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Friday, June 24, 2011

Making Peace With Mediocrity

Anyone who stops learning is old, whether at twenty or eighty. Anyone who keeps learning stays young.
- Henry Ford

I admit it: I'm never going to be a great martial arts master or champion. If I ever had a chance to accomplish something like that, I have surely missed it.

I'm not old, or even middle-aged, but I'm already nearing the age at which professional athletes either retire or become their teams' "veteran leaders". I know my body does not have the potential it had ten years ago, and moreover I know that the vast majority of people who become great achievers in any physical sport--the martial arts included--master the basics of their sport when they're teenagers or younger. That opportunity is long gone for me.

The world is full of 30- and 40-year-olds who start martial arts training believing that, if they train hard enough, they can become great warriors capable of taking on hordes of opponents Bruce Lee-style. Most people who have have no emotional investment in the martial arts find this kind of thinking laughable, and I'm with them. I have no such illusions.

I have no doubt offended some aikidoka with what I have written so far. "But Matt," I can hear them protest, "my instructor didn't start aikido training until he was an adult. He's in his sixties now and is still getting better. He just earned another dan rank."

This is a popular sentiment in aikido, and in many cases there is much truth to it. It needs clarification, though.

When we say that aging martial artists are still "getting better", what we mean is that they are still learning. Their understanding is still increasing, which means that they are probably becoming better instructors and may even be performing techniques more correctly than they were when they were younger. But we are fools if we think this keeps them from becoming weaker or slower with age, and even greater fools if we think becoming weaker and slower doesn't make a difference.

Me, I'll likely be just getting my black belts as the weaker and slower start setting in--and I was never particularly strong or quick to begin with. I'll most likely have children by then, too, which means I won't have the time to train every day or the money to have my pick of instructors or programs. The best I can hope for at this point, then, is a long struggle to become, and then to remain, a mediocre black belt in two martial arts that have largely been watered down for mass-consumption.

Maybe this doesn't sound like much to you, but I'm pretty excited about it.

I have the opportunity to learn something new every time I step onto the mat between now and the day I can no longer stand. I have an enjoyable, interesting, and enlightening way to keep myself active and healthy for years to come. What's not to like?

So many of us, I think, cling to the unrealistic hope of becoming like The Karate Kid's Mr. Myagi, in old age taking on five young black belts at the same time. I think there would be less of this if more of us realized what a privilege it is to be an ordinary martial artist. I, for one, am looking forward to many years of happy mediocrity.

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