5 Ways Martial Arts Influenced My Approach To Life and Leadership
Captain J Ng, Commanding Officer of 2947 RCACC
Anyone who knows me well knows that I am a huge fan of martial arts. I began training when I was five years old learning Taekwondo. Ten years of training later, I sought new challenges and started fresh at the world-renowned Steveston Karate Club in Richmond. My latest love affair has been with Brazilian Jiujitsu, which I’ve been training in for the past three years in parallel with teaching Karate at Steveston.
Regardless of what I’ve been learning, practicing, and teaching, martial arts have been a huge part of my upbringing and helped shape the kind of leader I am today.
There are a few key lessons that I learned over the past 20+ years which can also help you become a better leader (and person).
YOU WILL APPRECIATE AND RESPECT THE GRIND
Training in any gym worth its salt will not be a walk in the park. Training partners will be tough, and your instructor/coach will be even tougher and more demanding. On most days, you will wake up with your muscles aching, feet blistered, and hands unable to type out blog posts.
Some days you will literally feel like you are being dragged through hell and will wonder why you even decided to do this in the first place. At some point during this time of self-doubt, you will have a moment of realization; an AHA! moment where you’ve realized that all the girls and guys beating you up have gone through exactly the same thing that you are going through. It is at this moment where you will realize that the grind is worth it, and it will make you a better, stronger, smarter athlete.
Through these moments, you will learn resilience. You will not only learn to tolerate difficulty and adversity: physical, mental, emotional; but also learn how to recover from difficulty.
What I’ve been finding in my work with young people, is that more and more of them struggle with coping with difficult or uncomfortable situations. In addition, many of them find it challenging to bounce back and regain composure after being faced with these situations.
Resilience is an attribute which combines both tolerance of and recovery after stress. It’s a crucial life skill that all people must learn, because face it, you will never live a stress-free life. It is best to expose yourself early to stressful situations in a controlled, safe environment, so that you can train your mind and body for when you need to be resilient the most.
YOU WILL LEARN TO PRIORITIZE IN CHAOTIC SITUATIONS
Training has taught me to find comfort in chaos and discomfort, as well as how to find what my priorities are in chaotic or uncomfortable situations.
A key example is being in a weak position in Brazilian Jiujitsu. There is no striking in this martial art, nobody is looking to punch you in the face or kick you in the chest. You “win” in this sport by submitting your opponent, which is to force a surrender or “tap”, by applying a chokehold or joint lock. I often find myself on the receiving end of many these situations.
Imagine a 200 lb individual sitting on your chest, in what we refer to as a “mount” position. This person is very heavy, and you are in one of the weakest positions there are in any kind of self-defence or combat sport situation. However, when I’m in this position, I know that as long as this person is not choking me, or applying a lock to my arms, I’m okay.
Yes, it’s uncomfortable, but am I going to lose? No.
Beginners will often flail around (ie: spazz out) and waste precious energy instead of focusing on what is important; defending an incoming attack, and getting yourself to a better position.
Now let’s take this 200 lb person and turn them into a real-life problem: a failed exam, a lost job, a missed opportunity. Flailing around like the beginner does under a mount is akin to losing yourself in worry, in a pool of self-pity and misery. Is this situation going to kill you? Most of the time no. In the grand scheme of things, it’s probably just a setback or a large inconvenience.
What you will learn to do is to prioritize how to:
a) Stop yourself from falling into a worse situation; and
b) Get yourself out of that spot and into an incrementally better position.
At the end of the day, you will learn how to get yourself out of a hole instead of digging yourself deeper. You will learn that an uncomfortable situation is usually not the end of the world. Once you’ve acknowledged this, you will be able to formulate a plan of attack to overcome this obstacle.
YOU WILL LOSE A LOT AND LOSE YOUR EGO IN THE PROCESS
Training in a good martial arts gym will push you hard, with lots of very skilled and tough people doing the the majority of the pushing.
You will find that you will be defeated. You will lose.
You will find that you will lose over and over again.
And that is okay.
I was quite confident in myself after years of training in Taekwondo and Karate. I stepped onto the mat at my Brazilian Jiujitsu gym and was absolutely crushed. I had never wrestled before; I was a fish out of water. I continued to lose continuously to every training partner for about six months before I started seeing a difference in how I performed.
It was tap after tap after tap after tap. And I learned… that was okay!
My coach taught me a very valuable lesson. He said what is often said at many gyms around the world: tap early, tap often.
Safety is a big part of this: in my third month training, I refused to tap to an arm lock from another beginner.
“I’m better than this guy”, “This isn’t perfect form”, “I can gut this out” was what my ego was telling me. My partner continued to apply pressure to my arm because I didn’t signal to stop, and two seconds later there was a loud pop in my elbow and I was out of training for the next three weeks. Whose fault was it? Entirely my own.
Being pig-headed and stubborn will only serve to hurt you in the end.
But aside from safety, tapping out is an incredibly humbling and humanizing experience. By signalling surrender, you are saying “hey you got me”. It’s not the end of the world. Instead of gutting things out and wasting time and energy on a fruitless situation, you can just acknowledge defeat, reset, and start off the round again. You save time and energy, and let your ego go in the process.
And if you don’t let your ego fast enough like I did, any injuries or exhaustion will make sure that you don’t make the same mistake again.
YOU WILL TEST YOUR MOTIVATION TO SUCCEED
Encountering defeat is a natural and probably the most important step in learning. There is no better way for your shortcomings to be laid bare and displayed in front of you.
The question is: are you willing to take a good hard look at these frailties and improve yourself?
It is at this point another critical moment occurs, and it really is a defining moment of one’s character:
- Those willing to improve and become a better version of themselves will check their ego, acknowledge that they’ve lost, and look for ways to overcome the weakness.
- Those that will not will give up and quit training.
Let me ask you: which of the above two do you think you are? Which do you aspire to be? And which of the two do you think will find more success and fulfillment in work and play?
Training has really made me reflect on moments of personal challenge that have arisen. It has made me take a good look at what my shortcomings may be so that I can critically understand what I need to do be more successful.
YOU WILL FIND THAT EVERY ACTION OR INACTION IS A CHOICE
You will find that you will become more conscientious about what you do in every day life. Everything is a choice.
In martial arts, every movement you make is – no, must be a conscious choice that you make if you want to succeed. Every movement must be calculated. One false move and your opponent is in a better position, whether they results you lying under a heavy mount or being kicked square in the gut.
If you are not sparring, and doing something like kata or poomsae (forms in Karate and Taekwondo respectively), you have to be aware of every minute detail of your body. You must know how to control and regulate your footwork, breathing, striking, muscle activation, and posture for optimal performance. Not unlike other solo sports such as swimming, running, weightlifting, dance, or diving, you will need to know how to get the best performance out of your body.
You will find that any mistakes that you make are due to either taking the wrong action or not taking one at all.
How does this translate to life out of martial arts then?
You will find that everything you do or not do is an active choice. And that gives you power over your success. The vast majority of things impacting our lives is within our control.
I have heard a lot of excuses from cadets that I’ve worked with: I didn’t have time to iron my uniform, I forgot my forms at home, I didn’t know that this event was happening.
Let’s take a step back and reflect on this: did you make time for yourself to prepare? Did you choose to give yourself reminders? Did you choose to get yourself informed?
These are all things that are very reasonably within the realm of one’s own control.
From my training, I’ve found that I have to be mindful of every choice that I make, and that every choice has an impact on my short and long term objectives. It’s time to take some responsibility over our choices, and choose to stay informed when we don’t know what the right choice may be.
THE TL;DR (TOO LONG; DIDN’T READ)
Martial arts has made me a stronger, wiser person in more ways than I can list in this blog. It has humbled me, given me perspective, strengthened my resilience, and empowered me to take ownership over all aspects of my life.
I strongly advocate training for everybody. I encourage you to find a sport or activity that challenges you, and to surround yourself with good people who will help drive your success.
Trust me, you won’t regret a moment of it.