10 ways to get good at martial arts (or anything)

Red belt woman performing kneeling Aikido technique (kokyu doza) - 10 ways to get good at martial arts


So, here we are. January and time for New Year’s Resolutions that will be abandoned in a month’s time, if not sooner. But what if you actually want to achieve something? Whether in Aikido, Verbal Aikido, or some other martial arts? Or come to that, anything?

Here are my ten top ways to get good at Aikido (or anything):

1. Turn up

This might seem simple, but it’s my top tip of the 10 ways to get good at martial arts. As the gurus say, you can’t win the lottery if you don’t buy a ticket.

Even if you are a complete klutz, if you keep turning up, something will rub off. It’s like walking through the rain. You will get wet. Before you know it, the moves will become familiar. You’ll find yourself getting better. I see it all the time.

Nothing beats turning up. Again and again and again… Which leads me to:

2. Little and often

It’s tempting to dive in with a big effort. To wait until you can find time for a big course, say. While courses can be good, they only really work if they are part of an ongoing and regular practice.

The problem with the big dive is that it’s only too easy for everything to lapse afterwards. Or worse, you keep saying you’ll do it when you have time. (See below for dealing with procrastination).

The best approach is to find a time and just start. Ideally a regular class – with daily top-ups. When I began Aikido, I took one class a week and each morning I’d run through a few exercises as a pre-breakfast warm-up. It didn’t matter if I got them right or wrong, the flow was the important thing. I still do them.

3. Make it easy

Next, make it easy to go. Get your kit ready beforehand. Remove any obstacles, distractions or other demands on that time. It should be easy, when the time comes, to just walk out the door.

If you don’t feel totally committed to going, ask yourself what’s stopping you? Is it raining? Get an umbrella. Does it interfere with mealtimes? Can you arrange for a snack to keep yourself going? Deal with any problems that come up and clear the path.

4. Take the smallest action

Sometimes just starting can seem a big haul. You have to find the right dojo, find out how to make contact, sort out a time… etc.

One technique I love is to take the smallest possible action. What is the next, very small action you could take? Is it putting Aikido into Google? Or clicking on an email address? Making an enquiry?

One small action is easier to take than a number of big ones, but one small action leads to the next… and the next…

5. Enjoy

Crucial. Find an art or a dojo that you like. Life’s too short not to enjoy what we do, especially in our spare time. A well-taught martial art should be enjoyable.

If you don’t enjoy it, you won’t keep it up, and if you don’t keep it up, you won’t get good at it.

But if you do enjoy it, you’ll keep coming, and you’ll get better. Like it or not.

6. Focus

Once you’re on the mat, decide what you’re going to focus on… this minute, this evening, this week. You might decide to concentrate on your balance, say. Or moving with intention. On remaining calm under pressure, or staying light on your feet.

A well-taught martial art should help you develop a strong power of concentration that will carry over into other areas of your life. You can help this process by consciously deciding on the day’s focus for yourself.

7. Find a good group

While some things can be practised alone, a group will always help you improve faster. The others in the dojo should be friendly and supportive. And you’ll help support them too, as they improve.

8. But don’t worry or compare

Don’t worry if you’re good or not. “Good” is meaningless, unless you know what it is good for. Any technique, however badly performed, is good for helping you improve. While the most perfect technique is useless if it doesn’t lead to greater learning.

And don’t compare yourself with the others. I know it’s tempting. I certainly used to compare myself with others on the mat when I began Aikido, but comparisons are useless. We all start from different places, have different skills and needs.

Interestingly, over time some of the most skilful Aikidokas dropped away, while us klutzes kept plugging away to black belt and beyond. But talking of black belt…

9. Don’t set a goal

This may surprise you, but goals have a way of spoiling the fun. My heart sinks when beginners say they want to become black belts. Because I know they won’t last.

Why? Because they’re not thinking of doing it for the enjoyment but for some imagined end result. After all, a black belt is just a bit of cloth.

If you set yourself goals, you lose your focus. Everything becomes about the future. Which brings me to my last piece of advice…

10. Be in the moment

One reason I love Aikido is that it teaches you to be in the moment. The throw you just performed has gone. The throw you may do in a minute’s time doesn’t yet exist. All that matters is what’s happening now.

Of course, past and future are imaginary. But in everyday life it’s only too easy to believe they are more important than they are.

Aikido brings us back to the reality of the current moment. As should any well-taught martial art. Or indeed just about any activity, well performed.

Whatever you set out to do, good luck. And maybe we’ll see you in the dojo some time. Resolutions or no resolutions.

Read more

A Way to Reconcile the World: Aikido Stories from Everyday Life – Sensei Quentin Cooke, ed

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