Welcome back to my online diary documenting my very amateur experience training in Muay Thai. If you missed the previous entries on Bloody Elbow, read them here.
In the David Foster Wallace epic Infinite Jest, Wallace (a former nationally ranked Jr. tennis player) articulates the process of learning to master a sport. As he sees it, mastering a sport is not the steady process of learning people often portray it as. Instead, it’s a series of plateaus, with bursts of learning in between. You work hard and improve, then plateau out for a time with your new skills. Then, for whatever reason, you push through that plateau and quickly rise again. Repeat. In Wallace’s case, tennis is the sport of choice, but I think the same principle applies to other disciplines.
I was thinking of Wallace’s observation after Muay Thai this week. I’ve talked in the past about feeling a bit frustrated and in danger of burning out. But in my last few classes, that feeling has been gone, replaced by an exuberance that I have not felt in class lately. Accompanying that feeling has also been a clear and recognizable step up in my skills. I’ve been working with tough partners who are very good, and I’ve been matching them. I’ve been sparring harder (at my instructor’s request, not just to be a jerk) and keeping up. And this week, I improved my body kicks, adding a nice defense of leaning back while kicking to protect against the counter. In Wallace-speak, I’ve left my plateau and begun growing again. This is a good thing.
This idea of alternating between growing and leveling out rings true to me, but it can also be scary when you’re on the plateau. In that position, there’s often a desire to rush through – to push yourself so hard that you start learning again before your ready. The result is frustration, as you have not yet learned the needed skills to step up your game. I’ve been guilty of this in the past.
There’s also the danger of becoming complacent – sitting back and deciding you don’t need to grow any more. Finally, of getting frustrated at what you see as stalling out and a failure to progress. Both of those can lead to simply throwing in the towel and walking away, feeling that you’ll never get anything else out of it, never be any better. And I admit, a few weeks ago, that feeling was creeping in on me.
Now, it’s gone. I’ve stepped off the plateau and I’ve started learning again. Is that scary? Of course it is. I’m now sparring with knees, trading leg kicks with guys who have a lot more experience (and a lot harder kicks) than me. But it’s also incredibly rewarding. Because now I get to find out just how far I can go on this current rise. When I stop rising – when I hit that next plateau – I can be confident that it’s just a temporary pause, and that soon, the rise will start again. And I can look forward with anticipation to seeing where it will take me.
Question of the week: Do you agree with this – are there plateaus in training? And if so, do you push yourself off them, or just let it happen?
Video of the week: Here’s a counter to the jab by catching the punch and returning with a nasty looking elbow. I’ve been working this same technique, but with a cross to finish instead of an elbow. Easier to train the cross, but that elbow is pretty fantastic.
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