Hello there! My name's Dan, I'm a green cord student of 9 months at Academie Duello. I've been offered the opportunity of creating content for the school's blog for the foreseeable future, focusing on bringing you updates on all things sword related. This week, we look at overcoming one of the most formidable opponents out there - one's own negativity.
Anyone who’s ever practiced anything in life can tell you there are two kinds of days that everyone will experience in pursuit of improvement. Good ones and bad ones. Swordplay is no different, being an art that encompasses precise application of learned techniques, physical stamina, and an understanding of both the strengths and limitations of our bodies.
We all know what a good day feels like. Your movements are coordinated, your technique is precise, your reactions quick and calculated. Your thoughts, body and weapon all move as one and the flow between all three feels as natural as breathing. We’ve all experienced this feeling, and we love those days.
Then, there’s the opposite, where no matter how hard you try, nothing lines up. Basic techniques feel awkward or alien. Frustration rather than focus dominates the mind. That sinking feeling that everything you’ve learned has been somehow lost. In some extreme cases, there’s real despair - the feeling that you’ll never improve. It’s irrational of course, but that doesn’t stop it from happening.
These ‘bad days’ are a challenge to overcome like any other. The issue with bad days is that the experience can linger, feeding into other aspects of your training, generating doubt and more negativity. Left unchecked, this negativity can even lead to the end of the path – quitting your art.
Over my (relatively short) time at Academie Duello I’ve experienced these kinds of days numerous times. So below is some passing advice – some gleaned from the instructors at the Adademie, some self-realized, but hopefully applicable to anyone struggling with internal negativity.
Leave your emotions at the door
By this I speak primarily of negative emotions that cloud vision and judgement. Stress is a huge one here. In my personal experience, practicing or sparring while stressed leads to frustration. Frustration cause you to lose focus and make mistakes. Frustration also builds into anger, and anger and swords don’t mix well. Everyone’s personal stresses are different, but in my own experience my stress is rarely to do with what I’m learning and more often to do with external personal factors. So, if you’ve had a bad day, try not to bring it into class with you.
Take a step back
Sometimes putting stress on hold is easier said than done and leaving it behind is not always possible. If this is the case, trying to learn is going to become exasperating quickly. Learning requires clarity of thought, something that a stressed mind will not possess. In these instances, it’s more than likely that you need to take a break while you work through things. This prospect can seem daunting – no one likes feeling like they’re fall behind. The reality is you’re not going to forget what you’ve already learned. Taking breaks allows you to reset, and I’ve personally found that coming back class after break afforded me a different perspective towards my learning. As one instructor once told me: ‘you may forget some stuff you know, but you might also forget some of the bad habits you’ve picked up as well’.
Discourage toxic self criticism
Don’t be too hard on yourself. Being able to look at your practice and your learning in a critical light is important, but too much will lead to a loss of confidence and foster doubt that is perhaps unfounded, or far less severe than you pertain it to be. The reality of the situation is that your instructors will know your weaknesses better than you do, and it is their job to help you understand and overcome those weaknesses. So rather than take the burden of criticism on yourself, let others more well versed in practice and knowledge help you instead.
Ask for analysis, exercise humility
One of the joys of being part of a school is that you’re surrounded by people able to give insight into aspects of your learning that may have slipped your notice. While this is often an instructor, it can also be a fellow student or sparring partner. If you find yourself with a problem you’re struggling to solve, ask someone about it. At the very least they might be able to tell you what it looks like from their perspective, and in the case of instructors or students of a higher level, they may be able to help you improve upon it as well. Accept the fact that you do not know everything, and that you might not even be as good as you think you are. While you might feel intimidated about doing it, there is never shame in asking for help.
Change your focus
On the days where it feels like part of your brain didn’t show up to class with you, changing what exactly what you’re focusing on can help reset your perspective and ease frustration. A good example of this is switching your focus to something less mentally intensive; changing from working on strategic lines of play to perfecting mechanics, or moving away from a more complicated technique to a simpler one. While you may not be practicing what you initially intended, you’ll be giving your mind a break while still continuing to strengthen your ability as a whole.
Speed is often the last piece of the puzzle in sword play. Before we can be quick we must first be smooth, and before we can be smooth we must first be crisp. Unfortunately, when we’re agitated or on edge, we tend to speed up without realizing, and speeding up without proper control leads to poor and often dangerous technique. The logical solution is to slow everything down - your weapon, body and mind. Slowing down leads to more control and greater self discipline. I’ve also personally found it to be a much more meditative and calming, which goes a long way to managing negativity.
This last point is one many struggle with. Human beings tend to place an unrealistic burden of
expectation on themselves, viewing failure in a negative light. This practice is self destructive. If we allow
failure to affect us negatively then we’re likely to give up on something before we’ve even started. One
cannot master something without failing a great many times first. So instead of fearing failure, embrace
it. Every time you fail, meditate on why you failed. Apply practical analysis rather than castigating
yourself for your mistakes. In doing this, you close the door on negativity seeping into your learning.
Ultimately, learning a martial discipline is as much about overcoming mental obstacles as physical ones. Burn out, doubt and unhealthy mental practices are hurdles many of us will face at some point in our studies. When meditating on that thought, I’m reminded of a quote from a television series I love dearly – “When we hit our lowest point, we are open to the greatest change.” Even when the darkness of your mind feels absolute, there is always a course of action that can illuminate it.