March 12, 2021, Israel
With the old gang at Itay's, 1994.
I appreciate the compliment. It means a lot. Unfortunately, my brain doesn’t allow me to stop there. I’m constantly looking for faults and issues to fix. Other knows how much of a burden this is for me. It’s nearly an obsession. (from a recent letter from one of our top instructors).
New York City, mid to late 1980s. I walk into the Oyama dojo, I am looking for a place to train. I am a serious type. I already visited a few schools and decided they were not for me. I am speaking with Sensei Romero, who would soon become my teacher. He tells me, Our students pay their dojo membership dues before they pay their rent. I am impressed. I sign up.
I am very harsh on myself, in a very harsh environment. This is not your country club karate, this is hard core Kyokushin Karate directly from Japan, and discipline and hard training is the rule. No one speaks during class other than "Osu", push ups are done on your knuckles on hardwood. Sparring is full contact. I loved it from the start.
I trained hard, I woke up early every morning and took the train to Manhattan, I came back after work for more training. At work I would often take "bathroom breaks" as our office bathroom had a huge mirror. I would practice my kicks facing the window, until someone walked in, at which point I washed my hands and pretended to have been doing my "business".
Was I obsessed? I don't know.
I wanted to improve, I wanted to be the best I could be. My girlfriend knew the rules; no phone conversation could begin after midnight. My sleep time was essential for a successful class the next day. At home I had a Makiwara punching board which I would hit until my hands bled or until the other residents of the building complained.
The dictionary defines Obsession as a persistent disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable idea or feeling. Broadly compelling motivation.
I do not think my behavior was obsessive, but I was certainly motivated.
In Israel my training continued. Three times per week, three lesson per day, plus training at home, and soon teaching martial arts as well. That amounted to quite a few hours per week. I turned down jobs that conflicted with my martial arts training, arrived late for Bar Mitzvas and weddings, came to dates with a fat lip or a swollen face. I pushed off starting a new job by two weeks so I could complete my preparation for my brown belt test with Itay Gil. I showed up the next day looking like I had been beaten up by a gang of terrorists. I had my priorities.
Training with Itay was serious, and I made it more serious. I graded, evaluated, myself after every class. I don't think I ever gave myself more than a 7. Usually it was a 5 or a 6. One day Itay called me in for a talk. He said I watch everyone as they fight and I come to understand their psychological problems. You are extremally hard on yourself. You don't stop until you have perfected a technique. You never forgive yourself.
I thought about that but did not change my behavior or way of training. I came to train, not to have fun. The light went on sometime later when chatting after class with one of my regular opponents', Oded Borenstein. Oded was one hell of a tough guy, a serious opponent and a great fighter. He hit hard, he was brutal. He was always one of my more challenging opponents. I pushed myself to outdo him. And then we chatted, casually, perhaps for the first time.
He enlightened me. He was not as serious as I was, he was having a good time and always seemed to be happy. He said to me, I love coming here, great people to hang out with, some fighting, some fun, a good workout, it's great!
I was stunned. It was almost like a knockout blow. Fun? he was having fun? This tough guy that pushed me to my limits, this guy who fought me tooth and nail was enjoying himself the entire time? This was not work for him, but just a good time?
I didn't know that fun was OK. I came to understand that fun in training is the "Spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down". Fun is good for training.
Yes, I have come to realize that being too harsh on ourselves does not advance our cause, and most likely hinders it. As my dear student who wrote the lines that opened this blog said... I am constantly looking for faults and issues to fix. Now it is certainly important to constantly try and improve. And yes, we should be self-critical and ask our instructors where we can improve, these are good qualities. But there is a thin line where we must be careful, and that is when we become so obsessed that we might now be enjoying it anymore.
Now allow me to clarify myself: I see Krav Maga training as a matter of life and death, nothing less. I believe in it with all my heart, and we must take it very seriously. But I have come to understand that fun is a factor. When we enjoy our training, we train better. In a way, being more relaxed helps us learn. Humor has become a tool of my trade. Look for faults, seek to constantly improve, but be like Oded, remember to have fun. This is the best time of your life. You are young, you are healthy, and even if not, this is the youngest you will ever be from now on. So enjoy it!
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