If you train long enough, you come to realize that the primary value of training in the martial arts isn't physical.
Yes, yes, what we do requires a certain level of physical skill. Being physically fit and developing physical traits, such as moving smoothly, having good balance, being limber, etc. are at the heart of the martial arts.
But honestly, it doesn't take THAT long to get good at those physical traits. If we even want to get technical, if we go with the strictest "martial" sense, heck, it doesn't really take very long to learn how to be effective in a combat situation. Generations of men going into the military services have proved this.
So why bother training beyond what is strictly necessary to win a fight or survive a violent encounter with a bad guy? Especially if you don't have a job that requires being put in situations where violence is likely (like law enforcement or security)?
Isn't there an upper limit to how well a person can punch or kick, or to the utility of learning to use tools that don't resemble anything you'd have around you in real life (like sai)?
Because after a certain point, what we do moves beyond physical skills and into the realm of training the mind.
You learn to understand larger concepts, you learn how to think a little bit ahead versus an opponent, you have enough experience to connect all these things together. With enough experience, you learn how to spot the holes in your game and in the game of other people, and how to cover for the weaknesses in yourself, or exploit the weakness in others.
That's a mental thing, not a physical thing.
Having only started training in 2008, I don't claim that I have the same level of understanding or vision or mental acuity of someone with decades training. I certainly don't. But I do understand enough to recognize what's happening, and to spot it in other people.
Let's take speed.
Ever seen someone who is fast in sparring? I mean REALLY fast? Part of that is physical, but you know that the foundation of really and truly being fast is the mental game. He or she has trained enough that they know what to do in certain situations. They already have a plan and execute it without having to think hard about it. That's what being fast REALLY is.
How does this help us off the mat?
I absolutely believe that training into old age helps a person keep mentally sharp and engaged in the world, which contributes to our quality of life.
I also think that training helps me better anticipate things in my work and my home life. I'm a marketing analyst by trade, and being good at learning to spot weaknesses and flaws, and to think and plan ahead helps me be better at what I do.
Martial arts training makes you feel good emotionally, too. When I'm regularly training I'm calmer, happier, and I sleep better at night.
This is part of what we're talking about when we say that black belt rank is just the beginning of training in the martial arts. It's not about collecting techniques and calling it a day. It takes a long time - and repeated practice - to train the mind in this way.
It's why martial arts training can last the rest of your life, and maybe make your later years better and healthier than they might have been.
But hey, don't take my word for it.
From " Martial Arts and Mental Health":
"Evidence of the effectiveness of martial arts in producing affective, cognitive and behavioural benefits has come from a number of studies. Improvements in self-esteem (Fuller, 1988), a more positive response to physical challenge (Richard and Rehberg, 1986; Trulson, 1986), greater autonomy (Duthie, 1978), emotional stability and assertiveness (Konzak and Boudreau, 1984) and reductions in anxiety and depression (Cai, 2000) Zen in the garden by Eolehave all been associated with martial arts training. Konzak and Boudreau (1984) have also drawn attention to the social benefits of such behavioural change – in particular the relationship between martial arts practice and aggression."
So there you go. It's science.
Have you noticed martial arts training affecting your thinking in your career or other parts of your life? How? Let us know in the comments!