Perseverance is not a passive idea. It doesn’t mean weathering or suffering through negative events happening to you or around you. Perseverance is active, it's striving, pushing through oppression, a burden, or unpleasant experience, towards a better resolution. It can also mean actively challenging or seeking change. To persevere is to work to improve the situation, despite resistance to that change.
In the same way that perseverance isn’t passive, it also isn’t directionless. It’s towards something, a maintaining of purpose despite obstacles. Simply surviving or abiding is not perseverance.
Tl;dr, training is how we condition ourselves for a real self-defence situation, and if you allow yourself to give up in training, that's what you'll condition yourself to do for real. The goal of effective training needs to be building up resilience, as well as skill.
In our world of instant gratification, it’s easy to give up when something gets difficult, to move on to the next “fun” thing. But in the end that results in only superficial experiences. You lose out on the real deep enjoyment and meaningful satisfaction that comes from losing yourself in an activity; pushing through the barrier of “trying” to the experience of “doing” that we sometimes call flow, or being in the zone, and that defines an activity (in the Japanese mindset) as a do. The catch is, that deeper engagement can only come through extensive practice, to the point where movements and actions become internalised enough that they become like a direct extension of your will. And that’s where the hard bit, the perseverance, comes in!
Pushing through the wall
It’s not easy to start something new, and learning new motor skills can be especially difficult and frustrating, at least for a lot of people (to all the ‘naturals’ out there, one of which I am not: I hate you all! jk). When you first try something new, the excitement of the new experience can eclipse the fact that the movements are unfamiliar and difficult to coordinate; you don’t care because it’s a cool new experience for a short while. But as that initial excitement fades over the first few weeks, and is replaced by something that’s complicated and awkward, and a body that doesn’t do what you are telling it to do, it can of course get frustrating. I’ve seen scores of beginners come along, have a great time and (slightly frustratingly) pick things up super quickly, only to see them not come back, or drop out after 2, 3 or 4 lessons. But those first few weeks are exactly the time to make that commitment to yourself to power through, because trust me, at some point it will click, and then that’s where the real fun starts!
It’s also why, as a teacher, it’s a continuous juggling act for me to find the right balance between challenge and accessibility: too much one way and everyone will get frustrated and quit, too much the other way and everyone will get bored and quit. At least that’s how it seems to me some days :-)
It’s the same in a relationship. When you first hook up, there’s the excitement of the new, of discovering each other and finding connections. But it's still a superficial relationship, and as the excitement of the ‘honeymoon period’ wears off, and you are faced with the reality and work of establishing a deeper and more meaningful relationship (and it is hard work, but worth it!), that’s where many people give up.
Every so often I go running, and the first minute or so in is horrible. It’s hard work, my legs feel heavy, it’s a laborious effort to push on. “Why am I doing this to myself” I say to myself, “this isn’t fun!”. I want to give up, but I know (from experience) that if I push on a bit longer then I will break through the first wall, and then I’m flying. For me at least, it’s a step change; everything is suddenly lighter, faster, easier, the rush of endorphins starts to flood my system and I’m buzzing. I’m no sports scientist, but I suspect biologically this has something to do with the transition from anaerobic to aerobic or something, but that’s not really the point. The point here is that I could give up a minute or two in, while it was difficult (and not fun) but then I wouldn’t get to the reward of both the enjoyable part of the run, and also the benefit of a decent workout!
Training for resilience
In a real fight, you can never stop, not until the assailant is subdued or discouraged. Stopping means being beaten, injured or possibly killed.
That's not to say one should go out looking for fights, or seeking to beat people or win all the time. It's always better to try to de-escalate rather than fight. Better still, to not be in the situation where you need to defend yourself in the first place. As Rory Miller says his excellent book Meditations on Violence (which every martial artist should read by the way), "It’s better to avoid than to run; better to run than to de-escalate; better to de-escalate than to fight; better to fight than to die."
Fighting is the last resort, when all your other options have failed. But if it comes to that, you'd better be prepared to finish things swiftly and decisively.
It’s better to avoid than to run; better to run than to de-escalate; better to de-escalate than to fight; better to fight than to die.
The class environment is the closest (safe) proxy we have for a real self-defence situation. The purpose of our training (physical and mental) is to prepare ourselves for that situation where we are forced to resort to physical action to defend ourselves or someone else. We practice techniques and drills in various ways to build up instinctive responses that will allow us to react quickly in a situation where there is no time to think.
What you train, and how you train it, is what will get internalised. If you always pull a punch to avoid hurting your partner, that's what will become habit; and when you have to hit someone for real, guess what, you're punching short - when you really don't want to. That's why, although we pull our punches to a degree in regular paired (sotai) practice, I always encourage light contact (and proper range and targeting), and we also practice padwork and with body protectors to get used to hitting things hard too. Side note: that's also why I don't like using gloves for our padwork sessions, because a) at 7-10 mins each, its not long enough to need them to protect your knuckles, and b) gloves alter how you punch, and can give a false sense of support that can allow students to get away with bad form but still hit hard.
In the same way, there will be times when you don't quite feel like coming to class, you find the technique hard or frustrating, or you’re just tired. Of course its important to rest and recuperate when unwell, but those other times when you just don't feel 100% are the perfect time to train. How many self-defence situations happen when the victim is on peak form or fully prepared? If you allow yourself to give up when the training is tough or frustrating or tiring, then yes the immediate consequences are minimal (apart from perhaps an angry sensei), but long term that's what gets internalised. You can't time out in a real fight if your head's not quite in the game, you have to keep pushing no matter what. Train to build up mental resilience in the safety of the dojo, so you have it on hand when you really need it!
Avoiding the plateau
A healthy amount of challenge is necessary to stay motivated, and after doing anything for a period of time, naturally you’ll get better at it and it will become easier (and thus less challenging). Skill competency, challenge and motivation are all linked.
Consider in a new job (or a new role within your current job). Starting out, although you may have transferable skills and general competencies, it’s inevitable you will be relatively unskilled at the specifics of the new role. For most people, this will place them outside of their comfort zones, and their effectiveness in the role will be relatively low. This of course can be demotivating, and you must work hard, persevere, to ‘skill up’ in the new role and become effective. As you become more familiar with the role and more skilled in executing it, you reach a point that can be considered as ‘peak effectiveness’.
Think of it like cresting the hill after a long struggle upwards. You’re in the sweet spot: you know what you’re doing, you know your way around the internal teams and processes, and you can get stuff done relatively easily. It’s the same in any new endeavour that requires the development of skills, and of course is applicable to the study of martial arts too. It’s that point where, after 6, 12, 24 months of study you start to feel that you have the hang of it and you can apply your techniques on most people without trying too hard.
The problem is that if you allow yourself to continue in what I will call the plateau of complacency, staying in the comfort zone where it’s nice and easy, motivation starts to wane. Things start to feel repetitive, and slowly they drag you down. Different people have different tolerance levels to this, which can also change over time, and it’s important to learn where yours lies. But its why, for example people tend to change jobs every couple of years early in their careers, or drift out of a martial art after a year (or after getting their first few belts). It’s by no means a “millennial” thing either – Funakoshi observed exactly the same thing in the early days of taking karate mainstream. His advice: take your time, focus on your own progression, but above all, keep pushing.
Recognising when you’re hitting the plateau, and catching it before the downward spiral is an important life lesson to learn. When it happens, take that as the sign to go find a new challenge: talk to your boss, seek out a new role at work; talk to your sensei and take on more responsibility or a new aspect of training. Because once you hit that downward slope it can be difficult to get out of it. I know people that have taken 5, 10, 30 years to come back kempo after drifting out. The good thing is some of them finally came back, but I’m sure it took a lot of effort for them!
It took a couple of years for me to recognise that I was sitting on the downward edge of the plateau in my own kempo career, and that’s part of the reason I started my own dojo. I realised my personal training was lacking direction, I was just going through the motions, and I needed an outlet for my own ideas as much as I needed a new challenge. I was probably a couple months away from quitting altogether. Did I regret it at the beginning? Absolutely, almost immediately! But do I regret it now? Definitely not.
Training camps (gasshuku as we call them) and also a great way of breaking you out of the plateau too. You will find that you often come away from these with a completely new take on techniques you thought you had down, thanks to the insights of a great instructor. And you can gain a renewed focus, everything is suddenly a challenge again as you try to reintegrate what you have seen. Likewise with gradings: having a goal to work towards can help focus your training and provide something to measure your own progress against, whether you care about getting the belt at the end of it or not. If the chance comes up, take it!
Its also common to find yourself drifting out of training as life happens and changes around you - whether from an enforced break due to injury or sickness, or due to changing demands on your time such as starting a family or moving home or job. When I was a lot younger I studied Wado-ryu karate for about a year, went on holiday with my family for two weeks, and never went back! The break in routine even over that short period was enough.
Pushing through this can of course be difficult, but just remember two things: 1) training can be the stable, consistent thread that's always there for you through life's changes; and 2) the instructor won't care how long you've been away, or how rusty you think you've got, they'll just be pleased to see you again!
One final thing I'd like to say, is that while perseverance is important, finding balance is even more so. Sometimes we talk (joke) about the work / life / kempo balance, but burnout is a real thing and I've seen it happen to some great students and instuctors. Use those times when you're really feeling excited and energised to focus your training. When you're young, and don't have lots of of demands on your time, train a lot! But also take the time out to rest, to chill, to catch up with those friends you missed last week because you were training ;-) Look out for the warning signs of burnout - when training starts to drag or become a chore, starts to take over your life - and make sure you take time to rebalance the other priorities in your life too (whatever they may be). Remember that it's ok to scale things back a bit. Slow and steady wins the race as they say. Perseverance is active, it's taking control of a situation and making the necessary changes to see through your end goal. If the training itself becomes a burden, then change things up a bit. Or start a dojo...!
And on that bombshell, I leave you with this advice:
Ben is instructor at East London Shorinji Kempo. He has been practicing for 20 years and has reached the rank of 4th dan.
Shorinji kempo stances