Finding a Martial Arts Role Model

Find a Role Model


We’ve been thinking a lot about how to get better, both in martial arts and in life. Here are some thoughts about finding and following a role model:


One shorter path to success is to follow someone who has already walked it. Find someone who has achieved what you hope to achieve. For many of you, this will be your Sensei (your “Master” in Tae Kwon Do, your “Sifu” in many Chinese martial arts). In traditional Asian martial arts, there is a centuries-old tradition of direct teacher-student relationships. The reason this tradition has continued to exist so long is that it works very, very well.


The quality of your instructor is critical. You may have heard the old axiom that goes something like this:


“If you spend ten years looking for the perfect teacher, your time will not have been wasted.”

Who Has Achieved What You Want to Achieve?


That’s true, you should find an amazing instructor. But that may not be enough. Once you determine exactly what you want to become, you must look long and hard to find somebody who has already achieved what you want – or something similar enough that the lessons can be transferred effectively. If you have a great teacher who hasn’t achieved what you want to achieve, you may have to find another role model at some point.


Once you decide who your role model is, make this person’s life the object of careful study. Learn everything you can about him or her... I mean everything! Study his training habits, diet, sleep patterns, the people he associates with, his superstitions, heroes, favorite books, and anything else you can think of or find out about. Short of becoming a stalker, you can be obsessive about it.


The thing is, you don’t know at the beginning which characteristics are the ones that give your role model his or her greatness. If you did, you’d already be doing those things, and YOU would be the role model!


Get it?


This is a mistake many students make with their own teachers. They limit their attention to the things they think are important. By choosing what to focus on and what to ignore before they really understand the whole picture, most students miss critical success skills of their sensei. In the beginning, don’t filter.


Unconditional Commitment = Massive Learning


Many who follow my story know that I did very well in iaido competitions in Japan. For four years running, I won the annual All Tokyo Iaido Tournament at my rank, competing against hundreds of Japanese martial artists. I’ve been told that I got really good at swordsmanship really fast. Here’s why, for those who haven’t heard the story before:


I absolutely idolized my instructor, the late Yamaguchi Katsuo Sensei. I listened with a completely open mind to everything he told me to do. When I showed up for my lessons, I was in what Tony Robbins calls a “peak state” – I was energized, alert, and completely and utterly in the moment. I wanted to move the way my Sensei moved, talk like him, and to duplicate his wonderful intensity and precision in practice. This might strike you as hero worship, and perhaps it was, but the point is that when your mind is as open as mine was, you learn instantly and profoundly. When you want something so badly and do absolutely everything in your power to get it, then you tend to get it.


By the way, please don’t do anything unreasonably dangerous or illegal. If your role model engages in behaviors that are unacceptably risky or unhealthy, you should find a new role model.



Let Your Role Models Know Their Importance


Enlist the help of your instructor. If your instructor is your role model, tell him exactly what you are doing. He’ll be flattered (and maybe a little worried), but he may be able to point out some habits that you need not copy because they do not advance your mission.


If your instructor is not your role model, he may be threatened by your burning desire to emulate some other great martial artist. Find out why he doesn’t want you to follow that person’s example. If the reasons are good, you may want to find a new role model. If the reasons are just his insecurity or uncertainty, start looking for a new instructor! Life is short. You don’t have time to learn from anybody but the best instructor you can find.


Summary: find a person who has already achieved what you want to achieve. Make that person your role model. Learn everything you can about that person. Soak it up. Enlist the most capable coach or mentor you can find to help you emulate your role model.


But whatever you do, starting training and never, ever, ever quit!