“Hit the bag again,” my karate instructor says.
I kick the bag.
“No, not like that. What are you trying to cozy on up to it? It’s not your girlfriend, so hit the bag!”
I laugh to myself and hit the bag again.
“If you want to hurt yourself, then, by all means, continue.”
This time I sigh but kick the bag again.
“Look,” says my instructor, as he leaves his perch leaning against the counter. “You’re trying so hard to hit it, and you’re putting in so much effort, and every time I watch you kick, it hurts me inside. Just,” he walks up to the bag and demonstrates an effortless kick, “kick the bag. That’s all you have to do. Stop trying so hard, and let your body do the work.”
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard him say this to me over the decades. I overanalyze, wanting so much to get it right the first time, and I feel like every effort has to be dedicated, larger than life, and perfect. If I throw a kick, every kick needs to embody perfection.
“No, no, no, no, no,” he says while shaking his head. “You already know how to kick. That’s what the first ten years were for. Now I’m teaching you how to simply be. Stop trying and start doing.”
It seems like an easy concept to grasp. And you know what, I agree that it is. The trouble with me is I look back at life and feel like anything worth having has come at such a cost, and with too many unwanted extras, that I have to get it emphatically wrong to learn how to eventually succeed. So if I’ll be wrong, I’ll do everything I can to do it right while doing it wrong.
Yeah…that’s mental. Welcome to my brain.
I throw another kick. Another kick amidst the thousands spanning over two decades. But this one feels different.
“Finally. Good Lord, I thought you’d never get it,” says my instructor. He treats it like an everyday thing, despite the incredible breakthrough I just had. Ironically, though, he knows the connection that I just made, and he is fully aware of how pivotal and groundbreaking that ends up being.
He knows this because he’s hand more of those moments than I can count. And he knows to not make a big deal out of it because that usurps the reason for all his guffawing in the first place. He also knows that what just happened wasn’t for him, but for me. He doesn’t tell me to kick the bag again, but I do it anyway.
At least ten more times.
Because it clicked, and it was fun, and I love how it feels.
My karate instructors are first-rate, and this gentleman and his wife lead the pack. This is their style. It works, though it took me a long time to understand them.
Once my turn is over, I smile to myself and get back in line. The next student approaches the bag, and it’s time for their lesson, and my instructor settles in at the counter for the next round.
As I’m in line, I take time to reconcile with myself what just happened, and why. I’m immediately drawn to three things. First, I have an instructor that doesn’t settle for anything less than what is required. He won’t demean or belittle me when I make mistakes, but he will use what is available to him to get the point across. I have to know when I’m wrong to know when it’s done right. If that means I have to throw a thousand kicks, he’ll work through that with me.
The second thing is that I put so much expectation on myself to accomplish a task that I can’t understand until it’s fulfilled. Until I could feel the difference in how I was kicking, there was no way to actually understand it. But my teacher knew what he was doing, and he knew I could do it. All it took was faith, patience, and applied repetition.
And third, I try too hard.
My instructor is now in his early seventies, and he can still wipe the floor with me when we spar. I’ve known him and his wife for over twenty years; they’re closer than most of my family. We talk about practically everything, and we aren’t afraid to dive into any topic to see where it goes.
Both my teacher and I love Star Wars, and one of our favorite quotes comes from Yoda in Episode V. He’s teaching a young Luke Skywalker and delivers these profound words, “Do or do not. There is no try.” These are incredibly insightful words.
The example I started with of kicking the bag happened around five or six years ago when I returned to the martial arts. It’s one of my favorite lessons looking back.
Our classes only go around forty-five minutes to an hour, but back then, we’d spend at least fifteen minutes all taking turns and kicking the bag. And it’s not like we just got to do whatever we wanted. No, for almost a year, we focused on one kick, on one side of the body (that means we focused on either the right or left leg to kick).
As you think about it, I’m sure it seems incredibly monotonous, ridiculous, and unnecessary. After all, we live in the twenty-first century, so what need do we have to practice something so much? We can do it maybe three or four times and get what we need…it’s enough to continue.
Herein is the lesson.
I’ve just had this mind-blowing revelation in my ability, and I’ve waited my turn, and now I get to hit the bag again. Excitedly, I throw the kick.
“What happened, Bryce? It’s been like five minutes, and you forgot everything,” says my instructor.
I get serious now, knowing that I know how to do this and kick again.
“Stop, you’re hurting me again. Why are you doing this to me? What have I done to be punished so.”
Now I’m nervous, and I start overanalyzing again. I kick the bag.
“Bryce, you were doing fine earlier, and then you had time to think. Your brain is the enemy…it will not help you. Stop thinking, stop trying, and do it.”
He says these words, but this time I understand them. I know what he means now when he says to “just be” or “stop thinking.” Now comes the hardest part of the lesson. The first time I succeeded was due to ignorance and sheer willpower. But now…now I have to actively behave and duplicate. Now it’s not enough to be ignorant, or hopeful, or willful. Now it’s a matter of skill, acceptance, and trust.
But trust in me. Not my teacher. It’s time to stop doubting.
I relax. I take a breath. I close my eyes. I throw the kick. I feel the density of the bag as it collides with the top of my foot…I feel it buckle beneath the force…I notice my body torquing all the way around, in harmony with itself…the bag shoots off opposite my foot with a satisfying thump.
From the corner of the dojo, I hear rising laughter. “There you go. Now you’re getting it. Now get in your stance and do it again.”
Guys, there are few things more satisfying than duplicating a fantastic feat. Even one so simple as kicking a bag.
Not all things happen on our time table, and not all teachers are as wise as my instructor. In most situations, we aren’t the ones to determine if we’re masterful, or accomplished, or ready. In my opinion, how we meet the rigors of such a challenge is worth more than any self-entitlement.
I’m the kind of guy who hates making two trips to bring groceries into the house. I don’t like revisiting things or doing something over again. But because of my time in martial arts, I happily subject myself to repetition because I know the results it yields.
Doing something once, twice, three, or four times isn’t a recipe for success. They say practice makes perfect because no one has a specific number that equates to mastering some piece of life. Simply put, the more you apply, the better the result. The more you exist within, the more will resonate without.
Find and recognize those people who won’t let you get away with subpar activity. Find it within yourself to push beyond what you can rationally declare yourself capable of. It’s not about settling, it’s about believing. Faith is not a passive principle, nor is it outdated or obsolete. Without faith and hope, why would you continue with anything? Faith and hope create the reasons for terms like passion, improvement, growth, and success.
I had to kick a bag for one year to learn this. I hope you come to know this principle, and it equates to something just as meaningful.