:

  •  Be aware of your surroundings.
  • Don’t abuse intoxicants (of whatever sort) especially in public.
  • Don’t hang out with people who are abusing intoxicants, especially in public.
  • Don’t hang out with violent people or in places where violence is common.*
  • Don’t date people who are prone to violence.*
  • Keep firm control of your ego.
  • Keep firm control of your temper.
  • Don’t be an asshole
  • Don’t be an idiot.
  • Be in good enough shape that you can sprint a few blocks if necessary.
  • *(Being able to identify those people and places is an important skill.)

Unless you have to confront violence as part of your profession (police, bouncer, prison guard, etc), that’s 95% of the self-defense you will ever need. I’ve long since learned enough martial skill to be able to handle most of the remaining 5%.  It really doesn’t make sense to continue spending thousands of hours of hard work preparing for the minuscule chance of an unavoidable confrontation which could be handled by a greater degree of martial ability than I already possess.

Some folks train martial arts for the thrill of sports competition.  I’ve dabbled in competition, but it doesn’t motivate me enough to put in this kind of long term work.  Even among those who do love competition, most won’t retain motivation to keep training as they get older and their physical attributes fade.

Some folks claim that the value of martial arts training lies in the character attributes that it help develop – discipline, humility, determination, calmness, and so on.  I plan to write a more in-depth post on this soon, but suffice it to say that martial arts training does not necessarily do anything positive for a student’s personal character.  It’s not hard to find skilled martial arts practitioners who are terrible people or who have completely messed up lives outside the training hall. What martial arts training can do is give us tools and lessons which we can choose to apply to the rest of our lives to help us become the sort of person we would like to be. It doesn’t happen automatically.  We have to choose which lessons and tools we would like to apply.  We have to choose what sort of person we are trying to be.  We have to do the hard work of actually applying those tools and lessons to our lives off the mat.  I do feel that I’ve gotten a lot of value out of this aspect of the martial arts.  (More details to come in an upcoming post!)  Nevertheless, the life lessons I’ve learned from the martial arts could probably have been learned elsewhere.  This can’t be my final answer as to why I train.

The truest answer to why I train in the martial arts is probably this: I take joy in it.  Training can be frustrating, tiring, even painful – but at the end of the day I take a deep satisfaction in learning a new detail about how to throw a punch or escape a choke.  On days when it would be easier to stay home and play a video game, the mats call out to me with the promise of learning something new.

This suggests that after all, time and effort are not fungible.  If I didn’t have the martial arts to train in, I wouldn’t necessarily have the motivation to spend all that same amount of work learning to paint with watercolors or run a marathon.  Maybe I might find a substitute activity that would evoke the same passion – or maybe I would spend all those extra hours killing time by surfing the internet.

This also suggests that those of us who train seriously should let go of any snobbishness we harbor towards those who train more casually.  If I train longer and harder than the next guy, it’s not necessarily because I am more disciplined and hardcore.  It might be just that I am naturally wired to get more satisfaction out of the activity.  Maybe the guy who trains casually devotes that same time and energy into taking care of his kids or tending his garden.  It’s a short life we’re given – let’s all find the joy we can that’s right for each of us.

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