On the difference between a “hard workout” and “hard work”

It took me a long time as a teacher to figure out that instructor and student can have vastly different conceptions of how hard a student is working. For example, it seemed obvious to me that a student who was missing a lot of workouts, and not finding ways to make up for lost time and missed material, should not expect to advance in rank—not, at least, at the same rate as their harder-working classmates. Yet I was confounded time and again by dojo members who became resentful when they were not invited to test for rank alongside people who had put in easily twice the hours and effort, and had plainly achieved superior technique.

Now, I’ve worked with children, and there is a strong fantasy component to children’s self-conceptions as martial artists. They think they “know” a technique after having been shown it once. They think putting in an hour’s workout makes them an expert. They mimic moves they’ve seen on TV, and feel themselves performing with the grace and power of Bruce Lee. Teachers know better, and try to harness that enthusiasm while gently guiding kids toward more realistic notions.

Somehow I always assumed adults would have accurate self-conceptions—but it turns out adults have fantasies too. And of course we do; we all do; it’s part of what makes us human. (Don’t forget, though, that telling fantasy from reality is part of what makes us sane—at least, for those of us who are sane.)

I got a big clue some years back, when I began putting attendance requirements on paper, and asking members to mark their own attendance. A certain fellow who hoped to earn high kyu rank approached me one day, wondering what he needed to work on to be eligible for the next test. We opened up the attendance notebook and looked at all the blank spaces next to his name. He was genuinely shocked. “But wait, I was here last week, wasn’t I?” Well, no. “I was sure I came more often in November…” Nope.

I believe this man felt sincerely that he was attending class and working hard—because it was his sincere desire and intention to do so. (It was his fantasy to do so—and his fantasy that he was doing so.) His reasons for missing class were for the most part genuine, job-related. He really meant to make up the time, as soon as he could. But he wasn’t making it up, and he was far from ready to stand up for a test—facts that were rather obvious from my (the teacher’s) perspective.

Another student once asked for a conference after class. He was upset that he was not advancing more quickly. He had learned some other students were testing for the rank he felt he deserved. He watched them perform, and didn’t think they looked that good. I listened as he told me how much effort he felt he was putting in, coming to class every time he could, training really hard.

To me, things looked quite different. His attendance was at the minimum: he committed to train twice and only twice per week—and he often missed one of those two. His reasons for missing were legitimate and usually unavoidable, but if you miss, you miss out, whatever the reason. When in class, he sweated hard, but didn’t pay attention to the details of technique I wanted to see improved. So he didn’t improve. From my perspective, he was not moving forward as a martial artist.

It dawned on me after this conversation that he truly believed he was working his hardest—because he was trying his hardest to get to class, and because he was working out hard when he was in class. He didn’t see why this wasn’t enough.

It highlights an important distinction, between a hard workout, and hard work.

A hard workout is something anyone can do, simply through physical effort. Come to class, give it all your energy, sweat and go home exhausted. It’s a great feeling, and for some—for example, students in “cardio kickboxing” exercise classes—it’s all they came for.

Hard work is something else entirely in the martial arts. It’s working out hard with a mind toward self-improvement. A hundred kicks might be part of a hard workout, but if you’re working hard, it’s a hundred kicks while trying to make each one better than the last. And the work goes beyond the workout. It means asking questions, seeking advice, working at the mirrors, putting in extra bagwork, reading, setting goals, cross-training—anything you can do to learn more, understand better, sharpen technique, polish the rough spots.

Martial exercise is one thing, but the path of martial arts takes hard work. There’s no way around it; there are no genuine shortcuts.

Now the trick is to make this clear to students, and help them find the way to get it done. Any thoughts?

6 Responses to “On the difference between a “hard workout” and “hard work””

  1. watape Says:

    Check out this article on “hard work” – it seems to make a similar point:

    It was linked on the Striking Thoughts blog recently: http://strikingthoughts.wordpress.com/2009/04/26/martial-arts-news-42609/

  2. serpentstaff Says:

    Thanks for that link– Dr. Borum says it better than I do, after coming at it from a different angle. (Actually, he comes at it pretty straight-on.)

  3. We instituted an attendence policy for similar reasons. It is great to be able to check the attendence log with the student. Quite often they are surprised.

    As part of a students “hard work”, I guide the students to learn how to self-correct. We spend time in class discussing the “internal dialogue” they could be having when they are examining their techniques. (check stance, hand position, movement, shoulders, functionality, weapon handling etc.) I think this helps because it shows the depth of learning necessary to improve. Students come away from these sessions knowing where they are succeeding and where they need improvement.

    • serpentstaff Says:

      Thanks Michele. That’s a great approach, and one that gives students tools for self-training outside the formal class. Which they’re going to have to do, to get enough hard work in.

  4. Charles James Says:

    This seems to be the consensus of the general public. I believe we set this with the terminology we use such as a teacher and a student taking classes and all that means.

    Teachers teach much like a math or history teacher when in reality a Sensei provides guidance and relies heavily on the self-discipline and desires of the practitioner to achieve and advance themselves.

    Classes much like in regular school are where we gather, receive specific information, and then get tested with a grade for advancement when in the dojo you practice, practice, practice and only achieve forward movement when you persist, ask questions, watch with intent, be attentive, and devote/dedicate the time and effort to help yourself achieve small self goals with the guidance of Sensei and Sempai.

    The tests much like a math test are specific things you need to answer correctly in order to move up so many take only what is absolutely necessary to achieve a good test score while in a dojo you are required to self-evaluate and self-test to achieve more in life and this occurs every time you put on the karate-gi, enter the dojo proper, and put forth the effort to train and learn. Sensei tests you everytime you practice, practice, practice and will not guide you further until YOU achieve a level of proficiency and warrant it.

    So, get rid of the classes, the teachers, and tests; teach the practitioner to self-motivate, self-evaluate, and practice, practice, practice with no goal in mind but self-improvement through the singular form of the phsycal and psychological aspects of karate-“do”!


    • serpentstaff Says:

      Lots of good points here. I’m not sure I’m ready to get rid of classes, teachers and tests–but certainly they have to be kept in the right perspective! It’s difficult, almost self-contradictory, isn’t it? There ARE (in many styles) set techniques, requirements, and goals; yet the student is supposed to cultivate a mindset of NOT pursuing set goals– only training for the sake of training and self-improvement. It is like a Zen koan.

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