In my last post I spoke about my new direction to learn new skills. One of the consequences of this decision was joining a local Kung Fu martial arts club together with Jamie. With my 35th birthday on the horizon and 3 short months of training under my (now yellow!) belt I wanted to share my thoughts on learning a martial art in your mid-thirties.

My main goal behind joining was to challenge my body physically with less linear movement.  However, the benefits I am getting and the lessons I am learning have so far extended way beyond what I expected.

The first thing I discovered was that you need to be comfortable with feeling stupid: not knowing the etiquette, not knowing the moves, getting out of rhythm, being the only one in the class who doesn’t get the sequence, being behind kids 20 years younger than you. We are all good at being newbies when we are children. When we hit adulthood we become “important”. Important people don’t make mistakes, don’t blunder, and don’t look ridiculous. Unfortunately, feeling self-conscious also puts up a wall between you and the new information. You need to allow yourself to feel vulnerable and then it flows in unencumbered.

Another amazing discovery was the applicability of everything.  I have been able to draw on so many seemingly unrelated experiences in my Kung Fu practice that I have come to a little personal realisation: everything you do in your life, everything you have ever done matters.

Dance classes taught me to pick up movement patterns quickly and being able to perform a sequence of several moves pretty much from the first go.

Yoga and Pilates helped me develop good body awareness and joint control, together with a decent level of flexibility.

Strength training allowed me to have the capacity to move with precision, control and balance, and power to hit hard even if my technical ability is still lacking.

Years as a group fitness instructor (and also having Russian genes) gave me the unflappability to perform at my best at grading while being judged by instructors and watched on by my peers.

My 11 years of classical piano training gave me flexible fingers with strong tendons and a skill to break down my practice into small boring manageable chunks which you have to drill until you don’t get it wrong.  Unexpectedly, this probably turned out to be my most precious experience of all, even though I quit playing a long time ago, having never developed a deep love for piano despite “being good” at it.

Focused practice is not something that you are born with. It’s a skill that is sadly missing from a regular school curriculum. You can get good at anything by just repeating the action again and again. Want to learn how to ride a mountain bike? Sure. Just start riding. Ride a lot. Want to learn the Moonlight Sonata? Sure, just play it. From start to finish, play regularly, and you will see results. Dance, yoga, martial arts? You invest a year and initially have a huge improvement. Then you stall. Even increasing the number of hours practiced does not bring improvement. Why? Because this is not how you achieve mastery. Mastery requires Focused Training.

It’s getting off your bike and walking through a tough section of trail, looking for the best line, then riding it trying, failing, trying again, and then winning.

It’s pausing on a tricky part of the musical piece and analysing what you are missing: is it the technical skills or the speed of your fingers? Is it the rushed transition? You break it down and play slowly, one hand at a time, repeating until a neighbour knocks on your door and tells you how annoying it is to hear 3 bars played over and over again for 20 minutes. Really? I didn’t notice. I was in the FLOW.

We apply this to Fu in exactly the same way. Is it just a matter of repeating the pattern again and again and hoping it will stick? There are certainly people who approach it that way.

“How do you get better at sidekicks?”- “You just do more sidekicks.” Wrong answer.

“How do you develop better fitness for Kung Fu?” – “You just attend more classes”. Wrong answer.

The law of diminishing returns hits fast and hard. Getting from mediocre to mastery is a giant leap requiring slow deliberate practice underlined by thoughtful analysis and honest appraisal of your strengths and weaknesses. And no, this does not just apply to martial arts. Any skill can benefit from Focused Practice.

A few weeks ago I mentioned to Jamie that I am enjoying Fu so much I wished I had started it earlier in life. Then I caught myself. No, I don’t. If I did I would not have had the benefit of all this random knowledge in my storage bank. Would I have even enjoyed it? Would it feel as rewarding without some of the “baggage” that I did not imagine would ever come in useful.  I may speak about the Kung Fu philosophy another time but let’s just say that’s another area which would have been left woefully underappreciated by a 20-year old me.

Three months in and the journey continues. I don’t know whether I will ever get to that black belt but I will certainly have fun nerding out while trying.


For those of you interested, this is our current training schedule:

MONDAY – Kung Fu practice 90 mins. In this class our personal focus is technique. We are lucky to be the most junior in this class and we really benefit from watching the senior students. We also get to practice sparring with those who have better skills and control than we do

TUESDAY – Strength and Conditioning. We start with a skipping warm up to strengthen our ankle tendons, and kettlebell swings for a powerful hip hinge. We follow a modified Wendler programme with 5 x 5 main lift on the first week of the cycle, followed by 5 x 3 and 5 x 2, finishing with a rest week. Previous cycles had us doing back squats on this day but this time we have switched to front squat to help Jamie work on his slight anterior pelvic tilt which interferes with his kicks. After the main lift we do a circuit where we normally throw in a lower body corrective (Cossack squats this time around – great for side line kicks), and a horizontal push and pull (dips and rows). Finish with a core-specific exercise. On one of the weeks of this cycle will be our jump day with a focus on fast foot work or a kick-specific day.

WEDNESDAY – Kung Fu practice 60 minutes. This is usually a small class led by a very supportive instructor who allows us to work on whatever we want to work on.

THURSDAY – S&C. Deadlift as a main lift, followed by vertical push and pull circuit (pulls ups and overhead presses). I normally work on my handstands and balances as part of my warmup. This gives an additional benefit of wrist conditioning which is very important for Fu as we don’t wear gloves.

FRIDAY – rest. Occasionally I do an easy yoga class mainly focusing on hip mobility and standing balance.

SATURDAY  – Kung Fu practice 90 mins. We don’t make this class every week but when we do we focus on perfecting our patterns and other elements that are specific to our grading.

SUNDAY – We normally hike or ride our mountain bikes if I am not working and we have the energy.

We normally throw in some mobility/flexibility work at home on the carpet in the evening. Jamie also likes to ambush me with sneaky kicks/punches while we are cooking dinner. He says it’s to test my reflexes. Suuure.

The programme is really flexible. If we feel buggered – we don’t go to classes or don’t lift heavy. We have to balance all this against Jamie’s full time job (for another 12 weeks at least!) and my full time shift work. Sleep trumps training every time. If we discover a new weakness we throw that in, being mindful to throw something else out. You can’t just keep padding your programme with more and more stuff. As recently as last week I have discovered that lack of active dorsiflexion is limiting my ability to blade well for a side kick. Now I’m doing lots of toe lifts as a result. My forearms are pretty weak so every time I use a steel frying pan I perform a pronation/supination drill with my elbow fully extended. I also try to work on my grip strength whenever I think about it at home.