Martial Arts with Integrity



Episode 24: How To Be Self Taught


What do you do when you don’t have a teacher? Here is my formula for learning with limited help.

Please subscribe in iTunes or on Android!

Navigating Digital Information by Crash Course
Solo Training Resource List


At-Home Training #7


Hi everyone!

I’m trying something a little different this time. I’ve made a follow-along video available to current students. I will take it down in a few days, so don’t drag your feet on making it to your virtual class. If you think you should have gotten access but didn’t, drop me an email!

Happy training!

Today’s class.


How You Can Learn Absolutely Anything


Usually when you read an article about the martial arts (or any skill for that matter), even if you learn something really useful, it won’t do you much good unless you back it up with a lot of practice.  I can think of one exception, where just having a piece of knowledge by itself puts you in a better place, and that is knowing about mindsets.

success, growth, joy

The main brain behind mindsets is Dr. Carol Dweck, the author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success

Dweck pioneered research where she identified what she calls a “Fixed Mindset” and a “Growth Mindset.”  And while it’s not technically correct to say that a person has exclusively one mindset or the other, it’s useful to think in these terms in order to understand your own learning.

In general, the mindsets come down to a personal belief about whether a particular trait can be improved–whether you see it as an innate part of who you are, or if it is a skill that can be developed.  Most of Dweck’s research was in an academic setting, so I’m going to borrow one of her examples from a math class.

learn, grow, study, academics, classroom
Fixed and Growth Mindsets affect classroom success, too.

What does it mean to be good at math?  No one innately knows the Pythagorean Theorem, but some students will have an easier time learning it than others.  Some students believe that it’s possible to get better at learning math, and others think it has to do with their innate intelligence.  It turns out, which one you believe will have a huge impact on your performance in a math class.

Students who think their ability to learn math is a reflection of their natural intelligence have a Fixed Mindset.  They think that the amount of intelligence you have is an immutable trait.  And since nobody wants to be dumb, they want to prove that they are intelligent by showing that math comes easy to them.  These students are less likely to study, because effort is for people who are too dumb to succeed easily.  They’re also less likely to seek out challenges that might disprove how smart they believe themselves to be, or how smart they want others to think they are.  Failure is devastating for students with a Fixed Mindset.

devastated, failure, sad, fixed mindset
Failure is devastating if you have a Fixed Mindset.

Students with a Growth Mindset, on the other hand, believe that their ability to learn math is a skill that can be improved.  They see effort not as proof of their inadequacy, but just part of getting better at math.  They seek out challenges that will help them learn.  Failure, for students with a Growth Mindset, is seen as a lesson rather than a defeat.

What happens after a failure is especially dramatic.  Students of a Growth Mindset are more likely to work harder after a failure, whereas students of a Fixed Mindset were very unlikely to put in more effort.  They tend to cheat next time, or look for people who performed worse so they could feel better about themselves, or just avoid the activity altogether.  And why should they work hard?  They think their skills can’t improve, so it would be just wasted effort.

We’re very fortunate that martial arts encourages a growth mindset.  If you train in an art that uses a belt ranking system or some other system of grouping students by experience, new students are far less likely to be discouraged by seeing more experienced students perform better.  Nearly everyone can see a trend that the higher belts perform better than the lower belts and conclude that it’s a matter of doing the work and gaining skill rather than innate talent.  Age becomes less of a factor, because in a lot of other pursuits, seeing a young child outperform you can be discouraging.  But if you are a white belt and that child is not, then you hopefully feel less pressure to outperform a younger student if they are significantly more experienced.  Even in arts that don’t have belt promotions or levels or the like, the culture of most martial arts schools is one that holds experience in a high regard. 

Grandmaster Park, Master Carlson, teaching, learn, experience, seminar, Korea
Experience is held in a high regard in the martial arts.

But I still see plenty of examples of fixed mindsets in the martial arts.  I hear things like, “I’m not a natural athlete,” or “I can’t kick with my left leg.  I’m only good with my right leg.”  Or “I don’t have a head for languages.”  Or my favorite, “I’m a visual learner.”  Learning styles will have to be a topic for another day, so for now just know that all of these are things that I’ve heard, or said myself, in a martial arts class.  All of these are examples of accepting defeat that did not have to be accepted.

The good news is, like I said at the beginning of the article, just knowing about the Growth and Fixed mindsets can help you learn.  Just believing that you can improve in something greatly increases your chances of success.  If you can be aware of your mindset, you can be better primed for learning and growing.

When it comes to physical training, most people understand and believe that they can improve.  If you lift heavy weights, you get stronger.  It’s uncomfortable, but if you don’t challenge yourself you won’t improve.  Just like the discomfort with improving your cardio or flexibility, or any other physical trait.  It turns out to be equally true of mental traits.  When something is difficult, that is when your brain is building new neural connections and you are literally getting smarter.  It’s called neuroplasticity, and I’ll explain that in more depth later.

So if you’re struggling to remember the next movement in a form or kata, or if your eyes are rolling back in your head trying to remember a vocabulary word from the country that originated your art, that is actually a good sign.

brain, learn, grow, neuroplasticity
Your brain is remarkably adaptable and can grow in incredible ways.

I was teaching a seminar in Arkansas a while back and the host instructor called attention to something I said about a balance drill.  I said that if you’re not failing at all, it’s too easy and you’re not improving.  But it’s not just true of balance drills.  It’s true of practically everything.

Being able to reframe difficulty and failure is a skill in itself, and if you learn to do it, you’ll get more out of the time you invest in yourself.  It will also help if you can be aware of the conditions that can trigger you out of a Growth Mindset and into a Fixed Mindset.  No one is always 100% one or the other, so managing your mindset is usually worth the effort.

And intuitively, we know this.  Or at least part of it.  Just for fun, try going on your favorite social media platform and find that friend who is always posting motivational memes (or just do a Google search).  I bet that they’re all just telling you to have the symptoms of a Growth Mindset.  When it says to learn from your failure, or to not worry what other people think, or take risks, or don’t quit, all of those are really hard to put into practice if you have a Fixed Mindset.  If you have a Growth Mindset, they come fairly easily.

quote conquer fear meme growth mindset
It’s not wrong, it’s just incredibly hard to implement if you have a Fixed Mindset.

Another thing you can do is banish the word “can’t” from your vocabulary.  I know it may sound cheesy, but in some schools, including my own, “can’t” is a 4-letter word, banned from the training hall.  It’s completely acceptable to say “This is difficult for me,” or “I haven’t learned that yet,” or “I need help with this,” but if you say you can’t do it, you’d better have a doctor’s note to back it up.

This is an effort to get the student to focus on what they can do to improve rather than getting hung up on things that they haven’t achieved yet.  It encourages a Growth Mindset.

Another thing you can do is take an honest look at your beliefs about the areas in which you can grow and the ones in which you can’t.  Suppose you’re learning a joint lock.  You probably have a strong Growth Mindset about that.  If you practice your joint lock, you’ll get better at it and eventually master it.  But what about your ability to learn joint locks?  Is it going to be just as hard to learn your hundredth joint lock as it was to learn your first one?  There’s a strong argument to be made that no, the learning process will get easier, which I’ll explain in more detail later.

I also want to call out how fortunate we are that the thing we’re trying to learn is a physical skill.  Study after study has shown that exercise has a positive effect on cognition, and that effect is greater for complex exercise like martial arts, as opposed to simpler movements like running or rowing.  My favorite was a study that showed that people who took up tai chi and yoga spontaneously got better at math, being faster and more accurate in their calculations.  We martial artists are getting our learning and our exercise at the same time.

form, training, practice, black belt, student, learn

Most martial artists don’t need to be told that practice matters.  You may have heard of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10 Thousand Hour Rule.  It’s almost always oversimplified, but the popular notion is that it takes about 10 thousand hours of deliberate practice to achieve mastery in any field, a number which is a far more accurate predictor of success than raw talent.  There are some criticisms of it out there, some valid, some invalid, as well as a compelling rebuttal by Gladwell—I don’t want to go too deep into it.  The important part for our purposes is something that both Gladwell and his critics agree about, which breaks down to three main things.

1.  It takes a LOT of practice to attain mastery.

2.  How much practice it takes varies depending on what you want to achieve mastery in. (In the martial arts, “mastery” is an extremely subjective term if not outright unattainable.)

3.  Simple athletic tasks require more talent and less practice (And that makes sense.  You can’t train your way to having longer legs, for example.)

In more cognitively demanding fields like martial arts, there are no natural masters.  The only way to be amazing is to practice.  A lot.

Also, you can get to a pretty high level with a lot fewer than ten thousand hours, and you can get a basic competency in less than a few dozen hours.

So that brings us to the concept of neuroplasticity.  Basically, your brain has a remarkable ability to adapt and grow and conform to the demands that you place on it.  Every time you do a challenging mental exercise, it’s like a push up for your brain.  In the case of a push up, the muscles you use to lift your body from the ground will get bigger and stronger.  Your brain can do this, too, with different regions of your brain physically growing larger in response to the mental exercise.  It’s actually much more complex than that with growing new brain cells or repurposing old ones or just increasing the connectivity between them, but the important takeaway is, your brain can be conditioned for better performance.

Mental Health, Brain Training, Mind, Intelligence, Learn
It is essentially possible to work out your brain and make it stronger.

There have been a ton of studies done on this, with brain scans showing changes in the physical makeup of a person’s brain after having developed a skill to a high level.  Brain scans have shown physical differences between experts and novices in athletes, musicians, and people who speak multiple languages.  There are plenty to choose from, but as far as I know only one of those studies was done on martial artists.

That study maybe isn’t the best example since it didn’t show brain scans of the same people before and after they learned the skill, but it’s still interesting.  They recorded video of karate novices and black belts and attempting a short range punch.  The black belts unsurprisingly hit harder and faster than the beginners, and with better coordination.  Anyone who has spent even a little time in a dojo wouldn’t be surprised about that part.  But the interesting part was when they performed brain scans on the participants.  The black belts all showed structural development in the primary motor cortex and the cerebellum, the part of the brain responsible for motor control.  Specifically, they were seeing more white matter, which carries signals to different parts of the brain, suggesting that the black belts were able to punch better because their brains processed the movement more efficiently than the novices.

Your brain doesn’t just change from training, though.  The brains of people who have had traumatic injuries sometimes remap themselves and use different parts of the brain to handle tasks for parts of the brain that no longer function.  Different parts of the brain basically pick up the slack.  It’s also possible to get your brain to adapt in negative ways, such as in the case of drug addiction, when your brain comes to physically need the substance.  That’s called negative plasticity.  Also, just as a side note, that often-quoted blurb about how you only use 10% of your brain is a myth.  There’s no dead weight in a healthy brain.  It all has a purpose.

I find it useful to think about neuroplasticity as a reason to train the brain along with the rest of the body.  If you spend a lot of time sitting, your body will get good at sitting.  Your muscles will tighten up and your posture will change.  So it’s important to exercise, to keep your body functioning optimally.  Similarly, it’s important to be a lifelong learner in order to keep conditioning your brain for the same optimal performance that we as martial artists like to get out of our bodies.

Children have higher plasticity levels than adults, but your brain can continue to create new brain cells well into old age.  Regular exercise helps the process, so we as martial artists get a nice 2-for-1 deal there.  Also, these physical changes in the brain occur over the course of months, not years. 

Now, take all this in terms of the Fixed Mindset and Growth Mindset.  Even if you consider yourself cursed by genetics, your brain is adaptable and has a remarkable ability to grow to meet the demands you place on it.  Take for example my friend who said he didn’t have a head for languages.  If he wanted to, he could give himself a head for languages.  Yes, it would take effort, yes it would take time and commitment and all that.  And yes he would probably struggle at first, seemingly outclassed by someone else whose brain was conditioned differently.  But if he wanted it, there’s no reason he couldn’t learn another language, or even become someone who learned languages easily. 

self defense, joint lock, counter, strike, reversal, learn
There’s no aspect of this that can’t be learned.

When you think about what’s mentally hard in your training, maybe it’s the soft skills of self protection like awareness, avoidance and de-escalation.  Maybe it’s trying to incorporate coaching points into live sparring.  Maybe it’s maintaining your focus.  None of it can’t be improved, and with some effort, your brain will get better at improving. 

Dweck’s Mindset book has a real tear-jerker story near the end where she’s explaining neuroplasticity to a group of middle school or high school students.  She tells them that their brains are primed for learning and when things are difficult and they feel challenged, that’s when new connections are being formed in the brain and they are literally becoming smarter.  One kid says, “You mean I don’t have to be dumb?” 

I wish someone could have explained those things to me when I was a white belt, and I could have said, “You mean I don’t have to be bad at…” fill in the blank.  I had a lot of areas where I thought I was doomed. 

So no one said it to me, but I’ll say it to you.  You don’t have to be bad at your weak area, even if up until now you have thought it was hopeless.  You can learn and improve at almost anything, and as you get going your brain will become better conditioned for it, making the road easier.