One of the biggest challenges to training alone is finding motivation. This is particularly true in cases where the goals are not specific or time-sensitive. It is always easier to drill certain kata or techniques that you hope to use successfully in an upcoming tournament or impending belt test. But when the goals are life-protection and the time-frame is the rest of your life, what do you work on today? And, why can’t it wait until tomorrow? Martial artists are not unique in facing issues of motivation – this is a human condition. It is always easier to lose 5 lbs than it is to “get healthy.” Likewise, getting a college degree is an achievable goal but how many of us choose to read all the classic literature that “educated people should have read” when there isn’t a grade or diploma hanging in the balance.
Setting short-term goals is a big part of achieving success in the long-term as all these examples suggest. But, if you have always had a sensei setting those goals for you how do you set them for yourself and trust that they are right? One important way to is to listen to the voice in your head. I don’t mean some crazy alter ego of your own creation, but the voice of your sensei. If you studied martial arts in a class setting for any length of time, you made a lot of mistakes and received a lot of corrections from your teacher. Listen to those corrections now. “Bend your knees, lower your weight, rotate your punch, don’t telegraph your technique, put more into ‘it’, be more relaxed, breath…” Does any of this sound familiar? In class you heard all this and, when you failed to do what was asked, you heard it all again… and again. One of the first tricks of training alone is to realize that you are not alone. Everything your teachers told you still applies and, with a little recall, you have mountains of corrections to make.
There have been plenty of times when I did not just remember what I was told but heard that voice in my head, frustrated tone and all. The more personal and emotional the memory, the better it sticks with you. So, whether you were embarrassed or elated, angry or amused by the lessons you were taught, keep that emotional content present when you recall that correction again. Doing this not only helps you internalize the lessons, but it also makes the experience of learning alone less lonely.
I have found all of this particularly important since it is natural to forget small pieces of the puzzle when other pieces change. If you are now training in tennis shoes, outdoors, on uneven ground on a hot summer day as opposed to barefoot in an air-conditioned dojo, your footwork, stances and breathing will change unless you listen for the corrections you heard before and reapply them to the current situation. I don’t know many, if any martial artists who can truthfully claim that they have perfected something such that it will work right for them in every conceivable situation. But, the fundamentals always apply and that is what your sensei was trying to teach you.
If it helps, picture your sensei in front of you each time start a practice session. If you have had multiple teachers, line them all up at the front of the “class.” Bow to each of them before you begin your training. Bow to each of them at the end. The more present you can make them feel, the more chance that you will remember some small but important detail, taught to you years before, and buried deep in your brain. And that detail might make all the difference.