look so intently
over the steps
leading to it.
where you are.
Peaks, Valleys and Plateaus
This Too Shall Pass
By now you know that practice is a process to be
experienced, not a result to be achieved. It’s a journey, not
a destination. Sometimes though, it feels a lot like a roller
coaster. You always seem to be hitting peaks and falling
into valleys. Some days, you feel great about your practice.
You feel strong, powerful, ﬂexible, focused. Your cardio is
good and your techniques are crisp and clean. You can’t get
enough of these days. Other times, you feel overwhelmed,
sloppy, distracted. You keep looking up at the clock. You
wonder if you’re ever going to get any better at this.
Sometimes these peaks and valleys last for awhile — weeks,
Obviously no one loses interest in practice during a peak.
You’re excited, you feel like you’re improving, your life
outside the dojo is somehow becoming less stressful, as if
your martial arts practice is actually improving your life in
general. You can’t believe your good fortune in ﬁnding
something this authentic, this much fun and this useful. But
that’s the nature of riding the peak. Sad to say, it doesn’t
last. All the discipline and focus in the world can’t stop your
practice from periodically dropping into a valley. The point is
to be careful that these low points don’t steal your practice
from you. Don’t lose sight of the fact that a valley is simply a
lull between two peaks. These valleys don’t reﬂect a sudden
breakdown in physical ability, but a shift in how you feel
about practice. It’s not your physical execution of technique
that’s slipping, you still know how to do all the things you
were doing last week — but your mood, your attitude has
In practice as in life, many people’s true potential goes
unrealized for one reason: they do not follow through when
things gets difﬁcult. They forget that, given enough time,
change is certain. Most people have a tendency to give up
when the tables turn, instead of sticking it out until the
tables turn again. They rationalize, “Oh, I’ve got no will
power,” but this is a self-perpetuating rationalization.
Will power, like a muscle, needs to be exercised. You need
to take control. Undisciplined will is a lazy, spoiled child;
every time a situation becomes difﬁcult, it seeks the path of
least resistance — to give up. Each time you give in to the
spoiled child, each time you shrug and give up, you increase
the chance that that same spoiled brat will show up when
things get tough in the future. Each difﬁcult period you
ride out builds a stronger will, as you take charge of your
life, and begin to become someone who follows through on
Success is not
same is true of
You’re Not Really Stuck!
More dangerous to your practice than these alternating
peaks and valleys is the plateau. A plateau is a signiﬁcant
period of time when you feel that you are not getting any
better. It differs from a peak or valley in that these ups and
downs continue even when you are on a plateau. You have
In life, you will
Take care not to
turn the valleys
good days and you have bad days but, over the longer run,
you don’t really seem to be getting any better or any worse.
Your practice seems to have just ﬂattened out. A plateau can
last several months or even a year. You may test for a new
rank, learn a new form, even be introduced to different parts
of the curriculum. Regardless of these external benchmarks,
you still feel like you’re on a plateau and that you’re not
making any real progress.
Let’s analyze this phenomenon. In the ﬁrst nine months of
your practice, you learned more over one short stretch than
you ever will again. This is only logical. When you came
into this practice, you knew nothing of this art. You were
a complete novice and everything was new and exciting.
There was, literally, everything to learn. In each class, you
tried as hard as you could to perform the physical technique
and to understand the philosophy behind it. You might go
home a little confused, sore and tired, but you knew you
were learning, you were getting it, and maybe, just maybe,
someday you would be as good as some of the senior
students. Even when this initial period seemed to slow down,
you were still progressing remarkably quickly — learning
terminology, technique, philosophy and principles. Your
practice became something very special to you, and soon
you couldn’t imagine yourself not going to the dojo. You
wondered many times how you ever made it through life
without this special place, and quietly committed to yourself
to practice forever.
Overcoming Frustration Through Understanding
Now, let’s fast forward to the present day. You have
practiced for at least one year, and if you haven’t already
hit a plateau, you are very close. You’re expected to keep
improving your basics, but the techniques you already know
aren’t really getting any better and the new techniques
are even more difﬁcult. It’s not just your physical practice
either. The newness of it all has worn off. You’re discovering
that Christmas morning is more exciting than Christmas
afternoon, and why, three weeks later, you’re not entirely
sure what you wanted these presents for in the ﬁrst place.
This is a very different phase of practice than your ﬁrst year.
If you expect to continue to learn as quickly as you did in the
beginning, you will become frustrated.
Look at it this way. You began your practice at zero (not
even knowing how to do the techniques) and hoped to
someday achieve ten (mastery of the art). You may go from
zero to four or ﬁve relatively quickly but, from ﬁve on up, all
growth is incremental and is increasingly more difﬁcult. In
other words, learning how to perform the gross motor skills
involved in the technique and forms of your art may only
take a year or two (zero to ﬁve on the scale), but complete
physical mastery and deep understanding of these same
techniques (six to ten on the scale) can take twenty or thirty
more years. You cannot hope to make progress at the same
rate year after year. Eventually, when you have practiced
martial arts for many years, well over 90% of your time will
be spent on plateaus.
Wisdom is not
what you can
but what you
One of the reasons that people become a jack of all trades
Your future is
dictated by your
Take care that
desire is always
to realize the
and never master anything is because they get excited
about the initial pace at which they learn a new subject.
Whether it is mountain biking, rock climbing, golf or any
new activity, there is a rapid learning curve in the beginning
which invariably tapers off. Once they hit their ﬁrst plateau,
most people start looking for a new way to spend their
time. They’ve got the basic moves, and they’re not learning
as quickly, so they rationalize that they’ve learned most of
what there is to learn. The activity is no longer instantly,
quantiﬁably exciting, and so it’s on to a new activity, a new
thrill, maybe a new style of martial arts. This may or may
not be a conscious decision, but people, especially in the
West, have short attention spans. As progress wanes, so does
Sometimes you feel stuck at a plateau for so long that it
appears that you are as good as you are ever going to get.
Take care not to build a nest, turning the plateau into a
comfort zone. A plateau can feel frustrating and conﬁning
and, sometimes, all you want is to reach that next level.
That’s ﬁne; you can ﬁnd motivation in that attitude. It’s when
you become too comfortable, when you become resigned
to where you are, that a plateau becomes a comfort zone.
Double your efforts and keep practicing. Talk to your teacher.
Everyone has been through this. This is the meaning of the
saying, “Learn to love the practice and not just the progress.”
Dedicate Your Life to Something!
It’s ironic that we show such respect and honor to people
that have dedicated their lives to their art, sport, discipline
or craft. Deep down, we all admire perseverance. We
recognize that no one gets as good as they can possibly be
at anything without struggling, without pushing through
their limitations and overcoming plateaus. When you’re on
a plateau for a extended period of time, you may actually
feel that you are going backwards; you start to see your
technique as declining. This is actually a very good sign,
and here’s why. Progress alternates continually in two ways:
1. An understanding of what you should be doing, and
2. The physical execution of technique.
When you see yourself as declining, what is really happening
is that your awareness has been elevated, you understand
what you should be doing in a much deeper way. The next
step is to learn how to physically execute what you now
Tell me, I’ll forget.
Show me, I may
But involve me
and I’ll understand.
This is why
A student went to his teacher and said,
“My meditation is horrible! I feel so distracted,
or my legs ache, or I’m constantly falling asleep.
It’s just horrible!”
“It will pass,” the teacher said matter-of-factly.
A week later, the student came back to his teacher.
“My meditation is wonderful! I feel so aware, so
peaceful, so alive! It’s just wonderful!”
“It will pass,” the teacher replied matter-of-factly.
cannot ﬂy. It’s body
weight is not the
right proportion to
laws, the bee
An Advanced Technique is a
Basic Technique that’s been Mastered
This internal and external circular process of confusion,
analysis, understanding, execution and progress will continue
throughout your practice. The curriculum becomes confusing,
then you suddenly realize the deeper subtlety of what you’re
really trying to learn, and now you must get your body to
perform these “new” subtle details. For example, a white
belt that has been practicing for just a couple of months has
difﬁculty seeing the difference between the way they throw
techniques and the way that senior students execute the same
techniques. To make progress, they must ﬁrst understand the
differences. When they do, when they’re hit with, “Oh, so
that’s what I should be doing,” they can feel overwhelmed.
However, with awareness, comes the beginning of new
growth. Once you understand the difference between correct
and incorrect details, you can adjust and progress. Now
practice becomes exciting again because you realize there’s so
much new to learn. You feel like you’re improving, and your
life outside the dojo becomes less stressful, as if your martial
arts practice is improving your life in general. You can’t believe
your good fortune in ﬁnding something this authentic, this
much fun and this useful. You quietly commit to yourself to
Until months later, when you feel like you’re never going
to get any better. You’re frustrated. And then you suddenly
realize that there’s yet another level to that same technique.
“Oh,” you say, “Now I get it!”
And here we go again…
Sam began his martial arts practice at the
age of eight. By the time he was ﬁfteen he
was ﬁghting in full contact tournaments.
Now at 19, he held a 2nd degree black belt.
One day Sam’s dad peeked into the garage and saw Sam
pounding furiously on the heavy bag. While trying to get
Sam’s attention, he noticed blood all over the ﬂoor. Sam had
been punching the bag for over an hour without gloves. The
canvas bag had ripped his knuckles to shreds. After stopping
Sam from hitting the bag, he calmed him down and asked
what he was so upset about. Sam told his dad that he had
been beaten in a sparring match earlier that night. It wasn’t
the ﬁrst time that Sam had lost a match, but the student who
had beaten him was someone that had not practiced nearly
as long and, in fact, was someone who Sam had introduced
to martial arts. He had helped this student learn his basics.
After listening to Sam, his dad said, “Well, maybe you are
as good as you are going to get. I mean, you have come a
long way and this is the ﬁrst guy that you taught basics to
that beat you, but you know it won’t be the last.” Then his
dad added, “There is a story that I want to share with you.
There was a little boy that wanted was to play professional
baseball. That’s all he ever wanted to do. He played every
single day, for years. He played on school teams, in rec
leagues, on travel teams — this boy was real good, and he
loved playing ball, but you know what? He never made it to
the pro leagues. Then, there was this other kid that never
even picked up a baseball until he was seventeen. I mean, he
is mastery of
mastery of self.
Before the world
ﬁnds a place for
you, ﬁnd a place
in the world.
liked playing ball, but it was just something fun to do. Three
years after he started, he was playing professional baseball.
Sam, you just never know. You’ve come a long way in martial
arts, but maybe you’re as good as you’re going to get.”
Sam was at a plateau and he had a decision to make. Would
he continue to practice or was he done? He gave it some
thought and decided that whether or not he ever got any
better, he was going to keep practicing.
Several years later, Sam was sitting down with his instructor
for a cup of coffee, and shared the story. After listening
closely, his instructor said, “Your dad was right. We all hit
plateaus, and the body does have limitations. If martial arts
were merely a physical activity, then these limitations would
determine our ability to advance. Fortunately, martial arts is
also a mental discipline. It’s not a coincidence that so many
great masters were at their peak well into their 60’s, 70’s,
even 80’s. You need to spend more time developing your
concentration, your breathing sensitivity and awareness.
Practice with deep attention to details, be mindful always,
and you will continue to improve beyond any mere physical
Peaks, Valley, and Plateaus
Plateaus are normal and natural and experienced by
everyone. Plateaus are really a great means of insight into
the way that you are thinking about practice. Are you
thinking that you should be better by now? Are you thinking
that it’s hopeless, that you will never get any better? Maybe
you think that everyone else is getting it but you.
When you are aware of this negative self-talk and internal
dialog, you can begin to put a stop to it. The most important
thing is not to become too attached to these thoughts,
believing them to be true. They are just thoughts.
To help rise above negative thoughts, go back and practice
the techniques of watching your thoughts. It is in Lesson Five
of Module One. It will help you to remember that you are
not your thoughts.
A man who strikes
ﬁrst is usually
angry or scared.
As Martial Artists,
we should strive to
cannot hit the
bulls eye if he
Back to Basics
The activity this month is to be a beginner again. For the
next month, if appropriate, attend only the beginner classes.
Watch and work out with the beginners. This will help you
to see how far you have come, as well as help you to sharpen
your basics. You will also appreciate the details that are being
taught in these classes. Go into this activity open-minded and
resist feeling that you already know the curriculum. Watch
the beginners carefully, not judging technique, but their
excitement at learning. If it is not possible to only attend
beginner class, at least attend one a week for a month. Take
notes on everything that you observe and highlight what you
feel are the most important. At the end of the month write a
paper on your observations, feelings, and overall experience.
People always say that hindsight is twenty twenty. This
month you have an opportunity to look back and see what
you might have missed.
If we don’t change our direction,
we’re likely to end up where we’re headed.
The Father of Judo:
A biography of Jigoro Kano
Brian N. Watson
Beyond the Known:
The Ultimate Goal of the Martial Arts
Tri Thong Dang
Ultimate Martial Arts Encyclopedia
John R. Little and Curtis F. Wong
All things good
to know are
difﬁcult to learn.
Martial arts is