Training is the fundamental basis of studying martial arts. At Redwood Dojo, we train in Cuong Nhu. We train every day we are in class. Training is the core of our art. But what does good training look like?
You show up consistently. You have a training schedule and you don’t let it get interrupted. You don’t decide if you want to go to class each day, you just go. It’s on your calendar as a non-negotiable. It becomes part of your routine, just as eating breakfast and brushing your teeth are. Now, this doesn’t mean you have to train every day. You decide how much time you can commit to your training, but the key is being consistent. And if something comes up that keeps you from getting to class, this should be the rare exception, not a common occurrence. Don’t let excuses get in your way. Don’t let yourself off the hook. Show up to class. Training happens for those who are present.
When you are there physically, you are also there mentally. Martial arts training is about learning to be in the moment. Your body and your mind are only focused on what is happening right now. You don’t think about what happened that day at work or worry about what you will have for dinner after class. You don’t even think about what you were doing in class 5 minutes ago. The trick to being present mentally is not letting your mind get in the way of your training. Your mind wants to think, to problem solve, to worry, to anticipate, to ask questions, and to talk to you. But part of training is conditioning your mind to be present without thinking. Your brain needs to take in what is happening in the moment, not try to guess what will happen next. You show up mentally so that you can train your mind to get out of your way.
You push yourself to do your best. You don’t just go through the motions, even if it’s something you have done a hundred times before. You give it your all. You push to make it better. The secret is, it can always be better. Everyone can always improve. Those who embrace this idea are the people who actually do improve.
The training itself is the goal. It is not a means to an end, it is the essence of what you get when you study martial arts. You may have other things you want to get out of it, but ultimately the reward is in the training. As side benefits, you gain confidence, get into better shape, grow stronger, learn to defend yourself, and work with those who share your interests. But these are not what martial arts training is really about. These are the surface aspects that you can identify and point to and tell others about. The real reward is in the pursuit of perfection, in focusing on being in the moment, in learning what your body can do when your mind gets out of the way. The real reward is the training.
How does testing fit in? In Cuong Nhu we have ranks, signified with different colored belts and stripes. You have to pass a test to go from one rank to the next. If training itself is the goal, how does testing fit in?
You test when you are ready. Tests aren’t scheduled based on how many days have passed or how many hours you came to class. It’s not even based on the body of techniques that your have memorized. Rather it’s based on your ability to consistently perform at a certain level of proficiency. You shouldn’t try to rush to your next test. The only way you get there is by training (with all that high-quality training entails – see above!).
As a student, you don’t need to worry about testing. That’s your instructor’s job. Trust your instructor. Trust that they know what you have and have not done, know the rank requirements, know when you last tested, know what you haven’t worked on in a while, and know if you are ready to test. They plan your classes accordingly. You will get there if you consistently keep coming to class, working to improve, and stay focused on your training.
Testing should not be your goal. The belt or stripe in and of itself has no meaning. Its value comes from what you did and who you became to earn it. If you are overly focused on testing, you miss the real benefit of training. Inevitably, those who strive for the rank take longer to test then those who don’t. Don’t stand in the way of your training by always looking towards your next test.
That said, when it is time for you to test, step up to the challenge. Ranks are not given, they are earned. A test is an opportunity to show what you are capable of. Your instructor tells you when you are ready to test, and then it is up to you to make it happen. The higher the rank, the more that is expected of you. By the time you get to black belt, you are responsible for preparing a comprehensive dynamic self-defense demonstration on your own. Your instructor makes sure you get the building blocks you need, but it is up to you to put them all together. It’s your rank. Your instructor will help you get there, but it’s up to you to do the work.
How are tournaments different than tests? As with testing, if you are overly focused on gaining status through tournaments, you limit yourself. However, tournaments can be an excellent tool to enhance your training.
Tournaments embody the “be in the moment” aspect of training. You get one shot to do your best. And you have the added pressure of people watching, along with the knowledge that you only get one chance. You have to stay in the moment and not let your stage fright, nervousness, or anxiety choke you. You strive to do your best despite the pressure. Learning to persevere under pressure is vital in martial arts training as well as the rest of life. Tournaments give you the chance to do this without real risk. All you risk is not living up to your own standards, not doing what you know you are capable of. This is a real pressure, but does not have devastating results if you fall short.
By putting yourself on the spot, ready to stand up and do your best in a single shot, you push your limits and can find out what you are capable of. No matter what, you learn something from the experience. It’s not about the trophies, it’s about being in the moment. It’s about pushing your limits. It’s about learning to compete against yourself. Against your fear, against your complacency, against your ego, against your pre-conceptions, and against your own personal best.
At redwood dojo, we have a few opportunities each year to participate in tournaments. When these opportunities come up, you should seize them. Use these friendly competitions to enhance your training. If it is out of your comfort zone, good; this is when you should push yourself. Don’t let excuses stop you from growing.
Come to class for the training. Don’t worry about testing and ranks. Use every opportunity to become better. Participate in tournaments to enhance your training. When given the chance, step up.