Happy new year! I'm not sure if this is a futile effort to restart our writing adventures, but our marketing folks seem to be showing a little dismay at our ill-discipline to write as per their demand. I guess we'll all put in an effort to pen down our thoughts more in this year than the last.
We were hanging around the territories of 600 West Coast Road as usual, when Ming (aka The Guru), our counter staff, came and told us that someone had just asked a relatively difficult question. It was a first timer coming in to check out Onyx, and to find out more prior to her virgin Muay Thai experience.
"How long do I need to finish learning?"
Before y'all slap on your nak muay eyes and yell, "YOU NEVER STOP LEARNING!", don't do it. It's a fair question, because of the way society has shaped our learning process. We go to school, knowing that one day, there'll be an exam of some sort. And as we progress through schools and levels, we aim towards a day when we'll graduate at a level which is socially acceptable. There has to be a goal.
Our usual answer is to depict a pseudo timeline in which short-term achievements are plausible, with the caveat of hard work and dedication (Dragon will always tell you that it's all about the hard work and dedication). Say you're someone that trains recreationally for 3 times a week, you should pretty much be getting the idea of Muay Thai strikes in your first month or so. It doesn't mean you can utilise them effectively or perfect even one of those strikes, but it would yield enough tools for you to start sparring meaningfully.
And once you begin sparring, you realise how much longer you can go. It is the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, except that the light blinks and sometimes disappears, and you don't know how long the tunnel is, and there are wild punches and kicks swung at you from the yawning darkness. When you are face-to-face with someone else who has the intention of hitting you, many things that you have learnt will desert you. Simple things like keeping your guard up, regaining balance after executing a right round-house, taking a step to close the distance before doing a 1-2, or shin-block an incoming kick. It can be disappointing and it is definitely frustrating. But after shaking it off, it is back to the drawing block for most people.
So you continue training recreationally thrice a week, with the addition of sparring sometimes. After a few more months, you begin to inculcate the habit of keeping your guard up. You get used to being hit: the impact of it, the timing, and you learn to manage your reaction to it. Maybe you used to freeze up, or you would squeeze your eyes shut. Slowly, you find ways to exhale the tension and breathe. You start to execute striking combinations- 1, 2, right kick- and they land on the opponent. Hurray! And then, one of them gives you a right cross to the face and your mouth stings a bit. You forgot to keep your guard up after the kick. Time to mould that mouthguard!
This could be after 6 months, or 9 months, a year or more. Progress depends on the consistency of training, the malleability of your physical coordination, and the mindfulness you bring to trainings. Again, society has conditioned us to expect certain results after putting in a certain amount of effort, like x months of training translates to being able to do y and z. But that is far from reality in the world of Muay Thai. Progress is not in a linear fashion and people learn at different paces. At the beginning, you will learn exponentially as you are exposed to techniques which you haven't learnt before. You begin to realise that good kicks are linked to good balance, which is linked to good footwork, which is linked to good rhythm, which is linked back to the very first class when the trainer told you how to stand in your orthodox/southpaw stance. Everything feels interconnected and improving in one area can help improve others too.
After one or two years, you are having a grand time. You have been training and sparring regularly, and you can hold your own against the instructor (who, let's be honest, is really giving 20% of their full power when sparring with you). Padwork is not as breathless. You can execute whatever combinations your heart desires. Best of all, you look great physically after all the hours of kicking and thousands of knees.
Then the inevitable happens, your trainer wants to spar with you.
You remembered it's been a while since you last sparred with your trainer, and while you're not expecting to beat him/her, you are tingling with excitement to show off your new moves, and/or to manage the barrages of attacks, to parry more, to block more, to survive longer.
But alas, the trainer still reads all your moves like lyrics to a nursery rhyme, and unleashes a new onslaught of strikes that you've never seen before. You try to look strong facially, but your heart weeped like the first time you saw Titanic. A slur of emotions later, you start doubting yourself, and start wondering if you've plateau-ed, or whether there's still a point in continuing?
"At some point in your development into any martial arts, it's all in your mind."
This was what the Supreme Leader used to always preach. Think of it this way, everyone's talent quotient is somewhat defined. If you're a very talented individual, you'll have a large capacity to improve and expand your tools. Hence, let's imagine your talent, to be the tool box. The size of the tool box determines the amount of tools that can be placed in the tool box. Placing an oversized tool, or too many tools inside the pre-defined space of your tool box will only be counter productive. For those who have much talent to offer, good for them. But for the most of us who are average to regular in our talent space, what does it mean for us?
Learning, and progressing in this martial arts journey is an exponentially decreasing experience. Remember when your first class? You've probably learn at least 3 to 4 different kinds of strikes, and feel great after that. As time goes by, you'd probably feel like you're learning one new thing a month, that's probably a subset of what you already know (e.g. a certain footwork, a certain counter). Sooner or later, there aren't much "new" things to learn anymore.
Remember the tool box earlier? If your tool box is full, your tool box is full. There's no real point to keep stuffing it up. In your mind, you're stuck, you're stagnant, and there's little to no progression. But there is, and there always have been. Instead of jamming more tools into your crowded and messy tool box, why not just sharpen up the tools that already inside the tool box?
When you have a million tools inside the tool box, how many do you actually use? Which ones do you choose to use? More often than not, the tools that you choose to deploy, are the ones you feel most comfortable; you know they are the sharpest, and the most utilised ones. If so, aren't the rest of the tools just clutter? Instead of depending on the 2 or 3 tools, why not sharpen up just 10 selected tools?
Look at your basics first. Do you know how to push kick? I'm sure y'all do. But have you been utilising it well? Is push kick a go-to move? Is your push kick a sharpened tool in your tool box that you'll use? If not, why not? Because it doesn't land? Because your push kick always gets caught into a counter/sweep? Instead of allowing yourself more layers of reasons, why not just make it better?
So we go circle back to the start of this blog, when do we finish exactly? To be honest, everybody stops, or finishes at some point. Where we finish learning, is when we stop learning. For some, their journey has been preset in such a way that they just want to experience one fight, and that's it. For others, it is a life long pursue of greatness and breaching boundaries after boundaries, like Sylvie (@sylviemuay ; if y'all haven't heard of Sylvie, you need to go follow her right now). Then there are those, whose mind and body seek a greater understanding of the arts, not necessarily through fights or competing, but through a deeper experiential attainment through training. For others, it could simply be because their membership has ended, and so does the learning.
Whichever your choice may be in this journey, remember, it's in your mind, and you decide when do you finish.