Training as if your life depends on it

You might have heard the phrase “Train as if your life depends on it” before. It shows up in a bunch of writings, articles, books and adverts (sometimes with: “Because it does!!!” -*cure dramatic music* thrown in for good measure).

This serves different purposes. Sometimes it’s an admonition to be focused in class and used to bring awareness back of what you may be training for. Sometimes a reminder of the nature of the skills practised, or a reference to the environment in which a certain art may have arisen, and it’s original purpose. And every once in a while, it’s part of tacticool cosplay BS about how dangerous the world is or how hardcore a particular school/style is.

Whatever the specific reason, the phrase shows up a fair bit. And while sometimes it has merit, I think that the way it’s usually put misses a really important point: Your life is more than your survival.

“Life” vs. “Survival”

When martial arts or self-defence people say “Train as if your life depends on it” what they often mean is “Train as if your survival depends on it”. Almost exclusively it is put as training for a life or death struggle in which your very survival is at stake. And that has value, for several reasons.
It could be that your circumstances are such this kind of struggle is not unlikely for you, usually because you are in a violence profession, are in shitty circumstances or made some really poor life choices. In which case you really want to take your training that seriously. Perfectly valid.
Or it could be that the art you practice arose under circumstances where such struggles were common (many martial arts did) and a key goal of the training is to preserve it and the accompanying mindset with as much accuracy as possible. Also very valid.

Of course sometimes neither of these is the case, and it’s just a way of bringing a particular mythology into the training, in which case it’s a bit questionable. Many martial arts students will probably never have to fight for their lives, and will be more likely to have to deal with conflicts at a level where that sort of intensity is not appropriate. But that’s something for another time.
So making it all about survival can have a lot of value- more or less depending on your circumstances and reasons for training – but it also kind of misses the point. Life is more than survival. If you take your training seriously enough and invest enough into it, your life WILL depend on it. But not so much because it will save you from some hypothetical bad guy (again, depending on circumstances), but more because how you conduct your training and the lessons you take away from it can majorly impact how you live your life.

Why Martial Arts are Good for You

Martial arts can be a great tool for self-improvement, but the reasons why are often misunderstood. While it is often associated with learning particular philosophies or trying to emulate a particular archetype, and those certainly can contribute, the most impactful is the training itself. You can learn philosophy elsewhere, there are classes, there are books, hell these days the internet has really good stuff on it to get you reflecting on the big questions. And while the archetype thing is cool, its important to remember that whatever warrior image you are emulating, the image you have is likely the equivalent of being the last person in a game of telephone, bearing little resemblance to the original reality of the lives of those people. That doesn’t mean it’s not beneficial, but it’s not the main thing.

See, in terms of the benefits for personal development, the big difference between martial arts classes and (some) other methods is in the training. Physical training is a tool for integrating philosophical ideas and mental models into tangible practice and putting them in action. This is one of the things I like about traditional arts when they are done well, the mental and physical sides are interconnected, and this process has good synergy. Training that is actually character-building forces you to struggle in some ways.
If you want to get better at overcoming adversity, the right class throws an appropriate amount of adversity at you in training to practice that.
If you want to get better at responding to pressures and threats with calm and compassion, the right class will let you train that physically in your practice.

Small tangent, that last one is often cited as a benefit of Aikido, but in order to do that you have to have some pressure/intent from uke. Staying calm in the face of a calm feed (or the martial equivalent of a limp noodle) from a calm gentle partner, while it can have other benefits, does nothing for calm under pressure long term.

Same goes for being more relaxed, determined, focused, assertive and so on. A really large chunk of the personal development value of martial arts comes not from the various philosophies they come with, but from giving us a space to embody those qualities that we wish to develop in physical practice.
Some researchers suggest that this is also the source of the psychological benefits for the survivors of violence, but like most such research it’s a bit speculative and should be taken with a grain of salt.

The Bottom Line

What I’m getting at is really this: If any of the above holds true, as I believe it does, then how you show up at training will have a lasting impact on how you live your life. While “how you do anything is how you do everything” is kind of bullshit, there’s grain of truth to it, and how you act in the context of an activity like martial arts, often over many hours throughout many years, is pretty certain to have carry over to everything else. (Cobra Kai, anyone?).

So think a little bit about how you approach martial arts training. Many of us can’t practice in the usual way right now, only solo or through online classes if at all, so this is a good time for reflection. Consider your attitude and actions in and towards training, and have a think of how that might be impacting your life. And when you do get back to training, in class or on your own, train as if your life depends on it. Because it does (*Cue slightly less dramatic music*).

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