A Lesson Learned

If you ever wonder what I do when I am not training or waxing philosophical on a mat, here is one thing I do in what little spare time I have: write. If you read this blog, you already knew that. I write for local newspapers and magazines as well as research papers for graduate school. I recently had a piece published in Deep South Magazine that is deeply meaningful to me. It tells of a time when a chance meeting opened my mind to the world around me. Please take a minute to read it if you can. And as always, thank you for being a willing audience.

Here is the link: https://deepsouthmag.com/2019/07/25/a-lesson-learned/

Pull the trigger and eat the frog.

Judo coach Hap Wheeler always has words of encouragement for his students as they maneuver through techniques against unwilling opponents: “Pull the trigger.” I hear him say this phrase in my head often when I hesitate to do something. My last post was about fear and how to use it to do new things and learn new ideas. That often means pulling the trigger and getting over the fear.

One of the most valuable principles of Judo is “consider fully; act decisively.” That’s the essence Hap is getting at with his students. It’s the same sentiment Yoda shares with young Luke Skywalker: “Do or do not; there is no try.” We cannot give a partial effort to do something and always expect great outcomes. If we do something to its fullest and the result is not what we wanted, at least we have answered the question of “what if.” We have learned and gained experience (knowledge + experience = wisdom).

How do we get over the trepidation of pulling the trigger or acting decisively? One suggestion is to “eat the frog.”

In all of his uncanny wit and sensibility, Mark Twain advised, “If it’s your job to eat a frog, it’s best to do it first thing in the morning, and if it’s your job to eat two frogs, it’s best to eat the biggest one first. “

We tend to let the “frogs” in our lives keep us from doing something. They are often the source of procrastination, hesitation, and fear. Twain’s point with the metaphor is to do the hard thing first. Get it out of the way early in the morning and the rest of the day will be easy.

How can we apply this to the martial arts? Maybe we can get off the couch and work toward losing those extra few pounds keeping us from our ideal weight class. It might be that we sign up for a tournament because we have never tested our skills in the arena. Perhaps we set about learning that last kata keeping us from earning our Shodan (ahem, this is for me).

One area that I have been hesitant to pull the trigger was leaving my comfort zone and starting my own martial arts studio. I have operated my program through a local non-profit for over four years. While it has been good for much of the time, we have outgrown our space and the capacity with which the organization can help. It was time for me to strike out on my own.

I had the want to do so a year ago, but I just couldn’t seem to pull that trigger. After a year of debate, hesitation, and fear, I ate the frog. My new studio, Redemption Martial Arts Academy, will open in August. It has been liberating knowing that whatever happens, I have done the hard part. Yes, there is construction to be done, money to be spent, and the business side of it to complete, but that first step is over.

If you have something holding you back from seeing your dreams become a reality, wake up in the morning, pull the trigger and eat that frog. You will be glad you did.

Are you using your fear properly?

Version 2

“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do, so throw off the bowlines, sail away from safe harbor, catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.” – attributed to Mark Twain

I recently had a friend ask me about fear, how to think about it and handle it. I pondered for a bit and asked myself why we have fears in the first place.

Do children have natural fear? In some instances, yes, particularly as they age into adolescence. One thing I have learned by being the father of a little boy is that they generally are not scared to jump off the top of a slide or run headlong into a flying flip. It never crossed my son’s mind that this might be dangerous. It’s my job to teach him that. So far, he hasn’t hurt himself doing it. He is better at it now than he used to be, so much so that his first gymnastics coach asked where he learned to tumble. “From being a boy with no inhibition.”

Part of being a martial arts instructor (or any kind of teacher) is getting your students to release the fears they have been taught and quit focusing on the “What ifs.” “What if I get hurt?” “What if what you teach disagrees with what I’ve previously learned?” “What if…”

Some people fear uncertainty. Humans tend to be risk-averse. This is an economic term meaning a person is cautious of losing and seeks a safer investment option. Many people would rather not lose than win. That’s not a paradox. You see this in martial arts too. In competition, we may play it safe and not go for a submission or takedowns because we might lose our position or footing. Afraid to fall. Afraid to fail. I recently told a student at my college, “A ship is safer in the harbor, but that’s not what it was built for.” We should never let the fear of the unknown stop us from seeking new things.

We often don’t realize that our fears are merely misguided perceptions. Seneca wrote, “We are more often frightened than hurt, and we suffer more from imagination than from reality.” You might take a step back from whatever is blocking your way and causing your fear. Examine it for what it truly is. Tim Ferris says defining your fears is more important than defining your goals. Those fears may be what is keeping you from obtaining your goals.

Another way to cope with the anxiety caused by fear is to use negative visualization (premeditatio malorum). Think about the absolute worst outcome for a scenario. If it pertains to martial arts, it might be that you break a limb during training (happened to me) or you tear up another student’s knee (also happened to me). In life, it might be that you ponder what would happen if your wife died suddenly of a heart attack or that a drunk driver hit your children. I know this sounds heinous, but by going ahead and processing what you might feel and visualizing the worst cases, you are freer to embrace the adventure and live in the moment. Understanding that life generally happens on the continuum of best case and worst case scenarios, if you prepare mentally for the worst, falling somewhere in the middle is a plus.

One of the most widely realized fears is the fear of death. Are you afraid of dying? Why? I typically look to Stoicism for answers to life, but in the case of death, I will defer to Epicurus. He wrote, “Death is nothing to us.” It is futile to the living because if you are alive, you are not dead. And it is fruitless to the dead because if you are dead, you have cannot care one way or another.

My question is, if death is what stops you in your tracks, perhaps you have not embraced living to its fullest. Marcus Aurelius (back to the Stoics) wrote, “You will give yourself peace of mind if you perform every act of your life as if it were your last.”

I have learned to embrace the uncertainty that drives our fear. I thrive on that chaos, that whirlwind, to use a Biblical analogy. The presence of fear should be an indication of something unknown. If you can harness it and turn it into excitement about learning something new or the potential to overcome an obstacle, it can be a powerful tool. When you step into the ring or on the competition stage, you may lose the match. But if you focus only on winning or losing, you lose sight of a bigger picture: the chance to learn and grow.

What fears are you experiencing? Do they stem from winning/losing? Getting hurt? Dying? What are you doing to use that fear or overcome it?




Jedi Lifestyle: 3 Ways to Use the Force

Other than a few random sheltered individuals, most people know who the Jedi are. Who doesn’t love master Yoda and even have a special place in their hearts for Darth Vader, the Jedi who was led astray by his anger and the dark side?

What if the Jedi were real people? Who might they be? What might they try to teach you? We know levitation and ESP are not currently available and lightsabers are still a few years in the making. I can think of a few teachers who might embody the spirit of the Jedi: Angela Duckworth (Grit), Carol Dweck (Mindset), and lastly, a real-life Yoda, Epictetus (Will Power). Each of these individuals brings an element to the table which is needed to create a successful attitude and mentality.

What is Grit? According to Duckworth, grit is about effort. This includes both Perseverance: working hard even in the face of setbacks; and Consistency: sticking to your goals. Duckworth conducted a study on West Point cadets which demonstrated that the students who ranked higher on her grit scale had the highest GPAs. In her studies, she illustrated that grit has more to do with success than IQ, which is constant over time whereas grit can change.

How can you grow your grit? Duckworth suggests focusing on your effort instead of your talents. We tend to plateau faster if we only work on the things at which we are naturally good. This also plays to the idea that habit overcomes obstacles in our training and our lives. Through consistent practice, there is no technique or skill we cannot master.

To stay the course in our training or in life, we need people who are going to push us to be better every day. Therefore, associate with achievers and radiators instead of drains, to quote a mentor of mine. Seek out and align yourself with the people who will make you better.

Perhaps the most essential element of grit is your frame of mind. Mindset matters most. Remember that. What is Mindset? According to Dweck, there are two kinds:

  • Fixed mindset
    • intelligence and ability are innate
    • avoid challenges and give up easily
    • compare themselves to others
    • do not value criticism or feedback
    • focus on the grade of the assignment
  • Growth mindset
    • ability can be developed through effort
    • seek challenges in the face of failure
    • compare themselves to yesterday
    • criticism or feedback is welcomed
    • focus on learning the material

It is imperative for us to maintain the proper mindset when we begin training. Never say to yourself, “I’m not a math person” or “I will never understand this technique.” That is defeatism and a fixed mindset. Get rid of it.

Ok. We’ve discussed grit and mindset. How do we use the force?

Remember what Yoda said to young Luke: “Beware of the dark side. Anger, fear, aggression; the dark side of the Force are they. Easily they flow, quick to join you in a fight. If once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny, consume you it will…” ― Yoda.

Don’t panic and get angry. That’s the dark side. Focus on what is in your control and on getting the job done. Longtime student of Epictetus and devout Stoic, Jim Stockdale once wrote, “Each individual brings about his own good and his own evil, his good fortune, his ill fortune, his happiness, and his wretchedness.” Regardless of the circumstance or situation, it is up to you to grow your grit and mature your mindset. Stockdale went from being an officer over numerous men to being a prisoner tied to a post in a manner of minutes. His status in life changed, but not his grit or his mindset. Epictetus once said, “Circumstances don’t make the man, they only reveal him to himself.”

What circumstance or trial are you going through today that will help you grow your grit and mindset?

The Books You Read Are Safe…


I had an epiphany the other day: The Neverending Story is an entirely different movie when you are an adult.

I watched it with my kids a while back and they loved it. My son requested it daily for several days afterward. The scene with the wolf scared him slightly, but much like Sebastian, he overcame his fear. There are so many memories from that film for me, but they are framed by what they meant to me as a child. The scenes took on new meaning watching it as an adult.

Atreyu resonates with me as much as he did when I was a child, not because he was cool and carefree, but because he embodies the aspects of liberty, dignity, and responsibility that I cherish as an adult. He, even at a young age, took care of himself on the plains hunting the white buffalo. He didn’t show fear when the darkness reared its ugly head. He walked through the gates of the oracle when older warriors had failed.

The monologue from Rockbiter was lost on me as a child. Now, it nearly breaks my heart. “They look like good, strong hands, don’t they?” he said, as he thought about what his hands couldn’t keep hold of. How often have we pondered the same thing as adults? As martial artists? We foolishly believe muscles, size, or even weapons can protect us when the darkness sweeps across our lives. What Rockbiter lacked, as so many of us do, was the one thing Atreyu had in abundance: the mental fortitude and life experience to overcome even the worst of circumstances. He had developed these as a warrior on the plains.

Another item from the film that stuck out to me as an adult (aside from Sebastian’s dad cracking a raw egg into a glass and drinking it; so 1984) was what the storekeeper told Sebastian when he encountered the book. He said, “Your books are safe. While reading them, you get to become Tarzan or Robinson Crusoe… but afterward, you get to be a little boy again… This book is not for you.”

Ponder that for a second. The books you read are safe. There is no skin in the game. Do they take you somewhere or change your perception of the world? Do they make you more aware of your surroundings? Do they reveal things about you or the world around you that make you pause to remember, reflect, or regret? If the answer is no, then what you are reading is safe.

The same questions apply to your martial art. If your training gives you insights, whether physical, mental, or spiritual, you have a redeeming quality in the art. If the art tests you, takes you the brink of defeat and failure, but also empowers you to press forward, it is a useful art. But if the art in which you train claims to have some esoteric principles or secret physical powers that can beat anyone, yet it has never been proven effective in real life against unwilling opponents, then the art you train is safe.

There can be no development of inner fortitude without pressure, both from outside and within. There is no progress of ability without the diligence of training and dedication to principles. There is no growth without skin in the game. If your art does not require that of you, it is too safe.

We often remember the books and films of our childhood with a smile, but when we revisit them with adult eyes, they can reveal our naiveté about the world. We must consistently evaluate our perception against new experiences and new information. I love The Neverending Story because of its connection to my childhood. Now, I love it because it shows me that change and discovery should be a never-ending process. Perhaps it is time for you to open a different book in your life, one that is not safe, one that pushes your limits.

Book Review – As A Man Thinketh – Reblog

Here is a nice review of a book with Stoic undertones. Both the book and the review are short and sweet.

The One Right Tool

As A Man Thinketh, by James Allen was originally published in 1902.  Though it’s well over 100 years old at this point, the principles of the book still hold.  The overarching theme of the book is – What we fill our minds with, becomes what our lives are filled with.  This review will be a short one, because it’s a short book. More of a collection of seven essays, all related the the same topic.  My copy is only 40 pages.

An interesting analogy used in the book is to relate your mind to a garden that you are in charge of tending.  Would you put seeds from weed plants in with your fruits or vegetables? If you’ve ever actually tended a garden and fought weeds for a season, you’ll pretty emphatically answer that question with a “hard no”.  Just like the garden, we have to work to keep weeds…

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Training through the years.

The Philosophical Fighter with Gustavo Machado, circa 2009.

Joshua Clements with Gustavo Machado in 2009.

This was me as a fresh white belt at my first seminar with Gustavo Machado, my head instructor. As I near ten years on the mat in Jiu Jitsu, plus the many more in Wrestling and Judo, I can’t help but think about this year and what it will be like. I have never tired of learning something new, and it seems the more I learn, the more the small details make the biggest changes in my game. It is not about adding to, but taking away, in the long run.

I started as a writer and progressed to being an editor. They are two different processes. In the former, I have a blank page and have to fill it up much as an artist does with a blank canvas. This is much the same as being a white belt. You grab techniques and put them in your arsenal. Before long, you have so much that the bag becomes too heavy to bear and you must dispense with something to keep going.

Being an editor is more like being a sculptor. You chip away at the inessential to get to the masterpiece underneath. This is where I like to think of my game. I want to unburden myself from the flashy and fancy techniques. Get back to the basics that make all grappling styles efficient. Just something I am dwelling on lately.

7 New Year’s Resolutions for Martial Artists

  1. Commit to being more disciplined

This year, be more disciplined in your training. Jocko Willink said, “How do you become better? There is only one way – The way of discipline.” This might mean doing more reps during class. You might get there early and do solo drills. Make every move count. With every new year, we should realize we are losing time, so make the most of it.

Be more disciplined in your nutrition. This means eating less crap. Less sugar and sodas. Less processed foods and box dinners. Less fast food (even Chic Fil A. It hurts, I know). Drink more water. I am trying to drink a gallon a day. Yes, I have to urinate often, but I feel more energetic. And let’s face it, as we get older, what we digest can be more effective than what we bench press.

Be more disciplined with your fitness. This doesn’t have to be signing up for a gym membership. It could be as easy as taking the stairs instead of the elevator. On your lunch break, go for a walk. Maybe play soccer with your kids for 20-30 minutes a day. Attempt to move more during the day. And don’t forget to stretch.

  1. Commit to being a better training partner

If you want to be a better training partner, one of the best ways is to focus on using proper technical application. Attempt to always us your technique instead of strength, particularly when you are drilling. It is okay to drill with speed when you are doing tournament preparation, but you should never muscle a move to make it work in training.

When you do get to roll or spar in the gym, don’t be a spaz. We know that white belts can be jerky in their movements. What’s worse is when someone with a colored belt spazzes like a new white belt. There is a reason the phrase “dirty white belt” is a thing. After a few times of that, no one will want to roll with you anymore. Most of us have to go to work the next day and don’t want to be injured by some maniac who can’t watch his speed or strength.

Make it a point to support and get to know your training partners as much as you can. This might mean going to watch or coach them at tournaments. It might mean getting together one weekend to watch fights. Getting to know your team will help you understand what each person needs in the room and how he might help you too.

  1. Grow your community

Speaking of training partners, try to spread the love. Don’t train with the same person all of the time. Various partners will offer you a new perspective and challenge you in different ways. Make it a point to reach out to someone new.

Going along with reaching out to new people, try this: Bring a friend. Our martial arts class is not Fight Club, where the number one rule is to never talk about it. Tell everyone you know (that you trust to choke you) and bring him or her to class.

  1. Reflect on your past and contemplate your future

Look back at what you have learned in the last year. What techniques or discoveries, what accomplishments or goals did you realize? Take a moment to be thankful for those moments and the people that helped make them possible. This also might bring to mind a few areas for you to improve in the coming year.

After you have reflected on the past, take a look at what you want to learn this year. It may mean training outside of your comfort zone. If you are a dirty guard puller, try learning one takedown. If you are an evil leglocker, give wristlocks a try (that’s the ultimate evil). Maybe you want to learn to breathe better during a roll. Add a yoga class to your weekly routine. Does your half-guard game need improvement? Start your rolls in that position. Whatever the facet is that you want to learn, plan for ways to make it happen.

While you are dwelling on what you want to accomplish, ask yourself, “Why is this important?” What will it do to improve your life? If you know the answer to these questions, it will help you stay committed to your goals.

  1. Focus on being happy

Be happy to be able to train. I lost several young people in my life last year, including a long-time training partner who was 44. I spoke about and quoted him in an earlier post. He was happy to be able to do anything as his diagnosis progressed. Every day, he was robbed of something else. Epictetus said, “If, therefore, any be unhappy, let him remember that he is unhappy by reason of himself alone. Cherish your abilities and opportunities now. Be happy you have them and don’t squander them.

One great way to be happy is to stay away from negative Nancies. If there are people who are draining you of your joy by being negative, kick them to the curb. They are like sirens lulling you to the depths to be drowned. Find people who are interested in getting things done and align yourself to them. A rising tide raises all boats. We want to stay on the surface of the water and rise with it.

  1. Focus on learning, not winning or losing

This is especially true if you compete. The phrase “you win some or you learn some” fits this scenario. The training room should be a sacred place where losing is not seen as a bad event, but treated as a learning opportunity. That’s why we train: to improve our skill set. Epictetus once said, “A man cannot begin to learn that which he thinks he already knows.” If you are dead-set on winning all the time, not only will you be disappointed when you don’t get the victory, but you will also cease to progress as a student and practitioner.

This might mean you need to change the goal of your roll from tapping your training partner to hitting a sweep consistently. Or it might be that you focus on not getting swept against a person who has a great guard game. Viktor Frankl said, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are forced to change ourselves.” If the goal is unattainable, change it. That brings me to my last point.

  1. Focus less on what others are doing and more on what you’re doing.

I used to watch my teammates and opponents to see what they were doing. And now and then, I wondered what the newest technique on the block might be. The problem with this is that when I focused on other people, I lost sight of my goals, my strengths, my weaknesses. This year, make it a point not to care about anyone else’s new promotion, gold medal, or flashy technique. This is your journey, so you do you.

Happy 2019, everyone.


Quitting: Should I walk away?


Should I quit? A question we often ask ourselves.

Have you ever felt like quitting? Whether it’s a martial art, a marriage, or a job, we’ve all felt like giving up the fight at some point in our lives. So what do we do when we face the temptation to walk away?

Let’s look at why people quit. Some do it because of the stress involved in the activity. Others may stop because of a particular person or an undesirable task. In my martial arts experience, many quit because of family and work obligations. Of course, there are those that drop out due to the training being harder than they expected, but I don’t find that to be the norm for the average participant.

One thing we have to realize about not quitting a hobby or even a passion is that in continuing to engage in the habit, I am giving up the opportunity to do something else. In economic theory, this is called an opportunity cost: forgoing one thing in order to do another.

For some of us, that sacrifice is financial. Giving up a few hours at work to be able to train can mean less money in the paycheck. For others, it could be spending a little less time with family and friends. Giving up that drink at the bar on Friday night can be a good thing. Pawning off your children to an in-law every week to train may have drawbacks long-term.

In contrast, what are the benefits of staying the course and continuing to train or strive at your task? First, no expert ever became such by quitting. We will likely never get good at something if we discontinue doing it. And if we develop a certain proficiency, we generally don’t maintain those skills by neglecting practice.

While walking away from something I have spent nearly a decade pursuing would certainly be tough, years invested is not what keeps me coming back in spite of numerous surgeries, broken bones, dislocations, and constant aches. What kind of sadist would I be if I said I enjoyed those woes?

No, the thing that keeps me tethered to my arts at this point is much the same as what keeps me in my marriage. It’s the relationship. The people I have met and have made an impact in my life are what fasten me to the masthead of this ship, even when the sirens are calling to drag me down. This list of inspiring individuals includes my instructors, my training partners, and now my students. Without them, I am not who I am. Each one has left a mark on my life that I cannot deny. Quitting now would be a slap in the face to all of them.

When I think about staying the course, even when it seems impossible, I remember what Paul wrote to Timothy in the Bible, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.” I want to be able to say that when I am ready to leave this world. Death may win the fight, but I want him to know he’s been in one. The only way to do that is to keep going, stay the course, and don’t quit.


Even Elvis Had a Black Belt

Being the good parent that I am, I recently made my children watch all of the Karate Kid movies (except the one I dub as Kung Fu kid for reasons I might reveal in the future). I hadn’t seen some of them in their entirety in many years. As we watched, it occurred to me that there are numerous incredible sayings in the films. Mr. Miyagi embodies the perfect teacher of both a martial art and how it applies to life.

I never thought much of the fourth film, The Next Karate Kid, with Hilary Swank playing Julie-san alongside Pat Morita as Mr. Myagi. That was until now. My 8-year-old daughter trains with me and I hope I am teaching her in a similar fashion to Mr. Miyagi. Hopefully, she will not be as impetuous as Julie-san.

During one of the exchanges between the two, Julie-san overcomes an obstacle in her training. Here is the dialogue from the scene:

Mr. Miyagi: Congratulations, Julie-san.

Julie: Congratulations? That’s all you’re gonna say is congratulations? Don’t I get a belt or something?

Mr. Miyagi: Buy belt more.

Julie: No, I mean a karate belt. Brown belt, black belt.

Mr. Miyagi: Why need belt?

Julie: So everyone knows I’m good!

Mr. Miyagi: You know you good. That important thing.

Julie: Oh come on, even Elvis Presley got a black belt.

Mr. Miyagi: Borrow from Elvis next time see him.

I’ve witnessed many instances where a student gets a black belt and quits an art entirely, particularly if the rank is awarded to a youth or adolescent. I think that is because the reason the person trained was to get an award, a trophy, or a belt rank, or it could be that her parents made her do it. To generalize this issue to our broader world, where participation trophies are the norm and everyone wants a reward for doing even the slightest of tasks, how can we overcome the idea that we must have justification for our effort?

To answer my question, let’s look at what attaining the coveted black belt means in a couple of styles. In Judo, the first level of black belt is called shodan. It means, “beginning step.” As a practitioner, you have learned enough to display decent technique and you can demonstrate some of it to another practitioner. Nic Gregoriades, a great thinker and applier of martial arts to life, wrote that being a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu gives a person a “fresh set of eyes” to see that although he knows many techniques, there is always room for improvement. He also wrote that the path to black belt should have made you a better person.

If these definitions hold true, then it seems that striving for a piece of colored cloth is a poor goal indeed. Why train so hard and for so long at something if it will not change your life and your mentality? Often in class, I remind everyone to ever be the student. Attaining black belt should be just that, a reminder to ever be the student. It should open our eyes to how little we know and how much more there is to learn. Lastly, we should be at a point in our martial art journey where the principles we learn in practicing our arts permeate our daily lives. Mr. Miyagi was a prime example of this philosophy.

As a caveat, having a black belt does not automatically imply that you are good at your art, as Julie-san thought it would do. If you have not dedicated time and effort to improving your technique, it will not serve you well when that belt is put to the test. Please do not think that having a black belt in any art is instant protection from a willing attacker or opponent. We train to fight so that we can be ready, not so we can be rewarded. Royce Gracie said it best, “A black belt only covers two inches of you’re a** – you have to cover the rest.”

Photo credit: http://www.elvispresleyindex.com.br/2014/05/elvis-e-o-karate.html