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Friday, February 1, 2019

Two Approaches to Mental Strength

Like most martial artists, I've been punched.  Aside from a few that were particularly hard or unusual in some way, most of those punches were pretty forgettable.

But the other day, I got a punch I will never forget.  The kind that has you standing in line at a grocery store two days later pretending everything is okay when it Definitely. Is. Not.  This punch came in the form of four words:

"I canceled my chemo."

My instructor proceeded to tell me about how he had to work outside in the cold this week, and if he had his chemo treatment, it would be too painful for him to complete the work.  He explained that he couldn't take the time off because he needed the money, so he canceled his chemo appointment instead.

So that was my punch, and I'd trade it for a dislocated jaw any day.  But as hard as this is for me, it is obviously much worse for him and his family.  I have the mental strength of a martial artist.  I can be everyone's rock, right?

How To Maximize Mental Strength


When we talk about physical strength, having a strong body can mean being able to lift heavy things, excelling in physical workouts, being resilient to illness, and so forth.  Mental strength also encompasses a lot.  It's the discipline to crank out those last few reps, the motivation to force yourself to go to class even if you'd rather stay home and relax, and the focus to keep your mind from wandering when you need all your attention in order to get a job done.


Just like a serious physical ailment can destroy all aspects of your body's strength, hardship can kick your discipline, focus, motivation, patience, and so forth, to the curb.

The good news is, mental strength trainable.  The even better news is, martial arts can be a great vehicle for training mental strength.

So what do you do when you need all your mental strength?

1.  Reframe your stressor as a challenge. 


If you never challenge yourself, you'll never improve.  If you're never failing, you're not challenging yourself.  So as insurmountable as your stressor may be, in some ways it's not so different from the heavy weight at the gym, or your nemesis sparring partner, or whatever other physical challenge you're trying to overcome.  Just like those physical challenges, if you've chosen a goal that is so easy that you have no chance of failing, you have chosen a goal that will not help you improve.  And just like practicing martial arts will make you better at martial arts, practicing with your problem will make you better at dealing with your problem.

Once you understand that whatever situation is giving you a beating is ultimately not that different from your regular training, you can approach it with a healthier mindset.

2.  Let the little stuff go.


There's science behind it, but it's also just common sense that when you are enduring hardship, it makes no sense to make it even harder on yourself.  If you put a lot of your mental energy into the proverbial deck chairs on the Titanic, the actual sinking ship is going to be that much harder to face because you're mentally fatigued.  Focus on what's most important, and cut yourself some slack if you're not perfect in other areas.

3.  Train your mental strength.


Hopefully you started this one before you need it.  Just like your physical conditioning, it takes time.  Very hard training that makes you dig deep to find the strength to finish will condition your ability to finish things you don't want to finish.  Ignoring distractions in your training space will condition your ability to control your focus and direct your mind back to the task at hand when it wanders.  Focusing on your next technique when some corner of your brain is telling you to feel embarrassment or pride about the last one will bolster your ability to spend your effort on things that can actually affect the outcome of your struggle.

4.  Manage your energy levels.


As trite as it sounds to include "self care" in a list like this, it's a cliche because it's true.  Taking care of your health and getting quality sleep will absolutely help your mental strength.  Beyond that, whatever boosts your energy is as individual as you are.  Spending time with friends, cuddling pets and getting lost in a book, splurging on a snooty dinner out, watching a movie, getting to class... all of that has a cost in time, money, or both.  But if it gives you the energy to jump back into the fight with gusto, it also has a lot of value.

So that's my toolbox.  Here's how I've used it lately.

I put on the biggest lie of a smile for the students who come to train.  No one is going to get the class they need if I'm not strong for them.  Focus now, despair later.  Make jokes about stances so that everyone is laughing while they're pushing themselves to improve.  Don't give the elephant in the room even an inch.  Make sure no one uses a particular 6-letter C-word.  Model excellent mental strength for students who still need to learn those skills.

Everything is just fine.  Actually, that's an old picture, so everything really is fine.

Off the training floor, I do everything I can to help out financially and logistically.  Try to give him a little more freedom and means to focus on his health.  That requires a measure of mental strength, too.

But that's me.  I'm not at the center of this turdnado, and the person who IS at the center has trained a lot longer than I have.  I wondered, does a lifetime of martial arts make you strong enough to face this?  So I asked.

Here's what he had to say.


1.  Stay positive.


"When someone hears you have cancer, they always say, 'I'm sorry.'  But I don't feel sorry for myself."  He then proceeded to talk about some good things that have come out of his experience with cancer, like learning from the experience, being more connected to the people around him, and increased spirituality.  He emphasized how important it was to stay positive in order to have the mental strength to keep fighting.

2.  Maintain self control.


It's easy to imagine what he's going through and think that he must be stressed out, irritable, in constant physical discomfort, and on the edge of despair.  But interacting with him, you'd guess none of those things.  He credits his martial arts experience with giving him the skill of calming himself and maintaining that calmness, for the mental strength it has instilled in him, and the physical strength as well.  Because, as he put it, "You can only build so much of your mind without considering your body."  I'm sure no doctor would disagree.

3.  Keep learning.


He specifically mentioned "drawing strength" from learning from the experience.  He talked about how the experience has made him more aware of the connection between his mind and body.  He says he has also learned to open up as a human being, and is now more conscious of his own feelings and the feelings of others.

4.  Keep being you.


Actually what he said was, "Always remember to keep giving."  But he has a GoFundMe, and I was afraid it would sound really self-serving, so I changed it.  But "always keep giving" is such a pure reflection of who he is as a person.  This is someone whose generosity has exasperated business partners by giving away so much for free to people who couldn't pay.  Someone who has given so selflessly to his students and to the community that there's not enough left for himself, a martial arts retelling of It's A Wonderful Life.  This is someone who swooped in like the mentor figure in some saccharine after-school special and helped me regain my footing after my own really awful story.

And I'm one of his less dramatic stories.  I know about ex-felons who turned their lives around because of his help.  I know of at-risk kids who he put on the right course.  I know of kids who were bullied to the verge of suicide who pulled through in part because of him.  His life has been a series of Quantum Leap episodes, minus the time travel.  How many of us see our lives that way?  If we could travel to the past, we say we'd try to make small changes that had heroic consequences for the present.  But who tries to make small changes in the present with heroic consequences for the future?

I've lost track of how many times I've heard him say some variation of, "I didn't train for X years so I could keep it, I learned it so I could give it away."  That variable X has increased over the time that I've known him, and is now up to 47 years as he said it to me again today.


Friends, I don't ask for much.  Sure, I appreciate the likes, shares and subscribes, but I don't have a Patreon, a paid content section, DVDs or books or supplements or snake oil for sale.  Even my seminars I do without a paycheck.  But right now I'm asking.  If you can help, please do.  https://www.gofundme.com/ken-bent-cancer-fund


Tuesday, January 1, 2019

7 Tools for your New Year's Resolution

It's New Year's Day, so it's time for all that "new me" stuff that tends to fall by the wayside before February 1st.  Personally, I have never really done the New Year's resolution thing.  I am constantly working toward goals, but they seldom line up with the calendar year.

To be successful in your goals, it mostly comes down to a whole lot of "wanting it."  That said, having the right tools can make it a little easier.  So with that in mind, here's a list of my favorite tools for pursuing challenging goals.

1.  A good goal.  


Look!  A metaphor!

Aw, you thought I was going to recommend a bunch of things you could go out and buy, and here I am leading with an abstract concept.  Sorry dude, none of this is going to be easy.  If it were easy, we'd all be 10th dan Olympic athlete rock stars with multiple PhDs.  If that's you, congratulations.  You can stop reading now.  You obviously have a good grasp of setting and achieving goals.  If instead you're scarfing down microwave ramen while watching cat videos and trying to decide whether you want to spend the rest of your evening studying, training, or playing video games (don't laugh, we've all been there) then this is for you.

Some goals fail before you even get started.  Want to get better at stuff?  That's not specific enough to work toward.  Aiming to get better at sparring?  How will you know when you get there if you can't measure it?  Hoping to flying side kick the moon out of the sky?  That's not achievable.  Want to run a 4-minute mile because the bragging rights would be cool?  Like I said earlier, most of achieving goals is a matter of really wanting it, so pick something relevant to what it most important to you.  Want to win a national championship someday?  If you can put it off until later, you probably will, so you need a deadline. 

There's a popular mnemonic to help you remember this:  SMART (specific, measurable, achievable, relevant, time-bound).  Setting a SMART goal helps set you up for success.  There's more on this topic in this episode of Iain Abernethy's podcast.

2.  Glucose.  


Willpower magnified by a power of a hundred billion or so.

Glucose is basically what powers your body.  Doing just about anything requires glucose.  Anything that requires effort will deplete your glucose a little bit, even just exercising your willpower.  Actually, this is a bit of an oversimplification, and more research is needed (you can read more about the science of willpower here) but for our purposes we can just consider willpower to be made out of glucose.  So getting out of bed, climbing into a really cold shower, saying no to the free cookies in the break room, being nice to that coworker who ignored your advice and "fixed" a bug by breaking every other similar feature in the project and then acted surprised when it did exactly what you said it would, getting your butt to class when you're really not in the mood, etc., all expends glucose. 

Some people refer to this concept as "spoons."  The idea is that you have a finite number of spoonfuls of energy, which you spend throughout the day.  I prefer to call them magic points or mana, because in my nerd brain, spending mana sounds way cooler than using spoons.  But whether you call it glucose, spoons, willpower, or mana, the important thing to remember is that you don't have an infinite supply.  When you run out (and you will!) you are done.  Your willpower is gone, and you'll snap at the obnoxious coworker, or you won't say no to the cookie, or you'll go to bed instead of to class, until you get your energy back.

You can make your goals easier to achieve by managing your glucose.  Don't waste it on things that won't help you achieve your goal.  That's also why it's so important to work on only one goal at a time.  If you want to ace your upcoming belt test, but you also want to publish a novel, pick the one you want to work on, and let the other wait.  This might hurt!  Setting aside something else that is important to you is just another really hard thing you'll need to do to achieve your goal.  Because trying to split your glucose between the two is a good way to fail at both.  Ace your belt test.  The novel will be there right where you left it, when you have the spoons it deserves.

The other thing you can do is replenish your glucose.  You do this by eating.

But what if you have the very common goal of losing weight?  If you run out of glucose by willing yourself to avoid calories, and you can only replenish that glucose by saying yes to calories, what do you do?  This is why dieting is hard.  So, acknowledge that it's going to be hard.  It's extremely important to not waste the glucose you have, because if you're dieting, your glucose will often be in short supply.  Don't use it to force yourself to practice guitar or clean the garage.  That can happen after the weight comes off.  Second, you can manage how and when you replenish your glucose.  Eating a healthy snack right before you know you'll need to expend willpower can help.

3.  Tracking software.


If your goal is to look unnaturally organized...

When a goal is important to you, you probably don't need to be told to track it.  You probably think about it all the time.  Give those thoughts a place.  If you're a pen-and-paper sort of person, you can try a training diary.  If you read that sentence and adjusted your glasses while saying, "That's not very efficient because it's not searchable or customizable and will not automatically calculate my progress," I'm sure you'll have no trouble setting up an elaborate spreadsheet.  (Weight loss spreadsheet people, try The Hacker's Diet.)  If you've got money to throw around, you might find a wearable fitness tracker that helps with your specific goal.  Or there's my personal favorite, which is goal tracking games like Habitica or SuperBetter.  Or even better, use some combination of trackers to suit your specific needs.  What you use doesn't really matter so much as just having a place to track your progress.  See that it's working (or that it's NOT working, so you can adjust your plan) and keep yourself motivated.

4.  Video games.


Eat my fire attack, monster.

Hear that?  That's the sound of a thousand martial artist rolling their eyes.  But bear with me.  Video games are something I enjoy, and your thing might be something else.  But if I just threw 8 quadrillion roundhouse kicks, you can bet that Dracula is about to get pwned.  After your 8 quadrillionth roundhouse kick, maybe you treat yourself to a good movie, or maybe you mosh to smooth jazz.  Whatever.  You do you.  But reward yourself.  And dieters?  Reward yourself early and often.  'Cause let me tell you, when the fate of the Koprulu Sector lies in the balance, and I'm building up my zerg army, and my base just got cannon rushed, I guarantee you I have no idea how hungry I am.

5.  Accountability buddy.


This picture both delights and terrifies me.

Having someone to keep you accountable can be huge.  Maybe your instructor does that for you, or maybe you've got a great training partner, friend, or significant other.  It's more fun when your accountability buddy is working toward a similar goal, but really it just has to be someone who is invested in your success.  Having access to that encouragement, having someone to vent to when the going gets rough, and knowing that someone else will notice when you persevere or slip up, all makes you more likely to succeed. 

That's one very good reason to line up your goals with the calendar year.  It's usually easier to find accountability buddies when so many people are enthusiastic about their New Year's resolutions.

6.  Plans.


Tear this ship apart until you've found those plans!

I don't have a whole lot in common with Darth Vader, but we both want those plans.  Schedule time to do the things that will set you up for success.  Try something like this:  Sunday at 4 PM is time to create a meal plan and grocery list to stick to my diet.  That 15 minutes immediately after class is when I'll work on my flexibility.  The first thing every morning will be forms practice.  Whatever your goal is, having the time to do it is essential.

7.  Luck.


I roll twenties!

Like I mentioned before, achieving your goals mostly comes down to wanting it badly enough to do the hard work of making it happen.  But it's dishonest to pretend that luck doesn't enter into the equation at all.  Even though it's borderline heresy to some, the truth is, there's just too much randomness in the world for life to be a perfect meritocracy, where your success or failure in your goals comes down exclusively to the work you put into them. 

Some extreme examples:  Your goal is to save a certain amount of money from each paycheck, and you win the lottery.  Now you don't have to live frugally to achieve your savings goals.  Let's say you're trying to increase the number of push ups you can do by the end of the month, but the flu takes you out of training for two weeks.  Or you're training for the Olympics when you lose a leg in a car accident.  In those cases, it's really easy to see that your goals need to be readjusted.  But smaller factors can add up and impact your goal, too.

If you've chosen a good goal that is an appropriate challenge level for you, a little luck one way or the other could be the difference between success and failure.  Not so?  That's either because you've chosen a goal that is so easy that you will only be challenged when your luck is bad, or a goal that is so hard that you have no real chance unless your luck is very good.  If you are really challenging yourself, really pushing the limits of your physical or mental strength, luck will get to push you around a little bit. 

The key is to be honest with yourself about your effort and progress, whether you succeed or fail.  There's a fine line between making excuses and knowing when bad luck did you in.  And there's an equally fine line between false pride and knowing when good luck gave you a boost.  If you're completely honest with yourself, you can make the most of whatever hand your were dealt, and go into your next goal with more insight.  "I added 5 reps per set last month even though I had the flu, so I should be able to improve even more this month," or "Having a training partner every day last week made it really easy to get to the gym, but my schedule is back to normal this week so I should plan accordingly," are realistic assessments of luck that set you up for success.


Best wishes to everyone in the new year, and best of luck to everyone in your goals for 2019!