It’s inevitable! There is no way around it. The feeling that you’re not improving, and that you’re stuck at your current ability is one that you will experience many times during your karate journey. So if you ever feel like you’re not improving, then that makes you normal.
Sadly, it is a feeling that becomes too much for some karate-ka who drop out as a result of it. As karate is a ‘Way of Life’ the lesson is to work through and grow from our challenges rather than submit to them.
It’s important to understand that sometimes this feeling is a reflection of the truth – that you are genuinely not improving. However, more often than not, it’s merely our perception, caused by our continuous focus on our flaws.
So what do we do about it?
1. Put It All In Perspective
With any journey, it’s important to occasionally stop and take stock of how just far you have come:
- Think back to your very first class, a nervous student entering the dojo for the first time, trying to grasp even the simplest of techniques.
- Think of the first time you tried to learn first kata and struggled with the turns.
- Think of your first grading (the first rung on the ladder to black belt).
- Think of the first time you put your mitts and pads on and sparred.
Regardless of how much of a plateau you feel you have hit, or how ‘hopeless’ you think you are at karate, in the context of your overall journey, you have made progress, learnt new skills, overcome your fears of even starting karate, and are on track for great things!
During those moments where you feel you are not improving, it’s important to put it all in perspective and see just how far you have come.
2. Milli-meters, Not Miles
Have you ever played sports like tennis or golf? A tennis player might find that every time they aim for a winner down the line, the ball lands two feet out of court, and they lose yet another point. They begin the think they are hopeless at tennis and maybe they should quit. A golfer might find a similar experience where they constantly hit the ball into the rough while their partner constantly lands on the fairway. What is interesting to note is that the difference between consistently hitting the ball in or out is about a 2 milli-meter difference in the angle of the racket. In golf, connecting with the ball where your club is just 2 milli-meters off on the wrong angle and the ball may end up 40 meters off course.
This same principle applies to most sports. Whether it be shooting a basketball or kicking a football, just one or two milli-meters off and the result can be a complete misfire.
Karate is no different. A student might feel they are miles away from getting the hang of a technique or kata yet the reality is, they are only one or two milli-meters off.
Remind yourself of this when you are in the thick of it, when it seems like you are in a dark tunnel and cannot see light at the other end. Don’t start telling yourself “I’m hopeless”. Don’t start saying things like “I will never get it!”. Instead, tell yourself, “I’m only a milli-meter away from a breakthrough”. This will give you the confidence to push on.
3. Don’t Just Compare Yourself To Perfection
One of the best things about karate is that it’s a search for perfection. In a world where near enough is good enough, we enter the dojo and make a commitment to excellence. We strive for perfection in our attitude and ability. Therefore we constantly compare ourselves to perfection. When someone tells us, for example, that we have a great ‘Back-leaning stance’ we then reply with “Thanks, but my horse riding stance is hopeless”. In other words, we focus on our imperfection.
But it’s not just ourselves who compare us to perfection. When our instructor views our training, regardless of how good we are and how far we have come, they always have something to correct us on (because they are comparing us to our absolute potential… perfection). Despite the positives of seeking perfection, there is one pivotal problem with it… it’s 100% unattainable.
In other words, we are chasing something we will never achieve. This is the life-long journey that a karate-ka embarks on, chasing the impossible dream. It’s their gift (because aiming high results in exceptional attitudes and abilities) and it’s their curse (because they will never achieve their goal).
It’s important to understand that while you always aim for perfection, you can’t always compare yourself to it. If you do, you are in for an endless supply of criticisms. Instead, learn to compare yourself to how good you were last week, last month, last year.
When you stop focusing on your imperfections, on your flaws, on how far you have to go, and start comparing yourself to how good you were last month, you can start to identify the small improvements you are indeed making on a monthly basis.
For example, if your ability is a 6/10. Don’t focus on how far you are away from 10/10, focus on how 6/10 is better than 5/10, while aiming towards 7/10.
The kata Bassai-dai, as an example, is 37 counts long. Your instructor might give you 5 things to fix. You focus on how bad you are at 5 things. But you also need to realise therefore that you are doing 32 moves well.
4. Understand How Expectation Flows With Ability
Throughout your karate life you will have an endless see-saw battle of expectation and ability. First there is expectation. We have an expectation of what we want to be able to do. Because we cannot do it just yet, we feel hopeless. But over time we work hard and develop the ability, and for this short period we feel empowered with our training.
However, this joy is short lived because very soon our expectation rises again. And because we are not at the standard of our expectation, once again we feel hopeless. So we work hard and soon our ability catches up with our expectation. The result? We feel empowered again! But sure enough, our expectation grows again and the cycle continues.
When you understand this ongoing see-saw battle you begin to appreciate why you have regular intervals in your karate life where you feel as though you are not improving. The reality is, providing you are training with focus and intensity, you will always be improving.
5. Identify The Real Culprit
While we feel poor about our entire karate ability, if you were to really think about your training and dissect it into smaller components, it’s likely just one or two areas of your karate are bogging you down emotionally. It might be one section of your kata, or your fitness etc. A karate-ka will often say “it’s my kata”. But its unlikely its the entire kata, rather a small section, even just one particular technique. Once you can identify the real culprit you can set about a plan to overcome it.
6. Increase Your Intensity
Sometimes the best solution is to simply work harder. The body conditions itself to struggle very quickly. For example, when you start an exercise program, for the first few weeks you wake up the following day with sore muscles. Soon after you still struggle through the routine but you no longer wake up sore. And soon after again, you don’t even struggle through the routine. You haven’t slackened off, your body simply conditioned itself to the routine.
The only way to ensure you keep making physical progress is to continue to push your comfort zone. By doing this you keep putting your muscles through struggle, and as a result they react to this by becoming stronger, faster, fitter etc.
If fitness is holding you back, it’s time to put more effort in during class – you need to ask more of yourself. If faster, snappier techniques are holding you back, then you can only develop fast-twitch muscle fibres by pushing your muscles harder as time passes. If confidence is holding you back, working harder and seeing physical growth helps enormously with self-confidence.
This might involve:
a) Getting to class early and start warming up at higher intensity.
b) Staying back after class to practise kata, kumite, conditioning like push ups etc.
c) Working to get lower in your stances (including during kumite).
d) Staying down in your stances for longer periods.
e) Pushing yourself harder through every section of class, ensuring you are not pacing yourself.
7. Increase Your Frequency
Apart from training harder, training more frequently is another way to develop better technique, physical strength, speed, coordination and especially endurance.
The less time you have between training sessions the sooner you will develop the correct muscle memory for a technique or kata.
Training more often can mean getting to another class or two during the week or even training at home.
8. Learn A New Skill
Sometimes spending extra time, energy and focus on a particular area of difficulty doesn’t help. It seems the more you push the more your body resists. When this occurs, it’s time to let it go for a while and come back to it later. It’s like writers block, the more the writer tries to find the right words the more they draw a blank. But to walk away and come back later, relaxed and with a fresh perspective, words suddenly flow.
How long you let something go depends. You might leave it alone for a week, or maybe two. Perhaps even a month. It’s your decision to gage – depending on how much frustration and challenge it is causing.
During these times, switch your focus to learning a new skill. This achieves the following:
Learning a new skill gets you out of the mental rut and gives you something new and exciting to focus on. It brings the passion back. The new skill can be something only you decide. It has to be something that will excite you. Things might include:
- Developing your high kicks.
- Developing foot sweeps.
- Developing your application for techniques and kata.
- Applying bunkai and kata principles into kumite.
- Learning a new kata.
ii) Learning a new skill relieves boredom. Similar to the point above, it suggests that our mental rut is not caused by frustration but rather boredom. When students become bored they switch off mentally, meaning they stop pushing their comfort zones and stop focusing on what they are doing – which welcomes in new bad habits. Learning a new skill relieves the boredom which in turn brings back their focus and intensity.
iii) Learning a new skill challenges your coordination, therefore it develops your overall coordination. And while this new skill’s movements might be in complete contrast to the area you are struggling with, the fact that your body got a handle on a new skill often means it will come back to the area it struggled in and perform it more easily.
iv) Learning a new skill challenges your muscles in new ways. This challenge will develop your over all speed, strength and endurance. All this will help when you come back to your area of struggle.
9. Strive To Improve Your Physical Self:
The mind and body are very much intertwined. When the body is feeling strong and fit, the mind follows suit. You have likely heard the saying “Healthy Body, Healthy Mind”.
There are times where the best way to help you overcome a feeling as though your karate is not improving is to focus on improving your physical self.
Getting faster, fitter and stronger can greatly help to transform your overall karate ability and feelings about your karate.
You can achieve this by:
- Training regularly at home.
- Starting a fitness program (eg, sit ups, press ups, cycling, swimming, weight training, running etc).
- Eating more healthy.
There are many articles to help you with this in the Articles section of this website. Click on the ‘Health’ category.