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Getting Here, Being Here

I recently had a wonderful conversation about the mindset of martial arts with a college professor. He is particularly qualified to speak on the subject. His doctorate is in Sports Psychology. He is Japanese, with a Japanese teacher’s license, and he is an experienced kendo competitor.

We sat on my couch, enjoying a drink and good company in the afternoon sunlight, and talked about healthy competition. He asked me two questions. First, why do I practice aikido? Second, why do I get unmotivated to practice? I practice because I love the art. I slack off when I get too focused on me or my own achievement.

I asked him his mental approach to a kendo competition.  I was asking about his pre-game routine. His pump-up jam or meditation. His answer wasn’t what I expected. Japanese athletes train to approach their competitors with respect before the match because without the opponent, there would be no competition. At the end of the match, they bow in respect–win or lose–because without the opponent, there would be no competition. The concept was so foreign, I didn’t even think of that as pre-game preparation.

As we compared Japanese and American approaches to competition, we circled around the topic of motivation. Sport can’t only be about winning. Winning is a moment. Just as losing is a moment. That can’t be everything. Wins and losses lead to team and athlete growth.

From there, our discussion led us to the mindset of martial arts training as distinct from sport training. Why do we learn to hold a wooden sword and learn how to hit with it and be hit with it? Why learn to strike and block rather than do sports that are more traditional play? Although people have different motivators, my friend and I share the same core perspective: Training isn’t to win. It isn’t to dominate or be the best.

We train to be in this moment. Whether we are facing an opponent in the ring or chatting at a barbecue, we try to be present. Ready. Awake to what is going on. Mindfulness is bringing all your awareness to where you are. On the mat and off. Present and aware. We train to connect to what is happening around us. And, maybe more importantly and more difficult, is to connect to the people around us.

It all comes back to motivation. In sports, we train to be in the moment, to be alert and ready to play. We don pads and special shoes, bend into special stances, do special exercises that serve the game. Then we play, aiming to win while the clock winds down and the points rack up. And then, whatever the outcome, we wind down for the post game.

In martial arts we train to change the baseline, to create a new normal. We don pads and special clothes, bend into special stances, and do special exercises that train the body and mind to permanently change. We practice throws and strikes and falls to prepare for potential future threats. We practice reacting to threats, to violence, so that we change our reactions. However, there is no post game, just progress.

We slouched on my couch in the afternoon sunlight, neither of us worried about our posture. Neither of us was ready to jump up and smack someone. Yet our martial training shaped the moment and our respect for each other. We were present. As awake and aware as we could be to each other and the world around us.

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