The Hardest Fight in Martial Arts - Accepting the Decline of Remarkable Ability
Writing this blog post has been on my mind for many years. Finally getting around to do it has been triggered by a number of different occurrences recently. Turning 40 this year (where do the years go), constantly working on rehabilitating long standing injuries, reading some excellent articles on similar concepts within the professional field and recent conversations with various people within the Martial Arts community have all contributed to me hitting my keyboard on this occasion to talk about the hardest fight in Martial Arts.
However, I digress.
This, for me, did not start at any point over the past few years. It started when I was young. Like any of us who started training in Martial Arts as child, we grew up only knowing progress.
We trained hard, we pushed ourselves, we competed and in return we developed real physical ability. The kind that grows self-confidence, making us feel like we can take on the world and making us appear almost super human to those who have never stepped onto the mats.
I remember as a young teenager how I would get knocked about a lot by the bigger adult students in sparring on a regular basis. Although this put me off at times, it never stopped me from turning up. I saw it as a rite of passage I had to get through so that I could learn to handle it.
This culture of hard sparring, coupled with me filling out and developing as a martial artist, led to me starting to turn the tables on some of my older contemporaries. Looking back now I can see that these were the adults not competing, not training as regularly as I was (as a teenager with no commitments and an obsession with Martial Arts, I literally lived in the gym) or just simply those who were a lot older i.e. forties onward.
At the time though, I remember my teenage, hormone led ego coming to the fore. I would actively look to be on top in sparring, justifying it by the fact that they were older, this was how it was supposed to be and was in complete reciprocation to the treatment I had previously received.
I would then begin to wonder how some people could do so badly in training and sparring. Surely as adults, they should be better than me at every turn. Those that could hold their own got my respect. Those that couldn't were internally labelled by me as being inadequate, lazy, uncommitted and obviously not worthy of their black belt (or whatever grade they happened to wear). Empathy was not my strongest character trait when I was younger I have to admit ha ha!
Being in Primary school in the late eighties and Secondary school in the early nineties, I did not have access to the internet, google or social media. As such, my addiction to all things Martial Arts related was restricted to films, TV, books and the odd magazine of that era.
One of the common threads through them all was how age brought mastery of the Martial Arts. Old monks in Chinese temples facing off against armies of marauding warriors, wise caretakers with a background in Karate were facing off against gangs of attackers and masters would ALWAYS outshine their young students or prodigies.
I grew up believing that if you trained Martial Arts constantly throughout your life, you would end up some kind of death defying ninja of epic proportions.
Being around my instructor (in his twenties at this time and competing at world level) and a huge assortment of other high level practitioners did not do anything to dissuade me from this fact.
They could do things that were the same as those I watched in amazement on screen, thus forever solidifying their status as real life heroes to aspire towards in my eyes.
Fast forward to present day and whilst age / consistent training has not led me to the kind of godlike ability I had envisioned, it has however given me the experience to question what had actually been my social conditioning from being young with regards to never ending progression in Martial Arts.
For a couple of years now I have been wanting to do a documentary called "After the Applause fades - When Fighters have no Fight". As the name suggests, it's main topic would be to find out what elite level fighters from past generations are doing with themselves now that their competitive career has come to an end. It is not uncommon to hear in the news about world class athletes from any sport suffering from mental health issues such as depression and anxiety once they no longer have something to train for.
I of course knew of people within the Martial Arts / Combat Sports community who were having the same problems. However, I also knew of others who seemed to transition to other roles and/or the next period in their life in a much more successful way. Hence my interest in the subject.
Why do some people seem to not be able to let go of their competitive era, whilst others manage to adapt and use their not insubstantial energies in other positive ways?
The Psychology of Martial Arts
There is a great book called "The Power of Habit" by Charles Duhigg that talks about the fine line that runs between habits and addictions. It makes note of numerous scientific studies that show how the mind/body does not distinguish between whether these are positive or negative.
Therefore, it is not difficult to imagine then, that a fighter or athlete who has been training for most of their life, with numerous fights/competitions and titles to their name, will potentially have something of an addiction to training, success, adulation, adrenaline or all of the above.
When this individual "retires", whether by choice or by being forced to by injury, huge voids will often open up screaming to be filled. The positive habit of training can then be replaced with any of a number of negative ones. An addiction to alcohol, food, drugs or one of a myriad of other less than pleasant activities can then become the new norm.
Life long Martial Artists, and especially those who have competed at the highest level, are often guilty of wrapping their self worth in with their ability and success. Thus, any dive in form or a competitive loss can bring about a period of reduced self-esteem.
As written in a recent article on the Atlantic, "Abundant evidence suggests that the waning of ability in people of high accomplishment is especially brutal psychologically". It is clear to see then the potential for problems when these individuals age and come to a point where they are no longer capable of the kind of physical performances they once were.
Different Martial Arts / Combat Sports will get hit at different points dependent on the physical movements required to take part in them, both at a competitive and recreational level.
Those that involve dynamic movements such as striking have a lower threshold for successfully competing past the mid to late thirties (think Muay Thai, Boxing or MMA), whilst those in a predominately grappling sport (such as BJJ) may well be able to continue without major set backs into their forties/fifties and beyond (albeit in age specific brackets).
Internal arts (such as Tai Chi) are non competitive and thus not in the same category as they place more emphasis on health than they do on testing oneself physically.
No one wants to admit this decline, as to admit it means to look closer towards our physical end i.e. death. But, there is no escaping it. Time is not limitless. We will not be able to continue making physical gains year in, year out in our Martial Arts.
There will come a point when we have hit our physical peak, and anything beyond that is just slowing down the descent. If this sounds depressing, it obviously can be if you cling onto the need for it as you get later on in life.
However, I truly believe that is where the Martial Arts has it's distinct advantage over most over activities, sports and professions in the world. The whole ethos of how we learn is built on the foundations of the past.
Who we are today is a distinct representation of who has taught us. Whilst ageing may impact our physical ability to perform, it does nothing (until the very end at least) to our ability to communicate and pass our knowledge on to others.
Whilst anyone with good physical attributes can be taught how to strike or put on a submission relatively quickly, it takes years of experience to understand the nuances behind it for optimum success. This time cannot be cheated. There are no short cuts to it. This is where an older Martial Artist or coach has the edge.
Black belt dan grades in Karate for example are often tested for the first 3 dans, and then beyond that, they are supposed to be measured with regards to how much each individual has given back to others.
Thus, in order to become hit less by the decline of our physical ability in Martial Arts as we age, we need to accept when this period of our life is coming to an end.
This does not mean we stop training, nor does it mean we stop striving to be the best that we can. It does not even mean we have to stop competing (if that is what we enjoy and there is a specific way in which we can still successfully do it).
It simply means we no longer tie our self worth in with our physical performances or competitive successes in order to feel of value. Being of service to others through coaching is of course one way to go.
It could also mean leaving Martial Arts altogether and finding another field in which to make a positive contribution. One thing is for sure though, we need to know when to jump from this particular ship.
Otherwise we risk constantly comparing ourselves to our peak, being bitter towards younger athletes moving into our "spot" and ruing our place within the world now that we are no longer atop that particular podium.
What those old films did get right most of the time then was with regards to their portrayal of the aged master as an individual not concerned with worldly trappings, the thoughts of others or the need for platitudes reaffirming their status as a success in the world.
They had evolved past that point. Maybe they are not the worst role models in the world then....
"Unhappy is he who depends on success to be happy" - Alex Dias Ribeiro / Formula One Driver
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