My Tai Chi Instructor, Sifu Robert Brown, used to ask his student this question; ‘What if this, right now, was as good as you were ever going to get? Would you still continue with your training? Would you be happy to keep on doing the training, the hard work if you knew there was going to be no more external recognition, and that there was going to be no progress, that this was it. Would you still train?’
Sifu Brown had good reason to ask this question of his students, as in his case this was not hypothetical, this was a real question that he had to consider his answer to, not once but several times in the course of his Martial Arts training. Sifu Brown was born with Cerebral Palsy and Dyslexia, and at different times in his training, it truly seemed as though he might have come to the end of his progress, that his physical high point had been reached and he could go no further.
At this time, he considered very carefully what he should do about his training, and fortunately for everyone, he came to the conclusion that he loved the practice of the Martial Arts, and that even when he was convinced that he would not improve any further, he would still practice at the level that he could, and would still be a Martial Artist. To put that another way, perhaps it is better phrased that he could not stop being a Martial Artist.
However, this experience that he had with being confronted with his own physical limitations taught him a vary valuable lesson, that it is the Martial Arts that he values, not any rank, or progress, simply the fact of participating in classes, being involved in the art, and this is what he tries to share with his students when he poses the question, ‘Would you still train, if you knew that this was as good as you were ever going to get?’
For me, I found my answer to this question a couple of different times, the first one when I was a Yellow Belt student. At the time, Gradings were held at my school every 3 months, so if you missed a grading, you had some time to wait before you would have the next chance to progress. At that time in the school, there were no Tips on Belts, and students were personally invited by the Instructor to attend a Belt Exam when the Instructor thought the student was ready.
As a Yellow Belt, I trained with 4 other students who had all started around the same time as me, and we were all on Yellow Belt together. A Grading was coming up, and it was getting closer and none of us had been invited to the Exam yet. We had all been training hard and consistently, so we were hoping to get invited to the Exam.
Finally, one of us, not me, came up with a plan to ask our Instructor whether or not we would be ready to do the Exam. Someone, the person who was picked to do the actual asking was me. This was a very nerve wracking experience. To ask for something you really wanted, but to ask for it in such a way that it was clear you meant no disrespect by the asking. I was nervous. After class I stayed back with a few other the other students, who were chatting as the class finished. I walked over to the Instructor, who was talking with another student. I looked back to my fellow Yellow Belts, who all made encouraging gestures towards me, but with equally nervous expressions on their faces.
At last, I asked the question, ‘Do you think that we (gesturing to the other Yellow Belts who were all waiting in a group) will be ready to do the next Belt Exam?’ My Instructor looked at me, looked at the other Yellow Belts, and said ‘No, not this time’. So I thanked him and walked so quickly it was practically a run back to the other Yellow Belts to tell them we were not going to be Grading this time.
As we were walking out of class, one of the Yellow Belts said, ‘ Well, if we are not testing this time, I am going to take a week off, and I’ll start training again after the Grading is over.’ Another of the Yellow Belts nodded, and I thought about the idea for a second, and it just didn’t make sense to me, because then you would miss out on your training. Why on earth would you stop just because of a Belt?
So a very unexpected sequel to that story is that the very next class after this incident, our Instructor was watching us in the class, and at the end of the lesson came up to us and said, actually, you guys are more ready that I realised, you can Grade at this next Grading.
We did Grade, and unfortunately, the other student who had taken the time off never did return to his training. To this day I have no idea whether that was a lesson that our Instructor took the chance to teach us, or if we simply put the idea in our Instructors’ head that perhaps we were ready. In any case, it was the first time that cemented in my mind that training in the Martial Arts is a core part of who I am, and that Belts and progress is a bonus, but not the main reason that I train in the Martial Arts.
So, take thechance to consider your answer to the question, would you still train if you knew that you were not going to progress any further? Or perhaps consider this, what is your reason for training? If you have an answer to this, it can help you keep going through those times when it does feel as though you are not progressing, or bring recognised for your work, and accept that sometimes nothing but time will get us to the places we are going.