Martial arts training changes as you get older. It’s important to adapt yet keep going. Life in many ways is like a big envelope you’ve been given. When you’re young it’s huge and padded and you can move around freely. After a while your envelope gets smaller and less padded. If you don’t watch out what you’re able to do is defined like a post card, stiff and with limited possibilities. You need constant training and work to stay with a larger envelope of possibilities. Everyone loses the padding though. If you want to be an 89 year old revered grand master (I’ve trained with two ) you first have to make it to 89. That’s the hard part, and to keep training.
A big question for many of us who are getting older is ‘is martial arts still for me?’ It gets much harder in many ways as you age. Life despite what you think when you are young just seems to get more complicated as you get older. You have more responsibilities and less time for you. Keeping up to the same level that you were when you were younger is difficult. If it was easy everyone would do it, everyone would be a master. The reason it’s valued is the difficulty. You probably can’t or don’t want to fight like you did when you were younger.
Young bloods say it’s all about sparring. It is for them as they’re at that time in their lives where it’s all about the opponent but later in your life the opponent is life itself. Martial arts is just the glass we interpret it through. Like a polarising lens martial arts lets us choose what comes through to impact us. How we see the world, how we define our path and who we are. This path is constructed part by our own disciplined practice, part random luck and part working with others. Having a great team to work and play your art with is as essential as the disciplined practice.
In the beginning it’s always about the combat. Self protection before self perfection but later it’s about the dance. The dance of life itself, moving through your body. Though I had a period when I did lots of Kata (formal dance type stuff) I soon fell out of love with that. It didn’t apply and it was like using something I’d learnt in a phrase book in a live conversation, only worse. However, now I’m older I value a Kata of sorts. More free but loving to move. Sometimes this is on your own in shadow boxing or drilling in the air or on equipment like the dummy or the bag.
The trouble with almost all of that is that it leads to a gradual decline in ability. Something that’s probably happening anyway. Solo work should be a rejoicing of your body moving, its the bedrock of a life long practice. However with no input from others it soon becomes stale and lifeless. That is why I now love what the Filipino’s call Sombrada, a form of counter for counter or at least that’s how it starts. It pretty soon morphs into some sort of free play or into sparring. However constraining the parameters of what’s allowed mean that you get questions asked of you that stimulate but your not getting bashed every day. What’s great about this is it’s sustainable, you can play everyday, keep your skills, get tested when you need to be or have fun if it’s that sort of day. You set the pace.
I’ve had lots of senior students tell me they were quitting martial arts as it was either getting difficult due to some life events or just that they thought it was a bit ridiculous at their age. (This can be any age past 30). Some I’ve managed to talk around and say, just cut back and have less expectation of yourself. My good friend Terry Barnett a full instructor in JKD and Kali says ‘ many give up because it’s all about them, but what about those they could help by staying with it? (after all those that helped them did) in my mind the warrior keeps going MORE THAN EVER when it gets tough; just like changing gears on car when driving up hill’.
Realise too that every decade has a different flavour. This is something Dan Inosanto says at nearly every seminar. This is a man who’s still training five hours a day at the age of 78. So he should know. I’ve shared ‘old man yoga’ with him and some of the other old guys at his academy early in the morning. It’s a feast of grunting and groaning but we’re all there stretching our bodies yet more importantly stretching our envelopes, our expectations of who we can be. It’s a daily climb, a daily practice.
It’s important to be relevant; I know it’s something I struggle with. I sometimes think what am I doing? I can’t fight like I used to though in a pinch I fight really well,) so what have I got to offer. Then I go teach a class and just raise everyones game either technically or psychologically. I offer advice on strategy and tactics. Often this same advice can be applied in every corner of your life. We’re just human beings relating and communicating with each other so obviously similar strategies apply. Push pull, avoid, grasp, cling, let go, having a forwards direction, keeping your head up, be soft, be hard etc etc all apply.
What’s hard is your personal definition of relevance. For me now it’s not only about fighting opponents though on good days I love to do that. On other days I’m a warrior for just turning up. It’s also about teaching and coaching others. Showing them the path, now my role is to send others to fight and define and defend themselves through martial arts. As Gibran says in the ‘ Prophet’ you are the bow and your student is the arrow. You can’t be them and they can’t be you. Your job is to aim them straight. Whatever role I’m in that day I always come back feeling better if I’ve trained.
Daily I define myself as a martial artist. How I relate to everything. Queuing, panic, aggression, frustration, set backs. Above all keeping calm and balanced, yet enthusiastic is a huge skill. I believe martial arts training is the best way to acquire and keep these skills. I see it in old friends and warriors who have either retired or given up. Most of them turn to fat and sort of lose their way. As least as seen from my viewpoint. The question I always ask myself is, ’is this who they wanted to grow up to be when they were younger’.
With the seniors who stay in martial arts there seems to be three courses. Some, fat and indolent with a touch of arrogance often reside in hierarchical systems. Others the hard men are more brittle, so hard they find it hard to flex. I loved these men when they were the top fighters, they were my heroes but some have found it harder to adapt and that hard approach has broken their body in many ways. Then thirdly, there’s the quiet men, the men walking the path. The guys like Dan Inosanto in his late 70’s, my friend Peter Consterdine and Lou Manzi in their 60’s, Terry Barnett, our own Steve Martin and of course Carl Greenidge all around the 50 mark, and others in different arts who are still training, though that training is defined differently every day. The problem with getting older. is all your previous actions come home to roost. Finding the balance is hard that’s why its to be valued. Wisdom comes through struggle. Also realise that your path isn’t their path. The only person you have to compete with is you. No one shares the same hurdles as you.
My advice to all is keep training but define training so it suits you. Rigan Machado the BJJ master told me “ it’s not you who has to adapt to jiu jitsu but we adapt jiu jitsu to suit you” This is your path. Find the way, adapt and keep balanced. Find the class or start the class that suits you, where you can train and keep going. Woody Allen says 90% of success is just turning up and I think he’s right. Even if you don’t achieve mastery it’ll change your very existence and your path through life. Plus on a good day you’ll be able to seriously kick ass.