There is a common saying that states that “practice makes perfect”. In the martial arts world I have often heard a modified, more specific version of this quote that says “perfect practice makes perfect”. The idea is that simply practicing something will not perfect the skill; instead it is essential to practice the technique or skill with focus, precision, spirit, and intent if you want to master it. If you simply go through the motions practicing sloppy, half-hearted, or incorrect techniques, you will program yourself to perform these skills in a sloppy, half-hearted, incorrect manner. The old saying in computer programming is “garbage in, garbage out” meaning that you can’t expect to enter in poor quality code with errors and expect to have anything but faulty output be the result. The same goes for martial arts training; if you want expertly performed forms for example, you need to practice each move correctly with precision and focus.
While I agree with this idea, I do think it is worth considering that unfortunately life is rarely perfect and many times it is hard for practice to be perfect as well. Many times you may come to the dojang tired from a long day at work, sick from a cold, distracted by a stressor or problem weighing heavily on your mind, or incapacitated by an injury. Although these situations will limit your ability to perform the techniques to perfection, there is much to be gained in each situation.
When you are tired, keep in mind that you can gain energy from those around you in class. The spirit of the instructor and class as a group can be very inspiring and uplifting to help you to boost your mental and physical energy. Practicing when you are tired also teaches you more about how you perform when you are pushed to your limits. Learning to keep pushing yourself when you feel too tired to go on can be an excellent lesson in perseverance.
If you are sick, you should always take care of yourself first and foremost, and you should also be considerate to your fellow students to make sure they do not get sick from being exposed to you. However, if you pass a “neck check” (meaning that the symptoms are above the neck like a headache or slight congestion) you should try to challenge yourself to train despite the illness. You will likely feel better once you get the blood flowing and you may even clear your airways or fix your headache. As with working out when tired, you will also learn what you are capable of doing when you are at less than 100% and will find ways to persevere.
Training while distracted presents another challenge. When you have problems and stressors stealing away some of your limited attention it is hard to fully concentrate on what you are doing. Car accidents, relationship issues, workplace conflicts, deadlines and so on can often take up all our mental focus when we start training. The key is to realize that the all those things can be left at the door of the training hall. You can put your whole focus into kicking, punching, and sparring for 1-2 hours and distract yourself from those many concerns. By necessity a martial artist needs to keep focused to avoid the kick coming toward their head or to make sure they punch the target and not the target holder’s face. Then after practice, when the wonderful cocktail of dopamine, serotonin, norepinephrine, endorphins and other brain chemicals have elevated your mood and lessened your anxiety, you will be better equipped to pick up the emotional baggage you left by the dojang door. You’ll even realize that you now feel more confident, focused, and calm to cope with these stressors.
Of course, probably no issue gets in the way of training at your best like an injury. The pain of the actual injury combined with the need to protect yourself from further damage and the fear of getting hurt again make training a unique challenge. My experience with injuries has been that you must first take the time to heal properly and then get back to training in whatever way you are capable as soon as possible. Be smart about it and do not do anything that risks prolonging or exacerbating the injury, but at the same time, do not let an injury become an excuse to give up. If you are creative and have indomitable spirit, an injury can actually provide a nice challenge to learn from. If you hurt your foot, work on upper body techniques and conditioning. If you hurt your shoulder or arm, focus on kicks, balance drills and leg and core conditioning. If you hurt your back (the worst in my opinion), find ways to strengthen your arms, walk slowly through your forms, and practice rehab exercises to strengthen and stretch your back and core when you are ready. In any case, you will learn how to work around an injury, which can be a valuable skill to learn for a real-world self-defense context. You kick toward an opponent and they crack your 5th metatarsal in your foot with an elbow strike, now what? You get your shoulder dislocated when an assailant puts you into an arm lock, how will you defend yourself and fight back with just one arm? Use your injured condition as a way to train and mentally prepare for these possibilities to strengthen your self-defense skills.
As you can see there are always obstacles that can get in the way of achieving a perfect training session. The key thing to keep in mind for any of these conditions is to keep training with the intention to persevere and to be willing to learn what you can from the experience. If you approach your training with this mindset even a less than perfect practice will be well worth the effort.