Essential Ingredients: Toughness

Some elements of real safety are talked about so much that people get tired of hearing about it. I remember losing several subscribers after publishing an article on awareness. Nevermind that if you don’t know what’s going on around you, you have zero chance of defending yourself against it.

But there are other elements, essential ingredients to any plans for personal safety. Today I will be looking at one of these. Our topic is toughness. Without toughness, you are sunk once things turn physical. If you have never experienced a punch in the nose, the moment you first experience it will be a true test. You can train in a safe environment, and you can read and develop the ability to regurgitate cool sounding lines from leaders in the field. But if you have not ever had to keep going when your brain wanted you to stop, or your body is begging you to lay down, then you do not know where your limits are or if you have the ability to move ahead after such a shock.

I was raised hard, and I am thankful for that now. When I was still in elementary school, I had to spend evenings putting equipment on the truck, or taking it off, sometimes both. I did not get weekends off or summer vacations off from the time I was eight years old. I was put to work with my Father on construction sites. If there was no school, I was at work. We worked half-days on Thanksgiving, full days on Christmas Eve. I grew up in central Texas. The work was outside. Central Texas has about nine months out of the year with temperatures around 90° F. It also has about a month with temps over 100° F. I baked all summer, every summer. As a kid, there were times when my brain could not see the reason for being there and working as hard as we did. When I was a teen, I saw it as just normal life. My friends didn’t live that way, and I was often the subject of ridicule, but even that was not a big deal. The physical labor had toughened my body, to be sure, but going through it even when I didn’t think I could, that had toughened my mind.

Add to this mix the fact that my generation was not raised by parents who wanted everything to be easy for us. We were a lot who learned from defeat and loss. No helicopter parents, no being told that we were special like a snowflake. We were told “Are you bleeding? No? Then suck it up.” and “Walk it off” and “I’ll give you something to cry about!” and the unthinkable in modern time “If you had worked harder, maybe you would have won“.

Without toughness, you are going to fold when things get scary or physical. Toughness is developed by adversity. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, but you can always learn. Our younger generation would do well to experience defeat because it can show you that it is not the end of the world.

Now, toughness is divided into two categories: mental and physical.

Mental Toughness

When you are mentally tough, you have a few qualities that set you apart.

For one, motivation. People who are mentally tough do not need to be inspired by others, they do the task at hand because it needs to be done. The reward is found in completing the task, whatever it may be. It does not even have to be glorious. Block masons who need to hit the 500 unit per day quota in order to keep their job do not view the 500 as anything special, it is something that has to be done. There is no special reward for the quota, other than reporting to work tomorrow to do the same thing again.

Another factor is focus. The mentally tough are able to switch to a singular focus when there is something that needs to be done. Whether the task is outmaneuvering a rival, or fighting a bear, or completing paperwork on time, they will focus on the task without giving in to outside distractions.

The next time an assignment comes up at work that nobody wants, take it. Do things that you do not like doing and you will be gaining new skills, as well as mental toughness. Learn to focus on things that have to be done and get them done right.

Physical Toughness

Where mental toughness is about determination, physical toughness is about responding to adversity. And what better way to find adversity than to get out of your comfort-zone.

When you work out, change things up from time to time. Instead of a run on a treadmill, run in a park. Instead of a simple trip out of town to a hotel, try camping. Hiking through the woods, setting up a tent, chopping firewood, starting a fire, cooking fish you caught, these are great experiences and the physical challenges provide you with new skills and a certain toughness.

I remember when a Church group did a volunteer weekend of work with Habitat for Humanity. I went with them, even though at the time I was a construction worker, and as such, it was just like working without getting paid, but I didn’t complain because we were helping people. I marveled at my friends and the way that they were so excited and proud of such little (to me) things as hammering in a nail without bending it or getting a wall set upright and plumb. At the end of the day, we all went back to somebody’s house (I cannot remember whose house), and they ordered pizza delivered and sat and shared stories about how good it felt to build something, to work with their now blistered hands, and how much they now appreciated the people who did this every day. They were exhausted, and I was enjoying their tales of the day.

They learned about toughness that day. They stepped out of their comfort zone and did some demanding physical work, and as people, they grew.

None of this is to say that you can pick up a hammer for a day and suddenly become able to have the skills and toughness needed to fight off a home invasion. But I am saying that by taking some small steps every day you can progress toward becoming tougher. You have to stay focused on the goal, and you have to expend energy and time doing things that are not necessarily fun. Our ancestors were incredibly tough people. I think it is still locked in the DNA of everyone.

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Pigeonholes and Othering

In our time, people have begun a dangerous practice of self-segregation. Of course, this is not what it is called, as that would be too honest, and one thing our society will not tolerate is honesty.

It seems innocent enough in the way it is presented and practiced. To start things rolling, we are not simply people – rational thinking human beings. Now we have to fit into these pigeonholes; republican or democrat, conservative or liberal, is or ain’t, rich or poor, snowflake or cupcake, and on and on it goes.

This causes us, knowingly or otherwise, to view those who are not a part of our in-group as different, strange, and most dangerously, our enemy.

See, we have a basic emotional block, think of it as a default setting, where we do not kill members of our own tribe. Killing members of your own tribe is bad for the survival of the tribe and is therefore universally frowned upon.

We have no default settings to prevent the killing of those who are not of our tribe. Othering allows us to justify any action against those who are different from us.

I use the word killing, and I am not just throwing it out there for shock value. Killing is a threshold, any action short of killing is also justified in this mindset. So when you see people on the right or left of any issue beating the crap out of each other over a political difference of opinion, you get a chance to see this idea in practice. To an outsider like me, the entire thing is absurd. But to those involved, it makes perfect sense.

Personally, I don’t identify with either party. I prefer to do the very uncommon practice of researching and thinking for myself. I heed the advice of George Washington when he warned of the dangers of factions (political party). I don’t tell other people to do this, mostly because thinking for yourself leads to speaking freely against both sides, and the end result is feeling like you were in a gang war and didn’t know anybody. You want people to stop talking to you, speak out against both sides. They will act awkward when you are around them and ignore you on all social media. Fair warning though – it sounds like more fun than it is.

I do, however, advise people to stop thinking of people who hold the opposite view as being your enemy. An enemy wants you dead. An enemy is willing to kill you if the chance turned up. An enemy is not a person who has a political difference of opinion. It is good and healthy to talk to and socialize with people who think differently than you. No one was ever harmed by listening to another person’s point of view.

People in our time do not like to listen to dissenting opinions. In a time now lost, dissent was welcomed because it allowed you to elaborate on your position, and justify it. Now, dissent is hated. Because much of our contact is no longer face to face, we simply create a “social” media echo chamber where we only hear what we like.

Step out of the pigeonhole, stop being so afraid of being disagreed with (do I really have to say that) or freaking out that someone thinks you are wrong. And do your part to put an end to the self-imposed segregation. Call out and shut down the extremists on your side (whichever side that may be). There are enough problems in the world without making up things to hate each other over. Grow up, grow a pair, stop whining, remember that we are all in this together whether we like it or not, and none of us are getting out alive.

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“What’s Up With the Guns?”

During a recent conversation with one of my adult students, there was a question that came up. “I saw the change in the title of your Facebook page. ‘Martial arts, sharp things, and guns.’ What’s up with the guns?” Now, my student accepted my answer and moved on to another topic without missing a beat. I have had other conversations that did not go so well.

As is common in America, many people become concerned when a friend purchases a gun, or as in my case, a few guns. Due in no small part to the news media’s constant barrage of slander against anyone who might actually *gasp* like guns, well-meaning friends can become genuinely concerned, and sometimes even frightened by your decision to buy a gun.

For people who are considering making a firearm purchase, it should be known that some of your friends will react to it in a way far removed from how they would act if you were to purchase a fire-extinguisher. If you tell a friend, “Hey, I just bought my first fire-extinguisher!”, they might praise you on the wisdom of the decision. “Wow! That is a good move! You know, if you set the kitchen on fire, you might be able to get the fire out before the fire department is able to get there. Very good move!”

With a gun purchase, you are sure to have some friends who are against it. “Hey! I just bought my first gun!” Your response is likely to be questions about your training in gun safety, lectures on the dangers of having guns in the house, and even questions about your state of mind.

To me, the worst is when they start with their own short-comings. “I could never own a gun, I know I would end up killing someone the first time I get mad.” This is a subtle hint that you share this mental deficiency, or even that all people are deficient in this same way.

You might encounter guilt trips from people who lament the “gun culture” of America. I even had one person who told me that liking guns was “typical white person behavior”. Whatever that means.

In the end, for as long as we are able to maintain the right to do so, owning a firearm is a choice. If you are anti-gun, don’t buy one. If you are pro-gun, buy one. Just as I will not go out and demand that everyone own a fire-extinguisher, I will also not demand that everyone own guns. But if the option is there, if you want to take that option, by golly do it!

I want to have the best possible option when it comes to defending my Family. I would never willingly defend my Family with the least effective weapon I can think of. I want to, at the very least, be on a comparable footing with the bad guy. If I could have him outgunned, awesome, but if the contest has to be equal, then I will accept it and rely on training and motivation to make me victorious.

In the end, please understand this; a friend who decides to own a gun is still your friend. They made a personal decision. This does not give you the right to label them a gun nut. It does not mean they want to kill people. I can tell you truly, I hope I never have to point a gun at another human. If I have to, I will not hesitate, but this does not mean I want to or am eager to. I like peace and happiness. I study violence, and train in the application of violence, but if a problem can be settled with a conversation and a cheeseburger, then I am taking that option. Even if it takes two cheeseburgers.

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When Students Leave for Good

I am facing the truth that a couple of my long-term students are about to go off to college, and I am facing the fact that there is no telling when I will see them again. This is a post based on the random thoughts that I tried to bring into something resembling a blog post.

For anyone who has taught martial arts for any serious length of time, there is an understanding that most students are going to be here for only a little while, and then they will disappear forever. This happens so often that after a certain number of years, it becomes impossible to even recall faces and match them to names.

Even excluding my years of teaching before working for KickStart Kids, in the last fifteen years alone I have had about 2,000 student walk into my class. I have a terrible time matching names and faces, especially among those students who were in class for a short period of time a very long time ago.

But there are others, students who were around longer, or had exceptional work ethic, or both. I remember them. Many of these kids became like family to me. Some are still in touch with me, and this makes me feel blessed. Some students contact me from out of the blue, and it always makes me smile.

I am a creature of habit. I make a lot of plans, especially when it comes to teaching, that are designed for the long-term goals. Sometimes, my definition of long-term is more time than what the students can commit to giving.

As a martial arts instructor, we have to understand this. Life happens and people move on. It is our job to make the impact that we can, in the time that we have. We think we have forever, but we are wrong.

It is never easy to see the long-term student walk out for the last time. When we know that it is the last time we are likely to see them, it can feel terrible. But, if we have done our job, we must set aside our personal regrets and sadness and hope that what we taught will be carried forward by these students – even if they are not ever going to be a lifelong martial artist. We have to trust that we did everything we could to equip the students with the knowledge and skills to stay safe. We must trust that the values carried within the martial arts will be lived out. And there is nothing wrong with the hope to be remembered.

To all of my former students who read this, know that it does my heart good every single time that I find out about something that you are doing now, every contribution to society, every educational goal achieved, every job promotion or success. Everything. I find great joy in your success. And I am thankful to every one of you for allowing me to share part of your journey, and especially when you let me know about your successes as you move forward beyond anything I have to offer help with.

To my long-term students who are about to head out into the world, please know that I am very proud of your accomplishments, and will still be right here if I can be of any help at all.

Some work of noble note may yet be done,

Full Circle: The End is Where We Started

A question was posed to me this week that I had to really think about in order to properly frame an answer. That Question:

How far behind can a person leave their martial arts center before they are unable to return to that center?

Some years back, much of it chronicled on this blog, I began to question certain aspects of the traditional Chinese Martial Arts which formed the center of my life in training, my views and practices regarding self-defense, and colored my view of other martial arts – in particular, newer expressions of the martial arts such as MMA (mixed martial arts). I dropped all belief in Qi power, I questioned the necessity of forms training, especially some of the street-performer nonsense. I went through a process of field-stripping the style I had been taught, studied the complex reality of violent conflict and found the traditional answers I had been fed were seriously lacking in any substance. I changed my curriculum, first by dropping supplemental forms, then dropping forms that just didn’t have the right feel. For a time, I dropped all forms, only to end up bringing in just a few.

But in a way, I think, I ended up much closer to my core system, Hung Gar. I do not teach it right now, and I refuse to claim any mastery or special insight. But as I took this journey of a thousand winding roads, I found that there is an incredible wealth of knowledge in Hung Gar, if only one is willing to do the work. The same must be true of other styles.

I was unable, for a time, to answer the question of whether I was a traditional martial artist, or something else. Looking at things now, I see that I am a traditional martial artist, and I always was. If you study the history (the real history) of martial arts; questions, doubts, and introspective study are very traditional, as are making changes to what you practice. The idea that martial arts are to be handed on completely unchanged is a very modern idea, much like the idea that a master must know several hundred kata.

You cannot ever truly leave your core system of study if you have trained seriously for any decent length of time. Hard training and time will make that style a part of you. No matter where you roam, or how far from home you stray, that core will be there, influencing everything you do. Although the different styles of martial art can vary greatly, they were based on actual conflict. It worked at some point and therefore there is a core of the system that is very functional. That is where you find the real treasure of learning in the martial arts.

Let the style be the style, but it is the core of the system that will allow you to protect yourself if that is what you are searching for in the martial arts.

The end result of my personal journey was that I ended up practicing some of the same forms and the same weapons as I did before I started questioning everything. The difference now is that I have a better understanding of why I am doing what I do. I have come full circle. The answers were always there, but the fact is that everyone has to find the answers in their own way. I have a deeper appreciation of the traditional martial arts, as well as the newer systems and approaches, like MMA. I found a new understanding, and therefore – appreciation of the sport-oriented martial arts. I learned so much from the reality based self-defense people that I have no hope of ever being able to repay them. They were the ones who told me not to reinvent the wheel. They encouraged me to find the practical value in what I had already spent so much time in training.

So, to answer the question; The question starts from a false assumption. It is not possible to leave your core training so far that return becomes impossible. Return can be uncomfortable, but not impossible. Your core style or system will be with you no matter what you do. When you have spent years ingraining a certain physical response to attacks, it will still be there even when you try to ignore it or drown it in other stuff. This will be true regardless of the martial arts style you have trained in. If you feel the need to branch out or walk the earth, do it. There really is no reason to not expand your experiences. But do it with the understanding that your core training will influence you no matter how far you think you have traveled from the center. The center is you.

Self-Defense from a Diminished Capacity

Everyone has strengths and weaknesses. Regardless of style and system, we all learn to emphasize our strengths and minimize our weaknesses. But what about those times when we, for whatever reason, are less than 100%. That is our topic this week.

Quick background information as we begin.

On Saturday, April 22, the KickStart Kids State Karate Championships was held in Sugarland Texas (a suburb of Houston y’all). From where I live, it was about a five-hour drive there, the tournament was about seven and a half hours, then a five-hour drive back home. On long road trips, I tend to not drink much water. I also managed to get so distracted by the tournament itself that I never drank any water during the event. I realized this as I hit the road going home. Now I wasn’t trying to be a camel or a showoff or anything like that. When I was a teen, maybe. But I’m pushing 50. No way. So, I did start drinking some water on the drive home, but again – long road trip. I looked at it as sticking to a minimum. Somewhere around the halfway point, I needed to stop for gas. When I got out to fill up the tank, my ankle wouldn’t hold me up. I checked it out, and it looked like I was smuggling a grapefruit inside the ankle joint. Bad swelling. I filled up the tank, hopped back into the vehicle, and made the rest of the drive home. There is a stretch of I-45 that has been under construction for the last 8,000 years. The lanes are narrow and the driving is treacherous. This was the point of the drive where I started cramping in my ankle, leg and both hands. Oh, what fun! Long story shorter, I got home and iced the ankle, treating it like an injury even though I knew I had suffered nothing more traumatic than a ten-hour road trip.

Well, there was no direct trauma. But, as I found out this week, I am gout-prone. I carry higher than normal levels of uric acid on a normal day. If you imagine a jar of salt water. If you leave it out, as the water evaporates, eventually you will see crystals start to form. Well, this is what the uric acid did inside my body. The crystals then settled in my ankle. Oh, just for your information, icing a gout flare-up is not a good idea. The Doctor told me that made the condition worse.

Now to close this background setting; please note that as a person who has had broken bones, concussions, torn muscles, dislocated knees, herniated disks in my spine, separated shoulders. and a chemical burn in my eye, I can tell you that gout actually feels more painful than any of those. The only pain I think might be worse is getting kicked in the groin, but at least that pain goes away more quickly.

I have spent the past week in terrible pain and barely able to walk.

Doing what I do, I took some time to consider what I would do if I needed to protect my family while in this diminished capacity.

To be honest, it isn’t pretty.

Being unable to move much, and even when moving I am in tremendous pain, any offense is going to be weak. I am offensively minded. I am geared that way, I have a Hulk smash mentality. That stuff was not available to me.

Okay fine, defense then.

Well, mobility is offline. I cannot run (okay, fine…I cannot run even without the gout problem). Hand-to-hand would be pretty stupid because I have no root (stance, base, structure), and my entire base for hand to hand begins and ends with a solid root.

It seems I would be in need of an edge.

Yes!

Whenever it is legal for me to do so, I do carry a knife. While I am no Filipino martial artist, I can use my knife well enough to protect me and mine if things came to that. And even without knife or gun, someone who has trained most of their life is never truly unarmed. A man can fight.

But, what about the real base of self-defense? Awareness is always available to anyone who chooses to use it. Not being a jerk is always an option. What about being polite? Yep, anyone can do that in any physical condition. If someone wants to fight, you may not have an option, but in normal day-to-day life (not the high-stress drama found on cable news) you can get through your day without even thinking about how to best defend yourself from the bad guys.

The basics of self-defense and personal safety do not change with our personal limitations for a given day or week. Stay aware, and mind your manners. After that, you might have to improvise, but take what you can get.

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The Fear of Making Mistakes and Failing

Most people live their life with two major fears hanging over their head, the fear of making mistakes and the fear of failing. Often these are the very people who wish for the dazzling success of the leaders in different fields.

But the leaders in any field, in many ways, are not really that different from you or anyone else. They are normal people, but they accomplish more than others. The qualities that set many of them apart are available to anyone.

See mistakes and failure as an opportunity to learn.

If you can take a negative experience and turn it into a learning opportunity, you are doing it right. A mistake or a failure doesn’t have to be the end of the road. If you take the time to understand what went wrong and see if there is a way to correct it, nothing was really lost.

Let mistakes and failure strengthen your resolve.

When you have an attitude of I will not be denied, then you can use setbacks and struggles to make you stronger and get back into things with a stronger will.

In the Taekwondo organization I was in during the mid-90s, there was a policy where your first Black Belt rank was called Probationary 1st Degree. You had two testing cycles to pass the next test or you were demoted to red belt. The first time I tested for Decided 1st Degree I injured my foot a few days before the test. I was bull-headed enough to still try to break the board with that now injured foot as I had said I would on the testing forms. I swung a round kick into the board and the board held true while pain exploded from foot to brain. I was in a lot of pain, but made the second of three allowed attempts, with the same result. On the third attempt, I used my one allowed change of technique, switching to the opposite foot for the break. By this point, my right foot was no longer in any condition to hold me up, and the third and final break attempt failed, as did I on the test.

I limped back to my car and understood very clearly that this failure was entirely my fault. When the next testing cycle rolled around, I hit the boards hard enough to break the center section out instead of breaking them in half. I passed because I refused to fail. The first test was a setback in my eyes, not a failure.

Had I let the results of the first test sink in and cloud my vision, I might have never gone back and tested again. Then I would be an old man sitting here tonight wondering what to write about…