When You Practice the Hardest Thing

Everything tends to be uncomfortable when you are learning something new. The challenges loom large. The postures are new, the terms are unfamiliar, and the coordination of the actions can be difficult. Fortunately the novelty and excitement of doing a new thing—like sword fighting—tends to give us the energy to push through these discomforts and start to build some competence.

As your competence grows you gradually expand your zone of comfort. Soon most of the core skills you need are available to you within this space of security. Things feel easier and more secure. There is a joy and satisfaction that comes in this space, but it is also the exact place where a learning plateau lies.

As humans we are often acclimated to avoid discomfort. Discomfort requires expenditure of energy and carries with it a feeling of risk—which we instinctively relate to our chance of survival. Many learners start to avoid the challenging edges and start to spend more time in their sphere of competence. And this can feel great for a time. But when you stop pushing your edges, the edges tend to encroach and your skills can begin to decline.

Doing the Hardest Thing

To become an excellent practitioner you must train yourself to revel in doing the uncomfortable things. The more tolerance and enjoyment you can build for diving into difficult practice the larger your zone of competence will become and the greater an expression of the art you’ll be able to make.

To cultivate the ability to do the hardest thing you need to start with small bites. Make part of your training time a focused push into the hardest territory. I recommend making a commitment and setting a repetitions objective or using a timer.

Give yourself the objective of doing three sets of 10 reps, or three one-minute sets. Short, intense, and focused is a great way to consume these first bites.

Identifying Your Edges

How do you know what’s hard? Certainly we can all identify things that are completely beyond us, but “hard” is not about “impossible”. Instead, it’s about finding the space of practice that requires all of your concentration to find periodic success amongst a majority of failures. This training lies somewhere in the 30- to 60-percent success zone. The goal is to be in a space where you are pushing yourself into difficult territory while having a balance of success and failure data that allows you to build an awareness of the patterns of right and wrong.

If you are trying to do something that has a 95–100% failure rate you simply don’t have enough successes happening to give your brain the right success data. On the flip side if you’re successful more than 80% the time you’re not pushing your edges enough to stay mentally sharp or expand your capacity very quickly.

Pushing Your Difficulty Edges

Here are some ways to look for the hard stuff and begin to map the border of your zone of competence and the land of difficulty that lies beyond it. Look along these axes:

  1. Capacity – Can you form the posture as prescribed? Can you lunge or step as far as you need? Is there pain or limit? Capacity is all about assessing what your body can give you on-demand.
  2. Structure – Can you do it deeper? Longer? With greater endurance? Structure is the alignment of your bones and the efficient and stable activation of your muscles.
  3. Coordination – How many actions can you string together? Can you make the right parts move when and how you want? What about when you do it even faster? Coordination is all about sequencing.
  4. Precision – Can you hit the target every time? How about an even tinier target? How about faster, or when you have to hit three in rapid succession, or while holding that deep posture?
  5. Power – Can you get there fast? Can you step or leap as far as you want? And can you do all that while still being coordination and structurally aligned? Power is the application of strength divided by time.
  6. Timing and Tactical Capacity – Can you hit an opening in the moment that it becomes open? Can you respond correctly and on time to an attack? Can you select the right choice when it is presented? Tactical conditioning is where mechanics meet action against an antagonistic partner.

Beyond the Border and Back Again

To understand your edge, and keep finding it, it can be useful to go off the deep end. Years ago I invented a sword drill where I would have two swords against my student’s one. I would attack with each sword, one after the other, simulating an endless line of rapidly attacking opponents. My student would have to read the attack, defend and counter, then immediately read the new attack from the other side. We weren’t sparring, I was essentially invincible in the drill. It was a rapid-fire series of attacks that gave my student far less time to respond than they’d ever have in combat. It was dubbed by one of my students Murder because of its sheer difficulty and exhaustive capacity.

The goal of a drill like Murder is to bring you to an edge you can then come back from. When you spend a little bit of time practicing the crazy difficult, the “really” difficult starts to feel more achievable by relative comparison. It also helps you continue to push the edge. Every week and month might allow you to push a little closer to the impossible edge.

What To Do In Your Training?

  1. Do an edge exploration — this can be done with a partner or alone. Go through the six axes and push yourself in each of them until you find where things break down 70% of the time.
  2. Dive off the deep end – Try the same thing and see what it takes to get to 100% failure.
  3. Find the extremes – Come back from 100% and find where the first tenuous sense of possibility starts to be available.
  4. Find Your Sweet Spot – Keep finding that 70% fail rate and when it diminishes crank up the difficulty.
  5. Devote at least 25% of your practice to the hardest thing.

How to Revel In It?

Learning to enjoy what’s difficult is mostly in how you talk to yourself about it.

Celebrate the hard stuff. Enjoy the sweat, the soreness. Laugh at the failures and keep striving for the successes. Honestly its often easier for the ego to handle failure at doing something really hard than it is for it to handle watching what used to be easy gradually slipping away from you.

Do an edge exploration regularly and keep a journal of how that edge has expanded (can you do that for longer or more reps? Is your stance longer than it was?). It’s nice to see how what felt intimidating yesterday is now not challenging enough today.

And remember that misery always loves company. Doing the hard stuff is way more fun with friends. Take the time for honest sharing, consoling and encouraging each other with a long-term view, knowing that the rewards of this pursuit are found over time and increase as you pursue deeper expressions of your art.

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