Human beings have a remarkable ability to overcomplicate things; I’m not sure if this is a recent phenomenon or it has been going on since we were hunting animals with spears. Whatever the answer, most of the overcomplicating I have seen since I started actually thinking about such things is done by people that don’t want to put in the most important thing in any endeavour – deliberate practice.
Deliberate practice is hard. It can be boring, painful and often unfulfilling. I think back to my first couple of formative years in judo and the above statement is absolutely true. I was training 4 nights a week with many people that were far better than I was (many at the international level), I watched them with their perfect throws and the ability to pull them off at high speed with fully resisting opponents. Me on the other hand, I got thrown pretty much non stop for the better part of 2 years. I was one of the few less experienced judoka to turn up to fight nights, so I spent half the time looking up at the cieling, and the other half actually getting back up. I couldn’t even get the grip I wanted on most of these people, let alone unbalance or throw them. I remember as an orange belt fighting with a visiting Japanese university judoka – by the end of the 5 minutes I had been thrown so many times I could barely pick my sorry ass up off the floor.
That deliberate practice, that hanging in there when it sucked, that has made me what I am today. I am no world or even national champion (considering how late I started in life, that wasn’t really a possibility), but right now I train with former and current international judoka – and I can more than hold my own. This is a pretty big deal for me. Most (in fact almost all) of the people I started with, they quit a long time ago. The effort to get past the initial stage was just too much. We have a similar guy at my club right now. Only 16, and for the past two years because of his size, he has been fighting with the men. That entire last 2 years he has spent getting his ass whooped by grown men who fight at the highest level. He should be utterly demoralised by now, but he just kept coming back. You could tell how hard it was for him; he was often angry and frustrated and in his eyes there was clearly no light yet at the end of the tunnel. But he just kept turning up, kept training, kept fighting.
And something unremarkable happened. I say unremarkable because it should be completely expected – he got stronger, he got better, and now he’s a pain in the ass to fight. The only remarkable thing about it is that he didn’t give up. He’s now going to international tournaments and he isn’t even close to his peak yet, that won’t come for another decade. He is the living embodiment of one of the great judo sayings: “seven times down, eight times back up”.
If mine and other’s judo experience has taught me anything, it is to just keep turning up. In any endeavour you choose, I’m confident the statistics would show that 90% (I’d estimate) of people that take it up will quit. Simply by never quitting you will one day be in that top 10%. Work a bit harder and you will be even better. To get there though, you have to put in the work. You have to turn up when you don’t want to, you have to train when you are going through the rough patches and getting belted, you have to keep training when it feels like you aren’t improving at all.
I got asked not so long ago at what point judo becomes easier. All I could answer was that it doesn’t. Sure, you get to a point where learning new techniques is no longer difficult because your body just knows how to move, but you’re always going to have trouble. There’s always a throw you just won’t be able to get how you want it, you’ll have opponents that are always better than you, and as you age fighting takes its toll on the body much more. Like many things in life, judo is a perishable skill – if you stop doing it you’ll lose your edge. It’s not like Neo in The Matrix where you all of a sudden have a moment of clarity and everything becomes easy for you. You have to keep turning up.
This isn’t just about judo either, it is just a great example of the point I’m trying to make. It holds true for any skill that requires work. There are no shortcuts, there are no great epiphanies, it’s all about practice, practice, practice.
Just keep turning up.