Realistic Expectations for Your Martial Arts Training

We’ve all seen Star Wars. Luke Skywalker, fresh off Tatooine, after just a few minutes of training with Obi-Wan Kenobi, gets into an X-wing fighter for the first time in his life. He turns off the targeting computer, trusts his feelings, and blows up the Death Star.

Local comedy author David Wong (also known as Jason Pargin) derides a similar plot in the original Karate Kid movie—Mr. Miyagi pulls a reverse Tom Sawyer, training Daniel in karate by making him perform routine household tasks. After a few days or maybe weeks of working around Mr. Miyagi’s home, Daniel wins the local karate tournament by defeating a series of experienced black belts who had tormented him.

If such films inspired you to take karate, jujitsu, aikido, or another martial art, read Wong’s great essay, where he criticizes The Karate Kid for encouraging ridiculous expectations for success in American culture. The Karate Kid and similar films create what Wong calls effort shock in viewers. To wit: Real-world experience can crush people when it fails to parallel the ease with which movie characters master extraordinary skills.

Such people may not begin martial arts training with realistic expectations.

Yes, you can turn just about anything into a martial arts training exercise, from washing dishes to painting fences. Yes, positive thinking can yield positive results. Yes, people can overthink problems that our guts or instincts have evolved to solve.

All that is true—to a point.

Most real-world success, however, starts with long hours of hard work—but working hard while working wrong will not produce success. You need to develop good technique, too, whatever art, activity, or skill you want to master, whether it’s karate, painting, playing the guitar, or a trade like plumbing.

All of the mysticism in the world will not overcome the time, effort, and attention to detail that others have invested in their arts, skills, or professions. As a character says in one of David Wong’s novels, “Work looks like magic to those unwilling to do it.”

The real world works more like the Harry Potter scenes where Hermione spends hours in the library or Severus Snape forces our hero to practice his spells, over and over, pushing Harry to perfection, excoriating even the smallest mistakes as deadly.

Or think of the scenes in The Empire Strikes Back where a sweat-soaked Luke trains relentlessly, running through the swamps of Dagobah with Yoda strapped to his back. Despite all of that training, Luke loses badly to a superior opponent. Of course, he learns from his failures, resumes training, and improves. People, however, may fail to absorb the contributions of Luke’s hard training to his success, ascribing it instead to inbred talent, destiny, and a connection to the mystical—if they think that deeply about that science-fiction fairytale at all.

Many karate students will tell you how much they enjoy the training and camaraderie they develop with each other. They appreciate the results karate training brings them, from improved physical fitness and proficiency with self-defense skills to better strategic thinking capabilities and personal growth.

The best and most insightful students, however, will never tell you the way is easy or that improvement comes quickly. They will tell you about the hours—and years—of constant repetition of calisthenics and technical drills to build strength, speed, agility, precision, and correct muscle memory. They will tell you about the difficulties they learned to fight through. They will discuss the endless quest to learn new skills and improve old ones.

Don’t let the prospect of hard work scare you away from starting karate or another martial art. Most things worth doing are difficult, after all. If you find karate training easy, you’re probably doing it wrong.

Instead, find the right martial arts program for you and start your training with realistic expectations about the hard work you will need to invest—and the knowledge that such effort, and only that effort, can yield substantial returns for you.