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Stagnation & plateaus
25 April 2019

Stagnation & plateaus

Leading on from my last article on the challenges of solo training, now I would like to look at the topic of ‘stagnation’ & the linked phenomena of ‘plateauing’ in Martial Arts training. I think it would be fair to say that for almost all martial artists who have trained for some time, in any style or method, this feeling will crop up from time to time. Unfortunately, I have seen it be the undoing of many a talented individual. Hopefully this Article will serve as a brief route through the doldrums.

budoWhen the Plateau calls.

I remember very clearly the first point at which I felt stagnation in my practice. I was in my 20s and had been studying the Traditional Japanese arts for some time. During this time I was training consistently and diligently, heading towards my 1st dan examination in Daito Ryu Aiki Budo. The training involved the repetition of a set of Daito Ryu techniques known as the Ikkajo, Learning the Ono Ha Itto Ryu Kenjutsu and a large set of basic JuJutsu techniques. In the lead up to the exam I was repeating the techniques class after class and at home until I had perfected the details of each technique.

I passed the exam, my hard work paying off, and was off course was very happy. But, over the period of the next few months, and as the novelty of the Black Belt began to fade, the joy for my training began to fade with it. I was going through the motions, I felt like I knew what I was doing now, and the slackening of my mind began to produce a feeling that I was stagnant, no movement forward, and no life in my method. I was turning up 4 times a week, training like I always had, and even though I was learning the techniques of Nikkajo, Sankkajo and Yonkkajo now I was not feeling that there was any ‘improvement’, but simply that I was learning ‘new’ moves.

This phenomenon of stagnation was eventually broken when I began to turn my attention inward and look deeply at what ‘I’ was doing in each technique, rather than what I was doing to the partner. This shifting of perception completely shifted my training outlook and even the first technique of the first set, Ippon Dori, suddenly came alive and a new.

chris-bjjThe second time I felt a type of stagnation in my practice was during the training of Brazilian JiuJitsu when I was a blue belt. There is a term in BJJ called ‘Blue Belt Disease’. This describes the phenomena of people reaching blue belt then drifting away from the art and ceasing their training.  I never experienced a point where I felt I was going to leave BJJ behind, however, there was a period of around a year where it felt like my skill level was static, where I was not progressing or gaining new capability. This was a time of constantly anguish about the fact that I simply didn’t feel like I was getting anywhere at all, people were catching me with the same submissions, I was using the same old tricks to win rolls.

Again, this feeling would eventually lift and seemingly almost overnight, my perception of my own skill level took a big jump forward. It seemed like one week I was barely able to do basic moves and the next I was free to play around with advanced concepts.  In my martial arts journey, there have been many other more minor plateaus, points of boredom, stagnation or lack of progress, but what is going on in these types of scenario that we can learn to recognise and move past.

The Anti Climax Phenomena

Many martial arts have, baked into their process, a set of grades, achievements and milestones. This can be a valuable, if often somewhat contrived, aspect of training in a martial art. We aim for things like the coveted black belt or some other award and train extremely hard to get there. For some there is a feeling of desperation or urgency to get to the higher grades and this can be a powerful motivator for extremely hard training and dedication to the methods in the art. Without a doubt the goal of achieving this belt or that is, in most cases, a good thing.

bluebletBut it can also be the source of a very common feeling of lifelessness. This occurs once the illusive achievement has been gained. As I mention above this is something that we often see in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu during Blue Belt. This is the phenomena of extremely dedicated white belt practitioners, who may spend several years of their life training as a white belt to achieve the often-coveted Blue belt, suddenly ending their training once Blue belt is achieved.

Part of the reason for this can be put down to something I call the Anti Climax Phenomena. This is largely caused by a persons expectation not matching reality and is an common feeling for some martial artists. As I mentioned previously, a white belt may spend 3- or 4-years training extremely hard to gain their blue belt. They may put in a large number of hours a week training with dedication and vigour. When they are finally graded to Blue Belt, it is an extremely happy day. Blue belt in BJJ really is a big initial achievement and costs much more than its equivalent in many other arts where 4 years may be the time it takes to get to the Black belt!  But there is one thing for sure, the next week, when the new blue belt arrives at training, they will be open to a new level of pressure put on them by the Purple, Brown and Black Belts.

The individual has their shiny new award, but when they step back on the mats, it feels like nothing changed because when it comes to their skill, ultimately nothing did. There is a famous saying from the Gracie Family regarding this, “The Black Belt only covers two inches of your ass”. Experiencing that your new belt ultimately doesn’t change your skill can play a harsh game on the mind. The new blue belt will often feel that the achievement of the belt was somewhat anticlimactic.

This, of course is not limited to BJJ, and in many martial arts, striving for an award and achieving it will be followed by a period of low mood as it seems that there is nothing much to aim for now.

Understand that almost everyone feels this at some point in their training, but also understand there is always more to learn, that piece of cloth around your waist doesn’t define what you do with your mind and body. It is simply a marker for your efforts, but the efforts must continue. So, stand up and move through this phenomenon with determination to further deepen your personal skill.

The Burn out Phenomena

Of course, we are not always striving for awards. Especially with Solo training like that found in many martial arts, or with supplementary training like MartialBody. Much of what we do as martial artists will be a repetitive process of tiny incremental improvements. These are things that may not provide massive insights, big jumps in skill or intellectually challenging experiences. Doing the same thing, repeatedly is often a requirement, but there is no doubt that this can tax the willpower and our desire.

breathingThis process can often lead to the next plateau that people often hit, the Burn Out Phenomena. This is the time when people are ‘fed up’ of training a certain thing, they think that they are not getting anything out of it, they are not noticing differences, they are not feeling any benefits and they are frankly bored.

It is a very difficult feeling to get past as it is likely somewhat based in a truth. Sometimes training will reach a point of diminishing returns for a period.  The very nature of adaption is such that the body, once it has adapted to a specific method or training input will not experience further substantial development and as such you will begin to burn yourself out mentally for very little return.  To further compound the problem, the body wants to stay in this new found place of comfort. It takes energy to adapt and our organism is very good and trying its best to avoid expending ‘unnecessary’ energy.

The burn out phenomena can also rear its ugly head when we are training the same thing over and over again in a martial art. I have seen many individuals drop out of martial arts when they have reached a point where they think they have little else to learn. They get their black belt, then are just doing the same Kata, the same forms, the same ‘applications’ over and over again every session.

In some respects, the burn out phenomena must be respected, it can be a useful tool to tell us to move on, to learn something new, to mix up our training or to train harder. But it is certainly hard to get out of if we do not recognise that we are in the midst of it. Moving on does not mean that we must leave our beloved training, however. As I highlight above, when I began to feel stagnant in the traditional Japanese Arts a simply change of internal focus opened up an entirely new world to me. It is here that applying body training like that of MartialBody and inserting concepts into your already high level of knowledge can create an incredible, new, training.

It is also in this instance that the idea of creating goals or something to aim for can be very useful. For the Combat sports, it can be as simple as entering an upcoming competition. For the traditional arts it could be completely changing your focus of training, from empty hand to weapons for instance, or from Kata to conditioning.

There is a saying in some martial arts that one must ‘taste the bitter’ and there is perhaps nothing more bitter than burning out.

The Comparison

punchOne trick that we can play on ourselves is to think that our progress has plateaued, when comparing ourselves to others. It is very common for people in an, often confrontational, sport or martial art, to compare their level with those around them. As a coach I see this a lot in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu

In fact, just last week one of the White Belts I coach, who’s level has shot up in recent months, made the comment that they ‘don’t think they are getting anywhere’ at the moment! I was shocked to say the least, as this individual is often giving Purple belts a hard time.

But I quickly realised that they were comparing themselves to the others in the class, and it is a class full of young, talented athletes. There are blue belts and purple belts of the highest Calibre in the sessions and when comparing skill sets to those individuals they will inevitably feel like they are not progressing, as those people are also progressing very quickly. However, if they were to step away from the comparison with others and simply look at how far they had come, they would see the stark and incredible progress they have made.

Happily, this is one plateau that we can largely rule out. In almost every situation I have encountered this problem of this feeling passes quickly and is simply an illusion. So, head down, focus on your game, and you will soon realise you are still moving forward.

You are not alone

Hopefully this article will resonate with some, if not all, of the readers because it is never truer to say you are not alone than in this instance. I don’t know any martial artist that has been in the game for some time who has not felt they are stagnating or plateauing at some point in their training.

Knowing this, you should feel better prepared when the inevitable does rear its ugly head. Whether it is a change of focus, the addition of new information like MartialBody training, the setting of a target or simply a change of direction, there is always a route out of the feeling that you are plateauing in your training.

Every moment of training is progress in training.

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