Are you using your fear properly?

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“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?

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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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.

 

Enjoy yourself. It’s later than you think.

On vacation at the beach with my family, we decided to take a stroll through an antique store. We do this ritual every year around the fourth of July, so I have seen most of the items in this shop over the last several years. Nothing new to me, but I indulge my curiosity just the same.

Browsing the same cubbies I always do hoping to score a relic of the past that I can’t live without, I stumbled upon a bronze plaque. It looked like it came off of a memorial or a grave of some sort. It had Chinese characters and the words, “Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think” etched onto it.

The words of this Chinese proverb turned international hit song struck me. I am in my mid-thirties now, young by some standards, but nearing elderly if you ask an adolescent. Surely though, I have many more years ahead than behind, so why should I be concerned? Ah, but it is later than I think.

In the last month, I lost a friend who was 31 to cancer. Another young friend, 18 and getting ready to do a triathlon, was hit while cycling with her mother. The sad reality is that we only get this one shot at life and it is a short one.

Seneca, one of the big three Stoics, wrote on the brevity of life. He said, “You must match time’s swiftness with your speed in using it, and you must drink quickly as though from a rapid stream that will not always flow.” A stream that will not always flow. That is a certainty we often fear facing.

The question is what are we to do with our time while it is yet in our hands? A longtime training partner and friend of mine was diagnosed with ALS last year. At one point in our lives, we talked about how to fight human opponents. Now, he is teaching me how to fight the frailty of a fleeting life. In a recent post, he offered a reflection on things we can do to make the best of our time:

  1. Take that walk on the beach. Wheelchairs don’t roll well in the sand!
  2. Hug your family. When your arms don’t work anymore, take advantage of lifting your hands and worship! I really miss this.
  3. Eat that extra piece of cheesecake. Nobody really cared what you looked like anyway… lol
  4. Keep your words sweet. And forgive often.
  5. Call in sick to work every once in a while. When you’re laying on your deathbed, nobody ever says they wish they’d spent more time at work!
  6. Go outside and pet your dog. I think you appreciate that.
  7. Visit someone in the hospital or the nursing home. Even the shut-ins. This is a big one for me
  8. Don’t make a big deal about small things.
  9. Don’t waste time! It’s something you cannot buy back.
  10. Do good things people will remember you for. Not problems you caused.

I often get asked why I continue to put my body through hell in the martial arts arena. It’s because I enjoy it and I may not make it to retirement age. I don’t want to get old and have nothing to look back on with a sense of accomplishment. There is no sense in having wrinkles without a few scars to prove you lived. I will leave you with another of Seneca’s thoughts on the matter: “Often a very old man has no other proof of his long life than his age.” Remember to enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think.

*Roy Cobb, my longtime training partner and friend, passed away November 14, 2018. Go rest high on that mountain, my friend.

Be Prepared for Bad Days That Kick You in the Face

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One night after class, I had a conversation with a student who rarely misses. I mentioned to him about having to cut back on his training in the future if he gets married and has kids. His reply was, “I won’t get married if she won’t let me train three or four times a week.”

While this sentiment displays his determination and passion for our arts, it does not deal with the reality that bad things, and even good things, can take us away from what we love to do. Too often, when these setbacks occur, we are heartbroken and cannot overcome it. Are you equipped to cope with life when it kicks you in the face?

There is a way to prepare for such events. In Stoicism, there is a practice known as premeditatio malorum, or the premeditation of evils. This exercise involves negative visualization. You think about the worst possible outcomes for your day, your week, or any time in the future. By dwelling even in the least bit on the bad things that could happen, you inoculate yourself from the sting should those things occur.

As the story goes, a Buddhist teacher was once known for saying, “This cup is already broken.” He loved the cup, but knew that one day it would shatter, whether by his hand dropping it or it tumbling from the table to the floor. By accepting its fate, he was free to drink without the anxiety of losing the cup.

In my training, I often think of what I will do when I need surgery again (two knee operations and shoulder reconstruction since I began training). I even think about the day I can no longer grip efficiently due to arthritic fingers. What if an illness robs me of my abilities for good? These are just a few scenarios in my life.

Some may think it morbid or depressing to dwell on these things. I find it liberating. It also encourages me to train while I can, to live my life with reckless abandon, because tomorrow is not promised and if it is, it will not be like today.

 

Letting go improves your grappling… and your life.

A couple of months ago, I broke the ring finger on my left hand. Unable to use that hand effectively, I gripped harder with my right. This ended up with me breaking my pointer finger on my right hand. With two bum hands, I had to figure out a way to train safely to let my hands heal.

To keep from gripping and reinjuring my hands, I started grappling with a soft neoprene ball in each hand. This led to a revelation in my training. By not gripping, what I call detaching from my opponent, I was freer to move and more able to defend while in inferior positions.

During the past month of adopting the practice of grappling without grips, I have only been submitted once. I have also noticed my submissions without using the gi have increased. This means more kimuras, more straight ankle locks, and more guillotines. All of these were performed sans grips.

In the grappling world, you cannot do your Jiu Jitsu, Judo, Wrestling or whatever your art is without having a grip at some point, but it should be done on your terms and not in desperation. We often hold onto a grip foolishly because we don’t think we have another option. This ties us to our opponent, for better or worse.

The ancient Greco-Roman philosophy known as Stoicism has the concept of detachment within its practices. This is not to say it takes an absolute approach. It does allow for attachment, but it should be in moderation.

Epictetus, one of Stoicism’s prominent three philosophers, wrote in his Discourses, “It doesn’t matter what the external thing is, the value we place on it subjugates us to another… where our heart is set, there our impediment lies.” He was referring to money and fame, leisure and learning, all things that are good in moderation, but can lead to a wasted life if unchecked or overindulged.

In grappling, that external thing Epictetus speaks of can be keeping a grip we don’t need, or worse, one that can be used against us by a knowledgeable opponent. There are many fundamental movements such as shrimping, tactical standups, and bridging that work better and with less risk if you do not use a grip.

At a seminar with half-guard legend, Roberto “Gordo” Correa, he demonstrated a technique and emphasized using “no grips and no strength.” This concept has become my motto lately and has allowed my training to flourish. I find I don’t muscle my opponents and I don’t get stuck in positions near as bad as I did before practicing detachment.

Give it a try in your art and see how it works. You might also try applying it to your life. If something is weighing you down, or even a person dragging you under with his or her negativity, try detaching from it or them. In the words of Elsa on Frozen, “Let it gooooo.”