An analogy that has been used to describe training in the martial arts is that of climbing up a spiral staircase. The point of this comparison is that martial arts training will often circle back to previous basic techniques; however, the martial artist continues to move higher and higher up the stairs of growth and achievement each time they return to those techniques. You don’t learn the techniques and then advance past them to new things, but instead you build upon the foundation of these basic kicks, punches, and blocks to make them stronger, faster, more precise, and more efficient. You may circle back to these basics regularly, but each time you are always climbing higher and reaching new heights.
The downside to this “circular staircase” of advancement is that it might lead to some students feeling bored from the repetitive nature of practicing the same things over and over. As students reach higher levels, the amount of new techniques to learn may get smaller and smaller and some of the excitement and joy from learning that next special new move may fade away as they become few and far between. The lack of new techniques may also lead some students to assume they have learned everything they need to know and may result in some complacency in their training. They may assume that they have practiced the techniques enough that they know them now and do not need to think about them anymore. This can lead to mindless practice that feels like work, rather than a fun, challenging expression of their art.
I was thinking about this idea the other day when I recalled an early memory I had about starting tae kwon do almost 25 years ago. It was an outdoor class at a park in early summer. I had only been in the class for a couple of months and was wearing my brand new uniform (somehow it always seemed like we would go outdoors to train whenever I got a brand new, clean uniform). I remember there were a small group of 5 or 6 of us, and my instructor wanted me to train on my own with inside swing kick, which I had just recently learned. I kept practicing it over and over in front of a bush while the high belts worked on more advanced techniques. I was still pretty out-of-shape and uncoordinated at the time, so I was a little frustrated that I couldn’t seem to get the hang of the kick. My balance was off, the kick didn’t swing across smoothly in a high arc like I had seen my instructor do it. However, despite my difficulties, I clearly remember a strong feeling of joy that I experienced trying to figure it all out. It was like receiving a puzzle as a gift and I was enjoying the challenge of working through my new puzzle piece by piece.
Eventually I put it all together and learned that kick, along with many other basic kicks, which I have practiced over and over again thousands of times over the last few decades. After a while the kick just became something that I would do as a warm up and not think too much about. Recently I have been researching and reviewing many of these basic kicks to explore some of their nuances. I’ve been reading various books and watching different videos on basic kicks and their many variations, and I have enjoyed finding small nuggets of information that offer insight into applications or provide useful training cues that can enhance my kicks. I also tried to change things up a few weeks ago when I was training in my garage and randomly decided to do a spinning inside swing kick as fast as I could ten times continuously. It was fun and challenging, and at the end it put a smile on my face. It reminded me of that same sense of enjoyment at practicing the inside swing for the first time at that park so many years ago.
It is not always easy to keep finding joy in your training. Training can sometimes be a tiring, boring slog that just feels more like a job than something that you love to do. My advice is to take a step back every so often and find something new to explore to elicit that sense of joy and wonder that you experienced at the start. Maybe you break down and analyze techniques you already know and look for details you can appreciate and improve on. Maybe you investigate and attempt variations on your techniques that come from other martial arts styles. Maybe you take something you already know how to do and add personal challenges to it (e.g. kicking higher, faster, stronger, or with better control). Each time you go around the staircase to return to what you’ve learned before, look for a new challenge or nuance in those basic techniques that can bring you joy, inspire your training, and keep you moving up step by step to your next level.