What do you get out of martial arts?

The other night our instructor asked the class, “What do you get out of martial arts?”

That’s a simple enough question to answer for kids, because they’re so new to this world that you can look at them and see the progress—discipline, respect, focus, control, critical thinking. For adults, it’s harder to define. By the time we’ve grown up, most of us have already developed the camouflages and workarounds that make it seem like, “Oh yeah, he’s definitely paying attention,” or, “Her? She never loses her temper.”

Although practicing martial arts has definitely helped me in all of those categories, they aren’t the reason I’ve stuck with it for six years. It’s not as if I go to class every week, on the days I’m tired or lazy or don’t feel great or am aching from bumps and bruises I got last class, thinking “I’d better go so I can learn to respect myself and others a little more.”

What do I get out of martial arts?

On October 31, 2017, we took the boys to a trunk-or-treat where they got a piece of candy taped to an offer for a week’s free karate classes from a man in an Edward Kenway costume (from my second favorite videogame of all time Black Flag).

Wait. Let’s back up even further. Summer 1994, watching The Three Ninjas with my cousin Nicole, giving ourselves nicknames and picking our ninja colors and practicing hitting the pressure points and jumping out of trees to attack the bad guys. Reading the Power Rangers chap books from the book fair, watching the Saturday morning Power Hour with the WildCATS and Ninja Turtles, hearing about “the good” kung fu movies and shows from my dad and uncle.

When you were a kid, what was cooler than martial arts? Easy—nothing.

If you lived in rural Missouri in the 90s, tell me how many martial arts schools there were in your county. That’s an easy one, too—zero. Even if my family had had the money back then for me to take a class, there was nowhere to go.

So it was that on Halloween of 2017, at the ripe old age of 30, I got handed a magic ticket to make all my little-kid dreams come true. But I would have to be sneaky about it.

“Hey,” I said nonchalantly to Joshua a few days later, “the boys got these passes to try out a martial arts class. I think they would like it.”

Although we were still living in the camper, by mutual agreement we weren’t traveling full time anymore, so committing to classes for a while wouldn’t tie us down any more than we already were. Unlike when we were kids, the classes were located in the town nearby, and we had the money. There were no practical obstacles in our way.

“Okay, if they want to, sign them up,” Josh said.

Phase one accomplished!

From the first class, the boys loved it. And you know who else loved it? Joshua. Sitting on the sidelines, he realized we could do the same things. Not only that, but also it was super cool.

“We should sign up for the adult class,” he said.

“Well, yeah,” I said.

Phase two accomplished! I was going to learn karate!

Without the big, scary risk of doing it alone.

Joshua and I started our martial arts journey together. We walked in every night together, him in the lead so I didn’t have to go first. We always partnered together for drills and self-defense, so I didn’t have to work with new people. He handled most of the talking to our classmates and instructors so I wouldn’t have to. We took our first belt tests together, competed in our first tournament together, got our black belts together.

Then one day, Joshua admitted that he didn’t want to do martial arts anymore. It wasn’t for him. He had known for a long time that it wasn’t… he’d only been sticking it out for me.

Walking into class on my own wasn’t the scariest thing I’d ever done, but it was close. When it was time to partner up, I wouldn’t have a built-in partner. When I was chosen to lead warm-ups, I wouldn’t have Josh to look out at for silent support. And what about before class, while the adults were all standing around waiting for the kids’ class to end? Was I supposed to talk to people? By myself?

Yes, as it turned out, I was. It was uncomfortable, and as with most everything I do, it was awkward. But by then, I had already done so much that was new and frightening that a few weeks’ worth of learning how to exist by myself for a couple hours at a time was just another step on the journey. Sometimes the next step takes you along flat, paved trails in a peaceful woodland, and sometimes it leads you straight up a mountainside, slipping in the mud with no handholds, but you take it. And sometimes you take it alone.

I took it, because over the last four years of training, that’s what I had learned to do.

Something happened to me when I took that step. I started walking into classes with my head up. I started looking my training partners in the eye. When it was my turn to lead warm-ups, I didn’t just call the stretches anymore, I led them. I helped lower ranks with their forms, drills, and techniques. I went to classes and testings and tournaments alone. I even started conversations with people I barely knew.

What have I gotten out of six years of martial arts? Multiple injuries. Punched in the face. Kicked in the face. The wind knocked out of me. Long moments of nerve-wracking anxiousness. I’ve broken boards and sparred and done my forms while judges, panels, and a few hundred laypeople scrutinized my every move for mistakes. I’ve taught classes full of rambunctious grade schoolers and adults with higher belts than mine. I’ve wrestled my way through frustrating techniques I thought I would never understand. I’ve fought people bigger, stronger, faster, and more talented than I’ll ever be. I’ve been hit by punches that could stop a freight train, eaten kicks that felt like they broke my ribs, been thrown and choked and swept by opponents twice my size.

None of it stopped me.

I don’t say all this to show how cool I am or how much better I am than anyone else. Because you can do all this, too. You just don’t know it yet. It’s weird, but most of us never know how much we can do until we actually do it.

I know I can do all these things because I’ve already done them, and because I’ve done all these, I know that if new, scarier, harder things come along, I can do those, too. It’s all just another step on the journey.

What do I get out of martial arts? Confidence. Inner strength. Perspective.

If you’ve always wanted to try something, but you’re scared of that first step, it’s okay. We all are. The good news is that first step will make you stronger, and so will every step after that. It will give you more confidence and put all of the other obstacles and challenges you face into perspective. It will show you amazing things you never knew you could do.

And it will make you cool, in your own eyes if nobody else’s.

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