Why Do I Suck At This???

Does this represent your training face?
"Arrrrgghh!!! Why Can't I Get This!?!?!", or, "Why is that person getting this so much faster than I am?" These are common things I see, or hear as a teacher. I want to take a few minutes today and try to shed some light on this obscure 'suck zone', and perhaps offer you some perspective to help you through it.

In order to understand why martial arts, or any new activity requiring physical prowess [other sports apply but we are going to focus on martial arts here], is giving you a hard time, we have to look at the human brain. No, I am not about to say you are a dumbass. On the contrary. I have taught highly, highly intelligent people over the past decade and a half that can't tell you where their arm is located if they don't stop and look down at it.

What many people fail to recognize in themselves, or cut themselves slack for, is their level of physical activity going into the arts. Maybe you played sports in high school. Then you went to college, got a job, and realized at 35 you haven't been active in 17 years. Maybe you are 16 year old and have lived in front of a video game console your whole life; never really using your body. Maybe you are 65 and deciding to take up Tai Chi to stay active, but you sat at a desk job since you were 35. See the common thread?

Here's what is happening from the brain's perspective. The human brain is incredibly conservative. If something is not being used, then the brain ignores it. We have pathways connecting neurons in our brain, and each pathway connects from one piece of information to another, to another, creating connections (more below). This happens with physical activity as well. Compare it to your high school Algebra, that thing you said you would never use in life. Say you were right. Now try to go do Algebra. Doesn't work so well does it? The same thing happens with your body and physical movement.

When you have a group of common connections, it is due to your brain building relationships. Connecting one neuron to another neuron to build a network. Think of it as a power grid; transmitting information from node to node. Except this power grid shuts down lines that are not being used in order to save energy.

Unfortunately, if you stop using it, the brain starts overwriting these connections. Pathways grow dormant, and new information, information that is relevant to whatever you are doing in your life NOW, is what is going to take precedence. If physical activity is not at the forefront in your life, then atrophy sets in; physical AND mental. The brain does not waste time and energy trying to keep things 'alive' that are not useful to it's purpose. If you were a star athlete in college, you will still have pathways for those actions in your prior sport, but they have faded. If you return to the sport in your 30's, you will probably stumble a bit in the beginning, but may pick things back up relatively quickly after the initial climb.

The Neural Network

Your brain is full of billions of neurons. When you start training in martial arts, you may develop a neuron for a block you learned. You know the block, you practiced the block, and it is part of you. You also developed a neuron for a punch. Now when someone punches you, you block, but you don't punch. Why? No connection. So after practicing for a while, and seeing similar circumstances, one day you are comfortable enough with your blocking and someone taking a swing at you, that you see an opening and throw a counter punch. Your brain then creates a connection from the punch neuron, to the block neuron and you will know to respond that way the next time.

Let's add a piece. Now the person punches. You block. You counter punch, but suddenly your punch misses. The person slips. Now you stand there for a second unsure what to do next. Why? You don't have the connection laid yet. Like trying to cross from Boston to San Diego in your car, but there are no roads to connect you there.

Grappling example: You learn how to do an armbar. Neuron is mapped. You learn how to Triangle choke from guard. Neuron mapped. Now you are fighting with an opponent in your guard and you go for an armbar. An armbar that you are quite successful at and have trained thoroughly. Your opponent pulls the arm before you can secure it. You lose the submission and have to start over with something else. Or instead, you learn how to snap on a triangle when they pull the arm. You have mapped a connection between the two submissions, and your next response is to immediately counter their counter with another submission. Something that is impossible to do when you have not mapped out either neuron, or built the connection between them. 

The more you train, and the more experiences happen to you in the arts (failures most importantly), the more neurons you build connections to as you find solutions. Eventually you get a web of connections, and when faced with unfamiliar stimuli, you have a response. The better you get, the more likely you are to have a 'proper' response to this new threat or action.

It would be impossible to train every single scenario/outcome that can happen. That supercomputer residing inside your skull would take 100's of years to try and calculate all those responses. And, training students that way would result in absolute disaster. Instead, we train principles, and we train with randomness and variability, and the results we get are far superior.

Your left foot. NOOOO!!! YOUR OTHER LEFT FOOT!!!

From a teacher's perspective, it can be extremely frustrating to tell someone to move their left, or right foot, and have them not know where their leg is. I have been in schools where teachers have thrown out students and told them - "This is not for you." I wholeheartedly disagree with this statement, even though at times I confess to have watched students and wondered if they were ever going to get it. [meditate]

Someone could be the next one to pass on the art, but you turned them off of martial arts for good because they didn't get it right away.

Patience and understanding are easier said than done, but they are necessary when teaching your art to ALL those who wish to receive it. Someone with long periods lacking physical activity is going to take longer to get up to speed with basic movement than a seasoned athlete. It's like trying to teach a child at 5 or 6 to do Fine Motor Function, when at that age they should be learning Gross Motor Function. You can't put the cart before the horse.


When teaching adults and teaching people who are not REQUIRED to stand there and take your
bullshit, you have to have some flexibilty, and draw out the timeline for success. You can't just scream at them until they get it (flashbacks of boot camp). Unless you are training people for combat in a condensed period of time. But then, you shouldn't be teaching in-depth martial arts, you should be teaching self-defense systems like Krav Maga. Simplified, and meant for short training, not mastering high levels of skill.

To be honest, the drill instructors in boot camp have a hell of a job to do. 8 weeks to turn goofy, uncoordinated, head up their ass teenagers, into lean, mean, fighting machines. This is not an easy task, and our lives depend on getting it right. Quickly. However, we are a captive audience; by choice, or not.

If you are teaching out of your garage and do not need to sustain yourself, or you are trying to train people as quickly as possible, then you can cherry pick your students and kick out (directly, or indirectly) the one's that won't get up to speed fast enough. But...if you are interested in creating a strong community of martial artists that help one another grow and learn, and accept people of all skill and talent levels amongst their ranks, then keep in mind not everyone has been training for our arts their entire life. Some will need more time and patience in the process.

One approach I like to use in thinking about this, is drawing. When you want to draw a human face, you don't start by drawing every freckle, line, or hair. You start with a rough circle for the head, and rough circles for the eyes, nose, mouth, ears. Then, you begin to create finer and finer circles and lines. Adding more and more detail as you go. Martial Arts is no different. Don't feel like your ROUGH DRAFT is supposed to be a MASTERPIECE.

All black belts are not created equal. All black belts are not created in the same amount of time.


photos courtesy of Max Kotchouro


Buonomano, Dean. Brain Bugs: How the Brain's Flaws Shape Our Lives. New York: W.W. Norton, 2011. Print.

"The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science Paperback – December 18, 2007." The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the Frontiers of Brain Science: Norman Doidge: 9780143113102: Amazon.com: Books. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.

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