Peaks, Valleys and Plateaus Part 2

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 understand.

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.

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 practice forever.

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 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.

Before the world finds a place for you, find a place for yourself in the world.

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 limitation.”

A man who strikes first is usually angry or scared. As Martial Artists, we should strive to avoid both.


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.


Sensei Matt, Shudokan Black Belt Academy – Aikido Nottingham