Peaks, Valleys and Plateaus Part 1

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, maybe months.

Sometimes we look so intently toward the pinnacle, that we stumble over the steps leading to it. Development begins just where you are.

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 changed.

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.

Success is not permanent. The same is true of failure.

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 commitments.

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 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.

In life, you will experience peaks and valleys. Take care not to turn the valleys into nests; transforming them into plateaus and perhaps even destinations.

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.

Wisdom is not what you can remember, but what you cannot forget.

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.

One of the reasons that people become a jack of all trades 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 motivation.

Your future is dictated by your deepest desire. Take care that your deepest desire is always to realize the self.

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.”

Tell me, I’ll forget. Show me, I may remember. But involve me and I’ll understand. This is why Martial Arts should always be taught face-to-face.

Check Next Thursday’s post for part 2


Sensei Matt, Shudokan Black Belt Academy – Aikido Nottingham